Mon, Oct 16, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Kim's nuclear jolt enables China, Japan to find common ground

By Simon Tisdall  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

In one fell swoop, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's ill-timed nuclear demarche enabled Japan and China to find common ground on security.

One of the occupational hazards of being a dictator is that it is easy to get out of touch with the everyday world. Officials are wary of offering candid advice for fear of giving offense. The media are usually muzzled, the public intimidated. And absolutist hubris requires that tyrants of every type decree rather than consult. Otherwise where is the fun in the diktat?

The results have often proven to be disastrous. Former Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin's stubborn refusal in 1941 to believe intelligence reports from a wide range of sources that Germany was preparing to invade his country is but one famous example of uninformed, self-deceiving dictatorship.

Some might say US President George W. Bush was suffering from the same sort of disconnected, self-delusional syndrome when he insisted in 2003 that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was doing all sorts of things he plainly wasn't.

Now it seems that Kim, who last weekend celebrated nine thoroughly undemocratic years at the helm in North Korea, the world's most isolated nation, may be the latest victim of this sorry condition.

So divorced has Kim apparently become from the mundane doings of mere mortals that he has decided to fundamentally challenge the international community at the very moment that it is finally arriving at a shared view of his antics.

Looked at from every perspective except Kim's, the timing of this week's North Korean underground nuclear test could hardly have been worse for Pyongyang. It came precisely at the moment that Japan was putting into office a new, tough-talking nationalist prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who has vowed to take a hard line on North Korea's nuclear weapons.

Abe made his name in Japanese politics by championing the cause of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea. In July, after Kim's regime fired ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, Abe suggested that future pre-emptive military strikes against the North might be required.

Japan's first action on the international stage after his appointment was to rally support for a tough statement by the UN Security Council warning North Korea of serious, unspecified consequences should it go ahead with the test. Abe's predecessor, former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, had been more open to dialogue with Kim. Now the North has played into the hands of hardliners who want to impose much tougher sanctions on Pyongyang.

Kim's ratcheting up of the stakes in his long-running nuclear poker game with the west also came at the precise moment that Japan was mending diplomatic fences with China and South Korea after several years of acute tension.

Tokyo and Beijing do not agree on many issues and are rivals for energy resources and regional clout, but Kim's ill-timed nuclear demarche has enabled them to find common ground on security. Both strongly condemned the test as a risky escalation following their weekend summit in Beijing.

"We saw eye-to-eye that North Korea's announcement of a nuclear test cannot be tolerated because it is a great threat to east Asia and the international community," Abe said.

South Korea, which has found fault with attempts to squeeze the North in the past, is now also closer to Japan on this issue than for many years.

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