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Cohen: North Korea's declaration of independence

By William S. Cohen
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: William S. Cohen served as secretary of defense from 1997-2001. He represented the state of Maine as a senator and a congressman. At present, Cohen is the chairman and CEO of The Cohen Group, a strategic business advisory firm based in Washington.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- On July 4, North Korea fired off six missiles, followed two days later by a seventh. Kim Jong Il, North Korea's repressive leader, was not celebrating America's independence holiday, but declaring his own independence from world opinion, while secretly craving American attention.

The international community responded quickly and with near unanimity, condemning North Korea's actions as dangerous and provocative.

The UN Security Council resolution, passed unanimously on Saturday after an 11-day impasse, showed solidarity among nations in demanding that North Korea return to the bargaining table rather than their missile launching pads. That North Korea promptly rejected this resolution demonstrated what we must be careful to avoid: that tough words followed by little action will likely produce North Korea's further contempt for those alarmed by its actions. The international community must follow through on enforcing the sanctions called for in the resolution, and resort to stronger action in the Security Council if these measures are not enough.

Some now suggest that since the six-party talks have failed to bring about a successful negotiation to the persistent crisis generated by North Korea, the only alternative is for the United States to agree to engage in direct bilateral negotiations with the North Koreans. Why, it is asked, should we hold on to form and pass on the opportunity to participate in direct diplomacy?

The answer is that more than the size and shape of a conference table is involved. A willingness on the part of U.S. officials to meet with North Koreans in the context of the six-party talks should be encouraged. Initiating direct bilateral negotiations in response to provocative missile launches would be a mistake, as it would reward provocation and enable the North Koreans to blame the United States if the negotiations continue to end in an impasse.

Kim Jong Il has had it both ways for too long. Over the years, he has demanded that other nations feed his population and open up their coffers to help sustain his country from collapsing into the rubble of a failed state. At the same time, he has relentlessly pursued the production of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons at the expense of his people's well-being. His primary program for self-help has been to sell missiles, drugs and counterfeit currency, with the benefit of the proceeds restricted to himself and a small inner circle.

Rather than accede to North Korea's demands, the United States and its allies should insist that North Korea pay a penalty for its actions, including a temporary reduction in the current level of economic assistance.

In addition to shifting more strategic assets to the Pacific region, a move currently under way, the United States should accelerate the deployment of a sea-based and land-based missile defense capability to Japan.

Japan's desire to develop the means to actively defend itself in response to threats such as North Korea's provocations is real, growing and perfectly understandable. Japanese Defense Minister Fukushiro Nukaga last week reiterated Japanese policy that it has the legal right, even under its pacifist constitution written by the United States after World War II, to strike hostile missiles that are being prepared to launch against Japan, adding that Japan should debate what military capabilities it should possess for such missions. The number two official in Japan's government, Shinzo Abe, who seeks to replace Prime Minister [Junichiro] Koizumi this fall, endorsed these views.

Some of Japan's neighbors have expressed concern over the growing support in Japan for such policies, but they should understand it is a natural consequence of the failure by the region and the United States to effectively address the North Korean nuclear and missile threat, which have grown dramatically over the last five years.

While applying penalties to North Korea and intensifying our efforts to strengthen Japan's defense capabilities, the United States should restate our commitment to return to the stalled six-party talks in Pyongyang and, in that context, engage directly with Pyongyang. President Bush should also reaffirm his pledge that if North Korea forgoes its pursuit of nuclear weaponry, the United States will join with its allies and provide North Korea a robust economic package and welcome its return to membership in the international community.

Napoleon observed that a ruler can build a throne of swords, but he cannot sit on it. The North Korean regime cannot survive sitting atop a throne of missiles unless the world continues to subsidize it. We should turn off the spigot with one hand, while extending strictly conditioned assistance with the other.

What is your take on this commentary? E-mail us

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer. This article is part of a series of occasional opinion pieces on that offer a broad range of perspectives that express a variety of thoughts and points of view.

William Cohen

Former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen: "Kim Jong Il has had it both ways for too long."

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