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(photo credit: AP)
For all their supposed irrationality, rogue regimes are in a basic sense rather predictable: the more aggression works, the more aggressive they become. North Korea's claimed test of a nuclear weapon - whether successful or not - is a classic case in point.
For over a decade now, North Korea has been crossing one "red line" after another in its rampant proliferation of missile and nuclear technology, its testing of long-range missiles, and its development of nuclear weapons. Over this same period, its leadership has won a toast from an American secretary of state (Madeleine Albright), substantial trade, nuclear reactor technology, and "humanitarian" assistance - including from the US.
In other words, North Korea has only gained from proceeding steadily on its path of belligerence. Even more than it has gained from the assistance it was able to extort, it has gained the time to develop more advanced weaponry in order to up the ante further.
As premier Pyongyang-watcher Nicholas Eberstadt explained last week in the Wall Street Journal: "There is an eerie similarity between the 'conference diplomacy' involving North Korea today and earlier episodes of 'conference diplomacy' in Europe between World Wars I and II. While the particulars are obviously different - Germany was the strongest state in its region while North Korea is the weakest - the dynamics are almost exactly the same: The status quo powers want to talk; the revisionist powers want to arm - and both parties get their wish."
The parallels with Iran should be obvious. Not only were Iranian observers reportedly present when North Korea recently test-fired a missile in the direction of the United States, but Teheran is no doubt observing the West's reaction to this latest "unacceptable" provocation as well.
Following their unanimous condemnation of the presumed nuclear weapons test, UN Security Council members are considering imposing sanctions on North Korea. Though such a course should have been taken long ago to dissuade Pyongyang from developing a bomb in the first place, it is critical to take this step now to deter further belligerent actions by both remaining "axis of evil" regimes.
It is important to remember that for North Korea, as for Iran, developing nuclear weapons is not an end in itself, or even "just" an attempt to preserve a regime despised by its own people, but a bid for regional and - in Iran's case - global dominance.
As Eberstadt points out, North Korea itself "has patiently explained [that] nuclear weapons - and the ballistic missiles necessary for delivering these into the US heartland - are instrumental to achieving three goals: shattering the US security architecture in Northeast Asia; breaking the US military alliance with South Korea; and pursuing the reunification of the peninsula on Pyongyang's terms. The latest nuclear gambit moves Kim Jong Il's regime methodically closer to each of these goals."
In fact, rogue states, such as Iran and North Korea, make no distinction between preserving their own power and expansionist agendas. It should be no surprise that regimes that have an insatiable appetite for power within their own countries harbor ambitions to extend their power far beyond their own national borders. Fascism and communism were expansionist; today's totalitarians are no less so.
The only way to stop such aggressors is to start making them pay a growing price for aggression. In the North Korean case, China could singlehandedly bring that regime to its knees by shutting off trade and other access through its territory. China, like Russia, seems to be playing a dangerous game as these state deliberately run interference for rogue states that are challenging the West.
Non-democratic governments - such as the "moderate" Arab states, China, and Russia - have been playing a double game in which they claim to be threatened by rogue regimes and terrorists, while in practice acting as if they share an interest with the rogues in preventing the West from advancing a global democratic order. Even the US and Europe have found reasons to postpone confrontation in order to give diplomacy a chance.
Now, the action under consideration must meet a simple measure: it must impose painful costs on the North Korean regime, and be coupled with credible threats of further action should the regime refuse to reverse course. Either the price of belligerence must go up sharply, or the acts of aggression we face will themselves continue to intensify.