North Korea has humbled Obama, but its wake-up call to China is even louder.
By AMOTZ ASA-EL
The Big Bang analogy had yet to be invented in summer '45, when it was needed most, and then, when finally available it was quickly overused, misused and also abused.
When Margaret Thatcher's set of ambitious financial deregulations was dubbed big bang in 1986, it was fair enough, as those measures really proved over the years to have restored London's lost status as a global financial hub. But a pale imitation of those measures, introduced in Japan several years later, was also dubbed big bang, or bigu bann as the locals called them, only to soon prove but a small ding, especially considering their setting in the country that knows all about getting banged big. And this is before we discuss the Israeli big bang, as the emergence of Kadima was prematurely celebrated, only to soon prove as redeeming as a crow's cry.
In short, much like the astronomical Big Bang - the theory according to which the universe emerged from a cosmic explosion - metaphorical big bangs are also often debatable and take time to be fully appreciated.
Often, that is, but not now.
IT TOOK no time for the entire world to agree that last week's bang in North Korea was big, that the meaning it bore transcended physics, and that its potential damage was more than merely environmental.
The two most obviously big things that emerged from this blast were Kim Jong Il's audacity and Barack Obama's naivete. The North Korean leader proved far more than the hedonistic retard to which some intelligence services had reduced him. First, it seems recent reports about his having been incapacitated due to a stroke were part of a cunning and well-premeditated diversion; dictatorships don't take such drastic action when their leaders are inactive. If anything, they become paralyzed until a new order emerges.
Not only was Kim calling the shots, so to speak, he was reading the West so much more accurately than the West was reading him. The man so frequently derided as bizarre for his tastes in anything, from appearance to women, read closely the change of guard in America and concluded that the ineloquent cowboy had been replaced with a gullible computer geek. Kim doubtfully ever heard of Natan Sharansky, but in blasting his bomb he sure has vindicated the thesis in The Case for Democracy that dictators need conflict and that their promises are worthless. North Korea's previous statements about the closure of its nuclear program proved not only hollow, but also conscious lies, like Hitler's in Munich and Arafat's in Oslo.
BARACK OBAMA emerges from this development as the inversion of Kim. The whole diplomatic outlook with which he arrived at the White House - namely, that the bad guys are not as bad as the previous management made them seem - was music to their ears, for two reasons: First, because they, unlike Obama, know just how bad they are. And second, because they realized they had business with an amateur whose idea of crisis management was replacing a bad article at the Harvard Law Review, and whose idea of an encounter with a bad guy was a brush with Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. "What will this word processor do to me?" Kim might have asked himself rhetorically as he decided to press the button.
Now that Obama has been cornered into the first foreign test of his presidency, he may of course yet emerge from it with flying colors. True, he may emerge from it as disastrously as Carter did from the Iranian revolution, but he may also emerge from it as victoriously as FDR emerged from Pearl Harbor and JFK from the Cuba crisis, just like he may emerge as controversial as George Bush did from 9/11. Who knows; it's his big bang. Right now it is too early to predict how this political embarrassment and strategic disaster will pan out for the new administration. The initial rhetoric was as inevitable as it was hollow, and more than anything else demonstrated the surprise with which this move arrived. The question is what action, if any, will follow the words, and how effective it will be.
If it is effective, then of course all will respect Obama, even the Taliban; but if it isn't, no one will respect Obama, even Oprah Winfrey. And yet, the North Korean bang's biggest challenge is not to America, Japan or even South Korea. It is to China.
NO PAIR of nondemocracies is identical, and the differences between China and North Korea are obvious. The former is relatively free economically, encourages commerce with the outer world and also fosters cultural harmony with all its rivals and former enemies - which is so much more than can be said of the world Kim inhabits and the country he leads. Yet the biggest difference between the two is that North Korea is focused on itself, while China is an aspiring superpower.
China's quest is obvious from its attitude toward Africa, which in recent years it has cultivated as a realm of influence. It is a policy as prudent as it is wise and cunning. Prudent because other superpowers neglected Africa, wise because Africa is brimming with minerals and cunning because, unlike America, China has no moral demands from its prospective satellites.
However, China cannot expect to be taken seriously by potential client states if it can't even control its most immediate neighbors and allies. Moreover, Kim's bomb is also a threat to China, which must ask itself what if that bomb proceeds to a successor regime that feels less committed to China. During the Bush years, China and Russia repeatedly diluted international sanctions on Pyongyang. It was a way to stick it to America. Now, however, accepting Kim's whims would mean sticking it to themselves.
Russia already understands this, as is evident from the tough language with which it responded to Kim's action. China has yet to follow suit. The beauty of all this is that China can fairly easily cripple Kim, who depends on Beijing for oil, food and cash. Beijing can therefore emerge with the Asian equivalent of Washington's status in the Americas. It would turn Kim into the Asian Gaddafi and at the same time furnish China with a kind of Monroe Doctrine - a statement to the rest of the world that nothing east of India moves unless China wants it to move.
Put together, all this would comprise Asia's big bang.
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