North Korea has exploded six nuclear bombs in its quest for military respect. Montanans pass that many well-tested nuclear missiles driving along Highway 89 between Augusta and Choteau.

Retired Ambassador to China Max Baucus doesn’t think there’s much chance the United States will use force to halt the Hermit Kingdom’s atomic saber-rattling. But he does believe the world needs a resolution to Kim Jong-un’s disruptive actions, and the United States should get busy.

“There’s a real opportunity for President Trump to stop the tweets and the public statements, and privately sit down with the Chinese and say, ‘We’ve got a problem,’” Baucus said, a former U.S. senator from Montana. “He’s your problem and he’s our problem. Don’t call Kim ‘Little Rocket Man,’ and don’t criticize China. Let’s think this through here and talk like adults.”

Baucus was in Missoula on Tuesday to address both local students and the Montana World Affairs Council on the latest North Korea developments. It was the second gathering in two weeks, following a World Affairs Council session that drew 225 people on Oct. 9.

“It’s important to remember this is a criminal regime, but a rational regime, with a clear set of strategic objectives,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea who spoke at the earlier session. “Their foremost goal is survival. To stay in power, Kim needs nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. But he also has to keep key elites happy. And to do that, the regime needs hard currency and resources. It extracts those resources primarily through illegal activities and exploiting its own people to the maximum.”

That presents real challenges to negotiating a solution. Chinese officials in both government and academic circles say the debate lies only between the United States and North Korea, with the U.S. clinging to Cold War grievances when it should simply settle a peace treaty and move on.

“That’s a standard line I heard constantly,” Baucus said of his three years in Beijing as ambassador. “They advocate a ‘double freeze,’ where Kim freezes his missiles and the U.S. freezes military operations and deploying the THADD (missile defense) system. Frankly, it’s a clever dodge so the pressure is not on them. That’s a tactic for buying time, so they don’t have to worry about pressuring Kim.”

North Korea has its own “Iron Dome” missile defense system, paid for by the Chinese. By placing most of its nuclear bomb development activity next to the Yalu River border, the North Koreans ensured that any attempted strike on their facilities would be indistinguishable from a preemptive attack on China, to which China would respond with equal force.

But the Chinese do need to worry about Kim’s world relations for several reasons. For one, a collapse of North Korea as a state would send a flood of refugees into China. If the United States can’t stop the nuclear bomb development in North Korea, then Japan, South Korea and other Asian states may feel the need to build their own nuclear arsenals. And if the Korean Peninsula were to reunify, would it do so under a Chinese-aligned North Korean leadership or a U.S.-aligned South Korea leadership?

“We need to start talking about the aftermath,” Baucus said. “What’s the peninsula going to look like if we can reach a deal? We’ve got to put different things on the table that right now aren’t talked about. If we do that, we’ll find a resolution.”

Scarlatoiu said that’s where human rights might play a strong role. While some nations might waffle about losing North Korean business through international sanctions, they have less wiggle room to ignore the conditions Kim has imposed on his own population.

“These are fellow human beings brutalized by their own regime,” Scarlatoiu said. “Confronting that is legally the right thing to do. Following the two great wars of the 20th century, we’ve had a system of international laws and regulations to protect the individual human being. North Korea cannot be an exception.”

Baucus added that allowing Kim’s nuclear blackmail to continue wasn’t just a war issue. Establishing North Korea as an unstoppable bully would have economic consequences throughout Asia.

“Down the road if Kim knows there’s going to be no regime change, when he’s developed all this (nuclear) stuff, he’ll be in a position to talk to other countries about his economic health with his hole-card,” Baucus said. “He will want them to help his country as long as he still has his nuclear capability. The answer is China has to be involved.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.