Commentator Robert Reich
Commentator Robert Reich - 
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SCOTT JAGOW: North Korea may have detonated another nuclear device today. That's according to a Japanese television report. There's been no confirmation by anyone else. In fact, we don't know for certain North Korea exploded a nuclear weapon two days ago. Still, the U.S. and the United Nations are tossing around ideas for sanctions. Other countries could block North Korean ships and planes, ban its leaders from visiting or cut off North Korea from world financial markets. The U.S. has already disrupted the flow of cash into North Korea and the country's international bank accounts have been frozen. China's one of the few countries still doing business with North Korea. The Chinese have warned against cracking down too hard. In this edition of The Public's Business, commentator Robert Reich says the world should listen to China.

ROBERT REICH: The problem is North Korea is run by a madman who doesn't seem to mind if his own people starve.

That nation's survival depends on $2-$3 billion worth of goods and money flowing in each year in order to feed and clothe the military and prevent a wholesale meltdown of the economy. But it's already near meltdown.

The idea would be to tighten the economic vise still further until . . . until what?

You see, that's the issue. Millions of people in that desolate land are already on the verge of starvation. Kim Jung Il doesn't seem to care.

At some point the economic vise could become so tight that even Kim's military brass don't get adequate food and clothing, and that maybe enough to drive them to pop him off. But by that time who knows how many North Koreans will have perished.

Economics assumes people act rationality in their own self-interest. But there's no guarantee of rational decision-making in North Korea, no checks and balances, no high-level council of wise strategists. All power is centralized in Kim Jung Il, who may be nuts. And there's no obvious successor.

China holds the cards here. China is the only friend Kim Jung Il has in the world. He's entirely dependent on his colossal neighbor for food and fuel.

China doesn't want his regime to collapse because the ensuing chaos would send millions of refugees steaming into China and force a takeover of that desolate nation by South Korea. Not even South Korea wants the huge financial burden that would entail, making German reunification look cheap by comparison.

But nor does China want a nuclear North Korea, because that might prompt Japan to adopt nuclear weapons to counter the threat, which could lead to South Korea and even Taiwan to do so, too.

If China is smart, it will bribe Kim Jung Il to give up his nuclear program.

Kim Jung Il may not be rational, but the Chinese leadership is. And they are our best hope now for a rational outcome to this mess.

JAGOW: Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich is now a professor at the University of California Berkeley. He'll be back in a couple weeks with another edition of The Public's Business. Your thoughts are always welcome. Log on to our website,, and send us an e-mail. In Los Angeles, I'm Scott Jagow. Thanks for listening and have a great day.