Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Don't Panic, but Don't Do Nothing Either

Top of the headlines for the past two days has been North Korea's anouncement that it has completed a successful nuclear test. Analysists are in a publishing frenzy, politicians busy pointing the finger. Out of all the opinions I've heard so far, National Review's makes the most sense, even if it isn't particularly sophisticated.

Never mind that the test probably wasn't nuclear. A nuclear North Korea is a real possibility, a possibility that we don't have a lot of ability to prevent right now, so it's something we need to start thinking about seriously.

It's also important, however, not to overreact. A nuclear North Korea is not to be taken lightly, but I think I can be forgiven for thinking that things aren't really as bad as they're made out by a lot of commentators to be. There are, in particular, two claims one hears frequently in the press that stike me as outright false.

  1. North Korea will sell nukes to terrorists! - North Korea will do no such thing. It amazes me how often and to what extent the capacities of terrorists organizations are overestimated. First and foremost, no terrorist organization could afford North Korea's pricetag. Remember, this is a nation that has had great success extorting billions of dollars in annual aid from the US and Japan. Terrorist organizations do not typically have billions of dollars - and even if they did, purchasing a nuke would represent their entire operating budget. Not that a terrorist organization wouldn't bankrupt itself to get a nuclear strike on New York, mind you, but North Korea isn't really interested in one-off transfers. More importantly, North Korea depends on US and Japanese economic success. Who else will feed it? It certainly isn't in any position to feed itself. Giving a nuclear bomb to a terrorist organization that is virtually guaranteed to actually use it isn't something North Korea seems likely to risk. They know that a real nuclear strike on US interests is likely to seriously alter the comfortable little situation they've set up for themselves. North Korea is a lot of things, but at least it's not an empire. It's not seeking to conquer anyone (but South Korea, which it considers "occupied territory"), nor does it seek to spread its silly ideology. Mostly what it wants is free supplies. Selling nukes to terrorist organizations won't get it any.

  2. China will do anything to keep the Kim regime in power! - Poppycock. China can't stand the Kim regime. It would like nothing better than to see it go. What China does not want is a refugee problem, which it would definitely have if the US knocked out Kim. So yes, China is opposed to regime change on the US' terms. But that doesn't mean it's opposed to regime change. And that's important to keep in mind - because if China has reason to believe that a military coup might be staged to oust Kim and put others in control, it would probably support it. That matters for sanctions policy. China will support sanctions if thinks they will result in a more pliable but still staunchly pro-Beijing government. There is every reason to believe they would. Kim is not as cozy with some of the party hardliners as his father was. A coup might not be particularly likely or easy to pull off, but as the situation gets desparate these things have a way of changing. For this reason, people shouldn't leap to the conclusion that China will vote against sanctions. I agree that it's entirely possible they will, but don't let it surprise you if they don't. Oh and by the way, if they support sanctions, expect a coup not too long after: it will mean the Chinese are already mobilizing their contacts.

The real danger from North Korea's nukes (assuming it really has them) is that it could sell them to Iran or Venezuela. (Not that Chavez is here to stay - he's term-limited, and although he will certainly stage some kind of coup, probably it will be defeated.) And of the two, Iran is the one to really be afraid of, for several reasons. First and foremost, unlike North Korea it may actually use such nukes as it acquires on the US or (more likely) Israel. Second, it may actually pass off nukes to terrorist organizations. Although this probably wouldn't be government policy, it wouldn't be inconceivable for an official to manage to "lose" one or two. Third and most importantly, destabilization in the Middle East on grand scale would follow as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel took countermeasures.

Of course Israel understands this and probably won't let Iran get as far as actually making a nuclear weapon. But that's far from a guarantee. The US cannot tolerate nuclear technology transfer to Iran - and it's in this sense that North Korea's budding program is scary.

Notice that, despite how fashionable it's become to criticize it, Bush's foreign policy is actually right on target. North Korea isn't the real problem: Iran is. Thanks to the invasion of Iraq, we're in a position to do something about Iran if need be.

My foreign policy recommendations are what they've always been:

  1. Israel is our friend; we should continue to support it - Israel knows what's what in the Middle East and is a reliable ally given its own precarious position. Not to mention, it's a nice distraction for Islamic militants.

  2. Stabilizing Iraq is vitally important - whatever one's original opinion on the Iraq War, it's an accomplished fact now and the consequences of losing are too great to contemplate. The US should throw a lot of energy into shoring it up. That means greater troop committment and more ruthless tactics. The public is simply going to have to stomach these things.

  3. Pay down the debt - our finances are currently too entangled with China's and South Korea's for my liking. We should begin to seriously pay off our national debt and thus disentangle ourselves from possible malicious financial meddling. I sometimes suspect that the amount of assets China holds is a major reason we're not more beligerent with North Korea. National debt is different from foreign direct investment (which is a good thing). National debt is capacity that we're not producing for ourselves but rather for others. I get irritated to no end when I hear about more public funding for e.g. prescription drugs for the elderly or subsidies for the arts or for the War on Drugs or any number of other gratuitous examples of vote-buying. What people need to realize is that money doesn't grow on trees. What the government doesn't actually have, it has to borrow from other people. Well, borrowing means eventually paying back. There is no chapter 11 for nations - at least, not for the United States. In fact...

  4. Legalize drugs - though this is primarily domestic policy, it has foreign policy implications. Lots of people we don't like make money off of drug sales. Legalization is a nice way to decimate their profits and possibly get them out of the business altogether.

  5. Re-arm Japan and get out of South Korea - Japan is ready to stand on its own two feet. The US should simply withdraw from South Korea. I think South Korea is no longer an ally in any meaningful sense. We should simply acknowledge this and let them go. Following the Sunshine Policy may be a mistake, but it's their mistake to make, and I don't want to be involved when the bill comes due. Japan is a reliable ally, and a better all-round country besides. I'm not satisfied that they have properly paid the price for World War II, nor that they have really learned their lessons, but I don't see how we can honestly insist on defining policy in terms of old history with the kind of situation that's currently unfolding in East Asia. Japan sits in the crosshairs, and they have a right to defend themselves. Both China and North Korea are beligerents in their own way. Japan should openly rearm, openly acquire missile technology, and start an open nuclear program - and we should support these moves.

As for North Korea, I agree with the general consensus among conservatives. First, this is all Bill Clinton's fault. No, seriously - it is. Clinton was the one who lifted sanctions in the middle of their famine, and the Clinton Administration...well, it may not have really approved, but it at least didn't oppose the Agreed Framework that allowed North Korea to continue to pursue its nuclear program in secret. Second, it should be abundantly clear (though it patently isn't yet) to everyone that negotiations with North Korea are pointless. The US should dismantle the six-nation talks and impose sanctions on North Korea - with or without UN Security Council approval. Of course, it's nice to get approval since that lessens objections when we start blockading their ports. But the important thing at the moment is not to let North Korea get off scott free. If they do, it will seriously damage our credibility in other such situations - namely the looming one with Iran. Whatever money we have been spending on aid can easily be diverted to policing North Korean ports, so I don't think the expense is a real barrier. But it doesn't really matter what we do as long as we aren't seen to give in to North Korea's threats. There needs to be some kind of negative consequence (for once) to this.


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