Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Truth About North Korea

I never intended The Only Winning Move to be exclusively about politics, but for the past couple of days I admit that's pretty much what it's been about. The semester workload is starting to really kick in, for one thing, so rather than doing the reading and then blogging about my thoughts on class, I usually just apply them to homework and then don't want to deal with it anymore. To complicate matters, we are no longer required to send lists of what we read plus any outstanding questions to Dr. Allen as part of the Philosophical Foundations coursework, so I have less motivation to rush entries on Philosophy of Cognitive Science issues these days (I used to just link blog entries as a way of avoiding the drudgery of doing the assignment the traditional way). But most importantly, I'm a North Korea nut, and North Korea, needless to say, has landed itself at least two more weeks of headlines.

I'm one of the few people who thinks the Bush Administration is doing a good job with the North Korea situation. In light of recent developments, I realize that I will need to explain that opinion. After all, the naive view would hold that nothing says "failure" in any diplomatic situation like the bad guys developing nuclear weapons, and it seems increasingly likely that the DPRK has done just that.

A standard line on the subject can be found in Noah's latest (and only) post, actually:


Anyway, here's what makes me blog tonight: ever since the "nuclear" test a few days ago in North Korea, I have been hoping that it turns out to have been a bluff - a great big pile of conventional explosives in a hole. First of all, this is much funnier than North Korea actually having nuclear weapons. Second, it's also much better for pretty much everyone other than Kim Jong-Il and his cronies.


Of course, we all hope it's a bluff. Little in the world sucks worse than North Korea having the bomb (though I would argue that Iran having the bomb qualifies as "sucking worse," as do most IDS editorials). But I'm not so sure that it makes much difference to Kim Jong Il et al whether their bomb is real or not, and that's because I think carrying out this test in the first place is a naked act of desperation on the part of a man who knows he is losing control of his country.

I would highly recommend reading this excellent article by Robert D. Kaplan for a better (but still compact) analysis of the situation than you'd get in the mainstream media. Of course, the Korea situation is complicated in the extreme; it's hard to know what to think even after copious amounts of reading. And I do not wholly endorse this analysis. There are problems with the article (parts of it are obviously manipulative), and those aside I still don't fully agree with it. But I think most of the main points are right - and obviously Kaplan knows a lot more about it than I do, so I don't want to make too much out of the points I don't completely buy.

The main points are that Kim's nuclear test is an act of desperation signaling that collapse of the regime may be coming, that China is positioning itself to move in after the Kim Regime collapses, and that nuclear escalation on the Korean peninsula is a horrible nightmare not just because it means Kim has a bomb, but perhaps more importantly because it might touch off a far-reaching arms race (Japan starts developing weapons, leading China to restart its dormant nukes program, leading India to intensify its program, leading Pakistan to intensify its program, etc.), and there are no military options left.

The first point is the main issue for me. People, especially on the left, like to analyze the DPRK's nuclear program as a response to failed US diplomacy. But this is wishful thinking and nothing more. It's an appealing position in that it keeps everything bad that happens firmly under US control. If only we behave ourselves then everything turns out right in the end. Of course, in the real world shit happens, and good diplomacy is more about dealing with shit when it happens than entertaining fantasies that everything is always at least obliquely under US control. The Kim family is obsessed with power, and they have created a culture that is obsessed with national greatness. It's hardly feasible to imagine that they would not have pursued a nuclear program if only we'd taken this step in 1979 or that one in the 1960s. Certainly in recent years they've shown that they will pursue a nuclear program whether or not the US negotiates with them. When Bush Administration officials confronted them with (sketchy) evidence of their clandestine uranium program in 2003, which they confirmed, they weren't technically violating the Agreed Framework (Clinton and Carter, for reasons no sane human can understand, didn't insist on a moratorium on uranium bombs, only plutonium ones), but they were definitely violating the spirit of it. And this they had been doing for some time, i.e. before the US began dragging its feet on supplying the light water reactors. And what led to the Agreed Framework in the first place, of course, was the fact that North Korea was violating another 1991 treaty forbidding nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula - and this treaty was in turn signed in response to plutonium refinement at Yongbyon that North Korea started despite the fact that the US had unilaterally removed its nuclear weapons from Korea and South Korea had formally agreed to give up the nascent nuclear program it had intensified in response to this. It doesn't seem terribly likely, in other words, that much could have been done to keep North Korea from developing nuclear weapons.

But is Bush to blame for the current crisis? Well, yes and no. "No" in the sense outlined above: North Korea will always find an excuse to rip up treaties and do what it wants. But also "yes" in the sense that Bush has definitely been (deliberately) egging Kim on. Although it's almost certainly not true that the uranium program was started in response to the US missing the deadline on supplying the light water reactors (all indications are it started in the late 90s), it's probably true that Korean officials simply admitting it when confronted with half-baked evidence was. They were well used to this game by now, and they were hoping for a Bush-era "soft landing." Of course, Carter was forevermore off the guest list and they knew that, but there were hints from Pyongyang that New Mexico governor Bill Richardson would do. What they thought they understood was that presidents need to save face, so "unofficial" visits from "private citizen" politicians would let them out of the corner they'd painted themselves into. But Geroge Bush is no Bill Clinton. North Korea had made a blunder, and the Bush Administration knew it and was taking advantage of it. Now they were officially off the hook with the Agreed Framework, and they had indefinite license to keep antagonizing Kim into painting himself ever further into the corner.

Why would Bush want to do that? After all, if the problem with the Agreed Framework is that there was a "uranium escape clause," then it would seem like Kim had just thrown Bush a bone by admitting the program's existence. He's just playing the normal game, right? Get the US ticked off, respond with brinkmanship that scares everyone, let the US maintain its posture but save face by sending an unofficial delegate (Richardson), renegotiate the Agreed Framework on slightly more favorable terms, everyone's happy, right? Bush can claim he fixed a hole in Clinton's treaty (and milk that for all the political capital it's worth), Kim looks like a master negotiator and gets to strengthen his position at home, the regime is saved from another crisis with aid, North Korea keeps plugging along and there are no wars so everyone is happy. Why wouldn't Bush play along?

That has to do partly with a point made earlier - that North Korea never did have any intention of keeping any treaty. The nuclear program is coming one way or the other, and Bush may well simply be the first American president who is actually doing something about it rather than just postponing it to dump in his replacement's lap. But more important, I think, is Kaplan's second main point, which is that China is moving in on North Korea.

Now, this is all speculation, mind you, but let's say that Kaplan and I are right that China is already planning for a post-Kim Korea. The Kim Regime spent its load some time ago. It's painted itself into a corner, and in some important sense it simply can't be maintained forever. China has a temporary interest in maintaining it, of course, for several reasons - the most important of which are probably (a) it doesn't yet feel comfortable that it can control what happens next, (b) a North Korean collapse under these circumstances would mean a huge refugee problem and (c) South Korea, which has China as its largest trading partner, would be economically damaged, perhaps irreparably, if the Kim Regime collapses and the two Koreas reunite, (d) a collapse could give the US unprecedented power in the region - there might be US garrisons stationed along the Chinese border! Etc. So China is currently quietly increasing its influence by taking operational control over lots of North Korea's infrastructure, supplying aid, making contacts, etc. Remember, when totalitarian regimes collapse, what usually follows is a brief civil war where various warlords vie over the right to be the next strongman. More likely than not, such regional strongmen are already emerging in the form of local party bosses. China supplies aid and sticks a clandestine finger in everyone's pie. If it wants to strengthen any given local boss, soon all that will be required is weighted supplies of aid outside the capital, etc.

Naturally, the longer this process continues the more influence China has. Once it reaches a critical mass, of course, China will abandon Kim, and Kim knows that (he's many things, but stupid is definitely not one of them). What he would really like to do, obviously, is play the various powers against each other - Japan, China, Russia, the US (and little South Korea). He's diversifying his bonds. Of course, China and the US are the two most powerful (and inimical) players. If he can get aid from both, it makes it harder for either to form a network of influence in his court. In any case, he needs to keep both engaged. One problem: Bush has been refusing to engage.

So Kim loses one of his main sponsors. Now he's in a bind. He can't stay in charge of the country without outside help, but China's help comes with a terrible price - really, it just amounts to postponing the inevitable coup.

One of the things that we often hear in the press is that Kim is successfully splitting the South Korea/US alliance, and that this should be avoided. But what no one considers is that Bush is also successfully splitting the Kim/China alliance. Kim is playing not only the only game he knows how to play, the only game that's worked in the past, but really the only game that's even available to him. He thinks that if he puffs out his chest just a bit further, the US will eventually capitulate and things will return to "normal." But what if he's miscalculated? What if he's finally in a staring contest with someone who won't blink? Bush keeps egging Kim into ever more bluster, playing (I believe) a trump card that no one before the Bush Adminsitration realized the US had: the international community may be anti-American, and it may stack the deck in favor of people like Kim, but there are limits. There are certain lines that, when crossed, the international community can (for a time, anyway) be persuaded to act in response to. China cannot - simply cannot - go before the international community and say that it's OK for Kim to have nukes. (It wouldn't anyway - China is less pleased with Kim's nukes than we are, in all likelihood, because they don't like the idea of him getting parity in their relationship and especially don't like the idea of a giant excuse for Japan to rearm and go nuclear sitting right there on the table for all to see.) The more bluster Kim is egged into delivering, in other words, the less China is able to plausibly defend him. This creates rifts. More importantly, it sets China's timetable back even as it keeps us from getting too entangled with Kim.

If Kim has to go eventually, Bush reasons, and if Kim has to get nukes eventually, Bush reasons, then better now than later. Better now, when we still have some influence in Korea and Asia, than later, when China gets to pick up all the pieces. Better now, when North Korea's nuclear program is nascent, when it doesn't have a clear ability to mount nukes on missiles and hit the US, when it doesn't have enough to sell to make doing so worth its while, than later, when it is a full-fledged nuclear power.

And how to make it happen? Well, the fastest way is through complete sanctions. But that's hugely expensive in human terms, and it's anyway impractical because China won't sign on. Or won't it? Of course, under some circumstances it has to - and those circumstances are roughly what's going on now. But what if Kim hadn't taken the bait? (And what of using nuclear bait?!?!?!?) Same thing, really. Kim is losing ground at home. He can't help but do so with famine after famine and near-total reliance on foreign aid. Not taking the bait is the same as taking it. Either way, he's unable to deliver "the goods," unable to strongarm the US into proping him up. The local bosses see less and less reason to bank with him. The can get aid from China, in which case they fall more and more under China's influence (and less and less under Pyongyang's), or they can get no aid (in which case they have nothing to lose by mounting a coup). The only way Kim wins is by getting the US to listen to him.

But isn't this dangerous? What if Kim sees the writing on the wall and decides to go out with a bang? It's possible, of course - but unlikely, I should think. Kim doesn't seem the suicidal type. He has some trump cards left. After all, he could capitulate completely, hold a summit in Washington, and come back with a package so sweet the others couldn't help but sign on. But let's entertain the possibility. Kaplan says there are no military options. But I think he is vastly overestimating the extent to which North Korea can put troops on the ground in the South. An unprovoked attack on Seoul would be horrific in human terms, of course, but it would also effectively spell the end of North Korea. People overestimate the extent to which North Korean subcommanders are willing to stomach that. Sure, it serves Kim's personal interest in going out with a bang, but almost no one else's - least of all the army that would be executing the order.

Here's where I begin to disagree with Kaplan. His military scenario assumes a lot of North Korean troops making their way into the South - but that's hugely implausible. The North has no air force to speak of at all. The DMZ is one of the most heavily mined areas in the world, so they can't simply cross the border after cutting the wires. Naval encroachments are more likely, but the Allies have a trump card that no one (publicly) considers here, and that's Japan. Japan has one of the best navies in the world (shhh!). Kaplan is right that Japanese troops are 220% unwelcome in either half of Korea after the colonial period, but there's no reason the Japanese navy couldn't assist. Japan, in fact, would be more than keen to help. It's another way of apologizing without actually apologizing for what happened before WWII, it asserts Japanese authority in an area where it's increasingly losing initiative to China, and Japan itself has huge security issues with North Korea. It's unlikely South Korea would stop it, and China wouldn't be able to. But even assuming they did manage, Kaplan, I think, overestimates the North Korean navy (actually, he doesn't really talk about it at all - just sort of assumes the North could get troops on the ground in the South, and this is the only way I see how). As for North Korean troops - 70% of them are south of Pyongyang. With essentially no air cover, the allies would be free to simply pick them off. Not to mention, there's really nothing stopping a replay of the Incheon landing - somewhere near Pyongyang this time. Allied troops in the north, the DMZ in the south - the North Korean army would quickly find itself surrounded. North Korea's best option, of course, is to shell Seoul and hope for the best. But again, it's not clear how long it can keep this up. Most of the artillery trained on Seoul is stored underground - but in order to fire it, obviously, it has to be brought out in the open. Some missiles would get through, no doubt, but many more would be eliminated on the ground.

I don't want to deny the human dimension to all of this. North Korea can cause some pretty horrific damage in the South. I'm just trying to illustrate thatKaplan is exaggerating. North Korea's defeat would be swift - and the military knows that. They're not going on any suicide runs so their Dear Leader can go out in a blaze of glory. More likely, the Army would turn on itself within days. North Korea can cause some damage, yet, but not unlimited damage, and certainly not damage on the scale Kaplan seems to think.

However, I'm not being completely honest here either, and that's because I think if North Korea decides to go out in a blaze of glory it's more likely to attack Japan than South Korea. Right now, it doesn't really have that option (because it probably doesn't have accurate enough missiles to assure that it hits Tokyo). But this is one of the main arguments in favor of the Bush approach. The longer we let it sit around developing accurate missiles, the more plausible these "desperate endgame" scenarios become.

Now - what of Kaplan's other point - that nuclear escalation in Korea leads to a massive arms race? I don't see any reason to doubt that he's right about that. It is indeed one of the main reasons (one suspects) that China doesn't want North Korea to have the bomb. But the question is the same as above: can we really prevent this from unfolding? It all depends on how much faith you have in giving the Agreed Framework a second try. For now, Japan is holding off on starting a nuclear weapons program (though it may not hold off on ditching Article 9). Even if it didn't, it's not clear that China would respond to it by stepping up its own program - for the very reason Kaplan gave (India might respond in kind - tensions in general would mount). More likely is that a Japanese nuclear program would force China's hand: it would have to apply real pressure on Pyongyang (for once) to back down.

Of course, there are still cogent arguments that Bush should back down and return to the Agreed Framework - should have done so from the outset. This is, as I said, a complicated issue. I think honesty demands, however, that people on the other side admit that returning to the Agreed Framework is every bit as risky as going down the path the Bush Administration is taking - and that's because it makes the (probably) inevitable North Korean implosion more and more likely to happen either on China's terms, or on the terms of an even scarier North Korea than the one we know today. It's true that Bush's policy isn't exactly "calculated." Bush, as he's amply demonstrated, is a risk-taker, and he's taking a huge risk here too. But this risk seems likely to pay off. It isn't, in any case, the ignorant blunder of a simple-minded macho man, as many (Kaplan included) like to paint it out to be.

But to get back to where this started: I do not believe it makes a whit of difference to Kim whether or not his nukes are real. Even if his program is up to scruff (and probably it isn't), the fact that he's spending his entire nuclear trump card in this fashion looks a lot like desparation to me. Doubly so given how namby-pamby the evidence so far has been. It may be that he was hoping to scare people enough that he didn't have to reveal the full extent of the program (it's really hard to know with this government), they would just back down. But it seems far more likely that the test was way premature - that the program, such as it is, isn't really off the ground yet, and Kim is testing now because he believes he has no other options. And that, ladies and gentlemen, means that he fears a coup. And even if he's providing a half-assed demonstration on purpose (so that he can provide a more convincing one later in case this one doesn't work), it's pretty clear that time is running out, and that Kim is running out of options. A convincing nuclear test after a convincing missile display would be a little scary. But as things stand, Bush can (and seems likely to) go on more or less ignoring Kim. As I've said before, it displays of nuclear technology don't make that much difference. They either have it or they don't. If Kim has been holding out, the effect will be much the same as it is now. What his immediate subordinates will see is that he's lost his ability to magically produce rice from America.

Of course, the usual caveats apply. No one knows anything for sure about what goes on in North Korea. All I'm saying is that it looks to me very much like the regime is crumbling. It makes a lot of difference to us whether that bomb was real. I doubt it matters as much to Kim.

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