Monday, October 09, 2006

What Now For North Korea?

In my last post, What's Kim Up To This Time?, I suggested that Kim Jung Il would hold off until closer to the US midterm elections before carrying out his threat to test a nuclear weapon. Obviously, I was mistaken, perhaps because I overlooked the timing of another important event: Japanese Prime Minister Abe's weekend summit meetings in Beijing and Seoul. As I said at the end of that post, though, the timing of the test matters less than the question of how the US should handle Kim generally. This post will suggest the necessary general policy.

The key to regulating Kim's behavior, indeed, the key to his departure or his survival, is China. China provides North Korea with oil and food without which Kim's regime couldn't survive. It follows that, without China's cooperation, we cannot achieve our policy aims in North Korea. As I mentioned in my last post, those policy aims are chiefly: (i) prevention of war on the Korean peninsula; and (ii) preventing Kim from transferring nuclear materiel and know-how.

(The previous policy objective was to prevent North Korea from going nuclear. Obviously, that objective failed. As Gavin de Becker points out in his outstanding book The Gift of Fear, what we fear is always what might happen next. Once that thing has happened, we're by definition no longer afraid of it; our fear has moved on to the next thing. So it is with policy to North Korea. We're no longer afraid of a nuclear armed DPRK; we're afraid that Kim will use his nukes or sell them).

Kim makes a lot of trouble for China, and his most recent antics have embarrassed his chief patron, who had publicly cautioned him not to proceed. Why, then, does China support him?

Because China fears two things that would follow Kim's collapse: (i) millions of desperate, starving North Korean refuges crossing into China; and (ii) a US military presence on China's border.

These are powerful fears. Can they be reduced? And are there any enticements, or other fears, that could outweigh them?

One thing China fears at least as much as the results of Kim's collapse is nuclear proliferation in Asia. If Kim survives and continues to behave as he has, within a decade, if that, China will very likely be surrounded by nuclear neighbors. A nuclear Taiwan would substantially complicate any attempt by China to capture the island by military force. And, given the countries' fraught history, China is horrified at the prospect of a nuclear Japan. Recent events, therefore, have clarified that China has to choose. Which is worse: refugees and encroaching US military power, or a nuclear South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan?

This calculus is hardly a revelation, of course; China ought to have managed to weigh the possibilities well enough even in the absence of Kim's nuclear test. But as economists like to tell us, people tend to discount the importance of future possibilities. China has traditionally been more focused on the immediate dangers of Kim's collapse than on the distant and indirect possibility of nuclear encirclement. As the possibility of nuclear encirclement becomes less distant and indirect, it will assume greater weight in China's planning.

To put it another way, China is more afraid of nuclear encirclement today than it was yesterday. If that fear comes to outweigh its fears of Kim's collapse, China will act. The question then becomes: can we do anything to reduce China's fears of Kim's collapse so that China's fears of nuclear encirclement achieve greater weight?

I think we can. For a variety of reasons, we're already drawing down our forces in South Korea. That process could be accelerated. As for refugees, we should convene a conference, perhaps in conjunction with the UN, perhaps with only the five powers most concerned with North Korea (China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the US) to prepare money and infrastructure to deal with the coming DPRK collapse. The first will reassure China about the presence of the US military on its border; the second will demonstrate that China will not have to bear the pressure and expense of a North Korean refugee crisis alone. For more, see Robert Kaplan's excellent piece "When North Korea Falls" in the October Atlantic.

Neither of these actions will be easy (getting anyone to trust us after Iraq and Katrina on our competence at disaster relief will be... difficult. Making the effort multilateral should help), nor can they be accomplished without an overall reexamination of our view of and approach to China. We need to stop thinking that there is an unbridgeable divide between democracies (exemplified by us) and authoritarian regimes (exemplified by China). The real divide is between status quo powers -- that is, powers who accept the rules of our increasingly globalized world and expect to excel in it (by which definition China is the preeminent new example), on the one hand, and powers who recognize that in a globalizing world their ideology dooms them to irrelevance, and who therefore are compelled to try to sabotage globalization's march (North Korea, al Qaeda and other Islamic fanatics), on the other. Within such a framework, a drawdown of our forces in, and their eventual removal from, South Korea makes perfect sense. And the creation of a multilateral fund, process, and logistics for dealing with Kim's inevitable collapse can take place on a broader, sufficiently sturdy foundation. For more on the US and China, I highly recommend the always insightful and outside-the-box

It's past time for South Korea, Japan, and the US to accept that sending food and oil aid to a despot like Kim is wrongheaded. We have to understand this dynamic: Kim has taken his population hostage and is starving and freezing much of it to death. He then says to us, "Send me food and oil or more people will starve and freeze!" And we comply.

But paying ransoms only encourages more hostage taking. Worse, when the hostage is the despot's own population, the ransom doesn't even save lives. A dictator like Kim knows he can hang onto power with x percent of his population starving or freezing. Higher than x percent and he'll face unacceptable unrest and other challenges to his rule. If we offer no aid, he must divert (or create) resources to keep the death rate at x percent. If we offer aid, he diverts resources to his military. Either way, the death rate stays at x as long as Kim is in power. We can't save Kim's hostage population while he is in power, and it is counterproductive to use aid to try.

If Kim's latest provocation prods the US to reassess its policy as suggested above, we may look back on the test as a positive development. After all, as long as the DPRK's nuclear capability was ambiguous, other governments were free to live in denial (that discounting of future possibilities dynamic again) about where all this was heading. If Kim's test has removed some of that denial, that's a good thing. As long as what replaces it is good thinking and sound execution.


Anonymous said...

In my opinion i think the entire nuclear debacle is only a means of getting global attention, mainly America and China. One being anti proliferation of WMD and the other its largest neighbour. As to why he wanted their attention, i am left clueless. I do not believe he have the means to go to war with the world nor does he have much choices left to make. Having this nuclear debacle is sort of like N.Korea's last outcry to the world.

James said...


I think you have missed one major factor in China's strategic thinking for the region. Having North Korea as a semi-rogue client state serves to lock down a significant portion of the U.S. forces in the Pacific should China decide to solve the Taiwan question via force of arms. Having said that, at times I find myself wondering how serious China is about reclaiming Taiwan. Could it be something that they would like to do but realize they can't and therefore just use it as a paper tiger when dealing with the rest of the world?

Besides that I think your analysis is right on however our experience with Iraq between the two Gulf Wars demonstrated that the international community does not have the willpower to starve a population to the point of revolution. The second problem with this plan is that the nuclear test indicates Kim is listening to the more hard line elements in his government. Should a regime change in Pyongyang be the result of sanctions it will most likely be due to a military coup. With the current balance of power in Pyongyang shifting towards the right, the possibility of ending up with a military government that believes they need to enhance their strategic situation is increased. Right now would be prime time for North Korea to invade South Korea as the U.S. would not be able to commit more troops to the region in time to change the outcome of a short-term war which is all the North needs. A push of 100 to 150 miles puts the front south of the Han river valley and the Seoul metropolitan area, which accounts for roughly half the population of South Korea.

I do not think this is likely to happen, however China and Russia could use this threat to seek some quid pro quos elsewhere in the world such as Georgia.



Barry Eisler said...

Jim, agreed that whether the test was real, successful, a failure, it's a wakeup call to the world. But will the world get out of bed?

Zayoi, I agree, the psychology of this interesting; the timing is almost a "you can't ignore me!" message to Japan, China, and South Korea during their weekend summit meetings.

James, I'm not sure whether having US forces in South Korea would make it easier for China to attack Taiwan. There are probably advantages to the US in having military facilities and materiel in the region, even if some of them are tied down to deter a North Korean move south.

As for "the international community does not have the willpower to starve a population to the point of revolution," I'm not advocating that third parties starve anyone. My point is that if Kim is intent on starving his own people, there's not much we can do about it and it is counterproductive to try. I don't think our refusal to pay aid ransom makes us the ones who are causing the starvation. The Dear Leader deserves full credit for that.

The Dark Scribe said...

Another informed and provoking analysis of our situation, Barry. I'm curious, though--based on the current administration's rampant ineptitude, what gives us any hope that they're even capable of "good thinking and sound execution?" I agree with your argument--I'm just not particularly enthused about our chances of a peaceful solution, given our recent foreign policy decisions.

On a completely unrelated note, I just finished Rain Fall. I've been interested in checking out your books for awhile, and finally took the plunge. What an adventure it's been! Thanks for the great read--I'm looking forward to many, many more.

James said...


Sorry, I did not mean to imply that anyone is advocating the starvation of the civilian population of North Korea. The point I was trying to make is that even though the fault lies with Kim, the international community will not turn a blind eye to the suffering and will continue to provide humanitarian aid even though this prolongs the life of the current regime. The best example of this is the sanctions in place against Iraq after the Gulf War. The people of Iraq were starving because of Saddam's regime. Everyone knew this however he was able to use his people's suffering to push the international community to put together the Oil for Food program which succeeded in providing the needed supplies to the Iraqi people but also added to Saddam's coffers. Admittedly there are some major differences between the two situations starting with the fact that the international community appears to be more unified against Kim than they were against the post Gulf War Saddam.

Ultimately this test will be the moment historians can point to as the beginning of the end of the current regime in Pyongyang however I think it is going to be a long road with a few more incidents.

Hope you're enjoying Japan. I actually just got back from Tokyo and Seoul last week.

-- James

Anonymous said...

I don't know how long it's going to take Japan to go nuclear, if ever.

A lot of Japanese people feel anti-nuke because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a matter of fact these two cities have done much to promote nuke-free Japan and a lot of the a-bomb victims are still alive to talk about the horror they've experienced.

Many Japanese people I know expressed uncertainty and fear, but they said they hated the idea of Japan having nuclear weapons more than nuclear North Korea.

Anonymous said...

law dawg fed is right. There is no better way to take your mind off your own troubles than to focus your anger on someone else. This is just the begining. Japan could go nuclear in a matter of weeks. Despite the anti-nuke feelings of many of the people there, there are still plenty in power (i.e. the governor of Tokyo) that would not hesitate. With the bomb in Korea, they will have no other choice. We will or can not protect them.