Saturday, October 07, 2006

What's Kim Up To This Time?

Last week, the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea (yes, that's really what they call themselves) declared that it "will in the future conduct a nuclear test under the condition where safety is firmly guaranteed." The statement claimed that "The U.S. daily increasing threat of a nuclear war and its vicious sanctions and pressure have caused a grave situation on the Korean Peninsula in which the supreme interests and security of our State are seriously infringed upon and the Korean nation stands at the crossroads of life and death."

I can't help asking... do North Korean communiques read like this in the original Korean, or is the stiltedness and bombast always inserted in the translations? You can read the full text of the Foreign Ministry's statement here.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill responded by saying, “We are not going to live with a nuclear North Korea, we are not going to accept it.” Huh? The CIA believes North Korea already has the bomb, acquired with the assistance of Pakistan's A.Q Khan (but certainly not with the complicity of Pakistan's government!) in exchange for missile know-how. So aren't we already living with, have we not in fact already accepted, a nuclear North Korea?

If the US already believes North Korea is nuclear armed, why would the North announce a test? The announcement must have perceived independent value, otherwise the North wouldn't have made it -- they would have just carried out a test (for substantive weapons development reasons, for example), or not, without an announcement. Also, an announcement must entail at least some risk: if the test doesn't occur, Kim looks like he's backing down, or that he doesn't have nukes to begin with; if the test is attempted and fails, it looks like those NK nukes aren't ready for prime time after all.

My theory is, the DPRK is trying to force the Bush administration to offer concessions by threatening, just ahead of midterm elections, to remove the fig leaf of nuclear ambiguity behind which the administration has been sheltering. It just wouldn't look good for Republicans, who bill themselves as the national security party, to have Kim detonate an atomic bomb on their watch. Presumably Kim knows this, and is now trying political pressure where more substantive pressure has previously failed him.

The "Midterm Surprise" theory gets a little backing from Li Dunqiu of China's State Council Development Research Center, a Cabinet-level think tank. "If the U.S. removes sanctions," Mr. Dunqiu says, "then tensions can be eased. Otherwise launching a nuclear test is unavoidable for North Korea.''

I think that can safely be translated as, "immediate concessions, or we'll cost you the midterm elections."

Some or the articles I've read say a test is expected as early as this weekend. I don't buy it. We're still a month away from the midterm elections. Why wouldn't Kim let the threat stand -- in fact, why not reiterate it -- to continue to pressure Bush and the Republican Congress? Once the test is carried out, Kim's leverage is gone.

Another possibility, of course, is that Kim isn't trying to exact concessions; he's actively trying to influence the outcome of the midterm US elections. If that's the case, again, I wouldn't expect a test right away. The elections are over a month away; I'd expect more threats first, then a test closer to the elections, to ensure that the inescapable fact that North Korea has nuclear weapons is front center in the minds of voters.

The strategy could backfire, of course: in response to a test, the Bush administration could announce stiff countermeasures, such as a blockade (which we wouldn't call a blockade; blockades are acts of war, which is why JFK called our blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis a "quarantine"), which could in turn lead to a "rally round the president" effect that would tilt elections to Republicans.

My guess is, Kim has decided it's time to remove any doubt that the DPRK is a nuclear power. China, Japan, and South Korea all claim such a move would be counterproductive, but would it? What leverage would any of them apply to a demonstrably nuclear-armed DPRK that they haven't applied already? Kim's negotiating stance will simply have gone from, "give me what I want or I'll build a nuke" to "give me what I want or I'll build more nukes... and possibly sell them, too." All the reasons behind the world's historically feckless approach to Kim will remain in place and continue to drive policy just as they have been driving it. By conducting a test, Kim can have his nukes and eat them, too.

All the North's nuclear saber rattling begs a larger question, of course, because whether the DPRK has nukes, or whether the country is merely determined to acquire them, the imperative of our policy there remains the prevention of war on the Korean peninsula and counterproliferation. So how do we achieve those twin objectives? I think that will be my next post, which I'll be writing from Tokyo.


Watch 'n Wait said...

So here it is, Sunday nite, and comes the announcement from North Korea that their underground nuclear test was successful. Fingers crossed that BushCo doesn't go off half-cocked again and decide to nuke them in return. He has his macho image to care for, don't forget.

Anonymous said...

Last month's issue of Atlantic Monthly carried a good article on this scenario. Net net, PRK is facing lot of internal turmoil and tests are the beginning of the end.

Barry Eisler said...

And here's an explanation of the crazy diction in those NK communiques...