Dec 20 2011

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The Uncertainty of North Korea

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Could It Happen Again?

So much for the “season to be jolly.”

And it is not as if the US didn’t already have enough to worry about at home and around the globe.

But to the list of presidential headaches, North Korea now returns prominently.

With the death of Kim Jong-Il and the nominal rise of his son Kim Jong Un to supreme power in the world’s only communist dynasty, the international community holds its collective breath as unknown and unknowable North Korean politics play out, creating enormous uncertainty in one of the earth’s most reclusive and heavily armed states.

This latest crisis on the peninsula serves as a useful departure point to review Western policy with North Korea and determine what if any changes can constructively serve to lessen tensions and steer North Korea away from additional nuclear ambitions.

Over the last fifteen years three different Administrations have run the diplomatic spectrum, from engagement to isolation and back, with no discernible result. Indeed, American nuclear non-proliferation policy failed spectacularly in North Korea.

While we were busy offering the carrots and sticks of traditional Great Power diplomacy to ease the North Koreans into Western-accepted norms of behavior, the North Koreans played a very different game; a game of their own making, and by their own rules.

Underlying North Korean objectives is what Victor Cha, former Bush administration Deputy US Chief to the Six Party talks on Korea, called “the contradiction of the North Korean regime.”

According to Cha, the North Korean leadership recognizes that to survive, the country must open up to the outside world. But under current circumstances, doing so would almost certainly lead to the regime’s collapse.

Indeed, that has been a central, if indirect, conclusion of American thinking as well; that reaching a deal with the North Koreans to open up their country would covertly undermine the government and eventually overwhelm and collapse the regime, ending a US security challenge in northeast Asia.

As Cha points out, the only way for the North Koreans to solve the paradox is to base normalization of relations with the US and its allies on the recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state.

Under this paradigm, once North Korea had achieved international nuclear legitimacy – with nuclear weapons as both a military deterrent and a political guarantor of the regime – the North Koreans would be secure enough to both open up to the outside world for trade and investment, and to meet mutually beneficial political and economic objectives proposed by the West.

For instance, the economic blandishments and diplomatic recognition that the US and its allies currently dangle before the North Koreans, ostensibly in return for dismantling their nuclear program, would, in fact, become an essential, integrated and required element in concluding a peace treaty that would finally end the Korean War and permanently sanction the division of Korea.

Cha surmised that North Korea not only seeks a non-aggression guarantee from the US, but also assurance that the US will support the regime during the phase of transition from isolation to integration, when the current leadership would be most at risk.

As outrageous as this strategic equation may seem on first blush, the North Korean rationale has real world antecedents.

Consider that North Korea’s nuclear weapons quest mimics that of the state of Israel, which maintains an arsenal of atomic weapons to guarantee its survival.

And by seeking recognition as a nuclear weapons state, the North can point to the current US alliance with Pakistan, or the even more robust nuclear cooperation with India, as examples where US strategic pragmatism trumped fidelity to the Non Proliferation Treaty.

Of course, the symmetry here is illustrative, not equivalency, which is the central challenge for American policymakers. It goes without saying that North Korea is not Israel, India or for that matter, Pakistan.

But if this is the reality, what is the solution?

Clearly, diplomacy dissolves as tool of constructive resolution if the central question of nuclear arms becomes not a negotiating point, but a red line for both sides. And this standoff is all the more worrisome as the only area where the North Koreans are in a position of significant strength is military power.


The North Koreans have one million men under arms. 700,000 troops, 8,000 artillery pieces and 2,000 tanks are garrisoned in hardened, underground facilities within 100 miles of the DMZ, providing the logistics for a surprise attack. Without having to move its artillery, the North Koreans could sustain a barrage of the South at a rate of 500,000 rounds per hour, a tempo of fire not seen since the Soviet advance on Berlin in 1945.

This does not take into account North Korea’s significant WMD stockpile. The South Korean Ministry of Defense has estimated that 50 North Korean missiles carrying nerve gas would kill 38% of Seoul’s 12 million residents. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is 30 miles from the DMZ.

The US has stationed troops in South Korea since the Armistice ending the war was signed in 1953. Today, 28,000 US troops serve alongside 522,000 South Korean troops to guard against potential aggression by the North.

An attack by North Korea would stun the American people and shatter any pre-conceived notions regarding the destructive potential of modern combat. American troops in Korea today would face the most punishing and destructive attacks against US forces since WWII.

Consider that after eight years of combat in Iraq, US forces sustained 4,500 casualities. In the event of a North Korean attack, US forces could lose that many men in the first hours of battle, making American causalities in a new Korean War worse than Omaha Beach on D-Day.

American losses would pale in comparison to those of South Korean military and civilian personnel. Estimates of civilian causalities number in the hundreds of thousands in an assault that uses only conventional weapons, with many times that number injured.

Infrastructure and property damage in the South, currently the world’s 15th largest economy with a climbing GDP close to $1 trillion, would be catastrophic.

And none of this contemplates the use of nuclear weapons, whose consequences are incalculable.

Into this combustible equation, China plays a reluctant if outsized role.

No country has invested more heavily in North Korea than China. Beyond trade and political kinship, North Korea serves first and foremost as a geographical buffer to the US-allied South.

No one should forget that China suffered nearly 400,000 causalities in the first Korean War to prevent US forces from uniting the peninsula under the Seoul-based government. A vastly more powerful China today has even more interest in preventing increased US influence in northeast Asia.

This presents the Chinese with a conundrum.

Strategically, the Chinese want, indeed need a North Korean buffer state. From a balance of power perspective, North Korean objectives are not at significant variance with unstated Chinese policy. Indeed, a Korean peace deal that provided international recognition and guarantees to the existing North Korean government and normalized relations, would serve Beijing’s interests well.

But serial North Korean provocations in missile, chemical and nuclear developments, not to mention isolated armed attacks, have made the cost of Chinese support exponentially more expensive, with the adverse strategic consequence of aligning South Korea and Japan more closely with the United States in an area that China considers in its own sphere of influence.

Hypothetically, a new war on the Korean peninsula serves China’s interests only to the extent that it is short, contained, decisive and final in expelling Western influence and uniting Korea under Pyongyang. However, the multitude of uncertainties that stand in the way of that result, augers against any Chinese support for North Korean adventurism, which would potentially bring conflict to China’s borders and risk unintended military conflict with the United States.

That said, it is unlikely that China will ever apply the kind of pressure necessary to force North Korea’s hand on nuclear weapons.

First, China’s view on nuclear proliferation differs significantly from those in the West. China played a central role in Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, and there is a trail of Chinese finger prints in the nuclear trade that is contributing to the nuclear programs of Iran and others.

Second, as a practical measure, such pressure would likely destabilize the North Korean regime and create a self fulfilling prophesy of North Korean collapse. Without a viable alternative to govern the country, China would face the renewed challenge of Western political and economic integration, and a potentially hostile power on its border.

Thus, for very different reasons, the Chinese face a situation similar to the US regarding North Korea, with the lack of viable alternatives to bring the North Korean question to a constructive and mutually beneficial solution.

With the passing of Kim Jong Il, his son faces by far the worst crisis of North Korea’s history. The economy contracts, agriculture fails, the population must deal with famine. Time is not on the regime’s side.

Thus the terrible truth about North Korea, as it deals with a new and uncertain period is this: if the reality of regime collapse is the ultimate consequence of any diplomacy that fails to meet North Korea’s non-negotiable terms, can the North Korean leadership simply walk away without playing their strongest card?

In 1941, Japanese expansionism in Asia prompted a US oil embargo. Without the American oil, Japan’s economy – and military forces – faced ruin. Replacement oil was available for the taking in present day Indonesia. But the invasion of Indonesia risked war with the United States, a nation with an economy ten times the size of Japan.

Still, the calculus for the Japanese was national survival or war.

The answer was Pearl Harbor.

Never underestimate the power of deceptive self-interest to trump shared logic to ruinous results. With a new and untested leader, the possibilities become alarming.

Preparation is the best and really only defense.

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