Friday, May 29, 2009

The North Korea Syndrome

A defiant North Korea claims it will retaliate if its ships are boarded off its western coast and if the United Nations Security Council imposes stricter sanctions on its development of nuclear warheads. The announcement comes a day after the government said it would declare war on South Korea if provoked.

The latest war of words has strained the patience of its neighbors China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. Not in Washington, apparently.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. has detected no unusual troop movements in North Korea and has no plans to reinforce some 28,000 U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan.

“Should the North Koreans do something rash and extremely provocative militarily,” the United States “has the forces to deal with it,” Gates told reporters on a flight to Singapore for an annual security conference.

It is curious that Gates is taking an Alfred E. Neuman approach of "What, me worry?" while earlier in the week Secretary of State Hilllary Clinton warned North Korea of "dire consequences" and President Obama scolded the Kim Jong-il regime for testing an underground nuclear devise in violation of United Nations agreements.

The fact is the Obama administration has no new public policy position regarding North Korea and its special envoy to that country is only a temporary position.

North Korea's position seems to be intent on joining the world's arsenal of nuclear powers for self defense while the rest of the nations are wondering who the hell would want to invade that impoverished nation that has little to give.

Since it tested a nuclear device last Monday, triggering an international crisis, North Korea has test-fired at least six missiles.

The most likely hot spot for a provocation is a fishing and cargo channel off the western Korean coast which was the site of skirmishes in 1999 and 2002.

Gates echoed other senior officials by saying that North Korea’s export of its nuclear technology to other countries was a major concern. “These guys have shown a penchant in the past for selling anything they’ve been able to develop,” Gates said.

North Korea’s military threats against the South were in response to South Korea’s decision on Tuesday to join an American-led operation to stop and search ships carrying suspicious cargo. The operation, called the Proliferation Security Initiative, was created by former President George W. Bush in 2003 and now includes 95 countries.

North Korea reacted by calling South Korea’s action a “declaration of war.” The situation is serious enough for 150 Chinese fishing boats, about half its fleet, to pull out of the troubled waters.

The second front of the crises is North Korea ratcheting up its nuclear tests.

"If the U.N. Security Council makes a further provocation, it will be inevitable for us to take further self-defense measures," the North's Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

North Korea also accused the Security Council of hypocrisy.

"There is a limit to our patience," the statement said. "The nuclear test conducted in our nation this time is the Earth's 2,054th nuclear test. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council have conducted 99.99 percent of the total nuclear tests."

The Obama administration is exercising patience because it has no game plan or is holding its cards close to its vest as in a high stakes poker game. The opinions expressed in the mass media markets are not encouraging, either.

Writes Michael Hirsh in Newsweek:

Kim Jong -Il has always been pretty wacky, with his bouffant hair and awkward habit of kidnapping actresses while starving his people, but at least the diminutive Dear Leader was someone you could talk with now and then. Today, with a stroke-damaged Kim apparently in eclipse and North Korea erupting out of control again, Barack Obama has a serious problem. As much as he might like to, it doesn't look as if the president has anyone to engage with, even in North Korea's traditional language of blackmail.

Writes Dan Blumenthal and Robert Kagan in the Washington Post:

The North Korean launch of its Taeopodong-2 missile and its second nuclear test have laid bare the paucity of President Obama's policy options. They have exposed the futility of the six-party talks and, in particular, the much-hyped myth of China's value as a partner on strategic matters. The Obama administration claims that it wants to break with the policies of its predecessor. This is one area where it ought to.

After decades of diplomacy and "probing" Pyongyang's intentions, one thing is clear: Kim Jong Il and his cronies want nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. What will dissuade them? Isolation and more punitive sanctions would make sense if China and Russia would go along. But they haven't, and they won't.

For several years, this lack of attractive options has driven many to look to the Chinese for help. Advocates of warm engagement with the Chinese have been the most enthusiastic promoters of this approach, less, we suspect, out of concern for solving the North Korea problem than to prove the worth of close cooperation with Beijing. North Korea, they have tirelessly claimed, is one of those common strategic interests that the United States and Beijing allegedly share.

This proposition has been discredited.

The ultimate American aim should be to help bring about a unified Korean Peninsula and not cede influence over the two Koreas to Beijing. The current diplomatic arrangements have permitted China to set the political agenda while quietly increasing its leverage over the North. But Washington doesn't need to go through Beijing to get to Pyongyang. Direct negotiations between the United States and North Korea, in close consultation with Japan and South Korea, are better than working through a middleman who has no desire or interest in closing the deal. Both Japan and South Korea would welcome greater U.S. engagement with the North. Seoul wants reassurance that it will not shoulder the burden of unification by itself. Japan wants U.S. protection and a guarantee that Washington will have some presence on the peninsula for the long term.

A New York Times editorial takes the Obama approach by negotiating first through six-party talks and then bilateral negotiations to allow weapons inspectors into the country as North Korea’s only hope for coming in from the cold and ending its deep economic privation.

Unfortunately, Pyongyang doesn’t see it that way right now, which is why the international response must be firm and skillfully choreographed. Loudly castigating and threatening North Korea and then failing to implement sanctions is worse than doing nothing at all. It will only embolden Pyongyang and send a dangerous message to others — Iran is surely watching — about the fecklessness of the major powers.

While the Chinese Foreign Ministry condemned North Korea for Monday's nuclear test, it is unknown whether they will enthusiastically support tougher sanctions now being deliberated in the UN Security Council.

However, there is growing dissent among Chinese intellectuals and media commentators.

"North Korea has become a major problem for China," says Zhang Yushan, who works for a government think tank in Jilin province, near the North Korean border. "It has become a dangerous player in the world."

China has a unique and influential relationship with North Korea as its closest ally and trading partner, sharing an 870-mile border.

In the past, many who influence Chinese policy supported the argument that North Korea's actions must be tolerated because opposing it might lead to instability. That view is changing. "I'm less interested in stability than in having a denuclearized Korean peninsula," says Zhang Liangui of the Party School, the leading think tank of China's Communist Party. "It is not in China's interest to have our neighbor exploding nuclear devices."

Russia, meanwhile, which has taken a back seat to China, is indicating a change in direction.

After an initial, mild expression of "concern" by the Russian foreign minister, the government issued a high-level statement denouncing the underground blast as a "direct violation" of U.N. resolutions.

"Initiators of decisions on nuclear tests bear personal responsibility for them to the world community," said Natalya Timakova, chief spokeswoman for President Dmitry Medvedev, adding that the test "deals a blow to international efforts to strengthen the global regime of nuclear nonproliferation."

"The reaction has been quite serious and quite unusual," said Alexander Pikayev, a top arms control expert at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations. "Moscow is really concerned. North Korea most likely has an operational deterrent now with this successful test. So this changes the whole situation."

Vasily Mikheev, a senior Asia scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said Medvedev seemed to be driving the more forceful response, perhaps to assert his authority over foreign policy a year after succeeding Vladimir Putin, now the prime minister.

Medvedev may see the issue in the context of his efforts to improve relations with the United States, Mikheev added. "Nonproliferation is one of the most important areas where Russia and America can work together," he said.

And what do the South Koreans think?

“We sent them food, fertilizer, factories, more than we give our own poor people,” said the South Korean, Lee Soon-hwan, a 30-year-old office worker. “And all they pay us back with is this nuclear test.”

After years of hope that relations with the North would thaw if the South tried to coax it into engagement, regional experts and others speak of growing disenchantment. Many South Koreans reacted with exasperation and even anger to North Korea’s nuclear test on Monday, uncharacteristically harsh responses in a country that has long been more tolerant of its unruly northern neighbor than have its allies in Washington and Tokyo.

“There has been a paradigm shift in how South Koreans view North Korea,” said Jeung Young-tai, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification. “The nuclear test has made people feel that North Korea has gone too far, and it’s high time for us to be tough on North Korea.”

But Jeung said that people now felt no safer after 10 years of engagement and that the latest nuclear test, along with the North’s test-firing of a long-range rocket last month, had driven home to many in South Korea their need to build up their own military, and stick with their traditional ally, the United States.

The thing is, no one knows what's going on in the distorted mind of Kim Jong-il or the thirsty grab for power by either his political cohorts or even the military.

1 comment:

ryorkport said...

This is one more of the apparently intractable issues this new president has to confront. It's all well and good for those of us back here to urge action. Short of nukes, how can we even hope to stop 1 million well armed troops?

The time to overthrow the nut cases in North Korea expired decades ago. As long as there are fools in China and Russia willing to support them - or at least not do anything - we have very few options. Only a massive invasion of the north would work. So, where would those resources come from?

I hate to say it but, for now, the madmen in North Korea have us, and the world, in a wretched position. (I almost used a more colorful phrase, but not suitable here.)

Some very creative thinking is required here.

Note: I see no contradiction between Gates and Clinton. There will eventually be dire consequences, but it's best to walk softly right now - our stick is none too big. Absent either Russia or China being willing to act, we have very few options. Recognizing these facts is not "What me worry?"

Not operating in a "reality based" manner is what got us into this mess in the first place.

Richard York