Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Don't trust North Korea

I don't particularly like John Bolton, the former US Ambassador to the United Nations, but I think he is right this time: The deal signed last night with North Korea regarding energy supplies in exchange for dismantling the country's nuclear weapons program is based on a leap of faith to a point where no rational basis exists. Make no mistake, I disapprove completely of the PDRK's sabre rattling and Kim Il-Jong must be contained at any cost. But this amounts to Chamberlain like appeasement.

One only has to remember the last time similar concessions were extorted from the West back in 1994, a month before Kim Il-Sung died. Then as now the issue was the same: Famine, starvation and the beginning sparks of a grass roots revolt. The fact the PDRK caved in at the last minute had less to do with nuclear technology transfers, and more to do with the preservation of the North Korean regime.

Both the South and Mainland China had reason to be fearful of a regime collapse in the North, as they do now: A breakdown would lead to a major refugee crisis as hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people rushed for the northern frontier and the DMZ. And even if there could be a peaceful transition of power or a reunification of Korea, it would hardly be an easy road.

One only has to take a look at Germany -- even a decade and a half after the country came back together the East generally lags behind the West in productivity and other economic markers by about a quarter. It turned out to be a major drag for the Deutsche Mark, so much so that Germany was almost forced into a common currency with most of its other European partners.

There's little doubt that any reconstruction of the North would run into the trillions of US dollars, not billions, and the South Korea won would be severely devalued as a result. In an extreme scenario, the South might have ambitions on having nuclear weapons of its own -- or try to nationalize the US nukes currently on the Korean peninsula. That would put countries like Japan, China and Russia in the firing line.

This is a classic damned if you do or don't case, and Kim has the West by the balls. One would have hoped the other powers would have driven a harder bargain in exchange for concessions. Like democratic and human rights reforms. As it is, the people of South Korea and Japan, rather than have hope for a peaceful and arms free Asia-Pacific, will have to live in fear for another five years till the next time the North explodes a bomb. What concessions will be required then?

While regime change is probably justified in the North as much as it is in Burma and Zimbabwe, we need to first figure out a way to make sure food and oil aid bypasses the PDRK cowards and goes directly to the people who need it the most. That -- unimpeded access to the people, without go-betweens or minders -- would be the most important concession I would demand, before I even talked about the nukes.

To do any less and just give Kim what he wants is appeasement, plain and simple. It won't work, and North Koreans will be even worse off, not better, as a result of this agreement.

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Canadian Tar Heel said...

Hi BF,

Good read.

For the sake of clarification, what do you mean with this sentence?:I disapprove completely of the PDRK's sabre rattling and Kim Il-Jong must be contained at any cost.

The "at any cost" part is what I find interesting.

Nuclear non-proliferation is an important objective, but how hawkish should the international community enforce it? Is military intervention an option? If not to what extent are carrots effective without the biggest stick (ie, hard power) lingering in the background?

Additionally, I'm curious what you think of Bremmer's J-Curve theory as applied to NK.

Finally, would you apply the same approach with NK to Iran? I'm not saying that there's a one size fits all nuclear non-proliferation approach to rogue states. That'd be just silly. So, consistency is a minimal factor in my questions.

BlastFurnace said...

It's a fair question, CTH. By "at any cost," I mean a military option should be considered as a final option but of course without resorting to firing off WMD as a first strike. That being said, my sense about it is that if Bush really wanted go after the "axis of evil" he should have started with the most pressing problem which was the PDRK, not Iraq. A country that was suspected of having WMD and, as it turns out, really did, not Iraq.

And let's not forget, the country withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty a few years ago, which should have sent alarm bells off from the get-go.

What worries me is that, as much as I don't like the idea of military force, at some point armed intervention will be required. Two problems there: First, NATO and America's Pacific Rim allies, both shaky alliances at the best of times, have been torn asunder by the Iraq war so getting an international force willing to attack the North will be very difficult. Second, given that there are now nuclear weapons on both sides of the border (and China also has them) it's going to make things a whole lot more complicated.

You also raise a good point about the J-Curve. I think Kim Il-Sung is probably about half-way from the left "peak" of the J and the bottom. If recent reports on CNN are true, things are actually a lot more unstable there than what we've been led to believe, and people are trying to get out or openly dissenting -- at great personal risk.

That, I think, may be the reasoning behind the proposed agreement -- the other countries hate Kim but they fear something even worse will come in his place. The fact is, 54 years after the armistice nothing has been settled yet.

As far as Iran goes, that will be a tough one too. The country is more open comparatively than NK (e.g. freer markets) but there it's also surrounded by either dictatorships or sham democracies. Its only serious threat is Israel, and the condition I'd set there is full recognition of Israel's right to exist. Otherwise, I'd impose sanctions on the level that once existed against South Africa -- which, incidentally, had nuclear weapons but disarmed around the time apartheid ended.

That might be seen as a provocation but if Iran's few remaining allies pull their support it just might get the message.

Canadian Tar Heel said...


Thanks for the response.

- re NK: FYI, Taylor Owen's got something on the subject too.

- re Iran: Sure, your propositions may be contentious on the Left (too much) and on the Right (not enough). But at least it's reality based.