13 February 2005

Clearing Away the (mushroom?) Clouds

For those of us who, professionally or personally, follow North Korea – the “Pyongyangologists” as it were – this past week has been tremendous.

First, the simple fact that North Korea sort-of officially said it had nuclear weapons was one of the most over-played statements in a while. North Korea has never really denied it had nuclear weapons; it has simply played coy, claiming the right to have weapons, but leaving their actual existence up to the imagination. And Washington has supplied plenty of imagination, holding relatively consistently that North Korea has three to eight nuclear weapons (that is, until North Korea agreed – then Rumsfeld said he wasn’t sure there were any North Korean nukes).

Second, listening to the media has been a blast, as the circular reporting, errors, agendas and punditry abound. Now, North Korea may have a “bad” regime (though not as bad as Sudan, if you believe Parade Magazine), but if you really want to understand what is going on, and perhaps even suggest a viable solution for the perceived and actual ills, it is important to take a cold, hard, unbiased and impersonal look at the North Korean regime; to walk a mile in Kim Jong Il’s shoes (are they lifts?) and see the world through his and his regime’s eyes.

Third, and this is something I bet every blogger out there truly deep down can relate to, I have become quite popular this week for my opinions and observations on the Korean situation (and hence I have had little time to actually write anything down). There is something about a little “fame” that boosts one’s ego now and again. I even received e-mail from folks I haven’t seen in a decade asking about the North Korean statement. Go figure.

I already wrote a little on the situation right after the announcement was made, but now I think it about time to get back on that bandwagon and pontificate further.

Take a look over at the Center for Korean-American Peace (CFKAP), which is run by Kim Myong Chol, the “unofficial” spokesman of North Korea. Mr. Kim travels Japan and the United States, as well as occasionally returning to North Korea, and offers his own insight into the decision-making processes in Pyongyang, as well as offering Pyongyang his insights into the inner-workings of Washington (whether either are all that accurate has yet to be fully tested, but he does seem to offer at least one alternative point of view to look at the actions of Kim Jong Il and company from that is likely much closer to the real way they think than some British or American academic or talking head can offer).

In his Feb. 10 comment on the DPRK Foreign Ministry announcement, he starts with a fairly provocative “The Bush Administration, which calls itself champion of freedom and enemy No. 1 of tyranny, should not dither in calling the North Koreans' bluff by launching a surgical nuclear strike on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).” Now, one would think that North Korea’s unofficial spokesman wouldn’t call down a sky-full of PGMs on his homeland, but this is not atypical of a Kim Myong Chol commentary

Kim MC has long agreed with most of the western specialists that the North Korean regime is seeking preservation. But where they leave off (North Korea’s leadership is not suicidal, and is therefore always bluffing), he adds another level – that North Korea’s leadership sees another way to ensure security, and this is through the real and proven possession of nuclear weapons. Kim MC argues that the domino effect that Washington fears – a nuclear-armed North Korea triggers proliferation in Northeast Asia as Japan, South Korea and perhaps even Taiwan also develop nuclear weapons – is in fact beneficial for North Korea (even if it is not the desired path).

While this seems rather counterintuitive, it is important to understand the logic that goes into such analysis – and perhaps into the decision-making process in Pyongyang. North Korea, since the end of the Cold War, has been without a sponsor. During the Cold War, the inefficient economic system worked fine – as long as it was propped by the Russians or the Chinese. Kim Il Sung also was, well, a “Great Leader” compared to his son, as he has true revolutionary credentials and spent as much time as possible interacting (or at least being seen interacting) with the people. You never see pictures of Kim Jong Il sitting in the dust laughing with half-a-dozen peasants.

With the end of the Cold War, North Korea was left to dangle as the appendix it appears on a map, and after Kim Il Sung held his first nuclear crisis, he almost managed to reshape North Korea’s position in the world, and nearly met with Kim Young Sam – that is if his heart hadn’t stopped working. What might have been is left to speculation, but it took more than three years for Kim Jong Il to pull things together before he threw his own nuclear crisis. By then, economic mismanagement, a lack of external sponsors, under-developed charisma and a series of natural disasters left the country in sorry shape.

Kim Jong Il’s greatest fear was that he would be removed from power – and that fear is shared by many of the elite in the North Korean regime. If you were met with deep bows everywhere you went, were given all the luxuries you could reasonably need in an isolated socialist state, why would you risk losing that stature and privilege by opening to outsiders or even merging with the South? Kim fears internal unrest, disloyalty, and, most of all, the United States. Kim is convinced (and Washington does little to truly dissuade him of this) that the United States will take any opportunity to overthrow the Kim dynasty.

Kim Jong Il has sought security guarantees from the United States for years – this is the underlying purpose for the periodic nuclear crises, as odd as that may seem – and he really wants to have a formal peace accord and diplomatic relations with the Untied states. That would not only raise his stature (and that of North Korea) but also offer a greater reassurance that regime change will no longer be the operative U.S. object. Of course, after observing the U.S. involvement in Ukraine, even this appears to offer little sense of security.

And thus the other reason for a nuclear program – the development of nuclear weapons. While the core of the DPRK strategy has been to make Washington so scared of the idea of a nuclear-armed North Korea and the possible regional domino effect that Washington signs a peace accord, if that doesn’t happen, there is the nuclear option. Pyongyang has little intention of ever launching a war, but it does want to ensure no one launches a war on North Korea, and nuclear arms help ensure that. In addition, by having nuclear weapons and even triggering Japan to have nuclear weapons, it reduces the overall influence of the United States, as the U.S. nuclear umbrella no longer is the only game in town.

Now, while this may not seem like the best plan, it is not about good or bad but about understanding how the other party thinks – and thus being better prepared to devise a counter-strategy. Note that the big loser in all of this is China, which has managed to avoid having to deal with a number of smaller nuclear parties in its neighborhood. That would not b the case if the domino theory is accurate, and Beijing would find itself facing its regional rival, the world’s second largest economy, armed with nuclear weapons and back on a track as a “normal” nation, without constitutional restraints on having a military.

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