I thought it might be useful to know a little more about North Korea than what is in the latest headlines, so I talked to a couple of people who have a bit of expertise and knowledge of recent history. Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, wrote Tripwire, a book on Korea published in 1996. Chalmers Johnson, emeritus professor of political science at the University of California and a long-time specialist on Asian politics and strategic issues, is the author of the recent (but published before 9/11) book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire.
What follows, however, is my own attempt to synthesize what I’ve learned from them and others (including a talk by Douglas D.M. Joo, president of the Washington Times, who is sympathetic to the South Korean side of things and may be close to South Korean intelligence, though I don’t know that for sure). If there are mistakes or shortcomings because of incomplete or missing knowledge, the responsibility is all on me.
THE LAST BASKETCASE
The fundamental fact underlying the entire situation is that North Korea is the last significant basket case of the communist era. During the Cold War, for a variety of reasons, the North Korean bosses adopted the entire panoply of Stalinist claptrap, including the cult of personality of the Great Leader, and swallowed it whole, with a few Asian variations that if anything made it more hard line even than Stalin. They isolated themselves, cutting off contact with almost all of the non-communist world and a fair amount of the communist world, and stewed in their own juices.
As long as the Soviet Union was around as a communist country, they were able to stave off some of the ruin that comes from adopting such an economically absurd doctrine as communism, in part by playing China and the Soviet Union off against one another to maximize the aid and other forms of assistance they got from both. Once the Soviet Union ceased to be formally communist and became the diminished Russian Federation, without much interest in buttressing the positions of titularly communist regimes that don’t border Russia directly, much of this kind of assistance dried up.
China, which shares a border and quite a bit of history with North Korea (and has been working to move beyond communism without actually admitting it has given up on the old religion), has propped up the North Korean regime to some extent. But propping up an inherently unstable and destructive system can go only so far. What North Korea needs is to bring itself into the international marketplace – and although I don’t know this directly, I’d be surprised if the Chinese hadn’t been telling the North Korean leaders just this, in no uncertain terms.
THE CHINESE EXAMPLE
That’s essentially what the Chinese have been doing, although in fits and starts and with hesitations and second thoughts. They have to some extent recreated markets within China (though not with the kind of solidly protected private property rights one would like to see), and have agreed to abide by enough of the international rules of the managed-quasi-capitalist road to gain admission to the World Trade Organization. In general, for the last couple of decades, they have chosen the strategy of economic liberalization first, while delaying or denying efforts at political liberalization. The Soviets, on the other hand, chose (or were pushed by events and circumstances into) political liberalization first, without a clear plan for economic liberalization; the political regime collapsed and they got gangsterism in economics rather than capitalism.
So far the economic results for China have been fairly gratifying, although the process of building a quasi-market economy and a larger middle class is creating social instabilities that will have political implications before too long. I don’t know if the Chinese leaders have real plans to deal with political instability; my advice would be to abdicate, decentralize, and de-emphasize politics, but being political animals they probably won’t do so.
CLUMSY AND COUNTERPRODUCTIVE
So here’s what I think is at least a possibility with North Korea. The leaders have gotten the message, or have been pushed by events and homegrown misery into acknowledging that it’s time to give up the lone-wolf quasi-Stalinist path and rejoin the world. But for reasons of pride and political face, they can’t just say (as even democratic and relatively rational political leaders find it hard to do), "well, we were wrong all those years, and now we’re trying to go straight." The leaders fear (perhaps with some reason) that if they were to be that honest the people would rise up and kill them before they got a chance to ease their way onto a different path.
For the better part of the last 10 years, North Korea and South Korea have been groping toward some form of workable rapprochement. Various steps, including brief visits, some family reunification, some South Korean investment in North Korea and a few steps toward joint ventures have been taken. The new South Korean government just elected is even more committed to eventual rapprochement (although probably not reunification, as I’ll discuss a little later), and is also increasingly ready to reconsider certain aspects of South Korea’s longstanding alliance with the United States, which includes the stationing of 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. Those troops, which have always been more tripwire than effective defense, have become a source of aggravation to many South Koreans. But how do the North Koreans get the United States to reconsider the longstanding relationship of mutual hostility? Unfortunately, being still somewhat under the spell of communist ideology as well as more general theories of how power politics is done, they seem to think (even as many in the U.S. think about the rest of the world) that only power, strength and threats will work; it’s the only thing "those people" understand. So they choose bluster and confrontation rather than conciliation and offering compromise in advance. Consequently, much or most of what they have done has been clumsy and counterproductive.
BLUSTER WITH BLUSTER
Unfortunately, most of the U.S. response to clumsy North Korean overtures has also been clumsy and counterproductive. After the 1994 confrontation over North Korean efforts to develop nuclear weapons, the Clinton administration (through Jimmy Carter) came to an agreement to supply energy and the material to build nuclear power plants that couldn’t be converted to weapons use (North Korea has few resources for producing electric energy – no known petroleum deposits and no rivers capable of being dammed for power).
But the Clinton administration, probably figuring along with many of us that the North Korean regime was so inherently unstable that it would fall of its own weight fairly soon, delayed for years on making good on the U.S. end of the bargain. But the regime didn’t collapse. Instead, it felt betrayed and restarted the nuclear program – which it might never have abandoned completely in the first place.
The Bush administration, with a great deal more attitude than knowledge, decided to include North Korea in the rhetorically satisfying "axis of evil" last year, and then to expose North Korean violations of the 1994 agreement last October. Unfortunately, it did so without anything resembling a plan to deal with whatever response North Korea might make (perhaps without even imagining North Korea would come up with a response) at a time when it was preoccupied with Iraq. So it has backed and filled, substituting tough-sounding statements for policy. The North Koreans, who are probably shrewder and think longer-term than the typical U.S. diplomat, have taken advantage of the lack of anything resembling a coherent U.S. policy to make ever more bellicose statements, probably thinking this will get them a better deal when Uncle Sam finally decides to pay full attention. Most of the people I talked to don’t think they want war or even military confrontation with the United States, but they have been isolated for a long time and don’t understand the U.S. very well. So the possibility for a miscalculation that leads to military hostilities is there.
NEIGHBORLY PROPPING UP
What many of us didn’t appreciate is that for their own reasons, most of North Korea’s neighbors don’t want the regime to collapse altogether, although that might be the most karmically satisfying development for leaders who became so entranced with their own power. Both the Chinese and the South Koreans fear a massive influx of essentially starving refugees with few if any resources for starting new lives and few useful skills for achieving anything like independence.
The South Koreans have been studying German reunification (I remember meeting with a delegation of South Korean diplomats and academics about a decade ago when the project was just getting underway) and they have decided that it was enormously expensive to West Germany. They would prefer to achieve some kind of rapprochement that would allow North Korea to reenter the modern world and cease to be a permanent looming threat to Seoul, but without formal reunification with South Korea. So they would prefer to keep propping up the North Korean regime until something better can be worked out, rather than encouraging the regime to collapse. Both China and South Korea also have concerns about what would happen to much of North Korea’s military materiel if the regime should collapse. So both have an interest, at least for now, in keeping Kim’s absurd dictatorship going for now, and easing its transition into a more normal regime with something resembling normal relations with the rest of the world. This desire not to unleash possible chaos (besides being the natural inclination of most political leaders, who tend to equate not changing things much with stability) is reinforced by the military situation. South Korea’s capital, Seoul, is about 30 miles from the demilitarized zone (DMZ), an aftermath of the armistice that ended the Korean War in the 1950s. The North could batter Seoul and inflict lots of casualties with artillery. Missiles, whether tipped with something nuclear or not, could be devastating. And it is doubtful that a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, even one backed by the full force and fury of the United States, would eliminate the North’s ability to inflict devastation on the South. In addition, the North tested a missile that arched over Japan back in 1998 or 1999. So Japan knows full well that if the North has even one nuclear warhead, it has the potential to inflict massive damage on Japan. So Japan has an interest in no conflict getting started.
ENTER THE EAGLE
For whatever set of reasons, however – it might be recognition of sole-superpower status, desire to bring in the country that wields what it perceives as the real, decisive power, a perception that it can get a better deal from naïve Uncle Sam than from neighbors who understand the situation better, or just the desire to tweak the United States’ beak – North Korea has announced that it wants to deal with the United States and only with the United States. And since the Korean War was concluded without a formal armistice but with a cease-fire and stalemate, it has the justification that North Korea and the United States are formally at war, and that situation has to be resolved before anything else can happen. Becoming the sole bargainer and sole guarantor of peace in the region is about the last thing the United States – for diplomatic, military, priority-setting and political-testosterone prestige reasons – wants. But it could come to that anyway.
Unfortunately, the United States really has no good options in the situation. It is only partially because U.S. intelligence believes North Korea might have a couple of usable nukes that North Korea holds so many cards. There’s also the conventional military capability that puts South Korea at risk, along with Chinese and Japanese concerns about what could happen either if a genuine military conflict started or the North Korean regime collapsed and started producing starving and destabilizing refugees. So far the Chinese – and other regional powers, including Taiwan – have been content to watch the United States stew, delay, and generally look weak and indecisive over North Korea. They have no interest in a full-on confrontation developing, in part because it could easily spill over in ways that could cause them great damage. But they don’t mind if the arrogant and sometimes clueless United States gets its political nose bloodied a bit before things are settled.
Doug Bandow has argued that the best way to get the full attention of North Korea and its neighbors would be to withdraw the American troops who serve more as a tripwire and an irritant than as an effective defense anyway. That would make it clear that the United States is not going to get stuck with full responsibility for whatever mistakes and blunders North Korea might make in the near future. It would then become clear to all concerned, in a way that could not be conveyed by words and statements alone, that it’s up to North Korea’s neighbors to figure out how to ease North Korea into the modern globalized world with as little destruction and violence as possible.
Perhaps it would be best simply to announce that the U.S. has decided that prudence suggests it is time to withdraw those troops, possibly as part of a larger policy of reconsidering current commitments in light of the new demands of the War on Terror. Or we might quietly let the South Koreans know that they are in a position to offer the North the withdrawal of U.S. troops (possibly after some brave-sounding demands and declarations of independence from the South) if Pyongyang will start behaving itself when it comes to nuclear weapons and openness to trade and diplomacy. There might well be other ways to accomplish U.S. disengagement from North Korea. But it seems fairly clear that such disengagement is the best way to defuse the potentially dangerous situation the North has been fomenting. North Korea’s neighbors might not handle the problem of bringing the country into a normal relationship with the rest of the world perfectly; indeed, it is almost certain they will make mistakes along the way. But as the country with the most directly at stake, they have the most incentive to proceed carefully. And getting the United States out of the equation will reduce the likelihood that mistakes will lead to a worldwide or large-scale conflict rather than a regional problem.