The announcement by North Korea that they have successfully tested a nuclear weapon in a remote region near the northernmost border with China and may well explode another was entirely predictable, given the course of the non-negotiations that have been going on since the 1990s. The Clinton administration tried to engage Pyongyang, with notable lack of success, and the Bush administration has spent years ignoring the problem, convinced that if we talk to our enemies we’ll have given them a "carrot" they can chew on to their heart’s content without granting any concessions in return. We talk to no one but our rapidly shrinking circle of "friends," and hope for the best that is U.S. policy, not only in North Asia, but everywhere and anywhere. We have reaped what we have sown and made the world a much less safe place.
Yet it isn’t really all about us, as much as the world’s only superpower would like to believe it is: the pressures that brought about this signal event are multifarious and complex, having mostly to do with internal North Korean politics and the last Stalinist nation’s largely hidden relations with its only remaining ally China.
The rulers of the Hermit Kingdom have been planning this for some 50-plus years, and the question is: why now? There is, of course, the Iraq factor: one North Korean general said to a visiting American academic, "We see what you’re getting ready to do with Iraq, and you are not going to do it to us." The possession of a nuke is an insurance policy against regime change. Yet the question is: why now?
The answer is rising disaffection within North Korea, and a widening split with their Chinese allies. As far as the former is concerned, the North Korean regime has its own built-in destabilizing factors. When longtime "Glorious Leader" Kim Il-Sung died, there was, at first, some question as to who would succeed him: the father had made his intention clear that his son was to take the helm, but this was by no means foreordained there was competition for the job, coming from the military and the various factions within the Workers Party of Korea, the one-party dictatorship that has ruled North Korea since the end of World War II. Even after Kim Jong-Il had taken the reins of power, there was evidence of dissension in the ranks, coming from hardliners in the military, who, for example, were pissed off that the "Dear Leader" had apologized to Japan for the kidnapping of Japanese nationals.
North Korea is a remarkably opaque society, even as isolated neo-Stalinist dictatorships go, but there is solid evidence that the monolithic public unity of the ruling Workers Party of Korea is a façade behind which the usual scheming cliques clash in a struggle for power. The succession struggle did not go unremarked in the foreign media, although indications of it were few and far between. One example: a mysterious explosion last year sparked rumors of an attempted assassination of the "Dear Leader." Although we may never know the truth about the nature and extent of dissatisfaction with the somewhat erratic and reportedly highly eccentric Kim Jong-Il, such clues as we do have point to a "Dear Leader" forced to maintain a delicate balancing act between hardliners in the military and the old "guerrilla" faction associated with his late father on the one hand, and the vaguely pro-reform Yanan faction revived (after being purged earlier) by growing Chinese influence on the other.
What we do know is that a major split has developed between Pyongyang and Beijing. The Chinese have been increasingly at odds with their troublesome allies, and the recent statements by Chinese officials that some sort of punitive action is necessary in response to North Korea’s nuclear test is merely the culmination of a long divorce proceeding that really began before Kim Jong-Il came to power. It began in 1956, when Kim Il-Sung purged members of the Yanan faction inside the Workers Party of Korea. The Yanan group was centered around individuals associated with Mao and the Communist Party of China, who took refuge with their fellow Commies during the war against the Japanese occupation. The "Glorious Leader" distrusted them, and got rid of them right after the Korean War, but they bounced back under the rule of Kim Jong-Il and the country’s growing isolation, as China was a vital source of economic and military aid. The testimony of a high-ranking defector points to the revival of Yanan:
“The most frightening prospect is not that North Korea will collapse. What I fear most is that Kim Jong will bow down to China to get the help he needs, and North Korea will slip into the Chinese orbit. He understands the need for reform. But he won’t go beyond partial reform because he fears losing control, and halfway measures won’t solve the problems of food and industrial regeneration that North Korea faces.”
It appears, however, that the fears of this defector a former top member of the WPK have not been borne out by events. Indeed, quite the opposite has occurred: the Chinese, grown impatient with the antics of their orthodox Communist neighbors, have largely abandoned support for Pyongyang, in favor of lucrative trade deals with the West.
When the North Koreans launched their long-range missile test which failed rather spectacularly the Chinese, far from supporting their supposed allies in Pyongyang, actually authored the UN Security Council resolution condemning them. This fascinating analysis holds that the Chinese have known about North Korean plans for a nuke test all along, and that explains the growing distance between the two ostensibly Communist regimes. The Chinese reportedly sent a delegation to Pyongyang, asking that they cease and desist, but apparently Kim Jong-Il wouldn’t even see them. This theory also explains why the primary roads linking China and North Korea are noticeably empty of trucks: the vital lifeline of food aid and oil deliveries has been cut, and the North Koreans facing famine and worse are hopping mad.
Backed up against the wall by unremitting U.S. hostility, and now the betrayal of their only allies, the Chinese, the North Koreans are falling back on the ideology of "Juche," or self-reliance, that they have developed over the years: i.e., economic autarky and complete isolation in every other sense. They are doing as they have done throughout their history: when the external threats become too great, they simply retreat into the high mountains and live off the land, to return to the lowlands when danger passes.
The Korean question has been smoldering on the back burner for decades, and that it is now coming to a boil is a function of the passing of Communism as a force to be reckoned with. The implosion of the Soviet empire, and the general rejection of Marxism-Leninism inside the Communist Party of China, eliminated two main pillars of support for the continuity of Communist rule in North Korea. During the Cold War era, Pyongyang played Moscow off against Beijing rather successfully, while still managing to retain some real measure of independence. The passing of the Marxist project put an end to that game, and they are fast running out of options.
The rule of the "Dear Leader" depends, in the end, on upholding the unusually fierce nationalism that animates the Korean mindset: they may be starving, but at least they’re independent this ultra-nationalist sentiment was consistently played to by Kim Il-Sung in order to cement his rule and maintain public support even in the face of increasing economic hardship. His son is pursing the same path.
The end of that road may have been reached, however, as the ferocity of North Korean nationalism wilts in the face of widespread famine. This is what the Chinese fear most: the collapse of the regime and a flood of refugees in their millions, who will pour into China without resources or anything to lose. The South Koreans fear it, too, for the same reasons, and more: it will mean tremendous costs to be incurred, as well as endless political and social problems that they are ill-prepared to handle. Both would greatly prefer a "soft landing" to the East German-style implosion that brought down the Berlin Wall. The Chinese do not want to see a united Korea, in any case, especially one aligned with the United States. Yet they cannot control their quarrelsome neighbor, and have aligned themselves with the Americans and the Japanese rather than defend them.
The South Koreans, prevented by their American overlords from implementing their "sunshine policy" of increasing ties to the North and eventually effecting a peaceful reunification, are now completely at a loss as to what to do, and fear of another war is endemic. There have been a number of recent incidents in or near the DMZ, and everyone is very nervous. As well they might be
The United States is the single greatest obstacle to a peaceful, reunified Korean peninsula. The reason for this is, simply put, because Washington adamantly refuses to end its 50-year-plus military occupation of the South. The American presence is a relic of the Cold War at its height, and it hasn’t been necessary for quite some time. Such political support as the WPK has among Koreans North and South is due to the continuing depredations and humiliations suffered at the hands of the occupying forces, whose presence is an insult to Korean national pride no matter which side of the DMZ we are talking about.
Yet, for internal political reasons, as well as the economic interests of base-building military contractors, the American occupation has continued as part of the U.S. "forward" stance in the Pacific and around the world. This has distorted the natural development of Korean society, politically deforming it from the very beginning and providing support for a series of military dictators who have only relatively recently relinquished power. South Korea proceeded along the path to democracy in spite of, rather than with the assistance of, the American occupiers. Today, in the name of "protecting" democracy and "liberating" the North, the U.S. government pursues a policy that virtually ensures the Korean peninsula will remain in a state of permanent stasis frozen in the postures of a Cold War that has long since passed.
I have made the case for a permanent and complete U.S. withdrawal from South Korea in the past see here, here, here, and here and I won’t repeat myself in this column. Suffice to say the government in Seoul presides over a state that is far wealthier and much more populous than the starved and rapidly failing regime still hanging on in Pyongyang. The South is more than capable of defending itself from the North, and the military necessity of keeping American soldiers on the ground there has long since vanished (if it ever existed). With nuclear weapons in the hands of the North, however, the military requirement that our troops leave ASAP is more urgent than ever. Do we really want some 30,000 U.S. troops held hostage by the mercurial moods of Kim Jong-Il, who might decide, at any moment, to go out in a blaze of glory?
The American response to Kim Jong-Il’s nuclear brinkmanship should be to immediately announce the complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula. Let Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing figure out what to do about their own regional problem. Without the American presence, the entire political basis of the WPK’s support dries up overnight, and the tremendous resources tied up in military production are freed up solving the immediate humanitarian crisis now unfolding in the North.
In the end, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea has to be laid at the doorstep of the Americans, who made it clear that this is the only course open to a nation that fails to kowtow to the Imperial Hegemon. The Iranians understand this, too, which is why they pointedly failed to condemn the test. Having been singled out by George W. Bush’s speechwriters as part of the "axis of evil" and, remember, this was said by a president who claims [.pdf] the right to "preemptively" attack any nation on earth it was inevitable that Pyongyang would carry out its promise to deter the U.S. at all costs.
The great danger now is that the crisis will escalate, and this would be greatly exacerbated by a UN-sanctioned blockade. The U.S. is proposing this, along with a set of stringent sanctions, and if China goes along, all bets are off. This would be seen by the North Koreans as an act of war, and it is only a matter of time before some incident sparks a full-fledged conflict. The destruction of Seoul, the decimation of much of the South, and huge U.S. losses this would be just the beginning of a second Korean War that could climax with the bombing of Tokyo, a Chinese "preemptive" invasion, and regional chaos.
What brought us to this moment is our refusal to recognize that the costs of global hegemony are far greater than the alleged benefits, including the dubious "benefit" of maintaining expensive and militarily unnecessary bases on the far frontiers of Empire. It is not too late to rescue reason from habit and meet this crisis with fresh thinking, yet I fear that the War Party will take full advantage of North Korea’s actions to push their program of confrontation and regime change. The domestic political advantages to the Democrats of appearing "tough" on this issue outweigh the possibility of talking sense to the American people, and I’m afraid that neither party has a monopoly on warmongering. True, the Democrats are supportive of direct negotiations with Pyongyang: heck, even James Baker endorses that. The question, however, is what the U.S. is willing to negotiate, and there is no indication that Washington would be willing to deal with fundamental issues regardless of which party happens to be in power.
Until and unless we are willing to reexamine the entire basis of American policy in North Asia and address the principal cause of conflict the archaic and destabilizing American military presence the war danger will remain. Indeed, it will only increase as tensions rise and the pressures brought to bear on the North Korean regime culminate in tragedy and, perhaps, a nuclear firestorm.