As South and North Korea exchanged artillery fire in late August, the U.S. rushed three B-2 bombers to Guam. The Obama administration hoped to deter the North from taking military action, but why is Seoul still a helpless dependent 62 years after the Korean War ended?
Imagine a hostile relationship existing between the U.S. and Mexico. The Mexicans threaten America with war. Washington responds by begging Europe and Japan to send military aid.
America would face raucous laughter. After all, the U.S. has more than 2.5 times Mexico’s population. America’s GDP is an even more impressive 14 times that of Mexico’s.
Yet the disparity between the ROK and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is larger. The South enjoys a population edge of two-to-one and an economic advantage upwards of 40-to-one.
Seoul has stolen away the North’s chief military allies, China and Russia, which no longer would fight for the DPRK. On every measure of national power save military South Korea dominates. And it lags on the latter only out of choice.
The Obama administration’s success in negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran has led to hope that a similar agreement might be reached with North Korea. Halt your program, dismantle some of your capabilities, and accept intrusive inspections in return for “coming in from the cold.”
Unfortunately, there’s virtually no chance of that happening. As I point out in National Interest online: “The North already has a nuclear capability and views preservation of a nuclear arsenal as critical for domestic politics as well as international policy. Moreover, the West’s ouster of Libya’s Moammar Khadafy is seen in Pyongyang as dispositive proof that only a fool would negotiate away missile and nuclear capabilities.”
In word and action the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has demonstrated its commitment to being a nuclear state. Moreover, even a good offer for denuclearization looks suspect in light of U.S. and European support for the ouster of Libya’s Khadafy, who negotiated away his nuclear, chemical, and long-range missile programs.
President George W. Bush promised that Libya’s “good faith will be returned.” Khadafy was feted in European capitals. Tripoli was cited as a model for Iran and North Korea to follow.
However, four years ago the U.S. and European governments saw their chance. Under the guise of humanitarianism, Washington and Brussels promoted low-cost (to them) regime change.
Alas, the self-satisfied celebration of Libya as a “good war” quickly dissipated after that nation suffered post-war atrocities, loosed weapons across the region, generated rogue militias, spawned two governments, descended into incipient civil war, and became another battleground for Islamic State forces.
Now Libya also stands as a stark warning against nonproliferation, at least for any government believing itself to be in Washington’s gunsights. Had Khadafy possessed nukes, chemical weapons, and/or missiles, the allies almost certainly would have kept their planes and drones at home.
The North Koreans took immediate note. The Foreign Ministry observed: “Libya’s nuclear dismantlement much touted by the U.S. in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as ‘guarantee of security’ and ‘improvement of relations’ to disarm and then swallowed it up by force.”
Pyongyang has no reason to believe that the allies would not take advantage of a similar opening against the Kim dynasty.
Nevertheless, the Iranian negotiations have revived hopes that the DPRK might be enticed into following suit. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman suggested that implementation of the Iran agreement “might give North Korea second thoughts about the very dangerous path that it is pursuing.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the Iranian deal was an “active model” for the North.
Alas, Kim Jong-un took power only a couple months after Khadafy was killed in rather gruesome fashion. That event likely was imprinted upon his consciousness. Kim isn’t likely to give up his most important weapon to deter outside intervention.
After announcement of the Iranian agreement, the North Korean foreign ministry issued a statement explaining that the situation of the North was “quite different” from that of Iran and that Pyongyang was “not interested at all in the dialogue to discuss the issue of making it freeze or dismantle its nukes unilaterally first.”
After all, the DPRK was a nuclear state and faced ongoing threats from the U.S. Thus, its nuclear deterrent was not “a plaything to be put on the negotiating table.”
This should surprise no one. Author Mark Fitzpatrick contended that the Iranian deal showed that the U.S. “treated the Iranians as equal negotiating partners, according them respect and collegiality.” But Washington treated Libyans that way too. Which didn’t stop the U.S. and its allies from ousting the same government a few years later.
It never was likely that the DPRK would yield up its nuclear weapons. But the Obama administration’s Libyan misadventure makes that prospect even less likely. Washington may rue this precedent for years to come.
Secretary of State John Kerry recently visited Seoul and South Korean President Park Geun-hye will head to Washington later this month. The main agenda item: what to do about North Korea.
As usual, no one knows what is going on in Pyongyang. Its internal politics appears to be bloodier than usual. Ironically, this might provide an opportunity for Washington to initiate talks over a more open bilateral relationship.
The latest rumor is that young dictator Kim Jong-un had his defense minister executed with anti-aircraft fire for disrespectful conduct. Hyon Yong-chol probably has been purged, though South Korea’s intelligence agency acknowledged that it could not confirm his gruesome death. If Hyon was executed, it probably was because the military man was plotting, or at least feared to be plotting, against the North’s leadership.
There has been striking turnover among party and military officials since Kim Jong-un took over after his father’s death in December 2011. Most dramatic was the arrest and execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, seen as the regime’s number two, in December 2013. Overall some 70 top apparatchiks and more than 400 lower level officials apparently have been killed this year.
This brutality towards the power elite sets Kim apart from his father and grandfather. While Kim Jong-un’s apparent penchant for executions may reflect a peculiarly sadistic nature, it more likely grows out of insecurity. Only 28 or maybe 27 when his father died, Kim’s succession was pushed extremely quickly after his father suffered a stroke in August 2008.
Although there is no sign of organized resistance to the latest Kim, continuing turnover suggests that Kim is not, or at least does not see himself, as yet secure. Instead of cowing resistance, promiscuous executions, even for acts short of actual rebellion, might make subordinates believe it is worth going for broke.
Repression is rising in other ways. For instance, the regime apparently has been employing “Patrol Teams” as press gangs to fill out its construction work force for projects to be finished by October, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party. The regime also has strengthened border controls with China.
If Kim retains control, none of this might matter. However, everyone is wary of something other than the usual predictable unpredictability in Pyongyang. South Korean President Park Geun-hye noted “growing concern” over “an extreme reign of terror within North Korea.”
Governance matters since the North continues to expand its nuclear capabilities. While nothing suggests that Kim is suicidal—members of the dynasty appear to prefer their virgins in this world rather than the next—Pyongyang’s decision-making process could become more unilateral, unpredictable, or both.
Unfortunately, there is little that the U.S. can do to directly influence events within the DPRK. War would be foolhardy, tougher sanctions aren’t likely to work, and the Kim regime is well beyond the reach of moral suasion.
Nor is negotiation likely to have much effect. While the North recently launched an international charm offensive, it continues to highlight weapons development and spout rehashed threats against America and the South. The Kim regime is not likely trade away the one factor causing the world to follow events in the DPRK.
Nevertheless, as I point out in Forbes, “the possibility of division and dissension in Pyongyang gives Washington a new reason to suggest direct discussions without preconditions, but with the prospect of benefits for a change in direction. If the regime is unsettled, those disaffected might benefit if Washington stood ready to reward a new approach.”
A peace treaty, diplomatic relations, and end of economic sanctions all should be on the table. It’s still a long-shot, but so is almost any other proposal to address the North.
Someday Pyongyang will change. Engagement is the best way to prepare for that day.
In a comprehensive article on the comprehensive 1984-like propaganda efforts of North Korea, Anna Fifield reports on some underlying themes:
Tatiana Gabroussenko, an expert on North Korean literature who teaches at Korea University in Seoul, said that by not allowing people to form their own opinions, North Korea infantilizes its citizens.
“North Korea molds children socially,” Gabroussenko said. Books for different generations have different styles but the same message and characters, sometimes involving South Korean “stooges” or American “beasts.”
“In the children’s version, a child will be fighting Americans by throwing pepper in their eyes and making them sneeze and cough,” Gabroussenko said. In the adult version, weapons, rather than condiments, are used.
“The message ‘We are one nation’ implies that you can’t rebel against your father, you can’t rebel about your government, that it’s important to stick together,” she said.
North Korea’s totalitarianism may be unique, exceeding even that in the Soviet Union and Cuba, though perhaps reminiscent of Maoist China. So one must be careful not to draw too many analogies between the Kim cult and the efforts of political leaders anywhere else.
Barack Obama may be president because he criticized the invasion of Iraq. Leftish Democrats assumed he was one of them, opposed to military intervention. Instead, he followed George W. Bush’s lead in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the national security state.
Still, President Obama appears to be a cautious hawk. So was National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, newly replaced by Susan Rice.
In contrast, Rice is an enthusiastic advocate humanitarian intervention: basically, Washington should intervene when it is not in America’s interest to do so.
There are lots of problems with the doctrine, including what criteria govern? Why no military crusade against North Korea? Or against the brutal victors in Kosovo and Rwanda?
Humanitarian intervention always is messier than advertised. And, as I pointed out on National Interest:
Intervention advocates almost never help prosecute “their” wars. Promiscuous crusaders like former Vice President Richard Cheney always seem to have “other priorities” as they advocate sending others to fight and die. Moral satisfaction comes easily while treating military personnel like gambit pawns in a global chess game.
Rice has advocated military intervention in Liberia, Sudan, and Libya. Although she said little publicly on Syria, she apparently favored providing arms to insurgents there. In this she reportedly was joined by Secretary Kerry and Susan Power, who replaced Rice at the UN.
This is unfortunate, since Syria is a textbook example of a war America should avoid.
Before the president takes Rice’s advice, he should reflect on his predecessor’s fate. Else Barack Obama, too, may find his administration remembered primarily for a disastrous and unnecessary war.
Read the rest here.
Joshua Keating over at Foreign Policy offered a thoughtful commentary on Rob Montz’s North Korea documentary, “Juche Strong,” after last Thursday’s screening at Cato. Keating contended that the film, which suggests that pervasive regime propaganda has created at least some degree of legitimacy in the minds of many North Koreans, makes a case “that the United States needs to maintain its current military commitment to the region.”
No doubt, it would be better for the Republic of Korea and Japan if the North was made up of “cowed and terrified people who will abandon their leaders at the first signs of weakness,” as Keating put it. But even popular determination and commitment—so far untested in an external crisis—go only so far. The question is not whether the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a threat, but 1) whether it is a threat which cannot be contained by its neighbors and 2) is a sufficient threat to America warranting U.S. led containment. The answers are no.
First, the DPRK has amassed a large army with lots of tanks, but training is limited and equipment is antiquated. The North’s forces could devastate Seoul with artillery and missile strikes and a 4,000 tank surge might reach the South’s capital, but North Korea would be unlikely to ultimately triumph. The latter is weak in the air and with a decrepit economy can ill afford anything other than an unlikely blitzkrieg victory. Nor could Pyongyang look to Russia or China for support: the Cold War truly is over.
More important, the ROK, which currently possesses around 40 times the North’s GDP and twice the North’s population, could do much more in its own defense. South Korea has created a competent, modern, and sizeable military. Is it enough? Only Seoul can answer.
If the South remains vulnerable to a North Korean strike, it is only because the ROK decided to emphasize economic development and rely on America. That made sense during the early days of the Cold War, but no longer. There is no justification for turning what should be a short-term American shield against another round of Soviet- and Chinese-backed aggression into a long-term U.S. defense dole. It doesn’t matter whether the North Koreans are “Juche Strong or Juche Harmless,” as Keating put it. South Korea can defend itself. (Doing so would be even easier if Seoul and Tokyo worked harder to overcome their historical animus. Alas, they feel little pressure to do so as long as they both can rely on Washington for protection.)
Second, the DPRK poses no threat to America requiring an ongoing military commitment. Even in 1950 the Pentagon did not believe the Korean peninsula to be vital strategically, but the Cold War created a unique context for the conflict. Today a second Korean War would only be a Korean War. Tragic, yes. Threat to America, no. Pyongyang is an ongoing danger to its neighbors, not the United States.
The North matters to the United States primarily because Washington remains entangled, with troops, bases, and defense commitments. That is, North Korea threatens America because Washington chooses to allow North Korea to threaten America.
Of course, proliferation would remain a concern even without a U.S. presence in Korea, but America’s garrison does nothing to promote denuclearization. To the contrary, Washington is helpfully providing tens of thousands of American nuclear hostages if the DPRK creates an arsenal of deliverable nuclear warheads. It would be far better for U.S. forces to be far away, out of range of whatever weapons the North possesses.
North Korea is only one side of the Northeast Asian balance. It doesn’t much matter if Pyongyang is weak or strong so long as South Korea and Japan are stronger.
This work by Cato Institute is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.