Tag: North Korea

The Tragedy of U.S. Iran Policy

The latest orchestrated frenzy over Iran’s nuclear program is reaching a crescendo. If the Obama administration were genuinely interested in increasing the prospects for a diplomatic resolution, it would be trying to lessen Iran’s perception of insecurity. Instead, every new policy initiative on Iran heightens that insecurity. Unless Iran responds to all of this in a way that few predict it will, each day brings us closer to another war in the Middle East.

Iran likely wants a nuclear option, if not a nuclear weapon, for a variety of reasons. The most important is security. The different treatment meted out to Iraq and Libya, on the one hand, and North Korea and Pakistan on the other taught Iran that the only sure way to avoid being attacked by the United States is to acquire a nuclear arsenal. Iran also probably seeks the international prestige of being at least an incipient nuclear state.

When Iran hears the constant threats emanating from Washington—the almost daily repetitions that a preventive war is “on the table,” attempts to strangle the Iranian economy, and legislation taking containment off the table—Tehran’s belief that the United States has aggressive intentions is confirmed. Iran knows that a nuclear capability wouldn’t provide it with power projection capability or allow it to dominate the Middle East. Rather, Iran would move from being a weak state with no deterrent to a weak state with a small deterrent. Tragically, the main reason America and Israel are so frantic about the Iranian nuclear program is that neither country wishes to allow itself to be deterred by Iran. In an election year, all of the political pressure on the administration is going to push the administration to make the problem worse, not better.

North Korea Reprises Its Role as International Beggar

The death of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il put relations with the rest of the world on hold.  But Pyongyang has stirred, reprising its role as international beggar.

The new regime, at least nominally headed by Kim’s 28-year-old son, Kim Jong-un, issued its first statement regarding relations with Washington.  The United States should send more than 300,000 tons of previously promised food aid and end economic sanctions to “build confidence” with the North.  In return, the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea might be willing to suspend its uranium enrichment program. The United States, Japan and South Korea stated yesterday that a “path is open” to restarting the six-party talks to address the concern over the North’s nuclear program.

Pyongyang seemed particularly aggrieved that the Obama administration would link humanitarian assistance to security issues.  Shocking!

As Yogi Berra famously said, it is déjà vu all over again.  North Korea makes agreement.  North Korea gets aid.  North Korea breaks agreement.  North Korea blames West.  North Korea offers to negotiate agreement.  And the cycle starts again.

No one knows what to do with the DPRK.  So far regime elites have preferred even impoverished stability over anything more than pro forma reform.  The death of Kim Jong-il creates an opportunity for change, but there is no obvious constituency for revolution among the party apparatchiks and military officers who dominate the system.

That almost certainly means that Pyongyang is not prepared to negotiate away its existing nuclear capability.  Only two men have ruled the North in the past 63 years; Kim Jong-un has none of their authority, and there are several plausible claimants for the throne.  None is likely to be so foolish to alienate the military by campaigning to give away its ultimate weapon.

It still is worth talking with North Korea.  Despite good reason for skepticism, lesser objectives might be achievable—limits on missile development, withdrawal of advanced conventional units, even caps on nuclear capabilities.  Moreover, the DPRK appears to moderate its behavior while engaged in negotiations.

However, Washington should not pay for more promises.  And the U.S. should not provide inducements just to get Pyongyang to talk.  America has much to offer—diplomatic relations, end of sanctions, access to international aid, military withdrawal from the South.  If confidence is to be rebuilt, it must be rebuilt on both sides.

Washington should make no exception for food aid.  The suffering of the North Korean people is tragic, but it remains the result of conscious policies adopted by the North Korean regime.  In fact, that is what “Juche,” the oft-proclaimed policy of self-reliance, is all about.

Moreover, the DPRK would view any government assistance as political affirmation.  And any assistance would bolster a system under siege, aiding the government as it attempts to demonstrate its power and wealth this year during its centenary celebrations of founder Kim Il-sung’s birth.  If the North needs more help, let it go to China, which already is keeping this desolate land afloat economically.

Refusing to engage other nations rarely makes sense, even in the case of North Korea, despite the monstrous nature of the regime.  However engagement does not mean appeasement.  In the future, Washington should restrict its rewards to the North for acting, not promising.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

The Brutal Impact of North Korean Statism

One hopes that the dictator of North Korea suffered greatly before he died. After all, his totalitarian and communist (pardon the redundancy) policies have cause untold death and misery.

But let’s try to learn an economics lesson. In a previous post, I compared long-term growth in Hong Kong and Argentina to show the difference between capitalism and cronyism.

But for a much more dramatic comparison, look at the difference between North Korea and South Korea.

Hmmm… I wonder if we can conclude that markets are better than statism?

And if you like these types of comparisons, here’s a post showing how Singapore has caught up with the United States. And here’s another comparing what’s happened in the past 30 years in Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela.

North Korea: Kim Jong-il’s Death and the Coming Succession Struggle

North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il is dead. There is now no prospect of negotiating and implementing a new nuclear agreement with the North in the near future. The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is likely to be consumed with a power struggle which could turn violent. Washington’s best policy option is to step back and observe.

After his stroke three years ago, Kim anointed his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. However, the latter Kim has had little time to establish himself. The previous familial power transfer to Kim Jong-il took roughly two decades. There are several potential claimants to supreme authority in the North, and the military may play kingmaker.

Some observers hope for a “Korean Spring,” but the DPRK’s largely rural population is an unlikely vehicle for change. Urban elites may want reform, but not revolution. If a North Korean Mikhail Gorbachev is lurking in the background, he will have to move slowly to survive.

During this time of political uncertainty no official is likely to have the desire or ability to make a deal yielding up North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The leadership will be focused inward and no one is likely to challenge the military, which itself may fracture politically.

Nor is China likely to play a helpful role. Beijing views the status quo as being in its interest. Above all else, China is likely to emphasize stability, though it may very well attempt to influence the succession process outside of public view. But China does not want what America wants, preferring the DPRK’s survival, just with more responsible and pliable leadership.

Washington can do little during this process. The United States should maintain its willingness to talk with the North. American officials also should engage Beijing over the future of the peninsula, exploring Chinese concerns and searching for areas of compromise. For instance, Washington should pledge that there would be no American bases or troops in a reunited Korea, which might ease Beijing’s fears about the impact of a North Korean collapse.

Most important, the Obama administration should not rush to “strengthen” the alliance with South Korea in response to uncertainty in the North. The Republic of Korea is well able to defend itself. It should take the steps necessary to deter North Korean adventurism and develop its own strategies for dealing with Pyongyang. America should be withdrawing from an expensive security commitment which no longer serves U.S. interests.

Kim Jong-il imposed unimaginable hardship on the North Korean people. However, what follows him could be even worse if an uncertain power struggle breaks down into armed conflict. Other than encourage Beijing to use its influence to bring the Kim dynasty to a merciful end, the United States can—and should—do little more than watch developments in the North.

Kim Jong-il Is Dead

The AP and others are reporting that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il has died at the age of 70. This has long been expected, but what comes next is unclear. The best case scenario would be a smooth transition to new leadership, one that is committed to opening up North Korea’s ossified political system and reforming its decrepit economy. That is unlikely, however. If a power struggle ensues, the North Korean people will be caught in the middle. The countries with the most at stake in the event of a complete collapse of the DPRK – especially South Korea and China – should take the lead in helping the North Koreans to sort out their future.

Newt Gingrich and the EMP Threat

The front page of yesterday’s New York Times features a story on Newt Gingrich’s “doomsday vision:” an attack over the United States’ airspace known as an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. Gingrich and a cadre of concerned national security analysts worry that terrorists or rogue states—Iran and North Korea—could detonate a nuclear device over the United States that theoretically could disrupt electrical circuits, from cars to power grids.

The Times does a commendable job of questioning Gingrich’s arguments and whether this is a legitimate national security concern. Despite the fact that a “National EMP Recognition Day” exists, the threat is in fact very, very low. But it may be unfortunate that such extravagant doomsday scenarios get placed on the front page of the Times.

I addressed the EMP threat in my 2010 book Atomic Obsession and I included a discussion of the views of Stephen Younger, the former head of nuclear weapons research at Los Alamos National Lab, as forcefully put forward in his 2007 book, Endangered Species:

Younger is appalled at the way “one fast‑talking scientist” managed in 2004 to convince some members of Congress that North Korea might be able to launch a nuclear device capable of emitting a high‑altitude electromagnetic pulse that could burn out computers and other equipment over a wide area. When he queried a man he considers to be “perhaps the most knowledgeable person in the world about such designs” (and who “was never asked to testify”), the response was: “I don’t think the United States could do that sort of thing today. To say that the North Koreans could do it, and without doing any testing, is simply ridiculous.” Nevertheless, concludes Younger acidly, “rumors are passed from one person to another, growing at every repetition, backed by flimsy or nonexistent intelligence and the reputations of those who are better at talking than doing.” [Emphasis in original.]

The 2012 presidential election should certainly contain a legitimate discussion of national security issues. But I don’t think it really needs to include a lot of breast-beating about the EMP “threat.”

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Obama-Lee Summit: Time for New Thinking on the Korean Peninsula

Three issues are likely to dominate the talks this week between President Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. On the economic front, the two leaders will emphasize the extensive potential benefits of the bilateral free trade agreement.

On the security front, there will be considerable discussion of both North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and the future of the U.S.-South Korean alliance. Unfortunately, leaders of the two countries are locked into increasingly obsolete and dysfunctional policies with respect to both issues. New thinking on those security matters is badly needed.

Seoul and Washington routinely contend that they will not tolerate North Korea having a nuclear arsenal. But other than the long-standing attempt to isolate Pyongyang internationally, U.S. and South Korean officials present no plausible strategy for preventing Kim Jong-il’s regime from expanding its nuclear capabilities. The much-touted six-party talks clearly have not worked. Moreover, without China’s active cooperation to deny crucial food and energy aid to North Korea (and there is no indication that Beijing is willing to take that step), North Korea cannot be truly isolated. Obama and Lee need to consider the possibility of learning to live with a nuclear North Korea, since the current U.S.-South Korean strategy for dealing with the nuclear issue is hopelessly ineffectual.

Policy regarding the bilateral security alliance is no better. Predictably, Lee and Obama will reaffirm the importance of that alliance. But from the standpoint of American interests, this commitment makes little sense. The principal effect of Washington’s security blanket for South Korea is to enable that country to shamelessly free-ride on America’s military exertions. Despite being located next to perhaps the most dangerous and unpredictable country in the world—Kim Jong-il’s North Korea—South Korea continues to spend an anemic 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. That is woefully inadequate, and the only reason Seoul can get away with such irresponsible behavior is that South Korean leaders believe they can rely on the United States to take care of their country’s security—at the expense of American taxpayers.

That arrangement was dubious even when South Korea was a weak, traumatized country facing a North Korea strongly backed by both the Soviet Union and Communist China. Today, South Korea is a wealthy country, and Moscow and Beijing regard North Korea as an embarrassment, not a crucial ally.

President Obama should inform Lee that an America whose government is hemorrhaging red ink at the rate of $1.5 trillion a year can no longer afford to subsidize the defense of free-riding allies—especially those that are perfectly capable of providing for their own defense. This summit meeting creates an opportunity for Washington to begin phasing-out the obsolete military alliance with South Korea.