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Wednesday, January 22, 2003

The North Korean Challenge (I)

1) North Korea Keeps Its Diplomatic Lines to the US Open

As we noted about a week ago, for all their bellicose behavior and scary bluster, a form of crude binksmanship, North Korea's Communist regime has been actively seeking to find ways to negotiate with the US about its nuclear weapons programs, in return for a US guarantee that it won't attack the Communist state . . . or so Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a former Clinton UN ambassador, has said. His view here reflects three days of talks with North Korean diplomats.

Why did they choose Richardson as an interlocutor? Hard to say for sure, what with the intense secrecy that surrounds North Korea's leadership's policymaking, along with the tightest thought-control system in the world . . . a nightmarish Orwellian state. Still, on the face of it, most likely because they were using their scare-tactics as a means to force the Bush administration into talks, and to send North Korean diplomats directly to deal with the administration would undermine those tactics and indicate that they've been largely bluffy. This way, they were talking to a non-US government official

2) Why is extravagant brinksmanship taken seriously?

Even more of a problematic matter, this question is open to various interpretations.

All the same, as we've noted before, the totalitarian Communist regime has a reputation for extremist rhetoric and --- to give the rhetoric some substance --- behavior as well, such as tunneling in the past under the 38th parallel and seizing South Korean soldiers, or sending submarines into South Korean waters and kidnapping crews of ships there, or trying to assassinate the entire South Korean cabinet on a visit years ago to Thailand. And then again in nuclear matters, such as renouncing abruptly in 1993 the Non-Proliferation Treaty they had signed, then brandishing the prospect of nuclear weapons programs . . . a worrying scenario not least because the North Koreans already had large number of theater-range missiles that could carry nuclear warheads. We'll come back to this in a moment. The regime has also sent a long-range missile flying over Japanese soil in 1998, and is notorious for delilvering missile parts to other rogue states (and to Pakistan). And more recently, admitted that it had a nuclear weapons program ongoing in violation of the 1994 accord it signed with the US and others; followed by the series of startling behavior ever since: renouncing the 1998 moratorium on missile testing, uncapping the plutonium enrichment programs, expelling the international inspectors, and threatening war with the US of catastrophic dimensions if it didn't negotiate directly with the regime. It has even insisted that economic sanctions --- dangled by the US and others (the regime's behavior has been universally denounced) --- would be considered a declaration of war.

In short, the blustering swagger of the regime recently has at least some credibility in its extremist behavior in the past.

And what gives the shock rhetoric and behavior a menacing format is its military machine: a huge 1 - 1.5 million man army along the 38th parallel with hundreds of scud missiles that can target all of South Korea; its theater range missiles --- the No-dong, hundreds of those --- that can target all of Japan; and its development, still in the R&D stage, of the Taepodong 2 missile that could hit Australia and the US. To repeat, it's not really operational, even though it was the missile that the regime flew over Japan in 1998 to everyone's dismay; and it probably can't even carry a nuclear warhead for the time being. That could change of course. And within a couple of years.

In the end, though, as Richardson is reported as saying, the regime is probably desperate to exploit some windows of opportunity in order to get what it wants. Remember, other than its military and its missile and nuclear programs, it has no leverage whatever.

3) What motivates the current shock-tactics?

Speculating again, it seems the regime may be desperate about its economic situation and is anxious to get more economic aid and trade, though in fact it has little to offer in the way of exports. More important possibly, the regime has been no doubt worried about the Bush policy of putting it in the evil-axis category, then about the new pre-emptive strategy of the administration, leading it possibly to worry that after the Iraqi war, assuming it occurs, it would be North Korea's turn. And the two come together in the US decision to suspend oil shipments, as required under the 1994 accord with the US, in retaliation for the Kim government's admission that it had openly violated that accord in pursuing a secret nuclear weapons program.

Other influences have probably been at work here. For one thing, the Bush administration is regarded, rightly, as focused on Iraq, and if a war with Iraq would occur, it would be over soon and hence the US could begin shifting troops to the Far East (more importantly, shifting carrier forces). From this angle, a small window of opportunity has opened that would close soon. Better than to act now. For another thing, the recent winner of the South Korean presidential election, Roo, ran on an open anti-American campaign at times --- like Schroeder in Germany --- and denounced his conservative opponent's support of the Bush administation's tougher public stance on the northern regime (Roo has publicly criticized the Pyongyang regime for its nuclear betrayal).

4) How North Korea's crisis-like behavior differs from Iraq's.

In many respects, it doesn't differ: it has violated international accords like the NPT --- also signed by Iraq and Iran and Syria (the other members of the evil axis along with, believe it or not, Cuba) --- and repeatedly, and unlike Saddam's regime, it has openly bragged about this. In another respect, it's worse: it very likely has a more advanced nuclear program, and missile capacities for delivering nuclear warheads that Saddam doesn't. And its missile deliveries have been an aggravating source of tension with others for years.

On the other hand --- and in complex matters like this there's always another hand --- the Saddam challenges are worse.

Iraq is surrounded by unstable and far weaker states, even Iran probably, than is remotely the case in North Asia. North Korea may have a large army, rockets, and an ongoing nuclear program, but it is surrounded by far more powerful countries: Russia, China, Japan, South Korea (twice the population, 18 times the per capita income, far more advanced technology even if not applied to the nuclear or missile realm), all of which have an interest in stability in the region. The US also has a more secure set of bases and naval power in the area (until recently). Balancing North Korea is much more likely than in the Middle East itself for this reason. All these other Asia governments, moreover, are stable, and all are either friendly to the US and allied with it --- or, in the case of Russia, a country with which we're forging a close partnership. Even US-Chinese relations are better now than ever, even than in the cold war days of implicit alliance against Russia. None of these conditions --- stable governments, all the regimes in the region friendly to the US --- obtain in the Middle East. North Korea may have reinforced the communications and missile capacities of some of the rogue states, but there is no evidence that it has harbored terrorists or armed or encouraged them, as Saddam has --- even if the terrorists the Baghdad regime has openly given haven to aren't Al Qaeda. No one can be sure that Pyongyang might not try terrorism in the future, but it can't draw on vast regional and global networks of alienated, angry, anti-Western Islamists and Islamo-fascists as Saddam could tap in the future, and already has (he tried to assassinate ex-President Bush on a visit to Kuwait in 1993, using Iraqi agents).

5) The Iraqi Challenge Does Differ

Saddam has had almost 12 years of non-compliance and violation of solemn international agreements regarding its WMD program, including 18 UN Security Council resolutions explicitly requiring such compliance. North Korean's violations of its commitments are also a decade old, but mainly, until the last few months, were regarded as declaratory. And still may be bluff and swagger, intended to force the US into negotiations directly with the regime, as Richardson speculates. The US and the UK, among others, regard the Saddam regime as part and parcel of the wider Islamo-fascist threat to the West and moderate Muslim and Arab governments. There were 200 million Arabs in the middle of the 1980s; there are now almost 300 million; and there will be almost 500 million in another 15 years or so . . . increasingly young, living amid failed states, failed economies, rapidly growing alienation and militant fundamentalist advances, all sources of potential suicidal terrorists. Nothing equivalent exists in North Korea and or in North Asia. And the use of force against Saddam would very likely succeed --- maybe even prompting a coup or his exile --- with limited casualties unless there's major street-fighting in Baghdad (something that can't be ruled out, but seems unlikely if the war got that far), whereas North Korea's destructive capabilities are far greater. And hence all the more reason to deal with Saddam, and the other two evil-axis countries in the Middle East, Syria and Iran, before they are themselves armed with nuclear weapons and missiles to carry them.