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Thursday, January 23, 2003

The North Korean Challenge (II): The Historical Background, The Present Threat

1) Brinksmanship: The Rising Spiral of North Korean Belligerence

The behavior of the Pyongyang Communist government, headed by Kim Sung Il (the son of the previous all-powerful dicator), and its increasingly strident rhetoric --- right down through today's warnings that if the US or others take the North Korean challenge to the UN Security Council, it will resume ballistic missile tests of medium and long-range reach --- are the clearest example of brinksmanship that you can find in decades: first, admitting in October that it had a secret nuclear weapons program going on that violated its 1994 accord signed with the US and others, then --- escalating the behavior --- tossing out UN atomic-energy inspectors and opening up two plutonium-enrichment plants (they produce weapons-grade material), then warning the US that any efforts at trying to impose economic sanctions, unilaterally or otherwise, would lead to war.

This is a serious crisis, whether full-blown or emerging is hard to pin down, all depending on whether the brinksmanship has a clear behavioral limit and will remain largely rhetorical --- its aim on both levels, assuming the regime isn't bent on war, to force the US into negotiations with Pyongyang and make concessions to it. We'll return in a moment or two to the North Korean brinksmanship, and the likely logic behind it.
2) The historical background of the crisis can be quickly sketched in, complex as it is.

Korea, originally one country, was divided at the end of WWII when Russian troops entered the North in August and September 1945--- Moscow barely getting into the war against Japan in order to gain territory and influence before Tokyo surrendered --- and met American troops. Between 1910 and that year, all of Korea had come under Japanese occupation and colonization, the result of the Japanese success in attacking Russia in 1904 and winning fairly swiftly over that country in the Russo-Japanese war (ended in 1905). It was a typical imperialist war between great power rivals, with one difference: Japan was the first non-European country (or country of largely European descent) to defeat a European great power . . . albeit the weakest of them besides Austro-Hungary and Italy.

By 1950, a Communist regime had emerged in the North, typically Stalinist, with Russia its patron. In the South, under US sponsorship, a military dictatorship initiated a bold series of economic and social reforms that would lead, by the 1980s, to the emergence of a rich industrial country. These reforms included extensive land-reform, trade union recognition, new educational and health services, and ultimately --- starting with the early 1990s --- to a rapidly institutionalizing democracy. That democratizing regime survived intact the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and recently worked again. South Korea now had 49 million prosperous people, with a per capita income of about $18,000 in purchasing power terms; this puts it on the level of roughly Spain in the EU, and ahead of Portugal and Greece. The North has 24 million people, with a per capita income about 1/18 of that --- millions of whom are undernourished or starving.

In June 1950, the Communist regime attacked the South. Taken by surprise, , South Korean and US forces rapidly retreated down the peninsula to a small area along the southeastern coast where, finally, the attacking North Koreans were halted. Then, in late summer, General Macarthur's sea-borne counter-invasion of the North took place --- taking the North Korean forces, trapped to the south, by equal surprise. The South was soon freed of surrendering or retreating North Koreans; simultaneously, American forces crossed the 38th Parallel and zoomed northward toward the Chinese border, at which point --- in another surprise attack --- a million man Chinese army poured across the border and forced US army and marine units into a bloody, snow-blasted retreat of a couple of hundred miles over snow-bound mountains back across the 38th Parallel, where the war fell into a two year stalemate.

Meanwhile, soon after the war's start, the UN had condemned the North Korean invasion, and several countries sent military aid, even though by far the bulk of these UN forces were South Koreans and Americans. Eventually, in 1953, an armistice was signed --- note, an armistice, no peace. Since then, the US has maintained large forces on the ground, roughly two army divisions (37,000), along with air bases to the south; the main aim of these forces is to serve as a trip-wire deterrent to dissuade North Korea's totalitarian, markedly militarist regime, from attacking the South again in the mistaken belief that the US wouldn't be engaged militarily from the start.

3) Current Political and Economic Conditions;

In South Korea today, democracy, as we've noted, is institutionalizing rapidly --- an impressive trend, matched by Taiwan and earlier Japan, with similar if less institutionalized developments occurring in the Philippines, Thailand, and (still more uncertain) Indonesia. Corruption is a major problem in South Korea, as is cronyism --- but are hardly limited to South Korea; they seem to be part of an Asian form of middle class industrialism, democracy, and economic life, with Japan no exception. Note that South Korea also has one of the most egalitarian distributions of income of newly industrialized former developing countries, in part because of the major land reform and health and educational programs that the American advisers encouraged (and essentially implemented) at the start: back in the 1950s, one of my former professors headed the US aid and reform program there.

The North stands out as a basket case in every sense of the word: an economic catastrophe, a population marked by widespread malnutrition and starvation, and a Orwellian totalitarian rule that has no parallel anywhere else in the world save probably in Iraq, with regimentation and secret-police surveillance that O'brien, the head of the ruling Politburo in 1984, might decidedly admire. Despite its economic horrors, it also has a huge army, about a million under arms right now, as compared to South Korea's 600,000; and its threatening large forces along the 38th Parallel can hit most of South Korea's main northern cities with short-range missiles. Nor is that all. The country, again in Orwellian fashion, maintains a large program of Weapons of Mass Destruction, including hundreds of theater-range missiles capable of hitting all of Japan.

4) Immediate Background of the Current Crisis.

It starts with the North Korean nuclear weapons program. In 1985, Pyongyang signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985 --- as had Iraq, Iran, and Syria, the remaining members of the evil axis (Israel, by contrast, has never signed the treaty). Then in 1993, it publicly abrogated the treaty and said it had an ongoing nuclear program, mixed in with claims about nuclear fuel for energy. That prodded the Clinton administration after the President contemplated, evidently, a pre-emptive strike to join with other states in the region and, negotiate with the Communist regime, resulting in a 1994 accord with Washington and other in which North Korea would renounce its nuclear programs and accept (limited) monitoring by the UN IAEA --- those are themonitors just expelled by the Communist regime, upping its escalatory behavior. In return for North Korea's signing the accord, Washington and South Korea agreed to send oil for fuel as well as food aid, the South Korean government eventually going further, pushing for more bilateral negotiations and ultimately --- it was hoped --- national reunification.

Were the North Koreans ever living up to the accord?

Nobody knows. Back in the 1990s, there were lots of critics who argued that the monitoring of the North was inadequate, that it was blackmailing the US to get aid without clear inspections of a surefire sort, that it was further delivering nuclear know-how to others, not to mention missiles . . . first theater-range missiles that can fly a few hundred miles, then more recently we've found out steady work on an ICBM capable of reaching the US. The hundreds of theater-range missiles worry the Japanese, more so than ever in the emerging crisis; and Washington and Tokyo have been actively cooperating on theater-based anti-missile defenses --- with the US publicly promising to use such missiles, already deployed, on Aegis-class cruisers and destroyers. (The Aegis system involves advanced target-location of incoming missiles and warheads, dozens of them if need be, up to 75 miles away, while directing anti-missile warheads at them).

Even the Clinton administration, before it left office two years ago, was becoming disillusioned with the North Koreans and took a harder line. The new Bush administration at first followed that harder line, then went further; in effect, itt put the ongoing discussions with the North in cold storage (with some minor exceptions), stopped oil deliveries until Pyongyang was more forthcoming about its nuclear programs, and eventually began criticizing the South for its unilateral economic aid and negotiating efforts as funding a bankrupt regime. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations have also been edgily troubled by the constant sales of missiles and, it's rumored, nuclear know-how to others. Last January, President Bush's evil-axis speech included North Korea, rankling the regime (which may have been worried that it might suffer a pre-emptive strike, hard to know when you're dealing with such a secretive regime).

The outcome? With American intelligence clearly showing that the North was actively working on illegal nuclear weapons programs, Pyongyang openly admitted in October that it had been working on such programs --- though for how long nobody knows, outside the country. For 8 years now? For 2?. Nobody knows. The US joined Japan, China, Russia, and Seoul in criticizing the programs, all five, even Seoul, agreeing to press for a return to the 1994 accord. Washington, preoccupied with the Iraqi crisis, took an even harder line; no negotiations until North Korea returned to the status quo (a policy now modified). North Korea's response? Escalating brinksmanship: expelling the UN monitors, unsealing its plutonium plants --- able to produce weapons-grade uranium ---- and threatening just yesterday to go to war if economic sanctions are applied.

5. Why North Korea's brinksmanship at this time?

Again, given the secrecy of the regime, we have to speculate. Among the motives are the North's economy in ruins, widespread malnutrition and starvation and frustration with the suspension of oil deliveries, the evil axis speech, and of course the preoccupation of the Bush administration with the Iraqi crisis. Note too that the winner of the recent South Korean election, who narrowly beat a conservative candidate, criticized the US openly, demanded a more vigorous South Korean unification effort, and played up to the growing anti-American sentiment evident among the young in the country, who don't have any recollections of WWII, the Korean war, the US earlier efforts to stimulate reform and development. The Communist regime might see this as a window of opportunity (though the newly elected President, who will take office at the end of the month, has openly criticized the North's behavior)

What does this add up to?

Two views prevail here about the long pattern of North Korean reckless behavior and rhetoric, decades old by know. One camp in Washington and elsewhere sees the regime as run by loony risk-mongering types, reinforced by their isolation from the world. Another claims that there is a clear logic in the behavior, including the 1993 renunciation of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty: scary rhetoric and tactics pay off. Worried or frightened, others are driven into negotiation and make concessions that at best extract concessions in turn from Pyongyang that can't be fully monitored. .

6) Does the North want war?

That seems doubtful, given that its huge threatening army couldn't invade by surprise; doesn't have nuclear weapons right now;and would be systematically attacked and destroyed by US airpower and missiles even if it advanced against the 37,000 US forces dug in along the 38th Parallel and the 600,000 well-trained, well-equipped South Koreans. The main North Korean leverage here is this: its behavior has appeared reckless in the past; it might go to war if desperate enough; and though it couldn't win; it could nonetheless inflict massive rocket damage to South Korean cities, especially nearby Seoul. And for that matter, widen the war to attack Japan with missiles too (even, theoretically, with the few nuclear warheads it might now have.

Is this likely? No, not likely.

Still, it's worrying enough to know that a highly secretive, centralized state with a near-hermetically sealed-off leadership --- Kim Sung Il and his military advisers ---might actually believe that the US is too weak on the ground --- or in will-power --- to respond. Even if not likely, war could also occur in a crisis by miscalculation . . . always a danger in dealing with secretive regimes led by leaders at the top who kill off any critics, never mind dissenters. Think of (Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, the Baath Party dictatorship in Syria, the Iranian clerical-fascists until the mid-1990s,and so on.

In truth, you ou never know what exactly their motives and information and risk-taking inclinations are; or whether they might not be governed by either megalo psychopaths with grandiose ambitions that have to be realized or Armageddon for others . . . or at least may reckless, risk-taking leaders whose ambitions and sway over others lead to serious miscalculations. Think again, this time of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 . So far, Washington's response has been to cool down the crisis, encourage the Japanese, Chinese, Russians, and South Korea to engage the North standing tough about negotiations or renewed aid (while probably signaling to Beijing, which might have the most influence it's not clear that it should sound out the North's willingness to negotiate, its demands, and what it's likely to concede.)

7) Will diplomacy succeed?

Washington, while warning publicly the North Koreans that we have more than enough military forces in the Far East to defeat an invasion, has had trouble obviously figuring out what to do. Eventually, the Bush administration has agreed that negotiations are needed, though it rightly refuses to offer any negotiations on its part until others---China above all---talk to the Pyongyang regime. Is the regime crazy, bent on war, desperate; or is it seeking to use what leverage it has, in the window of opportunity we mentioned, to coerce or at least press the US into direct bilateral negotiations. It says it will refuse to negotiate with the others, but that seems doubtful --- rhetoric, not policy.

At some point, we should put on the table --- assuming others have pinned down better Pyongyang's aims --- a once-and-for-all global agreement: not just on the North's nuclear weapons programs, but also the arms deliveries (very worrying), and a reduction in the size of the armed forces and weaponry along the 38th Parallel. Clear commitments and clear monitoring have to be spelled out, no two ways about it. In return, the US and the others could agree to oil deliveries again, more trade, continued food aid, and a more normal relationship. This package deal should be spelled out, with a clear timetable. Nothing more, nothing less. If not, then the North Korean engendered crisis will have to be solved by alternative means, including as a last resort a pre-emptive strike on the nuclear facilities, backed by a readiness for war with the North. I doubt it will come to that, but you just can't be sure.