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What about North Korea?                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Apr/30/2013 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Historical Insights, World Watching,

History has a strange but consistent way of repeating itself. Anyone who tells you they know what Kim Jong Un and North Korea will do next is really just guessing. Nevertheless, historical events give us a lot of insight into patterns of cause and effect. Understanding the players, local status quo and regional history are useful. It is also important to understand that just because something seems logical, doesn’t mean it will happen.

A brief history:
At the conclusion of World War II American administrators divided the Korean Peninsula along the 38th parallel. The US occupied the south and the Soviets occupying the north. An attempt at elections in 1948 failed, deepening the division between the two Koreas. By early 1950 Soviet and American forces had left the Korean Peninsula. Despite reunification talks, tensions and cross border skirmishes intensified, ultimately escalating to open warfare in June of 1950. During a period when the Soviet Union was boycotting the UN Security Council, the United States and other countries passed a Security Council resolution authorizing military intervention in Korea. After 3 years of fighting, including Chinese military intervention an armistice agreement was signed in July 1953. The armistice created a 2.5 mile wide, fortified buffer zone call the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas.

It is important to note that there is no peace treaty and that the war between the two Korea’s is considered to have never been concluded.

60 years later:
During the last 60 years South Korea has thrived. Politically, it has evolved from being led by a strong man government to a thriving democracy. South Korea’s economy has also done very well. They have grown to be one of the leading manufacturing centers on the Pacific Rim. South Korea produces everything from appliances, to cars and video equipment; their ship yards are amongst the busiest in the world. Western travelers visiting Seoul would feel they are in one of the most modern cities in the world.

North Korea has not done as well. Harsh weather, limited natural resources and self-serving ruling elite have left the majority of their population living a very meager existence. Famine has swept across the north on at least 2 documented occasions. A nighttime satellite picture of the Korean Peninsula shows that only the city of Pyongyang is lit at night demonstrating their limited electrical infrastructure. North Korea is dependent on China and some western countries for more than half of its fuel and food. Despite these harsh conditions, the North’s leadership has one of the largest standing armies in the world and devotes a significant amount of its limited resources to weapons development including missiles and nuclear devices. During the war, North Korea was led by Kim Il Sung; his grandson Kim Jong Un is the latest in this family dynasty to rule this isolated country.

The current status:
During the early months of 2013, North Korea’s 29-year-old leader Kim Jon Un has threated to attack Washington with nuclear weapons, declared a state of war with South Korea and warned diplomats to evacuate.

President Obama has sent mixed messages: first deploying bombers and new missile defense assets, then appearing to back off and calling for dialogue with Pyongyang. This is a pattern the North has come to expect of all U.S. administrations over the last 30 years. Normally, after major provocations, the U.S. has returned to the bargaining table with North Korea within five months. Of course, the North has typically cheated on its side of the agreement, seeking to raise the demands further before returning to the bargaining table again.

Clearly, negotiations have no long term value, but neither has sanctions and pressure deterred the North from its nuclear weapons path. None of this means the North Korea problem is unsolvable, but U.S. policy must be based on realistic assessments of five key factors: the North's intentions, the worst case dangers, the value of sustained dialogue, China’s potential impact, and regional alliances.

What are North Korea intentions?
This answer should not be so hard to figure out. The North's highest national priority is the capability to threaten the United States and its allies in the Pacific region with ballistic missiles. I seriously doubt that anything agreed to in negotiations would truly deter it from this path. Obviously, their leaders want aid, respect, lifting of sanctions and international legitimacy. The North Korean regime has determined that all of these can be gained by owning nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The pattern of outrageous threats has repeatedly garnered compromise and restraint from other powers.

Pyongyang wants to establish itself as the world's newest nuclear weapons power. The regime may then freeze one part of its program temporarily, or promise a moratorium to receive food, energy and money, but the pattern has been consistent in later breaking away from whatever agreement was reached. If nuclear weapons were just about deterring the United States, then a nonaggression pact or peace treaty might have some possibility. Since 2000, the U.S. has offered North Korea security assurances more than 33 times. Unfortunately, the regime also needs these weapons to keep its army loyal and to gain international status against its hugely successful rival to the south. Ultimately, North Korea view’s its weapons program as indispensable to its future and survival.

What is the worst case?
If North Korea ever did use nuclear weapons on South Korea or the United States, the resulting response would be their complete destruction. Unfortunately, as rich, comfortable and developed societies we have much more to lose. I suspect this is what the North is trying to exploit.

Pyongyang's increasingly brazen threats could reflect the exuberance and inexperience of a young untested leader. These threats could also be an attempt by Kim Jong Un to enhance his credibility with his internal political and military elite. Regardless of the reason, there is proven history that threats can be made with greater impunity when backed by a handful of nuclear weapons. If the North is beginning to produce nuclear weapons, this could lead to even more dangerous threats including the transfer nuclear know-how to other countries.

For many decades the North has been manufacturing crises and then pulling back from the brink. There is no reason to believe this pattern is likely to stop anytime soon.

Is dialogue useful?
The history of this ridiculous cycle of crisis diplomacy implies that eventually the Obama administration will be back at the negotiating table for another temporary cessation of belligerence, just as many previous U.S. Administrations have done.

If the definition of madness is to do the same thing over and over hoping for a different outcome, this is surely madness. Clearly, the best path is sustained pressure by all parties that restrict weapons development and proliferation.

What about China?
There is nothing that can be really accomplished in this part of the world without China's involvement. Fortunately Beijing is clearly growing exasperated with North Korea. The new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, is more decisive than his predecessor. His new foreign policy team views Pyongyang with the eye of a tired parent, exhausted after years of mopping up the diplomatic messes. There are still plenty of old school Chinese military leaders who view the North's existence as a strategic buffer for China, but even this argument is being hotly debated in Beijing.

Nevertheless, we should not expect China to be too aggressive. Xi and the Beijing leadership are preoccupied with internal stability and economic reforms. Xi will be unable to accomplish any of his internal agenda without support of regime conservatives, especially those in the military who favor the status quo on the Korean Peninsula. Leaders from the northern Chinese provinces want to expand trade and business with North Korea, but they also want to avoid a sudden rush of refugees that any open conflict would create.

We need to also avoid making Chinese cooperation on North Korea be a litmus test for U.S.-China relations. China wants to be a major player on the world stage, but not as the dog that barks when the U.S. or the UN Security Council tells it to. Pushing China too hard could result is a response similar to “reverse psychology.” Instead, we need to persuade China to drop its parochial approach to North Korea in favor of owning strategic stability in the region.

Regional allies do matter
If North Korea's nuclear program is not stopped, it will irreparably damage our alliances in Asia. Not only will it potentially lead to a nuclear Japan or South Korea, but because it will create doubts about U.S. staying power and ability to provide security to its allies. Any real long term stability in the region will require the cooperation of China, Japan and South Korea. If the U.S. wants to continue to be a player in Northern Asia, we need to work with all these countries and ensure they are all working with each other toward common goals.

In the near future there will be a lot of eyes on the new South Korean President Park Geun-hye. She has the opportunity to begin outreach to China and break down historical barriers with Japan. Much of this can be spurred forward by the U.S. sharing regional security intelligence and expanded the scope of joint military defensive exercises.

What next?
For anyone who is a parent, you’ve seen this cycle before. Just think of the spoiled and obnoxious child who is seeking attention. If you bribe the child for better behavior with a toy or snack, they will soon be misbehaving again, but with the promise of good behavior in exchange for another new toy. Once this cycle of behavior gets going it can be very difficult to stop. It is also clear that you would never knowingly let that spoiled child with regular tantrums have a dangerous weapon. In a similar way, we cannot allow North Korea to develop a nuclear arsenal.

Appeasement did not work in 1936 with Hitler, and we shouldn’t be doing it now.

The solution is to say and do nothing. We and the international community have already made our position clear. Much like that spoiled child, we need to stop meeting them at the negotiating table. But if North Korea follows through with one of its threats; we need to follow with a swift and decisive resolve that brings the Kim dynasty of North Korea to a close.

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Albert Einstein
It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.
 
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