Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What to do about North Korea?

Posted by Professor John Conybeare

For weeks North Korea (NK) has been escalating its rhetoric of nuclear threats, but the world responds with mockery.  Even in China, blogs refer to Kim Jong Un as “King Fatty the 3rd.”  Yet we do not mock Iran, and take its nuclear ambitions far more seriously than we do NK’s threats to use the nuclear weapons it already has.  The US has even threatened war to prevent Iran acquiring the capabilities that NK currently possesses; and Professor Lai’s recent posting on this blog notes that Americans are more willing to accept the use of force against Iran than they are with respect to NK. Why the different views?  One difference is that NK’s threats are almost exclusively directed against the US, threats that we know NK is currently not capable of carrying out (e.g., turning Colorado Springs into a “sea of fire”).  Iran does not make such threats against the US, and indeed claims it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons.  We dismiss NK leaders as clownish purveyors of “cheap talk,” but when Iran does make threats (such as in response to a hypothetical Israeli attack), we take such threats very seriously.  Aside from NK’s inability to attack the US mainland (US bases in Asia are another matter), we assume China could and will restrain NK from instigating any action that would result in prolonged military hostilities.  Pretending to be “irrational” can bring some bargaining advantages, but only if you do not employ the tactic too often, as it depreciates rapidly.  NK leaders have used the tactic so frequently that it actually reduces their credibility and makes them objects of ridicule.

This crisis will end, like all the others.  NK will claim that a US invasion has been deterred, and life will go back to normal.  Yet NK is unlikely to get what it wants: one-on-one talks with the US as an “equal” (i.e., outside of the established five power framework of talks, the only forum within which the US says it will talk to NK) and a resumption of food aid.  Sooner or later, the NK leadership will feel compelled, for reasons of resource shortage or internal faction fighting, to start another confrontation with the claim that the US is (again!) about to attack NK.  It will once again demand “respect” and bribes.  Is there another path for the powers that must deal with NK, other than sighing and rolling the eyes?  Perhaps.

Although NK leaders are undoubtedly motivated primarily by the desire to remain in power, the claim of an imminent US attack is the public rationale for their periodic eruptions into blistering threats.  Why not just withdraw all US forces from South Korea?   Why are they still there six decades after the Korean War?   The South Korean (SK) military is perfectly capable of defending SK against a ground invasion by NK, and of responding to lesser conventional incursions.  What does the US military presence add? A nuclear retaliatory threat?  If that is the case, the US could carry out nuclear (and some conventional) retaliation without any deployment of forces within SK.  The functions served by US forces in SK are to provide NK with an excuse to have its tantrums, China an excuse to continue to keep the regime alive with resources, and a guarantee of US casualties if war breaks out (does SK distrust the US so much that it needs this assurance?).  Some observers believe that US forces are really in SK to contain China, a plausible conjecture, though it is unclear how US forces in SK could do this in the event of, for example, a China-Japan conflict over ocean resources.

Here is a proposal: the US should withdraw all of its forces from SK, and Secretary of State Kerry should negotiate an agreement with China whereby they would jointly guarantee NK and SK from invasion by the other.  Although there could be reliability issues in such an agreement (would China intervene to stop NK if it attacked SK?), it should be possible to frame an agreement that would work to assure both halves of Korea that their borders are secure.  Deprived of its claim of a US invasion threat, what would NK do? Would it escalate threats against SK, or Japan, or China, claiming they are acting on behalf of the US?  Such threats would lack credibility. NK is like a honey bee: it knows that it can sting once, and then it would die.  Its leaders do not appear to have a martyr syndrome, and despite their habitual “brinkmanship” tactics, they are not irrational.  The person who accosts you in the street, points a gun at his head and threatens to kill himself if he does not get a payment, is unlikely to get the outcome he desires.  Perhaps NK would then quietly go the way of East Germany, as its leaders discover that they are no longer able to hold the population in subjection with the rallying cry of a US attack.  Internal factions might become more politically important, some of these factions could perceive change to be in their long term interests, and the regime might crumble from within.  The ethnic homogeneity of Korea would make it hard for the regime to stay in power by pitting subsections of the population against each other, as is the case with Syria.


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