Monday, October 09, 2006

What can we do about NK?

Okay, so I'm not sure why we're suddenly all atwitter about North Korea demonstrating it has nukes, since we've credited them with nukes for years.

And there's a possibility they don't actually have them.

But assuming they do, it would be churlish not to try to lay out some ideas for a solution.

The blogosphere is abuzz with the usual solutions -- bomb them, nuke them, invade them, bribe them, send them flowers, blame Clinton -- but let's disregard those. This is reality, not a video game. And reality, in this case, is messy.

Is there the will and capability to attack NK? Limited amounts of both, as long as China is willing to shelter its lunatic neighbor. But even if that weren't a problem, we'd have to choose a method:

Assassination? Beyond the moral and practical implications -- do we really want to send the message that trying to kill heads of state is okay? -- killing a paranoid recluse is technically very difficult, especially if you're not willing to kill massive numbers of innocent civilians in the process.

Bombing? Destroying underground nuclear facilities -- assuming we actually know where they are -- is also difficult. And North Korea's geography would lessen the impact of a bombing campaign.

Invading? Interestingly, the UN resolution that authorized the Korean War remains in force -- NK and SK are still technically observing an armistice (text here). But North Korea is home to some of the most rugged and most heavily militarized terrain on earth. It would take a serious application of force, and would be potentially very costly. Further, an invasion could trigger a nuclear explosion -- if Kim Jong-Il were crazy and desperate enough. More importantly, though, invading NK would almost inevitably lead to a confrontation with China. No sane person on either side wants that.

Sanctions? Sure. Except that NK is already one of the most isolated nations on earth. It will be difficult to harm them more than we are harming them now.

So what can we do?

If it came down to it, I would support targeted strikes to reduce NK's nuclear capability -- hitting the reactors, testing facilities, factories and mines that support their nuclear complex. We wouldn't get it all, but we could set them back a good ways, as well as sending a message to other would be nuclear powers.

But given the risks involved, that would be in extremis. Military force really needs to be a last, desperate alternative.

Our best and, really, only hope is to press China to do something about its client. China may feel an obligation to NK, and they may find NK useful as a buffer and a thorn in the side of the West -- a distraction from China's growing economic and military power. But China will never put NK's interest ahead of its own. And unlike Iran, NK doesn't have economic significance for China. Make the price attractive enough, and China will do what it considers necessary regarding NK -- either reining them in or deposing the Great Leader.

But China does not respond well to direct pressure. They will do things because they want to, not because we want them to. Any attempt to strongarm them will fail, as will any attempt to get them to act against their own best interests.

Luckily, there appears to be a relatively simple way to make China's interests coincide with our own.

With North Korea increasing its saber-rattling to nuclear proportions, it's only natural that South Korea and Japan would feel the urge to improve their defensive capabilities. And, since they're our allies, it's only natural that we would want to help them. Further, a more self-reliant SK and Japan would help reduce the military burden we bear in defending them. It's about time both countries assumed more responsibility for their own defense, and North Korea provides a convenient pretext for doing so.

But the last thing China wants is a spiraling arms race in the region. And it especially does not want a remilitarized Japan -- the memories of World War II are still too fresh and formative for that. It wants to become a regional hegemon, and it can't do that if two of its closest neighbors join Taiwan in becoming armed to the teeth, their weapons all pointed in China's general direction.

So without threatening China directly, we should start a program to help SK and Japan increase their military capabilities to deal with North Korean threats. Faced with the prospect of an arms race , I think China would instead choose to rein in NK or even depose Kim Jong-Il.

It would cost a fair chunk of cash -- but not anywhere near as much as another Iraq. And there's no guarantee it would work. But if it doesn't, then at least we have given SK and Japan the means to defend themselves, which is our fallback position anyway. And it carries much less risk, and a much higher likelihood of success, than the alternatives.

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Blogger Patrick Martin said...

Sean, I'm so glad to see a real post about this issue, not just a political blame-fest.

Your analysis of the various options is right on the money. I tend to agree with you, too, about the benefits of at least trying to pressure the Chinese to do more. The catch, as M. Takhallus points out in our discussion over at Stubborn Facts, is that an actual arms race with China would not do anybody a lot of good. If we start down that road, we might get sucked into more than we really want if China doesn't go along with what we want. Rearming Japan, for example, might be an easier process to start than to stop.

10/10/2006 12:04 PM  
Anonymous Marc Schneider said...

Oddly enough, we might benefit from Japan's new, more militant government. The Chinese probably realize that, at this moment, the Japanese are almost certain to rearm, perhaps with nukes, if NK has a demonstrated capability. This might scare them enough into pressuring NK without us having to exert pressure. China is worried about pressuring NK because it fears the consequences on itself of a collapsed NK, ie, flood of refugees into China. But China is probably more worried about Japan acquiring nukes, so I suspect that it will be more assertive than it has in the past. We may not have to do anything, if Bush can refrain from shooting off his mouth and scaring potential allies. I don't think we have to be the ones to provide nukes to Japan--it certainly has the capability to get them. I don't see why we really have to get involved. But we probably need to try to mediate the Japan/China relationship because it is potentially dangerous with the way Japan is moving to the right and China uses anti-Japanese sentiment to bolster the CCP's grip on power.

One of the problems is that Bush has so little credibility that no one is willing to follow the US lead. After alienating most of the world, it's hard to lead it. But maybe he won't have to. NK is extremely vulnerable to economic pressure by China--even the Lunatic must realize that his hold on power is tenuous is China decides to pull the plug.

10/10/2006 1:54 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Patrick: Thanks for the kind words. I think the key here is that nobody wants an arms race, but China probably wants one least of all. So we can make it clear that we are reluctant to help SK and Japan arm up, but feel we have to in order to meet the NK threat. Some careful diplomacy would make clear that if there were to be another option that would make such a buildup unnecessary, we'd be all for it.

Marc: China is in a delicate spot, since it doesn't want a unified, Western-oriented Korea, it doesn't want to occupy NK, and it doesn't want a collapsed NK on its hands. So I doubt they'd go so far as to invade; more likely they'd push Kim out of power.

10/10/2006 3:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

if Kim is pushed out of power,no one can stop the re-unification of Korea. It is now the right time for a "sane" foreign policy in which to talk the chinese into pushing Kim out of power,or make the chinesepush some buttons to send Kim out of power.
So we should first be able to sell the idea of unified korea to china, as a partner in balance to the regional power of japan, which is only going more nationalist.
To do any or all of this, there should be some credibility attached to the foreign policy team of this administration. I dont see it.

10/10/2006 4:34 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

GK: I think the prospect of a unified Korea would be a very hard sell to China. I think an arms race would be even less palatable, but if they depose Kim it won't be to allow for eventual reunification; it will be to prop up a different puppet in his place.

10/10/2006 5:56 PM  
Blogger C. LaRoche said...

This is a welcome post, but it has avoided several outstanding phenomenon: neither South Korea nor Japan want to push North Korea off the edge. Japan is normally identified as a hardliner in the Six-Party Talks -- along with the U.S. -- but it fears a reunified Korean peninsula. It also thinks that a hard landing in North Korea would do more harm than good; nukes in the hands of a regime that wishes to remain in power is a lot better than nukes in the hands of whoever wants to raid a launch site in the absence of a government. And I think both China and South Korea know that increasing pressure on North Korea might simply compel North Korea to arm even faster. China could be compelled to twist North Korea's arm more, yes, but I doubt South Korea would agree. And if the regime gets anywhere near collapse, the PRC, ROK and Japan will all pull off. The question here is: do either South Korea or China think that they can pressure North Korea into disarming WITHOUT dangerously threatening the regime? My guess is no. My guess is they know North Korea wants nuclear arms, and simply won't give them up. This is why both countries support short-term solutions to the nuclear standoff, offering North Korea economic incentives in exchange for limited cooperation, and wish to incur gradual regime change through soft-landing 'opening up' strategies -- rather than what they see as fruitless U.S. attempts to back North Korea into a corner.

10/10/2006 9:32 PM  
Anonymous Walrus said...

Maybe I'm naive, but I'm having a hard time getting worked up by this whole incident. First of all, there are credible reports that the nuclear test was a dud, or even a fraud. Either way, it won't be much of a sell for any potential clients wanting to buy NK's nuclear technology. Second, Abe, Japan's new rather right-wing prime minister made his first foreign visit to China, and it was apparently quite the love fest. (Shades of only Nixon could go to China...) This hardly speaks of hostile arms races or other nightmare scenarios. It does look like two worried powers who do not want the boat to be rocked by China's annoying kid brother and who will likely work together to bring him back in line. If I were China, I'd be looking around for another puppet, which might be the happiest outcome for everybody. And if I were Kim, I think I'd be a bit paranoid about China for a while...

But like I said, maybe I'm naive. Or foolishly complacent.

10/10/2006 10:25 PM  
Blogger C. LaRoche said...

Walrus: you're right, both China and Japan support the status quo in East Asia, and don't want anything to go completely haywire. On the surface. Japan has militarists in its legislature, and China has its hawks in the CCP politburo. Things wax and wane, but the case for amending the Japanese consitution so that it isn't so pacifist (there's a clause about what the Japanese military can and can't do) grows stronger every year. China wants to rise peacefully, but is worried that an emboldened Japan will push out Chinese interests in Korea, Taiwan, and a number of potentially oil-rich regions that are in dispute. For an overview of the litany of outstanding REAL issues in East Asia -- not just textbooks and Yasukuni shrine -- you might want to check out a piece by the International Crisis Group called "East Asia's undercurrents of Conflict." Great piece.

In any case, North Korea acts as both a flashpoint and a way for East Asian nations to pursue their geopolitical strategies. China maintains NK on the basis that it would be hurt by refugees, but in reality NK acts as a nice buffer between China and the rest of the world, a 'bad little brother', if you will. Japan can use North Korea as an excuse to build a BMD shield and amend its consitution and begin putting boats here and there watching "things" here and there, which may or may not include said disputed zones, the taiwan straight, and the Korean peninsula. Plus, if Japan tomorrow announced it had a working BMD system, China would probably want to design nukes that could circumvent it, EVEN if they don't plan on nuking Japan, ever. The point being that you don't want a useless nuclear arsenal.

And, of course, there's always the possibility that a North Korea nuke, or missile, or whatever, could either A. Fall into someone's hands who WILL use it; or B. get launched by accident, or by in a "crazy" Dr. Strangelove-type move. There is an entire cadre of politicians, analysts, businessmen and so on who still take North Korea's statement "of principles" literally -- and the first one is the reunification of the Korean peninsula on North Korean terms.

Plus, if you actually wanted to disarm North Korea without invading it, you're now a step backwards -- they've got em, and they know they'll work.

One thing that's worth noting about this test, as lame as it was, is that it reminds us that North Korea's nuclear programme has been unchecked since 2003. If they can't do it now, it's probably only a matter of time.

10/10/2006 11:12 PM  
Anonymous Marc Schneider said...

I agree with much of what has been posted here. And, Sean, I did not mean to suggest that China would seek to physically overthrow NK, only that without Chinese aid, NK is likely to collapse and the regime along with it. But China clearly doesn't want that because of the effects on its own borders. However, it may fear a nuclear NK more because of the effect it would have on Japan.

I agree that China and Japan basically benefit from the status quo. It's really only the US that is harmed specifically by NK having nukes because of the threat of them selling it to someone else. I don't think anyone really takes seriously the idea that NK would now try to unify the peninsual by force--it doesn't have a superpower patron anymore and a couple of nukes isn't going to save it from devastating retalitation if it invades SK. But, from the US perspective, we are in the crosshairs much more than China or Japan. China isn't worried about NK nuking it and I suspect Japan really isn't either, but it does provide an excuse to build up its military.

I also agree that NK is not going to give up nukes because this has been a goal for a long time. The US can talk about disarming NK, but all the countries that have given up nuke programs have done so voluntarily under inducement rather than military threat. It's hard to see why NK would give up its program under a threat that it probably thinks is empty anyway.

I would not be opposed to having direct talks with NK--we certainly have relations with enough bad actor states as it is. But I am hesitant to do so under blackmail, which is essentially what NK is doing. I would let it be known quietly that we would be willing to talk at some future date but only after the nuke issue has been defused in some way. NK has to accept that, to be accepted in the international community, it has to do more than just throw its weight around. Of course, this message would be stronger if the US didn't behave just like this.

10/11/2006 9:02 AM  
Anonymous Maxtrue said...

Very interesting posts. I would agree that the NK test was a dud, but there is another angle working here. NK is and will continue to export technology. It is a matter of time before terrorism strikes again. While Japan and South Korea, China and Russia debate status quo, a new strike will focus rage on NK and Iran. I doubt nationalists in Japan want this to happen anymore than China or South Korea. There must be a total interdiction of wmd materials and technology as well as humanitarian aid for the North Korea people.

I do not support former Clinton officials who recommend striking NK test sites and missile production plants. It is far more important now to get Russia and China from helping NK make exchanges with others. Reports suggest that missile exports and banking are going through Russia. It is time for hardball with our "partners" using the threat of trade, a militarized Taiwan and Japan with nukes and an increased military build-up in China's backyard.

Despite the press, China's neighbors are more concerned with China's hegemony than Japan's.

We do talk to NK, but for the reasons stated above, it must be within a greater context, involving two nations that are blocking international action on Sudan and Iran. The Europeans are beginning to see this. The long-term solution is a re-unification of Liberal Democracy as a guide for international law. United, we can isolate countries. In the present case, proliferation continues and will inevitably lead to a wmd event somewhere. Then China, Russia, and all the terrorist/proxies/radical regimes will face the wrath. The task is to show Russia and China that it is not in their national security interests to let this march to wmd madness continue. I suspect that now, they see the situation as stretching US hegemony and dividing the world into new regions of hegemony. If the West does nothing in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, North Korea, Congo, Somalia, etc. then perhaps China and Russia are betting on the right horse.

10/11/2006 8:38 PM  

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