Sunday, November 28, 2004

Review of Mr. Eberstadt's Article

The Marmot drew attention to the Weekly Standard article "Tear Down This Tyranny" by AEI Scholar Nicholas Eberstadt. In typical hawkish style to be expected of the AEI and Mr. Eberstadt the article makes a case for dramatic changes in US policy toward the DPRK but is arguments are not quite compelling.

The introduction notes that “after nearly four years in office, the curious fact remains that the Bush administration plainly lacks a strategy” for dealing with North Korea. Yet, it does not appear to be such a curious fact that the complexity of the situation, and danger of making a wrong move, including the outbreak of hostilities involving not only both Korea, but possibly China as well, has led the administration (arguably this one and the last one) at somewhat of a loss of how to bring about de-nuclearisation. More-so given the absence of trust and mutual respect felt between US and North Korea, and skepticism even among the supposed ‘allies’ of China and South Korea. It would be more curious to find an administration that developed a winning scenario that didn’t rely on mutual trust, would prompt the DPRK to abandon its weapons program and not strike out, and would lead to a situation in the balance of power acceptable to US, China, South Korea, North Korea, and Japan. Given such a tall order, it is hardly surprising that no policy yet has been devised that invokes enough confidence of success that it can be implemented fully.

Mr. Eberstadt also describes the past 15 years of dealing with North Korea as miserable failure. Presumably this is premised on the fact that North Korea remains a belligerent enemy and has developed nuclear weapons. However, ‘miserable failure’ seems not to count the fact that despite the belligerence and forward deployment of troops, which have been staring at each other across the DMZ since the cease-fire, there has not been an outbreak of hot war on the peninsula, even with the increased tension and threat of the nuclear weapons. The absence of war in such circumstances should not be so easily discounted as being a ‘miserable failure.’

Moving on gives two precepts before outlining six considerations for devising a successful policy. Precept one makes the point that talking to, and bribing the DPRK is highly unlikely to lead to voluntary de-nuclearisation and that the best time to do this was "during the mid-90s when he nation was starving, and the regime’s survival looked very much in doubt.” Yet last I heard, DPRK was still a nation that was starving and the regime’s survival looked very much in doubt. Surely this implies that the likelihood of success from talking and bribing is as good now as it was then. Perhaps a better argument is that in the mid-90s, the DPRK had not yet developed the nukes whereas these days we estimate that they have at least a couple. It would possibly be harder to talk them out of nukes they already own as opposed to nukes they were still hoping to develop.

The second precept is that the DPRK nuclear crisis is the North Korean government and with this I agree. The two are inextricable problems and as long as the existing political set up remains it seems that the nuclear problem will persist. Not only because Kim Jong-il seems unlikely to give up his nukes but because it seems likely that by doing so he would lose the legitimacy of his rule and his grip on power would decline in the face of such a cave in.

The six points for successful implementation also warrant review as they often lack sufficient information or miss key details.

The first point is that the previous team at the State Department are not up to the task. Whether one agrees of not, it seems that things are indeed about to change in the State Department and National Security Council. As is well known, Powell is out and Rice is in at the State Department. Meanwhile, at the National Security Council VictorCha is expected to join. This should appease Mr. Eberstadt as Mr. Cha is a little hawkish himself and certainly qualifies as someone who understands the threat.

The second point is to define “success” and “failure” for the negotiations. This may sound like a good idea but caution should be advised before deciding to do this. Firstly, it is not helpful to define success and failure without having some idea of what you will do in the event of failure. Especially in dealing with DPRK where failure seems quite likely and any empty threats will lead to lose of credibility not only with DPRK, but also with other nations. This would not be a good precedent to set. Second, would be the issue of defining success, especially when, as noted, Mr. Eberstadt does not recognize the “absence of war” as a success. Setting “success” too high so that negotiations only result in neither success nor failure would not help progress.

Third point deals with China’s role in the negotiations. China, he argues should think more clearly about its own interests and stop its unprincipled ambiguity. China’s hedging has led it to vacillate between being help and hindrance because it is trying to hedge its bets. Yet, that would appear to demonstrate a keen understanding by China of its own interest. China undoubtedly favours a de-nuked DPRK but possibly not at the expense of an increased threat of US presence near its border. Its interests and how it acts depend heavily on how the situation is going to turn out and it would be arguably unrealistic to expect China to act any differently. The US and South Korea and Japan for that matter are all jostling and hesitating according to their own interests and trying to hedge as much as possible. Expecting China to get fully on board without giving them good reason to do so would lead to unrealistic policy, not a successful one.

As already mentioned by Marmot in his review of the article, point four, which suggests going on the South Korean administration’s head to talk directly to the people fails to grasp the domestic political situation.

Fifth point is to man the torpedoes and prepare to use non-diplomatic instruments for threat reduction. The argument being that increasing the threat on force may paradoxically lead to a reduction in the need to use it. In cases where the country being threatened has a face-saving way out and, more importantly, threatening force is done in an environment where an outbreak of hostilities can conceivably be contained to a small war, this may have some merit. In the case of North Korea, with its ability to strike the megalopolis of Seoul, in view of the possible reaction of China, Japan, and even Russia, this is not a good idea. As noted earlier, any use of threat must carry sufficient credibility and threatening force in North Korea is not likely to lead to any reduction in tension on the part of any party involved.

A little off-topic but somewhat relevant is the idea expoused by Joseph Nye about the decline of American soft power, which highlights that the more you use threat and abuse the trust of nations by provoking them, the more you lose the ability to cajole and use carrots in situations when you want to avoid force.

The final point is the need to plan for a post-Kim Jong Il era on the peninsula (personally I don’t like to use ‘Communist’ to describe the DPRK system). This is an excellent point but fails to give merit to the work already done on this. Firstly, the difficulty with planning for a post-Kim Korea is that nobody knows the circumstances under which the regime will eventually fail. Each possible scenario naturally demands a different response. Second, much work is already being done in this field from by experts in the field,to work by the Korean government, especially the Ministry of Unification and MPB is also planning for unification costs. At Stanford I met some people working on studies that dealt with post-Kim DPRK issues from education to media. While a more cohesive approach to planning for this may be a good idea and the US certainly has a key role to play here, the importance of South Korea and its neighbours in planning for such an event should not be ignored if they don’t acquiesce to the resultant situation it may lead to new problems.

Mr. Eberstadt rightly notes that although the Bush administration inherited the situation with DPRK it has now had four years to deal with and any failure in the future will be their own legacy. But in the absence of a viable plan, even after reading the article, it may not be the right moment to be optomistic about a forthcoming solution.

Currently reading:

"Hell" by Yasutaka Tsutsui