Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Nuclear North Korea: Why the North can keep their nukes and why nobody should care

There has already been some speculation as to how the Bush administration will proceed in its second term vis-?-vis North Korea. The Americans insist on no bi-lateral talks with the recalcitrant North. The North has stated it will not come back to the six-party talks until the situation “matures” whatever that means. So far, it seems the Bush administration will proceed as it has for the past four years; blowing wistfully along the road to nowhere on its own hotair.

Among the key players along with North Korea and the US are China, Japan, South Korea and Russia. Each has its own agenda and see the situation in a different way. The differences in perspective are critical to finding consensus. Or at least understand why consensus has not yet, or perhaps cannot be reached among the disparate parties. They are nations bound in their stance through history, alliances, geo-strategic thinking and local politics. This makes complicated a picture that should be simple, as all parties desire peace on the Korean peninsula. But peace can take different shapes and what nations are willing to do and what kind of peace they want varies among the involved parties.

The Chinese want peace but they don’t want a flood of refugees. Nor US forces on their doorstep. Already they have turned a blind eye to their humanitarian obligations to help escapees from the North. The Chinese, as some optimists seem to think, will not be pressured by the UNHCR and they will not be pressured through bad publicity in the build up to the Olympic Games. Far more desirable would be to have South Korea prop the regime through economic assistance. This could help staunch the publicity and flow of economic and political asylum seekers crossing the border.

But worse than refugees, would be a contingent of US troops occupying the remainder of the Korean peninsula. The probable reluctance of China to idly watch such a development increases in view of Japan’s recent support for the US opposition to Chinese claims on Taiwan. So while the end of the North regime probably wouldn’t be a bad thing, it is possible that China can see things that would be worse than a continuation of that regime.

Japan, is probably the US’s closest ally in the North Korea matter. Both countries would prefer to see the end of the regime and would feel safer for it. Japan has felt vulnerable since the North lopped a missile over their heads in 1998. This grew into anger over the recent and on-going spat over the kidnapped Japanese and the North’s attempt to hoodwink them with bogus remains. The end of the North Korean regime would be a welcome end to current instability and would provide a fortuitous buttress between Japan and China with a US friendly Korea.

Of all the players, the most vulnerable in this situation is South Korea. Not from the nuclear arsenal the North is presumably amassing but from conventional weapons. The threat remains, as it always has been, an invasion of conventional forces and weapons. In the absence of an outbreak of hostilities the next greatest threat is a collapse of the North regime and the financial burden that would need to be borne by the South if this were to happen. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the status quo holds a certain appeal to the South as it is both familiar and better than either of these two worst-case scenarios.

Russia would almost seem to be an outlier in the talks. While Russia has traditionally played an influential role in Asia thanks to old alliances, wars, and the Cold War its role is much diminished these days. Russia could possibly get some economic gains from a friendlier and more open government on the peninsula. But it would doubtless be less than happy if US troops were to be stationed to close to its own border in that area. Russia ? US relations are far more cordial today than they have been for a long time but they are hardly warm. Moreso in the wake of the Iraq invasion and US criticism of Russia’s recent anti-democratic reforms.

North Korea has presumably developed these weapons to improve its defensive position. But it lacks the resources, manpower and technology to prevail in any kind of war. It couldn’t win when it had only conventional weapons and it can’t win now that it has nuclear weapons. In fact, the greatest threat from the North remains its conventional power as that could easily be directed with devastating effect on South Korea (before South Korea, US and allied forces retaliated with greater might). The nuclear weapons don’t increase or diminish that fact. Anyone they could strike with a nuclear weapon would be involved in a conventional war without the nuclear weapon, its ability to change to power play or alter the stakes is limited.

The most recent event of interest to the North Korean situation is the North Korea Freedom Act passed in the US Congress in 2004. This humanitarian act aims to provide funding and legal recourse to help North Korean refugees and to pressure China. It anticipates, rightly, that China is a hindrance rather than a help in the matter of supporting the people of North Korea or open to the idea of their collapse. China isn’t even willing to assist refugees going to Mongolia which would ease their own financial burden. This suggests that the refugee issue is not only about the cost of supporting a flood but also the threat of losing their buffer zone against US troops in the Asia theatre.

The arguments floating around to solve the issue are many, varied and essentially useless. Pressuring China to do more on refugees or more directly against the North regime ignore the basic concerns of the Chinese. Encouraging South Korea to become more hawkish under the leadership of the Roh administration and after the Summit are idealistic more than realistic. And wishing that Japan was less hated by the Chinese in particular and even South Korea is not going to make it true. The six-party countries are not allies, they are neighbours that don’t like or trust each other. Expecting cooperation for a solution that none of them would identify in the same terms appears to be a triumph of optimism over reality and the failure to secure even a glint of progress backs this up.

On top of all this, is the matter of precedent. There are concerns swirling around that letting the North develop and store nuclear weapons would set a bad precedent to other would-be rogue nations. Yet the examples of India, China, Pakistan and Israel seem to suggest the precedent was set before today. Japan, Australia, South Africa, and others also possess the technology and skills to develop weapons and choose not to do so through good graces. Preventing the spread of nuclear technology has been an abysmal failure of the highest degree. Success would certainly be a precedent but failure is surely not.

And as with other precedents set by the US in other cases of countries they don’t like developing weapons the best thing US can do is ignore it. The North has limited and constantly diminishing means to launch a conventional war. Though it was close in 1950-53 it would not be close today ? they would be annihilated and they know it. And as for the nuclear weapons, without a threat they have no reason to launch. Again the guarantee of failure, rather than the threat of attack is what is preventing the North from initiating any kind of hostilities, conventional or nuclear. The nuclear threat doesn’t change the game with the North because it doesn’t give either side an advantage vis-?-vis their opponent any more than they had before the North developed them. US policy since Bush has amounted to benign neglect and it should remain so. Hopefully the North Korea Freedom Act will spawn a grassroots movement to bring about change from within but until then, the US should recognize two things: it doesn’t have allies against North Korea it has other countries that also don’t like North Korea but with different ideas in mind on how to deal with it; and there is nothing US should do about it for now.

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