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Geopolitical Diary: The Non-Reactions to the North Korean Test

One of the rules of geopolitical analysis is that you should pay little attention to what people say and a great deal of attention to what they do. Applying that principle to the North Korean explosion (nuclear, fizzled or other) causes us to come to a singular conclusion: there is no great concern among the major powers about what happened. No one is doing anything on their own and no one can agree on what should be done together. If this is a crisis, no one is acting that way.

The United States and Japan, it is true, have imposed sanctions on North Korea. However, China and Russia aren't going along with this, therefore the action is fairly meaningless. It's like a balloon with two holes in it: it defeats the entire purpose. The United States, it should be added, can't be surprised by the Russian and Chinese position. Moscow and Beijing have always been wary of following the U.S. sanctioning protocol with other countries, and they were always unlikely to follow the Americans on North Korea. Given that fact -- and given that Washington knows it -- U.S. and Japanese sanctions are more a gesture than an action.

If one listens to conventional analyses of the situation, North Korea poses a threat to the international community, and the key countries -- the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea -- are searching for ways to achieve the common goal of a non-nuclear North Korea. This is the community-of-nations theory of international relations, also known as multilateralism. It makes an assumption of a common interest that really isn't accurate. In fact, all of the key players have very different interests.

China, for example, sounds like a country that is quite upset that North Korea did something it didn't want. It behaves as a country that is quite content with North Korea's move, as it should be; the test flouts America's will and the United States is unable to do anything about it. American impotence is of direct interest to China. The United States has maneuvered itself into a position of taking primary responsibility for dealing with North Korea's threat. China, seeking a dominant position in Asia, welcomes anything that makes the United States appear incapable of carrying out this role. The weaker the United States appears, the greater the vacuum for China to step into. Beijing is going to make the appropriate sounds, but will also make certain that the United States looks as helpless as possible.

The Russians, too, are pleased to see North Korea's challenge to the United States and America's inability to respond; they are not going to bail Washington out. Russia sees itself as locked in a duel with the United States in the former Soviet Union. It holds the Americans responsible for the recent crisis in Georgia, as well as for a generally aggressive stance in Ukraine and Central Asia. The Russians are delighted to see the United States bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Anything that adds to American pain can only help.

Now, one might say that both Moscow and Beijing should be concerned that the unstable government in Pyongyang might threaten them with nuclear weapons. In our view, neither China nor Russia sees Pyongyang as unstable, politically or mentally. They are not worried about North Korean nukes because (a) North Korea doesn't really have nuclear weapons yet and (b) North Korea will be wiped from the face of the Earth by China or Russia should it strike at them and Pyongyang knows it. The risks are low and the benefits are high for both China and Russia. The appropriate expressions of concern will be uttered, but neither country will do anything.

Japan is concerned -- but not to the point of taking any unilateral action, because it can't. South Korea is far more worried about a conventional war than North Korean nukes, and does not want the government in Pyongyang to fall under any circumstances. The task of integrating a post-Communist North Korea with the South would cripple South Korea for decades. The South Koreans are not happy North Korea tested a nuke, but they are not about to do anything to destabilize the situation.

Multilateral approaches assume that there is a common interest in a solution and that the problem is working out the process to get there. There are indeed times when there is a common interest among nations, but they are rarer than times when interests diverge. In the case of North Korea, what we see is not a group of nations struggling to find a way to achieve a common goal. Rather, we see a group of nations pretending to have a common goal, and using that as a cover for pursuing very different ends. China and Russia view this as weakening the United States and they like it. South Korea does not want chaos to the North. Japan is waiting for someone else to take a risk. And the United States is out of options and allies.

The only good news for Washington is that it might discover that the test was not a nuclear test at all. That would relieve it of the burden of doing something, and therefore not make it look nearly as helpless as it now does. Indeed, discovering that there was no nuclear blast would solve a lot of problems; it would show that not doing anything was the result of prudence, and not of a lack of options.

Thanks Crafty for the Strat report.  I don't agree completely, but it makes a nice takeoff point for discussion.

Strat makes several assertions or conclusions that are arguably valid, but could also be looked at differently.  At the core they seem to see this as a U.S. public relations challenge with the U.S. looking impotent.  IMO, that assumes that people buy the anti-American rhetoric of the regime (they are doing this because they are threatened by the U.S., they demand 2-party talks with the U.S., etc.).

Blame goes to the NK regime IMO, not Clinton, Carter, Bush or China. If they fed their people or allowed any human effort at having an economy maybe one could then argue that defense and exerting sovereignty are healthy or righteous interests. That is not the case.

If there is a PR problem it should go to China who has influence and leverage, who laid down the line that was then crossed.

Strat quote: "The United States has maneuvered itself into a position of taking primary responsibility for dealing with North Korea's threat."

Yes, the current and previous President said this was unacceptable.  But I assume the same goes for statements of all others in the 6-party talks except for the DPRK and the UN and all the non-proliferation nations.  This is NOT acceptable.  Unfortunately, all this is in the context of the Iraq experience: the 12 years of resolutions without enforcement or consequences, the lack of support for action from so much of the world, and the enormous difficulty, tragedy and yet unknown outcome of finally taking bold action.

Strat continued: "the United States is out of options and allies."

Obviously there is an elephant in the room, a militatary strike in the spirit of Ozirak, the Israeli strike on an Iraqi nuclear facility in June 1981, is very carefully not being mentioned or discussed in any way. Ozirak reference: http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/mcnair41/41osi.htm

I see that China is working on a new fence: http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2006/10/17/asia/AS_GEN_China_NKorea_Fence.php  Perhaps that is in preparation for the fall of the NK regime and perhaps they are considering stronger actions after they feel they can control the flow of refugees - pure speculation on my part.  As Strat wrote, they also have an interest in seeing the status quo continue.  They certainly do not fear the NK regime.

The U.S. allies with the most to fear from a nuclear NK are obviously South Korea first (if they are still our ally), then Japan and ...Taiwan, oops another elephant in the room. 

I don't know the timeframe for North Korea becoming a real threat.  If this is a U.S. problem, then the political timeframe for this administration taking any action is 2 years.  In the Ozirak link above, the time frame was also driven by a leader with a deadline to leave office.

Under my theory that this really is a China problem first and with China not wanting Japan and Taiwan to accelerate their militarization or increase their defense cooperation with the U.S., I presume China could shut this down one way or another in a short order if or when that decision is made. 

G M:

We need a thread dedicated to NK.  So here it is, started with yet another post pilfered from GM :-D

The Sunday Times October 22, 2006

Kim tested by rise of armed resistance
Michael Sheridan, Far East Correspondent

AN underground resistance movement in North Korea, capable of smuggling out videos of executions and staging violent acts of defiance, has emerged as the Kim Jong-il dictatorship faces international sanctions for testing a nuclear bomb.
The latest evidence of North Koreans willing to risk their lives to tell their story is a video showing the execution by firing squad of a woman convicted of murder committed in the course of stealing food last July.

Captured by a bystander with a tiny camera, it shows the victim being tied to a stake, watched by other convicts, in a field next to the Juyi River in the north.

There are sounds of people muttering in Korean, ?See, that?s how they blindfold them,? as three executioners prepare to fire. Shouted commands are then heard.

As a ragged series of 12 shots resounds, blurry clouds of smoke break out around the distant figure, which slumps in its bonds. The body is then wrapped in what appears to be a plastic bag for burial.

The video was aired by Japan?s Asahi Television, which said the dead woman was named Yoo Bun Hee, but gave no details of how it obtained the pictures. North Korean exiles said they believe it is authentic.

The footage provides a clue to an unexplained series of border incidents earlier this year which North Korean officials blamed on a shadowy ?resistance?.

In one clash North Korean border guards confronted three men creeping at night across the frozen Tumen River from China. In the ensuing fight the intruders stabbed several soldiers and escaped, leaving a bag containing three guns, ammunition, a video camera and a phone.

On the same night in late January men opened fire on a frontier post at the town of Huiryeong, causing an unknown number of casualties before escaping.

Chinese witnesses and foreign diplomats say there have been repeated outbreaks of gunfire, usually at night, along the mountainous barren borderlands. Lim Chun Yong, a former North Korean special forces officer who has defected, claimed that four or five groups of an ?armed resistance? were in the area.

?The people say among themselves that the regime is worse than the Japanese colonists,? he told South Korea?s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper.

The constant traffic of traders and escapees along the 850-mile border has eroded totalitarian controls to the point where clandestine goods and ideas now thrive in the frontier provinces. Smuggled mobiles allow North Koreans to make calls on Chinese networks by capturing their signals at the border.

Because there are no barriers to calling South Korea or the United States from China, they can talk to family members and enemies of the regime.

The latest video is proof that Chinese currency and DVDs are in circulation, because some witnesses to the execution had been forced to watch as punishment for possessing such things.

People smugglers and black-marketeers are rife. Chinese sources said some North Korean border guards could be bribed to turn a blind eye.

When the rivers freeze or dry to a trickle, it is almost impossible to seal the frontier. Chinese travellers report that in some areas North Korean officials are too nervous to go out at night and military reinforcements have been brought in from politically reliable units.

Experts on the regime do not expect it to fold quickly or easily. The exiled Hwang Jang-yop, 83, who was the chief ideologue in Pyongyang before his astonishing defection to the South in the late 1990s, says only the overthrow of Kim Jong-il could end its nuclear ambitions.

Kim could also easily withstand the envisaged United Nations sanctions, he added.

The next step in the crisis is still in doubt after Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, cast doubt on reports that Kim had expressed regrets and promised no more tests. Instead, she said, North Korea seemed bent on escalation.

G M:


Korea's Nightmare: Horrors of Life in the North
By Peter Brookes

As many problems as North Korea's Stalinist dictatorship makes for the rest of the world, what it inflicts upon its captive population is far, far worse. Life in Kim Jong Il's iron-fisted police state is a hellish nightmare.

It's the most repressive country on earth, under absolute control of "Dear Leader" Kim. Fear, intimidation and wild-eyed propaganda dominate every aspect of society.

From outside, it can seem comical - like Pyongyang's recent boast that Kim had fired 11 holes in one - in 11 holes, of course - the first time he played golf. Somehow, that whopper was supposed to boost the tyrant's image.

But let's take a peek behind Kim's Iron Curtain.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported in 2005: "There are virtually no personal freedoms in North Korea." Indeed, any and all civil liberties are considered a threat to the regime.

Radios and TVs are hard-wired to pre-set frequencies, over which North Koreans are subjected to constant propaganda, martial music, or B-grade Korean War flicks (this time, they win.) All homes display pictures of the "Dear Leader" and his father, "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung.

Crimes in "Kim-land" include defecting (or just trying), slandering Kim or the government, listening to foreign broadcasts, reading "subversive" material - even sitting on a newspaper that displays Kim's picture.

Failure to play by the rules can mean a bullet to the back of the head or time in one of Kim's seven political gulags, hard-labor camps that hold more than 200,000 men, women and children. The North Korean Freedom Coalition estimates that 400,000 to 1 million political prisoners have perished, some in gas chambers, in these camps since they were set up in 1972.

The regime has been accused of using political prisoners as guinea pigs in medical experiments. Public executions of tortured prisoners aren't uncommon.

One former North Korean prison guard who defected said: "They trained me not to treat the prisoners as human beings . . . beating and killing is an everyday affair . . . they're just like dogs or pigs."

A single person's offense can get an entire family - sometimes up to three generations - sent to the gulag. Female prisoners, who become pregnant - sometimes due to rape by prison guards - often undergo forced abortions. Infanticide, at the hands of guards, takes place, too.

Making matters worse, North Korea has been fighting a famine since 1995. Natural disasters such as annual floods account for some of the food shortages, but most is due to failed agricultural and economic policies.

As a result, as many as 2.5 million people (out of a population of 22 million) have died due to starvation/disease over the last decade. While accurate numbers are near impossible to come by, today , 7 percent are believed to be starving, and 37 percent chronically malnourished, reports Freedom House.

Even more tragic, many children born during the famine have been orphaned - and suffer from mental/physical handicaps due to severe malnutrition early in life. Defectors report cases of cannibalism.

And while North Korea has received massive influxes of international food aid, relief groups say Pyongyang uses food as a weapon, directing aid to the most loyal segments of society, while withholding it from others. People have subsisted on twigs, bark and grass for years. Local cooperatives mix grass with grain to produce horrid, drab olive "Franken-food."

As many as 300,000 North Koreans have fled to northern China. But Beijing won't let relief groups assist them (for fear of encouraging others), so refugees are victimized by locals into near-slavery or prostitution or returned as criminals - to an almost certain death sentence.

And while common people starve, the elite spends millions on luxuries. Kim's cognac bill is $500,000 a year. When he has a craving, he sends his personal chef abroad to fetch his favorite nosh. And then there's Dear Leader's female "happiness teams"

North Korea spends one-third of its gross domestic product on a million-man army, ballistic missiles and an expensive nuclear-weapons program, while the country's hospitals , desperately short of supplies, are little more than hospices .

The regime may now have a nuke, but it's had a weapon of mass destruction for years. Unfortunately for the North Korean people, that WMD is their "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il.

Peter Brookes is a columnist for The New York Post , a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."


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