Saturday, October 14, 2006

Why North Korea is the Wrong Focus

I have been reading about North Korea a great deal this week in an effort to determine if they did test a nuclear device, which it seems they have, as well as to gain an understanding of where we should go next with this situation. In a comment to a recent post about North Korea Marlipern said:
"In the end, it will likely be China that comes to the world's rescue, and puts the North Koreans in their place. I'm sure they have no desire for a nuclear-armed irrational neighbor to their south.Who would have ever thought we would be relying on China to get our diplomatic work done for us."

On the contrary, the very definition of "diplomatic work" is getting other nations to enact our policies by eliciting either their co-operation or the co-operation of their client states. And as one can see from the article below, China has long been the "man behind the curtain" in this little drama. Hence, the six party talks. China, if indeed they do act against North Korea, will certainly not be doing so out of a sense of international altruism. They will act because it is in their best interest and because of the box they find themselves in, courtesy of the United States. Read on.

Winds of Change.NET: Why North Korea is the Wrong Focus: "So the day has likely come, as it inevitably had to. And with it comes the question: "Now what?"

And my first answer is: Forget North Korea. No proposal involving their government, from idiotic talk of sanctions (what, we're going to cut Kim out of the movie remake?) to even dumber and more craven responses around "rewards" (read: appeasement and a license to keep cheating) is worth even 10 seconds of your time. Search and boarding activities for ships from North Korea may be helpful, and preparations for that have been underway for a while, but ultimately this doesn't solve the problem and raises risks whenever used.

If you want to fix the problem, you have to see and understand the lever.
The truth is that North Korea is an irrelevant bit player in this whole drama. The real player here is China. They have helped North Korea at every step, and North Korea's regime cannot survive at all without their ongoing food and fuel aid. Kim Jong-Il's nuclear plans may be slightly inconvenient to the Chinese - just not not inconvenient enough to derail a strategy that still promises net plusses to those pursuing it within China's dictatorship.

Recall Winds' comprehensive look at the forces within and around China, its geo-political goals and imperatives, and its military options. Korea is a potent potential competitor that has historically had some rivalry with the Chinese, and South Korea is part of the chain of countries that helps to box China and prevent unimpeded access to the sea lanes on which it is so dependent for resources. With its highly developed economy, it's also an investment rival for projects in Russia, and thus complicates Chinese efforts to secure Siberia's resources as a land-based alternative.

Hence the two-faced strategy China is pursuing. One that uses North Korea as their deniable "cut out," and works in conjunction with South Korean political elements to irritate the US and build pressure to push them out of Korea. Once that is achieved in whole or in part, or South Korea concludes for other reasons that the US security guarantee cannot be relied upon to the extent required, South Korea can be "Finlandized" by making China its key security guarantor. Of course, this will happen in return for the same kind of quiet veto power and political interference the USSR exercized in Finland during the Cold War.

That's a very big strategic carrot to dangle in front of fellow members of China's ruling dictatorship. This approach is also bolstered on the flip side by a Chinese aversion to seeing a wave of starving North Korean refugees from what may be the most evil regime in human history wash over Manchuria. Hence, both advantage and fear work to keep Chinese support in place, while shaping South Korea toward a strategic Chinese double-win in which they also pick up the pieces in any northern collapse. The current South Korean government's "sunshine policy" which preaches "one Korea," plays down issues with the North and will not confront it, and demonizes the USA at a grassroots level is perfect on all counts from a Chinese perspective. North Korea's threat will not go away, of course, but friction with the USA, paralysis that keeps their North Korean client safe from retaliation, and positioning Korea psychologically to be responsible for the North later (but not, for instance, for starving North Korean refugees now)... all are exactly what China's doctor ordered from a geo-political perspective.

That will not change. Not until - and unless - the potential advantage is seen to be outweighed by very immediate consequences, and the fear of regime collapse in North Korea is replaced by a greater fear. Since China's is also an absolutist dictatorship, the consequences and greater fear must be far greater in order to trigger the kind of to-the-death (and here we mean the real deaths or equivalent of people and families, not just political careers) internal political battles required to remove the architects and proponents of the current strategy. Who cannot back away from it normally, both for fear of their lives and positions in such a system and for more culture-specific reasons around "face."

In other words, China won't move unless its current strategy is seen to cost them, big-time.
The biggest cost, and the only one that will be real to them in any sense, is to have Kim Jong-Il's nuclear detonation result in parallel nuclear proliferation among the nearby states China wishes to dominate/ bully. That would be a foreign policy disaster for the Chinese, and would cause the current architects of China's North Korea policy to be buried along with their policy. Which, as we noted earlier, is the only kind of policy education that works in a system like theirs.

So... if this turns out to be a nuclear test, ignore North Korea. Sanctions et. al are a total waste of time. Target China indirectly, with consequences it can easily understand as horribly bad from their perspective but which appear to be perfectly reasonable responses to North Korea.
In other words, make it clear to the Chinese via back-channel diplomacy that anything Taiwan chooses to do re: acquiring nuclear technology is no longer of any interest to the USA until Kim's regime is gone - and that the Taiwanese are being briefed to that effect (the US had stopped a Taiwanese nuclear effort by threatening a cutoff of all military aid). Be clear also, and make public statements that "other states in the region" now have a viable reason to respond in kind. One could also drop hints about and then refuse to deny to the Chinese that back-channel discussions have begun with South Korea and Japan that involve America offering them a set number of working nuclear weapons from US stocks as a counterweight. They can also be told more directly via diplomatic channels that the USA will also support either or both countries if they choose to pursue their own programs, meanwhile floating diplomatic "trial balloons" re: a system that gives these countries their own deterrents as a better option, because it does not produce the capacity for further manufacture and so is "less destabilizing to the region."
How China chooses to fix the North Korea problem after that and thus stop all of these intiatives is, of course, up to them.

Welcome to the big leagues, and have a nice day.

Nothing short of that kind of response is going to change anything.

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