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North Korea: Curbing Missile Diplomacy

March 6th, 2009
Let a new sun rise in the North

Let a new sun rise in the North

The Hermit Kingdom has been getting awfully crabby in recent headlines, and Bellum proposes that it’s time to step back and formulate a recourse to the inevitable: Parallel to intimating that it will shoot down South Korean aircraft that enter its airspace during the course of war games with the United States and that it will confront the “puppet state” on its disputed western sea border, North Korean authorities claim that they will soon launch an innocuous “communications satellite” that it has been preparing since January. Of course, as with most snarky announcements out of DPRK’s state-run Korean Central News Agency, the noise has got analysts up in arms on suspicions that the object-in-question may instead be a malevolent Taepodong-2 missile capable of reaching the western United States (and thereby picking up where Yasuyo Yamazaki left off in 1943, harrying Aleut-Americans just trying to go about their business). Upon further inquiry, NK’s spokesman betrayed juche by responding with a Buddhist coan, legacy of an earlier subjugated age: “One will come to know later what will be launched”. Zen indeed.

When we do come to know later what was launched, though, our response must be quick and firm (we’re thinking Israel-Syria 2007 here). W. D. Howells, alum of the State Department, brings forward a strong point on this front in suggesting that the Obama administration should hastily release a generalized self-defense statement:

“Should any nation known to possess and to have tested nuclear fissile material launch a missile capable of reaching the United States or any of its allies and apparently on a trajectory to do so, the United States and its allies will not hesitate to destroy that missile.”

The Taepodong-2 range threatens the western United States as well as important US military bases like Guam

The Taepodong-2 range threatens the western United States as well as important US military bases like Guam

Inasmuch as Kim Jong Il won’t get precise beforehand, it shouldn’t be our (or any other nation’s) duty to credit threats veiled in byzantine press releases. NK officials have never shied away from thinly-disguised hostility, but with the G20 giving it the college try at cooperation in the face of financial woes, aid-baiting with explosives clearly shows the egg on North Korea’s face—or whatever it is smeared on the fool’s cheeks in a country so severely protein-deficient. South Korea is right to push back on the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland for its insensible threats on commercial airliners, and it is right to reiterate how foundationless the North’s warnings are: “We’ve become quite used to our neighbour’s threats. Its overall impact on airlines is limited,” says an analyst at SK Securities. South Korean President Lee Myung Bak is further doing his part by riling up NK’s top brass, hopefully compelling them to accept that a modern economy cannot function on ribbon dancing and Handicam propaganda alone.

The emergence of grassroots capitalism providing output beyond mere arirang card-flipping continues to be a burr on the side of North Korea’s elites— the Washington Post reports that a large portion of food in North Korea is now acquired in private markets that Kim Jong Il insists “[give] rise to egotism and [collapse] the social order of the classless society.” And now that “America’s puppet” isn’t willing to hold up DRPK by the strings, the “hunger problem” has forced the regime to reach out to foreign technocrats and World Food Program aid workers to fill its annual grain production deficit (equal to nearly 1/5 of the nation’s total food requirements). The familiar dance, weighed carefully between antagonistic grumbling and juche breast-beating on the one hand and a willingness to recant truculence in exchange for rice sacks on the other, is wearying for all parties involved. George Bush and the “axis of evil” allegations may be a thing of the past, but with 80% of North Korean household income now stemming from free market activity, NK’s mandarin class cannot think that Clintonian bartering (.pdf file) is a useful template for the present. Here, Kim Jong Il is correct for once in asserting that any greater degree of foreign involvement chips away at the national will in creating suppliers better able to match the people’s demand.

To counter this influence, DPRK historically shows a proclivity to seek solutions in China, and so far it looks like 2009 will be no different. What will be different now is the opportunity costs China accrues by pandering to Kim Jong Il and his cronies—SecState Clinton has struck a comprising tone in her first visit to PRC and China is enjoying a positive global image as a dynamo for economic recovery. Coupling this with China’s broadened willingness to participate in peacekeeping operations and to back multilateral frameworks, striking too tolerant a chord with DPRK might hinder the state’s heiping jueqi (“peaceful rise”) agenda that seems within reach at the moment. Track II diplomacy, moderately effective in dealing with North Korea, remains an option, but on official channels it seems that China will be critical of the Hermit Kingdom so as not to derail its own ascension.

1910s Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty still weighs heavily- if irrationally- in the DPRKs world outlook

1910's Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty still weighs heavily-- if irrationally-- in the DPRK's world outlook

As it stands then, no outside factors are likely to come into place that could prevent a Taepodong-2 test in the near future: Deterrence may work with stable regimes, but NK’s senior cadres are insane by real world standards, swallowing their own bathwater part and parcel. This is especially worrying because 1) NK missiles don’t always go where they are supposed to and Osaka will feel no happier being hit by accident than it would be being hit on purpose and 2) in that NK still cites Showa Japan’s tyrannies (Sōshi-kaimei, military conscription, etc.) as a motivation for armament, an intentional missile strike on a Japanese city is not outside the realm of possibility. When North Korea does something off the wall to grab attention, it bets on the US, SK and Japan not risking war.

Doug Bandow brings forward a legitimate concern in February’s Reason proposing that restraint is the most potent medicine to defeat the North Korean virus:

“If there is insanity at work on the Korean peninsula, it is the assumption that Kim would do nothing if his nation was attacked by the U.S. He might choose inaction, but more likely would see such a strike as the prelude to regime change. In that case the results of the Iraq war would impel him to act first rather than await invasion. America and South Korea would win any war, but the costs would be horrendous.”

NK workers process newly-arrived food aid from the enemies of the people

NK workers process newly-arrived food aid from the "enemies of the people"

Bellum doesn’t doubt that Kim would respond disproportionately to a US-led airstrike on the missile facility that launches the Taepodong. But that shouldn’t change things, provided we follow W.D. Howells advice by preemptively issuing a generalized response doctrine. Statistics, facts, reality and just about everything else that can be readily measured are stacked against the NK camp. Some, like Bandow, will suggest that this means the Kim regime is delusional and that it should be coddled for the way it could be otherwise unpredictable in its foreign policy. While we agree that a “middle ground” response mating an airstrike with subsequent accommodationalism would be detrimental, we defer to the other end of the spectrum. Incipient capitalism and the financial crisis’ influence over China make DPRK particularly weak at this moment—if Kim decides to push, we owe it both East Asia and to the ultimatum of sanity to push back, harder than ever.

By the way, if Bellum should happen to have any visitors from the DPRK today, we have an important offer for you: Our website might not win any design awards this year, but we think our webmaster could do a lot for your national website that looks like it hasn’t been updated since pets.com was a viable business.

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