Thursday, February 20, 2003

What's Bush Doing in Korea?

There's been a little discussion on Brad De Long's site about Korea, and of course it's been an interest of Josh Marshall's for some time. Here's what I think.

What's Going on in North Korea

For those who don't know, North Korea has been the mother of all nightmare states for years. Despite the fact that its people are eating grass, bark, dirt, and possibly each other, it spends a third of its GNP on its military. It is a bizarre cult-of-personality Stalinist state without enough power to even turn on the lights at night. Last year, as part of its alleged "opening" to the West, North Korea revealed for the first time that it had been kidnapping Japanese citizens in order to force them to help train its spies to pass as Japanese. North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-Il, allowed a few of the kidnappees to visit Japan for a short time (without, of course, their families, who remained in North Korea as hostages). Apparently, Kim was hurt and surprised that the Japanese weren't pleased by his announcement and gesture. Nor is kidnapping an isolated occurrence. A few years back, Kim decided that North Korea needed a world class film industry. His solution was to order one of South Korea's leading firlm directors kidnapped, then to hold him prisoner, together with his wife, while the director made a series of movies at Kim's instruction, including a pro-farmer, anti-capitalist Godzilla movie.

Over the past 10 years or so, the North Korean regime has survived as a direct result of international welfare. They receive large amounts of assistance from China, and receive humanitarian assistance from Japan, Russia, the UN, and various other organizations and countries. They also hit on one more means of generating foriegn capital - international blackmail.

In 1994, the North Koreans announced that they would no longer be bound by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and began preparations to start making nukes. Clinton intervened, and after a bunch of diplomacy, they agreed to quit processing nuclear material and to begin a set of political and diplomatic reforms, and we agreed (1) not to threaten them militarily; (2) to give them a metric sh-tload of heating oil each year; and (3) to build two light water nuclear reactors for them.

Opinions differ on how serious the North Koreans were regarding opening their society and rejoining the world community. They allowed some cross-border families to meet, they met with the Japanese leadership, they let those kidnapped Japanese briefly visit Japan, etc. The most optimistic people thought that North Korea was moving in the right direction, and we might be able to encourage them to enter into a partial opening to some political and economic freedom, presumably something like Vietnam or China.

Opinions also differ on who violated the Clinton agreement first. It's hard to believe that Clinton thought he would be able to deliver the two nuclear reactors - even if light water reactors are less helpful to weapons programs, there was just no way Clinton was going to get Congress to fund nuclear reactors for North Korea, especially a Republican congress. Like Kyoto, this seems to be something that Clinton signed to close the deal, like a car saleman who promises add-ons he knows his manager will never agree to. (You put the family in the car, and by the time they figure out they're not getting rustproofing, they're still likely to keep the car.) In any event, we never made any serious steps towards delivering the reactors, and I can't believe we ever would have. Meanwhile, at some point, North Korea began lying to us and the UN Nuclear Inspectors, and began secretly developing nuclear weapons, albiet at a much slower pace than they probably would have if we hadn't signed the deal. Finally, when Bush came in to office, his people started talking tough about North Korea, which some people have characterized as suggesting to the North Koreans that we might renege on the non-aggression part of the deal.

This all came to a head a few months ago. We told North Korea that we knew about their secret nuclear program, and they basically asked us what we were willing to put on the table to get them to stop it. Bush, cowboy that he is, said not a damn thing, you already promised not to refine nuclear materials. There was hair-pulling, and scratching, and the next thing we knew, all deals were off, the North Koreans had started up their full-speed nuclear program, and the Bush administration was saying (1) the International Community should handle it and (2) America wouldn't deal directly with the North Koreans until they agreed to stop their nuclear program.

So, as Sean-Paul the Agonist points out from time to time, we now have a crisis. North Korea is refining nuclear materials, and even if we eventually close a deal, we'll never know how much they made during this period or where they hid it. China and Russia apparently refuse to stop funding the North Korean regime, so sanctions seem unlikely to budge them. Attacking North Korea is a disturbing option, because North Korea has over 10,000 artillery tubes pointed at Saeul, which means that if we attack them or if they just get panicked enough to push the button, they will be able to destroy the city where 60% of Sourth Korea's population lives.

Meanwhile, the North Koreans seem determined to get missiles and nuclear weapons, possibly to sell to other countries, and possibly to bring most Japanese cities within easy range of destruction. They're likely to have nuclear missiles within a year or so if we don't make a deal with them, or within several years if we do. (Assuming that they keep cheating).

What Is Our Plan with Regard to Korea?

I think Bush is using one of two plans with regard to Korea. Either one of them requires him to keep quiet about his true plan, but one of them scares me a lot more than the other.

Option One - No Plan: It's possible that Bush doesn't know what to do with regard to Korea, feels that it's wrong to negotiate with blackmailers, and is just stalling for time while he takes care of Iraq, the economy, the tax cut, and whatever else is on his mind. This is the scary option, and I certainly hope it's not what's going on.

Option Two - Hang Tough: It's also possible that Bush has a plan, but that it's one he can't publicly disclose. If this is the case, the most likely scenario is that Bush has concluded that the North Koreans are more desperate than we are, and that if he waits, North Korea will begin to sweat enough that America will get a better deal in the eventual negotiations. Here, a better deal could mean more diplomatic concessions from NK, stronger inspections, or an agreement that leaves the NK government weaker than the one they prefer. Alternately, Bush feels that by credibly hanging tough, he will give China the signal that if NK doesn't back down, the US will just pull out its troops, let Japan develop a nuclear arsenal, and let China handle the resulting possibility of nuclear meltdown. China is the only country that can plausibly convince North Korea to back down (if anyone can), and a strong bluff may push them to do it.

Option Three - Pay Up: It's not clear what North Korea wants from the US now, or what it will offer us. Some people have suggested that all we have to do is promise not to attack (and resume the Clinton agreement aid levels), while others think we need to put something on the table.

I hope that Bush is pursuing Option Two, and is pressuring China to resolve the situation, and/or plans to make an offer to North Korea from a position of strength. I also hope he has a back-up plan (presumably a decapitation strike), and knows how to use it. South Korea is a solid ally, and hanging tough isn't worth seing Seoul destroyed.

Korea Is No Reason to Back Down on Iraq

I would also like to state that, IMHO, the North Korean crisis is no reason to back down on Iraq. We are ready to go in Iraq, and can do a lot of good. If we actually needed those troops to conquer North Korea, I would feel differently, but as I've said, North Korea has such a strong blackmail position that our options are basically a devastating first strike or nothing at all. Either way, the massive troop strength we have in Iraq would be useful only for saber-rattling, and would be likely to make the situation worse.

(Again, I'm feeling lazy, and apologize. I'll add links and do a spell-check soon. - J Mann)