Thursday, October 12, 2006

North Korea’s Gift

“It seems impossible to gain any worthwhile insights into the North Korean view of the [Korean] war, as long as Kim Il-sung presides over a society in which the private possession of a bicycle is considered a threat to national security,” wrote historian Max Hastings in his narrative of the Korean War. Substitute Kim Il-sung for Kim Jong-il, and change the date from 1987 — the year Hastings’ history was published — to 2006 and one soon discovers that precious little has changed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Other than the fact that, unless the world community was wrong in its initial seismographic readings following Monday’s underground detonation, it has turned nuclear, that is. Immediately after the test of the device — a 15kt bomb, about the size of the one tested by Pakistan a few years ago, that seems to have fizzled to less than 1kt — condemnation poured from every corner of the planet, including Beijing, Pyongyang’s only diplomatic ally, if we can call it that. Stock markets dropped, and the region’s military — mostly Japan’s and South Korean’s — went on high alert. In addition to demonstrating that a very unstable and delusional regime now seemingly possesses weaponized nuclear technology, the North’s test, however faulty, clearly threatens the very foundations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

And yet, the greatest threat emerging from the test is not nuclear in nature, however uncomfortable one might be with the idea of a nuclear North Korean. The gravest danger lies in how the international community, and more especially South Korea, Japan and the U.S., reacts in the coming weeks. Already, there have been talks among regional powers, as well as at the UN Security Council, of strengthening the sanction regime against North Korea, short of an embargo.

But it is on the military side, not so much coming in the form of an unlikely military attack against Pyongyang as in the deployment to the immediate region — in the Sea of Japan, in Japan itself and in South Korea — of forces, mostly U.S., which North Korea could construe as indicative of a coming strike, that the true dangers lie. The DMZ which since 1953 has separated the Koreas is the most heavily concentrated conventional military area in the world, with more firepower than obtained in Germany at the height of the Cold War. The North is pointing enough short-range missiles (by some open-source accounts as many as 500 artillery pieces) at Seoul, the South Korean capital, to cause billions of dollars in damage and likely thousands of deaths. Without the necessity of using a nuclear or chemical arsenal — the North has both — Pyongyang has enough deterrent force to make external intervention a la Iraq a very difficult decision to make, and nuclear capabilities notwithstanding, it is difficult to conceive of Washington or Tokyo, let alone Seoul, deciding to endanger the lives of tens of thousands of citizens in the name of the enforcement of the NPT or preemption. Nevertheless, Pyongyang’s threat perception and the paranoid world in which its leader Kim Jong-il lives (he disappeared for weeks before the nuclear test, ostensibly for fear that outside powers might attempt a “decapitation” attack against his regime) contains the risk that it will misinterpret military maneuvers as preparation for a military strike. As is often the case in history, wars are launched not through calculation, but as the result of misperceptions, miscommunication, or downright mistakes.

Finding a solution to the problem that North Korea poses to the region and to the world will not be easy, and the successful resolution of the threat with the avoidance of catastrophic civilian deaths will necessitate a well-calibrated response from the world community. But one thing is certain: had the U.S. and its allies focused on North Korea — which has been a totalitarian, repressive regime since the late 1940s and which possesses proven arsenals of chemical weapons (5,000 metric tons, produced in eight known factories) and which has threatened its neighbors with missile tests and which now can make the claim to being in the nuclear club — rather than Iraq, which admittedly also was repressive but which by many dependable accounts no longer had chemical and biological weapons or a viable nuclear program since at least the mid-1990s and whose conventional military forces had been depleted to such an extent that it no longer posed a threat to the region, maybe the world wouldn’t find itself in the dangerous situation it is in today. It is not a question of historical hindsight; the intelligence on Iraq did prove before the invasion that it no longer had a WMD program, and it was ignored for political reasons. Meanwhile, not only did regional and world powers have intelligence that the DPRK had an ongoing WMD program, but the regime itself claimed that it did.

Politics intervened, and the U.S. went into Iraq. North Korea seized upon that, and now the world is caught wrong-footed, with a U.S. military so overstretched that should it choose to intervene militarily in the Korean peninsula, it would face serious materiel and personnel shortages.

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