Thursday, May 16, 2013

North Korea Explained

For those who are perplexed, and occasionally frightened, by the strange and seemingly irrational nation of North Korea, some enlightenment is available. Richard Lloyd Parry has provided an interesting perspective on the country in an article in the London Review of Books: Advantage Pyongyang. Parry is reviewing a book by Victor Cha: The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future

Parry calms our concerns about madmen running the nuclear-armed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) with this assessment:

"Much writing and thinking about North Korea is still hobbled by the assumption that the rulers of the DPRK are ‘mad’. But no government without an iron grip on reality could have survived this long in such dire circumstances. Most of the Kims’ behaviour is rendered understandable, often logical and occasionally even reasonable, through the simple mental exercise of placing yourself in their shoes. This is not to defend an indefensibly vile regime. But if you accept that the North Korean government seeks only to prolong its survival, many things fall into place."

If one places themselves in DPRK shoes and looks around, one discovers that the nation is surrounded by well-armed, powerful forces that would intervene in the affairs of the country if they could. The goal of the government is to insure that any such intervention would result in an unacceptable level of pain for any adventurous nation. One of the best ways to forestall any intrusion in your affairs is to possess nuclear weapons and threaten to use them.

A crisis occurred in 1994 when the DPRK threatened to obtain nuclear material for a weapon from reprocessed reactor rods.

"It is startling to remember now, when North Korea’s possession of nuclear bombs, and perhaps the means to deliver them, are facts of life, that to Clinton the mere act of reprocessing was unacceptable. As the White House contemplated a call-up of reservists and the evacuation of Americans from South Korea, there was panic buying in Seoul, where the stock market fell by 25 per cent. The situation was defused by a brilliant and near-treasonous intervention by Jimmy Carter, who negotiated a compromise face to face with Kim Il Sung and then bounced the administration into accepting it by announcing it live from Pyongyang on CNN."

"The result was the Agreed Framework, an elaborately programmed sequence of reciprocal steps under which an international consortium would provide North Korea with ‘safe’ nuclear reactors, fuel, political normalisation and economic engagement, in return for a nuclear freeze and eventual disarmament."

"There was bad faith on both sides. Even as it shut down the reactors at Yongbyon [reactor], the North was secretly enriching uranium elsewhere. But the Agreed Framework averted war, placed Yongbyon under international monitoring, and prevented the construction of two much bigger reactors which would have provided enough fuel for thirty nuclear warheads every year."

While not an ideal situation, it was viewed as a means of buying time until the North Korean government either collapsed, or came to its senses.

The list of dumb things attributed to the presidency of George Bush is so long that most people tire before adding his disruption of this delicate balance between the DPRK and the rest of the world. When he coupled North Korea with Iraq, and Iran as an "axis of evil," the message he sent was interpreted as a threat to take preemptive military action.

"Bush does not lack detractors, but his vandalism of the delicate architecture of US policy on North Korea has been insufficiently recognised. His first secretary of state, Colin Powell, came to office reassuring reporters that ‘we do plan to engage with North Korea to pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off.’ Within 24 hours neocon pressure forced a humiliating retraction."

"Human rights in North Korea became a political weapon, wielded by the right as a means of undermining those, including the elected government of South Korea, who favoured continued engagement."

"Clinton had prepared, reluctantly, for war; having averted it, he had energetically concluded three separate diplomatic agreements with North Korea, with a fourth (on limiting ballistic missiles) in the works. After four years of Republican government all those agreements, and the safeguards they incorporated, had collapsed, with nothing to take their place. This was the sum achievement of George Bush, foe of rogue states and protector of the nation: to allow the world’s most isolated government to acquire the Bomb."

Victor Cha was a member of the team that eventually participated in the six-party negotiations. In the course of those discussions he received this message from the other side of the table:

"You attacked Afghanistan because they do not have nukes. You attacked Iraq because it did not have nukes. You will not attack us. And you will not attack Iran."

North Korea has the bomb and is issuing statements about all the terrible things it could do. How concerned should we be?

"The rhetorical torrent which began issuing from the state media in late March was unexpected in its intensity. But none of what followed has been inconsistent with past North Korean behaviour. The goal of the leadership is the same as it was in 1994: to strike a bargain in which certain assets (including the repeatedly frozen and unfrozen Yongbyon reactor, and the right to do business at Kaesong and the Diamond Mountains) are auctioned off in return for oil, food and cash."

"The noises from the North are widely misunderstood. They are not unilateral threats of war, but promises of retaliation in the event of US and South Korean attack. (This gets lost in much of the reporting because of the famous verbosity of North Korea’s official communiqu├ęs: the threat is quoted, while the balls-aching conditional preamble is cut.)"

Parry reminds us that in spite of all the threats, charges and countercharges, the Korean situation has been rather stable compared to other regions in the world.

"Clinton called the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas ‘the scariest place on earth’; but it has proved less dangerous over the last sixty years than the Falkland Islands, Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia and broad swathes of Africa, South Asia and the Middle East."

He thinks this state of not quite unstable equilibrium will continue indefinitely.

"The sorry truth is that North Korea’s state of political undeath suits the most powerful players in the game better than any alternative."

"Until twenty years ago, the desire for national reunification was painfully felt by South Koreans; today, the political and social cost of integrating the strange, impoverished people in the North makes it positively undesirable. For Japan, the prospect of a unified peninsula is exciting in the short term (new markets, a check on South Korean competitiveness), but alarming for its end result: a union of 74 million people with distinctly funny feelings about Japan. For the United States, the prospect of another nation to rebuild, with Iraq and Afghanistan barely under control, is nauseating."

China is the one country that could force the North Korean rulers to toe the line by withholding the economic necessities that it allows to flow across the border. But it is in their best interests to maintain the status quo.

"The standard explanation points to China’s long border with North Korea and the chaos of refugees and fleeing soldiers which could follow a regime collapse in Pyongyang. But Cha identifies a stronger reason: the valuable cross-border trade, and the coal, iron and minerals which China extracts from the North. Copper, gold, zinc, nickel and rare earth metals like molybdenum can be mined more cheaply in North Korea, and with even fewer concerns for health and safety. China keeps the North afloat through gifts of cash, grain, as well as ‘friendship prices’, not out of fraternal feeling, but ‘to sustain a minimal level of stability and subsistence so that China can continue its economic extraction policies’."

It seems the only ones with a vested interest in a change of government are the long-suffering North Korean people.

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