Four months into his presidency, Barack Obama has met his first foreign policy crisis. North Korea has decided that they are going to take advantage of the opportunity to try and push around the new president and see what they can get out of him.
In the past few weeks, North Korea has test-fired a number of missiles, tested a nuclear weapon, stated that the 1953 armistice suspending the Korean War no longer applies, and have threatened to attack South Korean ships. They say that any attempts at economic sanctions or attempts to halt the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction will be considered acts of war.
North Korea’s regime has cultivated an international image of being psychopathically insane. In fact, Kim Jong Il is not irrational. Rather, he has calculated that they way to secure his position is to make the rest of the world think that he is constantly on the verge of pushing a big red button and blowing up Seoul, Tokyo or Los Angeles. By appearing unstable, he hopes to intimidate the world into giving him aid and other concessions that he can then use to prop up his regime.
North Korea’s internal problems are there biggest obstacle to regime stability, mostly due to the fact that their nation is run like a giant prison camp. They have suffered massive famines, they have fuel shortages, they have no money (and have turned to counterfeiting and drug smuggling to raise cash) and what little money they have is spent on the military. All this adds up to mean that North Korea’s regime is in danger of internal collapse in a manner similar to the Soviet Union in 1991.
One way out of this is to start allowing economic and civil liberties in an attempt to increase economic output, but this isn’t an option for North Korean leaders who views such measures as the reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead, Kim’s strategy is to threaten to nuke neighboring countries unless they give him free stuff.
Kim knows perfectly well that North Korea’s huge but starving and fuel-starved military would eventually be defeated by South Korean, American and Japanese forces. He also knows that any nuclear strike would be met with massive American nuclear retaliation that North Korea could not hope to match. Either scenario would likely lead to the downfall of Kim’s regime. It would also cause massive destruction in South Korea, killing many people and heavily damaging the South Korean economy.
So Kim calculates that the rest of the world thinks that giving him aid to prop up his regime is a good deal in return for Seoul not being turned into a smoking wasteland. So far, it’s worked. Bill Clinton signed an infamous deal in 1994, and Bush signed a deal in 2007. Each time, North Korea has taken foreign aid and then ignored its side of the bargain, only to return with new threats and demand a new deal several years later.
Now, the Obama administration has responded to North Korea’s latest threats with more negotiations. While giving in to blackmail is not an attractive option, the other option is to call North Korea’s bluff. No one has been willing to risk that yet, because the outcome would likely either be the slow implosion of the North Korean regime, or a devastating war followed by the rapid implosion of the North Korean regime. Either way, the North Korean regime’s collapse would lead to a massive humanitarian crisis which would affect both South Korea and China.
Three American administrations have so far calculated that being subjected to protracted blackmail is cheaper than rebuilding the Korean peninsula. So, we continue to pay what is in effect blood money to keep Kim Jong-Il in power while waiting for him to eventually die. It is hoped that whoever succeeds him will be more amenable to making reforms, and thereby pull up the North Korean economy to the point that re-unification will not lead to the ruin of South Korea’s economy by attaching 22 million people worth of dead weight to the north.
The wild card in all this is China. China is North Korea’s only real ally in the world, and their main source of fuel and military equipment. China spent a massive amount of men and material saving North Korea’s bacon the last time they got cocky and tried to take over South Korea, and they would rather not repeat the experience. They also have a relationship with the United States that is at a much better point than at any previous time in China’s communist history and they don’t want to risk this for North Korea’s sake. On the other hand, China also doesn’t want a failed North Korean state on its border, nor do they want a united pro-American Korea. Hence, China’s current strategy is to keep Kim Jong-Il in power, but tighten his leash so as to not let him do anything stupid.
Other analysts think that a nuclear North Korea will lead to a regional arms race as every nation in the region prepares for war. Many people have speculated that Japan will try and acquire nuclear weapons. Japan has had the technical know-how to do this for decades, but they haven’t wanted to due to their past bad experiences with such things. A regional arms race will have the dual effect of making war less likely and making any potential war even more destructive. War becomes less likely in this case due to the amount of risk involved in losing the war. The more stuff you have, the more you risk when you go to war.
Resolving anything in the long term will require strong international cooperation between the United States, China, Japan and South Korea. Eventually, Kim Jong-Il will die and a successor will inherit his ruined country. North Korea’s best hope for future well-being is for this leader to begin liberalization, but institutional resistance will likely be strong and the leader will likely be weak. Weak leaders are more likely to try and consolidate their position through rallying the people against external enemies, meaning that nothing could change in North Korea. It also means that the regime could become more and more dangerous as it gets weaker and weaker.
There are no easy ways out of this problem. Obama is currently continuing down a course that will not resolve any of the issues related to North Korea, only postpone them to be dealt with at a later time. China is doing the same thing. Eventually, North Korea will either collapse of its own accord or try and take someone else with it. However, Obama has few other options. A pre-emptive strike on North Korea is out of the question.
Refusing all North Korean demands will break the cycle of blackmail that is prolonging the Kim Jong-Il’s regime. It will also increase the risk of war. The question that will be in the back of everyone’s mind is if North Korea is really bluffing. However, the current direction of Obama’s policy is virtually guaranteed to not yield any results. Something new must be tried. The Obama administration should work closely with the Chinese to restrain the North Korean military while at the same time refusing the delivery of any aid besides humanitarian food supplies. The U.S. and South Korea should continue their resolve to keep North Korea from spreading weapons of mass destruction technology. Missile defense technology should be deployed to prevent North Korea from effectively using its arsenal of missiles. This should serve to blunt North Korea’s threat while weakening the regime.
Militarily, the Obama administration should maintain a strong commitment to the defense of South Korea. A regional arms race may well occur, but this will only serve to stack the odds even less in North Korea’s favor and make a military attack by the North even less likely. North Korea cannot match the United States and its allies in weaponry, so any arms race will only lead to the gap being widened even further.
Coupled together, these moves will keep the North from engaging in military action while preventing the regime from strengthening its internal position through blackmail. Hopefully, the death of Kim Jong-Il will lead to a more ref0rm-minded successor, allowing for some economic and political liberalization which will cushion the crash North Korea is set to experience when the regime eventually crumbles.
However, pursuing this would require the adoption of a new, comprehensive North Korea policy. Instead, Obama is continuing the failed policies of the last two administrations.