THE LATEST NORTH KOREAN COUP DE TETE: A COMMENT
"THE shelling by North Korea of a South Korean island is a sobering reminder that the Korean peninsula will remain the world’s most dangerous flashpoint in 2011. Consider the environment: China, Russia and North Korea are all nuclear powers; South Korea, guarded by some 28,000 American troops, is permanently on alert against an unpredictable North; and Japan waits nervously on the sidelines, dreading the thought that the region will explode.
North Korea does, of course, have form. Only last March its navy torpedoed a South Korean warship, causing 46 deaths. The Pyongyang government denies involvement in that incident but is quite happy to boast its nuclear credentials: just last weekend it showed off a new uranium enrichment facility, described by a visiting American expert as “astonishingly modern”. In short, the days when the North responded positively to the “sunshine diplomacy” of the South’s Kim Dae-jung are long gone (the then-South Korean president wooed the North in 2000). Instead, the posture of the North Korean regime is frighteningly aggressive.
But why? The best explanation Cassandra can offer is that it is all to do with grooming Kim Jong Un to take over from his ailing father, Kim Jong Il. That process will continue well into 2011 and possibly beyond. Young Kim (at around 26 he is the “Dear Leader’s” third son) needs the support of the army. In theory, he has that support, having last month been appointed a daejang, equivalent to a four-star general. In practice, after cosseted teenage years spent in Switzerland (apparently he likes skiing and is a fan of basketball…), he needs to demonstrate a bit of toughness. Meanwhile, let the rest of the region tremble".
J.A. "North Korea grooms its heir," The Economist, 23 November 2010, in www.economist.com.
"However, the threat North Korea’s nuclear program poses is more theoretical than the threat posed by conventional weapons engagements. Just as it seems that a North Korean nuclear test would not result in military action, the ChonAn sinking and the Nov. 23 attack seem to show that an “unprovoked” North Korean attack also will not lead to military retaliation. If this pattern holds, it means North Korea could decide to move from sea-based to land-based clashes, shell border positions across the Demilitarized Zone or take any number of other actions that certainly are not theoretical.
The questions STRATFOR is focusing on after the Nov. 23 attack are as follows:
Is North Korea attempting to test or push back against limits on conventional attacks? If so, are these attacks meant to test South Korea and its allies ahead of an all-out military action, or is the North seeking a political response as it has with its nuclear program? If the former, we must reassess North Korea’s behavior and ascertain whether the North Koreans are preparing to try a military action against South Korea — perhaps trying to seize one or more of the five South Korean islands along the NLL. If the latter, then at what point will they actually cross a red line that will trigger a response?"
"Is North Korea Moving Another 'Red Line'?" 23 November 2010 in www.stratfor.com
"Nothing is more futile, therefore than to attempt to deal with a revolutionary power by ordinary diplomatic methods. In a legitimate order, demands once made are negotiable; they are put forward with the intention of being compromised. But in a
revolutionary order, they are programmatic; they represent a claim for allegiance. In a legitimate order, it is good negotiating tactics to formulate maximum demands because this facilitates compromise without loss of essential objectives. In a revolutionary order, it is good negotiating tactics to formulate minimum demands in order to gain the advantage of advocating moderation. In a legitimate order, proposals are addressed to the opposite number at the conference table. They must, therefore be drafted with great attention to their substantive content and with sufficient ambiguity so that they do not appear as invitations to surrender. But in a revolutionary order the protagonists at the conference table address not so much one another as the world at large. Proposals here must be framed with a maximum of clarity and even simplicity, for their major utility is their symbolic content. In short, in a legitimate order, a conference represents a struggle to find formulae to achieve agreement; in a revolutionary order, it is a struggle to capture the symbols which move humanity."
Henry A. Kissinger, "Reflections on American Diplomacy," Foreign Affairs (October 1956).
The lastest North Korean actions bespeak a regime which is either on its last legs (the 'Gotterdammerung' scenario), is using military strikes abroad to displace its domestic infighting and tensions (the 'primat der innenpolitik' scenario) or finally the scenario outlined above by Stratfor, in which the regime is carefully tabulating its every move to carefully raise the ante with each new coup de tete, vis-`a-vis South Korea and its American patron & ally (the 'primat der aussenpolitik' scenario). For what it is worth, I believe that in point of fact, insofar as it is possible to form an 'informed opinion' on the matter (and it is in fact not really possible given the nature of the North Korean regime...), my own surmise is that all three of the above scenarios are part of the likely explanation for the latest occurrences coming from Pyongyang. That being said, even if we did in fact know absolutely the thinking behind the North Korean regime's behavior, that mere fact would not per se get anyone very far in the current situation. Using Kissinger's analysis of 1956, we are in essence dealing with (psychologically if not in fact) a 'revolutionary regime'. And the only manner of trying to stabilize the current situation is to utilize the Chinese variable to put a positive break on those elements in the North Korean regime which are the most adventuresome and dangerous (of course it could very well be that 'all elements' in Pyongyang fit these characterizations). Unlike however, Dr. Brzezinski in the Financial Times, I do not believe that talking sweet reason to Peking will result in very much 1. Indeed, au fond Peking appears to be quite content with the various North Korean bouts of misbehavior. Or at the very least, not very concerned or upset by the same. It would appear for example that Peking has turned a blind eye to the smuggling of components into North Korea which the latter has utilized in the construction of its brand new advanced uranium enrichment facility 2. Unveiled just last week, in another coup de tete by North Korea. The question then becomes: what is to be done?
I for one, again in line with Kissinger's suggestion from 1956, that when dealing with a 'revolutionary' regime, one has to engage in 'revolutionary' tactics in turn, would like to suggest the following: that the Americans and the South Koreans in raise the ante by initiating counter-moves. Not mind you, by acting in some piecemeal fashion. That would in turn merely result in North Korea responding in kind. And at a time and place of its own choosing. The only method of bringing matters to a head perhaps and forcing the PRC to take effective action to put pressure on Pyongyang, is by a drastic military response. A response which would have the end-result of anchoring the entire American Pacific fleet off of the Korean coastline. With patrols up to the edges of the maritime DMZ. As well moving an entire division of American troops to the demilitarized zone, and finally re-introducing tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula. These moves, may or may not frighten Pyongyang (See however Reuters for their usual hysterical comments about the current small-scale South Korean-American military exercises)3. They will most definitely concern, nay indeed frighten the PRC. While the PRC has deprecated North Korean behavior so far, it is unlikely that it will continue to do so, if that involves bringing a significant portion of American military power right on its doorstep. At that point, Peking will no doubt exercise its 'positive influence' on its confreres in Pyongyang to substantially change its behavior. Of course it may be asked, whether or not both the monetary costs to the USA (which could indeed be borne in part or in whole by both Japan and South Korea), and the dangers of an uncontrolled escalation, make this exercise in diplomatic va banque worth it 4? But given the current circumstances in which we are now in, the prior American policy of 'do nothing', and apply more sanctions on Pyongyang, has by this time run its course. A 'Neue Kurs', is most definitely needed before North Korea decides to really cross a 'red line'.
1. Zbigniew Brzezinski, "America and China's First Big Test," The Financial Times, 23 November 2010 in www.ft.com.
2. Scott A. Snyder, "North Korea tests U.S. 'Strategic Patience,' The Council on Foreign Relations, 23 November 2010, in www.cfr.org. See also: Geoff Dwyer, "Ties bind China and its awkward ally," The Financial Times, 24 November 2010, in www.ft.com.
3. Jeremy Laurence & Danbee Moon, "North Korea says U.S-South Korean exercises bring war," Reuters, 25 November 2010, in www.reuters.com.
4. For an argument which comes to the opposite conclusions of my own, but does agree that current American policy is hopeless and needs to be changed, see: Douglas Bandow, "Deja Vu on the Korean Peninsula," The National Interest, 24 November 2010, in www.nationalinterest.org.