• What Happens Next in North Korea? Look Back at the China Example from 1979

    May 4, 2018 // 3 Comments »



    On April 27 North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in met, ahead of a trilateral summit with President Trump in June.

    There was a lot to talk about, but the focus in the west on nuclear issues misses the real story: Kim may be seeking revolutionary economic upheaval. There are signs everything is ready to change.

    It is not hard to imagine Kim has a biography of former Chinese leader Deng Xiao-ping on his nightstand. A nuclear power since the late 1960s, China’s centrally-managed economy as Deng took power was failing to feed its people. The nation remained mostly isolated from the world, dependent on the Soviet Union. Then everything changed in 1979 when Deng secured an agreement with President Jimmy Carter that covered his security needs (no one seemed worried China had nukes), diplomatically papered over his unproductive, long-simmering political issues like the status of Taiwan, and allowed him to introduce changes that led directly to China’s economic ascendancy.

    A key sign Kim is headed the same way is the extraordinary number of concessions he has made ahead of his upcoming summits. Kim is acting like a man in a hurry.


    Kim agreed to seek a formal end to the 1950 Korean War (supported by some 80% of South Koreans, an agreement would be a massive domestic win for Moon, himself the son of North Korean refugees, ahead of the June 13 elections.) Following a visit to Beijing, signifying sign-off on what happens next from the North’s Chinese patrons (confirmed soon after when Kim received Song Tao, a key Chinese diplomat, in Pyongyang), Kim Jong-un announced denuclearization of the peninsula negotiable, while at the same time saying he no longer insists the U.S. remove its troops in the South as a precondition to discussions.

    Trump could never agree to troop reductions at this early stage, and could never move into a summit if denuclearization was non-negotiable; Kim has taken those problems off the table. Kim then announced a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, and closed down the Punggye-ri test site. The rain of missiles which in the fall prompted Trump to issue his “fire and fury” threat simply stopped.

    Kim also announced the end of his signature domestic policy, byungjin, the parallel advance of defense and the domestic economy (Kim’s father promoted the defense-only policy of songun.) At a recent Workers’ Party meeting, Kim said it was time to focus the nation’s resources on rebuilding its economy, a clear signal to domestic elites he is aware of their desire for a better life. Throw in for good measure the reopening of the intra-Korea hotline, CIA director Mike Pompeo’s welcome in Pyongyang, the recent recognition of capitalism in North Korean law, and the stream of cultural exchanges underway, to include K-Pop shows attended by Kim himself.

    These concessions and changes are exactly the things most people would have expected to be the focus of the summits, if not the hoped-for results of months of tedious negotiations to follow. But what if Kim wants more?


    Wipe clean for a moment the cartoon image of Kim as a madman and re-imagine him as a nationalist. Kim literally grew up surrounded by westerners at boarding school in Switzerland, and speaks French, German, and some English. He knows where North Korea sits in the world. What if Kim sees himself as his nation’s Deng Xiao-ping? What if, having a crude nuclear deterrent and knowing pushing it further can only hasten his destruction, he is ready to end his nation’s isolation? What if by sweeping many of the expected short-term American goals off the table with unilateral concessions Kim wants to move directly to talking money, not just weapons? What if Kim is actually following Deng’s example?

    One of Deng’s first changes allowed farmers to sell surplus produce. Factories were told to sell production over-quota on the open market. Special economic zones designed to make money (not political showpieces such as the North-South experiment at Gaeseong) were set up, with much of the early action focused on “safe” partners like Hong Kong.

    So it may matter a lot that Seoul is already exploring ways to sell electricity to the North, and that Kim supports special economic zones. Or that there are already some 480 sanctioned (not “black”) free markets in North Korea, jangmadang, many new since Kim took power, hundreds more renovated or expanded under his hand. North Korea’s state-controlled media regularly runs pictures of Kim visiting these markets. There is a restless and growing consumerist middle class in North Korea, living in a parallel semi-market economy fueled by dollars, Chinese currency, and increasing access to foreign media, all not unknown to the Kim regime.

    “Everything about North Korea spells potential,” says one North Korean defector now at the South Korea Development Bank. Estimated to be worth six trillion dollars, North Korea’s reserves of gold, copper, zinc, and other minerals would allow Kim to diversify his sources of income if he converts his country into what Bloomberg calls a “frontier market” in the center of a booming region.

    Unlike previous negotiations with North Korea, when Kim’s father had to be bribed by the Clinton administration with a nuclear reactor to even come to the table, with the South dragged along by Washington as a neo-colonial afterthought, the current process is driven by the Korea’s (witness the low-key role America played at the diplomatic dance at the Olympics.) As one analyst put it “It is no longer where the U.S. may take the negotiating process so much as where the negotiating process may take the U.S… Those in the region now seem determined to commandeer a train the Americans have driven for 65 years.”

    To succeed, Trump need do little more than not fall prey to establishment fears, be unafraid to enable the economic opportunities he claims to understand well, and stay out of the way as the two Korea’s with their shared cultural, linguistic, and historical ties frame the issues. In this sense, the Kim-Moon summit may be more important than the Kim-Moon-Trump one. However, if Trump bulls into the room and says “Nukes, number one and we’re done” the process will stall.


    Political opponents will claim “they’ll renege, just you wait.” They will make the most of the “we beat the other guy” statements Kim (and Trump) will make for their domestic audiences. Media are teeing up denuclearization as a strawman, claiming if Trump comes home with the North retaining its weapons, he has failed. Such remarks are ahistorical nonsense, as denuclearization is a process, not an event. The Obama-era Iran accords required two years of negotiations and didn’t even involve actual weapons. U.S.-Soviet Cold War progress was measured in baby steps strung out over decades. Fast-track denuclearization has its history, too, in the failures in Libya and Iraq.

    Success will be measured as North Korea engages the international system, thus reducing the threat of war as a base for reducing the weapons. After all, decades of sanctions have yielded only a nuclear North Korea, and summit or no summit that is a starting point, not a debatable point. It is possible to imagine a future where North Korea’s nuclear stockpile erodes into the status of those in Pakistan and India, never mind China, an understood deterrent, not a threat. Focusing too much on the nukes is to ensure failure; they are part of a problem solved by a comprehensive solution that takes into account what the North is really at the table for: engagement with the world system.

    Reviewing the last ten years of western political thought on North Korea it is staggering how poorly predictions have panned out; there has been no succession struggle, no societal collapse, no coup, no war — and no progress. It is as if having painted one picture, the west is intellectually blocked from considering another. That is the most dangerous thing afoot as the 2018 summit looms.




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    Posted in Military, Trump

    More Reasons Why There Will Not Be War with North Korea

    December 26, 2017 // 16 Comments »



    Three days after offering to talk to North Korea without preconditions, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reversed course, insisting – as President Donald Trump has – the North must first stop its nuclear threats. As he backs away from the table, are we closer to war?


    Trump speaks of “fire and fury.” National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster says the North’s nuclear program is “the most destabilizing development in the post-World War II period.” John Brennan, the former CIA director, estimates the odds of war at 25%. Senator Lindsey Graham says there’s a 30% chance the U.S. will launch a nuclear first strike. The Council on Foreign Relations sees it closer to 50%.

    The idea that war with North Korea is a near-term inevitability is normalized for many. But exactly what calculus is necessary to take Trump, et al, at face value and believe war is coming? On the other hand, what line of thinking suggests the threats are merely a blowhard throwing some Grade-A tough guy meat to his base?

    If one believes North Korea holds nuclear weapons simply as a deterrent, a defense against attack by the United States as happened with Iraq and Libya after they denuclearized, there is no need for America to go to war. The North Koreans won’t use theirs unless we use ours first. It is a classic example of what kept the Cold War from going full-hot.

    The history of North Korea, embodied in its national philosophy of juche, is about survival, keeping the regime alive. The Kim family has been remarkably good at doing just that since 1948. Unlike Cuba, they economically survived the collapse of the Soviet Union. They suffered total war, famine, natural disasters, and decades of sanctions. They haven’t sought reunification by force with the South since 1950, even as stronger and weaker American presidents came and went.

    There is no rational argument why North Korea would destroy itself with the pointless first-use of nuclear weapons against the overwhelming power of the U.S.. If you were the general briefing Kim Jong Un on the risk versus gain of the offensive use of nukes, try and figure out how you’d pitch national suicide as a possible up side. The weapons are defensive. North Korea can’t be the one that starts the war.


    Over in Washington, the only way to believe Trump’s threats are real is to believe the North, in spite of everything you just read, would somehow see its way to using its weapons offensively, i.e., to attack South Korea as part of an attempt at reunification. Only then is a pre-emptive strike justified as self-defense. As part of America’s act of self-defense, potentially millions of Koreans, alongside hundreds of thousands of Japanese, as well as persons on Guam, maybe Hawaii, would die.

    And the strike by America would need to come soon, before they get us first. Sound familiar? This was the rationale used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq — Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, we were told, and it would be fatal to wait for him to use them against us. “Who wants the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud?” then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice warned in 2002. “How long are we going to wait to deal with what is clearly a gathering threat?”

    The trick was that it was almost certain the Bush administration knew Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction in 2002, and they definitely knew even during Iraq War 1.0, Desert Storm in 1991, Saddam did not use his chemical or biological weapons.

    It is the latter point that’s worth exploring. Saddam didn’t use his chem/bio weapons because the other side would then have no option but to retaliate in kind. In the case of Saddam, as with North Korea, the disparity in firepower with the United States meant total destruction. The only way to win – survive – is not to play the game.


    For the United States to decide on a first strike against North Korea the risk is beyond disproportionate to any possible gain. In a “miracle strike” every U.S. weapon would land perfectly on top of every North Korean target, including the American nukes needed to reach deep into the living rock of the mountains that protect the most important sites. This best case scenario would still leave North Korea under a radioactive cloud, which, given predictable weather patterns, would spread to Seoul and Tokyo. North Koreans not killed outright would trigger a humanitarian crisis unheard of in modern times. And the 1950’s Korean War offers a clear indication of how China would have to respond to an attack near its border, never mind a zombie apocalypse in the form of millions of starving North Koreans.

    And even that best case scenario is fully theoretical, because as any military planner will tell you, a “perfect” strike is impossible. Any American first-use plan includes at least a handful of lucky shots by the North (imagine one of those doomsday shots landing in Los Angeles), plus the activation of sleeper cell special forces almost certainly already in place in South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere.

    On top of the actual destruction, it is unclear if the global economic system would survive nuclear war, if South Korea and Japan could remain American allies if Seoul and Tokyo are aglow, if China would blithely continue to hold their American government debt and not purposefully trigger a crisis on Wall Street, or if any president, especially one already hated by about half the country, could explain away a radioactive Los Angeles was the price of safety from an even worse possible North Korean attack of the future. And those thousands of American troops immolated on their bases in Korea and Japan, sorry about that, hope that won’t negatively influence any votes in 2020.

    If you were briefing the president, could you find the gain in that Strangelovian scenario to balance the risk? We’d certainly get more than our hair mussed up. You’d probably instead say what one person who might actually talk with the president really did say. Rear Admiral Michael Dumont, the vice-director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained “There are no good military options for North Korea. Invading North Korea could result in a catastrophic loss of lives for U.S. troops and U.S. civilians in South Korea. It could kill millions of South Koreans and put troops and civilians in Guam and Japan at risk.”

    Boom.


    To believe the U.S. is headed toward war requires belief that one or more national leaders would destroy themselves and much of their country for no gain whatsoever. Imagine what you want about madmen, but leaders and politicians just don’t think that way.

    Still, anyone can ignore whatever facts they like, and believe whatever they want to believe. After all, some people still believe a fat guy in a red suit is going to come down the chimney later this month; try and persuade them that isn’t true…



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    Our Man in Seoul: Ever So Inconvenienced by North Korea

    April 10, 2013 // 7 Comments »

    Add another to the State Department’s social media fail pile: America’s ambassador in Seoul blogs about how his vacation was disrupted by those naughty nats in North Korea.

    U.S. ambassador to Korea Sung Kim has wowed us via social media before, with his just-behind-the-meme video of his embassy interns dancing Gangnam Style. His latest stumble into social media details on his official Embassy blog his spring break trip with his daughters, all of which was just bothered by the constant threat of World War III.

    To start, that North Korean stuff cut into Kim’s vacay time:

    My daughters recently had off from school for spring break, and I planned to take a week off for a nice family vacation. But as is often the case here on the Peninsula, my break was interrupted by important developments and urgent issues, so my week off turned into just one day.


    Then things turned rough.

    However, starting early that Saturday morning, as new threats started coming from North Korea, I got busy with work. I had many calls and emails with Washington policymakers, senior South Korean officials, and U.S. Forces Korea. My BlackBerry was very busy.

    Several of these calls happened when we were at Busan Aquarium. Since it was a beautiful weekend morning, the aquarium was packed with happy (and loud) visitors, and it was very difficult to find a quiet place to talk. At one point, I had to send my daughters to the aquarium gift shop and then find a somewhat secluded stairwell to take part in what I hoped would be a 10-minute conference call. Unfortunately, the call lasted 40 minutes.

    What I did see of the aquarium was really terrific.


    Whew, looks like the ambassador just made it out alive, averting tragedy on the world’s most heavily armed border by sending his kids to the gift shop. Then, it was back to important work keeping peace:

    Despite all the phone calls and having to work through my vacation, I had a very nice time. We all wanted to stay longer, but the kids had to go back to school, and I was excited to participate in a very special ceremony with Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kyou-hyun the next day.

    If you have seen the U.S. Embassy recently, you would have noticed our giant banner marking this very special year in U.S.-Korea relations. This is our hwan gap, as we are celebrating “60 Years of Partnership and Shared Prosperity.” 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the Armistice, the Mutual Defense Treaty, and the founding of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea.


    That same armistice was recently disavowed by North Korea but whatever, right?

    That the U.S. embassy decided to feature on its social media the ambassador’s idiotic spring break trip in the midst of a major crisis on the Korean peninsula leaves one stunned. Is this some complex meta-diplo move to tweak the North Koreans? Is it just typically clumsy timing?

    Or is it that the U.S. ambassador is not much more than a bit player in world events anyway so no one even bothers about what image he is presenting to the world?

    Yep. Gangnam style!!!!!!



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