“So Ronery”

Then again, a small-scale nuclear detonation might just be the thing to chase those tyrant blues away.

A rather intemperate colleague of mine has demanded my immediate response to North Korea’s apparent testing of a nuclear weapon. So to satisfy my own little Kim Jong Il, a few thoughts. First, it has not been conclusively confirmed that the explosion was nuclear. It’s highly unlikely that the North Koreans faked a nuclear blast but I think it’s worth pointing out all the same in the name of both journalistic accuracy and of waiting until at least the basic facts are in to start with the pant-soiling.

Second, if the test was in fact nuclear the blast appears to have been quite small – somewhere in the one to 15 kiloton range. Don’t get me wrong – that’s still powerful enough to obliterate Manhattan – but it may indicate that North Korea’s nuclear program is still fairly unsophisticated and its weaponization techniques still in their adorable murderous infancy.

As to the threat, North Korea appears to have no way of striking the American mainland with a nuclear warhead, at least not yet. The trouble with such calculations is that the cost of being wrong is catastrophic. That said, it would seem that now or in the near future Kim Jong Il will not be able to fling a nuke at D.C., and I would think that even if he could he wouldn’t unless he thought the sky was about to fall on his slave state. He has to know this would be suicide. In addition to being quite obviously a totalitarian nut-job, Kim appears to be basically geopolitically rational, at least in terms of a basic desire for survival. Unlike Saddam Hussein, he himself has not invaded any sovereign nations and seems to harbour no grand illusions of regional hegemony.

But Kim now quite probably has the capacity to obliterate Seoul or Tokyo and he will use that threat as leverage against the United States. This whole nuclear gambit is pretty much an attempt at extortion by way of fission. Furthermore, Kim would have absolutely no qualms about selling nuclear, biological or chemical weapons to other governments and to terrorist entities. To keep himself in jiggling dancing girls Kim already engages in drug-smuggling, missile-dealing, and currency counterfeiting. I suspect that he would think the profit of flogging WMD worth the risk, what with the difficulty of proving he was the supplier in the murky world of arms dealing. Kim might gamble that the United States would not necessarily wipe him off the face of the earth in this scenario, or in the event of an attack using the weapons he supplied, as they surely would if he attacked directly. In any event, for the rest of the world to gamble that he won’t is a pretty dangerous bet.

At the very least, Kim seems to be developing nuclear weapons as insurance against getting regime-changed. He wants to know he can be safe to continue torturing, tyrannizing, murdering and starving his own people. And the worst of it is that there’s very little that can be done. The Clinton Administration tried bribing Kim and Co. to stop developing nuclear weapons, which worked alright until North Korea started cheating (probably immediately after the agreement was signed). Bush et al tried threatening them, sort of, which was rather empty posturing given his administration was in the process of bungling Iraq. And military options are poor. One U.S. military estimate projected that retaliatory strikes from an attack on North Korea could result in 300,000-500,000 South Korean and U.S. military casualties alone within the first 90 days.

There’s precious little leverage that can be brought to bear on North Korea’s government. As an esteemed colleague of mine puts it, “what do you take away from a regime that has nothing?” Kim doesn’t care about his people dying as a result of sanctions as long as he gets to eat lobster with silver chopsticks, though targeted sanctions seem to have been partially successful in squeezing his income from illicit trade. I’m inclined to agree with Human Rights Watch that cutting off food-aid to North Korea in response to the nuclear test would be cruel and futile. While it’s true that Kim Jong Il and his cronies insist on the food aid being distributed by their regime and use that distribution as a means of further control and punishment, and while it’s also true that at least some of the food is probably being diverted for military purposes, the fact remains that a third of the country’s population relies on this aid to survive and there is no moral calculus that would make a questionable undermining of Kim Jong Il worth the death of millions.

Probably the best option is to exercise a policy of low-key containment and try to wait Kim out – targeted sanctions, travel restrictions, redoubled efforts at international arms monitoring. It’s not a good solution but then again there isn’t one – a common feature of international relations that bloviating Bushies and many of their critics would do well to recognize.

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5 Comments on ““So Ronery””

  1. Mike Harrison Says:

    I list North Korea among the top foreign policy failures of the Bush administration. The distractions of the war on terror have made the White House oblivious to this brewing calamity in Northeast Asia, and the options (as Hasdai points out, waiting to see what happens) are extremely limited now that the situation has escalated.

  2. ERG Says:

    But Mike, yes the situation has “escalated, ” but what options were there beforehand that stood any chance of working?

  3. Mike Harrison Says:

    Clearly, ignoring the problem has not made it go away. Whereas the DPRK had openly asked for bilateral negotiations with the United States prior to the nuclear situation “escalating,” the U.S. now essentially cannot go enter negotiations, lest it look like the DPRK’s tactic worked. Kim Jong Il and his nuclear ambitions are not a new problem. The plight of the North Korean people is not a new problem. Bush himself acknowledged in his “Axis of Evil” speech that North Korea was a problem, yet did nothing to curb either the nuclear ambitions or the plight of the people. Whatever options did exist (negotiation of any sort, aid for concessions, etc.) are now unavailable. Essentially, we were content to hold our cards and see how the game played out. Kim showed a royal flush, and the U.S. is left with its pants down in terms of how to deal with this situation.
    Now, you ask what stood any chance of working… I don’t know that anything had a chance of working… the regime clearly cannot be dealt with rationally, generally cannot be trusted, and has very little to lose. However, it did have one major thing that we wanted: We wanted them to stop pursuing nuclear capabilities. That we didn’t do what was in our power – indeed, we did NOTHING – to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons is a tragic failure of this administration, and terrorists will look like small potatoes if the DPRK’s next weapons test involves a Taepodong missile with a nuclear warhead aimed at Seoul.

  4. EV Says:

    Intemperate? Moi? Anyway, I still think we should at least consider obliterating all his palaces and homes with, um, “surgical” strikes. And what about Iran? They see our inaction on North Korea as a green light to enter the nuclear club. Ditto every other tyrannical regime in the world.

  5. ERG Says:

    Mike, we agree that the regime in Pyongang is the opposite of rational and therefore it is unclear whether any strategy works with them. And I should say straight-away that I believe in the principle of talking with our enemies (Syria??). But considering that the Clinton administration did precisely what you seem to be recommending it seems a bit unfair to blame Bush for the current dynamic – miserable as it admittedly is. The blame rests with Kim Jong Il. Should Bush have tarred them as part of the axis of evil? No. That was asinine. And I do think Bush should have spent the past five years talking, talking, talking. I just have no faith that all that jaw-jaw would have led to a different reality. There are two fundamental truths when it comes to North Korea. They are totally unreliable. And we have no leverage. No credible military threat. How do you starve a regime that has nothing? But I see no evidence that Kin Jong Il is suicidal, which is why I think the notion of a nuclear-tipped warhead heading to Seoul is really fantastical. Thankfully fantastical.


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