Busy day today, but I wanted to share with you four articles on the world’s largest prison camp masquerading as a nation, aka “North Korea,” and its uncertain future. Each has something worth your attention:
Writing from Tokyo, the New York Times’ Martin Fackler interview Korea “experts” (as if anyone can be a true expert on what goes on in a closed, paranoid land) whose general consensus is that the new dictator, twenty-something Kim Jong-Un, and the factions surrounding him will likely see a period of consolidation and reduced tension with the US, as the country sorts out its leadership and deals with crushing internal problems:
Masao Okonogi, a specialist on North Korea at Keio University in Tokyo, said that during the new leader’s first few years, North Korea would most likely avoid confrontation with the United States and its allies, like South Korea.
That was the route taken by Kim Jong-il after his father’s death, said Mr. Okonogi, and he seemed to hold out an olive branch by observing a 1994 deal negotiated by his father to freeze construction of two reactors suspected of use in North Korea’s covert atomic weapons program. North Korea eventually suspended the deal in 2003, three years before testing its first nuclear weapon.
“Look for Kim Jong-un to make some offer, like to restart the six-party talks,” Mr. Okonogi said, referring to stalled multilateral negotiations on dismantling the North’s nuclear weapons. “He’ll need to reduce tensions with the United States in order to buy time.”
Some analysts said the new leader would probably use this time to try to fulfill his father’s promise to turn North Korea into a “strong and prosperous” country by 2012. To do that, he must revive a moribund economy that ranks near the bottom of the world in many measures, including per capita gross domestic product of $1,800 per year, versus $30,000 in technologically advanced South Korea. The North’s unwillingness to forsake the centrally planned economic system, its severe isolation and its utter reliance on food and fuel handouts from China and international aid groups have perpetuated or deepened the crisis.
That would be wonderful, presuming the North Korean leadership was rational and motivated by national self-interest. But, if US intelligence is right, the new Kim on the block may be even more deranged than his father:
“It’s been only about a year and three months since Kim Jong Eun was officially tapped, so it would be very difficult for him to effectively seize power within the old guard in the party as well as the military,” said Yoo Dong-ryul, a researcher at the Police Science Institute in South Korea. “I think whether Kim Jong Eun succeeds will ultimately depend on the role by Jang Song Thaek.”
The portrait of Kim Jong Eun that emerges in his U.S. profile is that of a young man who, despite years of education in the West, is steeped in his father’s cult of personality and may be even more mercurial and merciless, officials said.
A senior U.S. official said intelligence analysts believe, for instance, that Kim Jung Eun “tortured small animals” when he was a youth. “He has a violent streak and that’s worrisome,” a senior U.S. official said, summing up the U.S. assessments.
Great. Just what we need: a potential serial killer in charge of nuclear weapons.
One of the great questions is what China will do. As revealed in the Wikileaks cables, China regards North Korea as a pain in the rice bowl and rather an embarrassment, particularly for a nation trying to establish itself as as global superpower. (Kind of like a gangster trying to be “respectable” and not wanting to be seen with his crazy friend from the old neighborhood.) There have even been preliminary feelers about the conditions under which China would accept Korean reunification. My own opinion is that China would like to see a stable, less embarrassing North Korea survive, if for nothing else than the prestige hit it would take from an ally falling apart. Failing that, reunification with the South would be acceptable — provided it did not mean American troops on or near the Yalu river border. In that case, China would want to see some sort of disengagement of the currently tight relationship between Washington and Seoul.
But there’s another possibility: a North Korean descent into chaos that leaves outside powers no choice but to intervene. Back at the NYT, Victor Cha wonders if North Korea won’t wind up as China’s newest province:
The allies’ best move, then, is to wait and see what China does. Among China’s core foreign-policy principles is the maintenance of a divided Korean Peninsula, and so Beijing’s statements about preserving continuity of North Korea’s leadership should come as no surprise. Since 2008 it has drawn closer to the regime, publicly defending its leaders and investing heavily in the mineral mines on the Chinese-North Korean border.
But even as Beijing sticks close to its little Communist brother, there are intense debates within its leadership about whether the North is a strategic liability. It was one thing to back a hermetic but stable regime under Kim Jong-il; it will be harder to underwrite an untested leadership. For Xi Jinping, expected to become China’s president over the next year, the first major foreign policy decision will be whether to shed North Korea or effectively adopt it as a province.
In other words, China may feel it has no choice other than to quietly take North Korea over.
Like Mr. Cha, former American Ambassador to the UN John Bolton sees great danger in a North Korea that slips into instability or outright chaos, to the point that US and South Korean forces might themselves have to intervene on a moment’s notice to secure the nukes:
While an authoritarian DPRK state, armed with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, is a threat regionally and globally, a fractured DPRK, leaderless and perhaps descending into civil war, is an even greater threat. The prospect of conflict among various military and other security forces, which like the Kim family also have everything on the line, is real. Control over the weapons of mass destruction and other key assets (missile launch sites and storage facilities, communications facilities, the loyalty of major military formations such as the artillery, and armor massed near the borders) will be essential.
Moreover, North Korea’s civilians are not, despite decades of effort by Pyongyang, totally ignorant about conditions outside the hermetic state. Already desperately impoverished and hungry, they may well decide at the first signs of regime collapse, or even before, that their moment is at hand. Aided by South Korean activists, they could begin moving north toward the Yalu River border with China or south to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which has divided North from South since the 1953 Korean War Armistice Agreement.
South Korean authorities, together with the nearly 30,000 U.S. forces there, have long prepared for the contingency of massive refugee flows toward the DMZ. They also have plans for entering North Korea in force on extremely short notice, to prevent massive instability, to secure the nuclear weapons, and to control the DMZ.
The last thing we need is for the North’s destructive weapons (or other elements of its nuclear program) to be used during internal conflict, or auctioned off to foreign states or terrorists by military factions desperate for hard currency to continue their struggle or flee the country. But while we believe that large stocks of chemical and biological weapons are located near the DMZ, we have very little knowledge of where the nuclear weapons actually are. If South Korean and U.S. forces have to enter the North, time will be short, the dangers high, and the odds long.
Bolton is highly critical of what he sees as almost nonexistent efforts by the Obama administration to get clear information from Beijing and coordinate with them over a possible Korean crisis. If Cha is right and China decides it needs to “put North Korea under new management,” and if those efforts fail and the US and South Korea decide they have to intervene, the potential for an accidental clash that reignites the Korean War gets white-hot.
(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)