Under the politically convoluted constraints that define the War on Terror, we and our allies often need to pursue strategically critical actions but may not wish publicly to call them what they are. A good case in point is the Anaconda Strategy in Northeast Asia. There is well underway an expanding naval blockade of North Korean. It is not called a blockade because would be tantamount to an act of war under international rules. And a shooting war with North Korea is what we hope to avoid. But the need to intercept North Korean contraband is absolutely necessary.
Despite the virtual impossibility of obtaining statistics of any kind - let alone reliable ones - from the North Koreans, there can be little argument that the corrupt Stalinist regime of Kim Jong Il is disintegrating. International relief workers, defectors, refugees and visitors corroborate reports of mass starvation, rationing of food and medicine, and an extraordinary amount of poverty. Photos from outer space reveal such a lack of electrical power generation capability that the country becomes a dark, forbidding landscape at night. By contrast Japan, South Korea and China glow outwards into space, a fitting metaphor for their economic and social progress compared to the retrogressive North.
Because of the abject poverty imposed by a combination of bizarre personality cult, failed communist economic policies, and police state regimentation, Kim Jong Il is desperate to find cash sufficient to finance his loathsome regime. Kim has eccentric, expensive tastes, but despite a façade of absolute command, he is vulnerable to the paradox that besets all totalitarian rulers: he is hostage to the well being of his immediate supporters. They must be fed lavishly, pampered extravagantly, and given all possible power over those of lesser rank, for only in this manner can Kim secure their loyalty. Without these powerful subordinates he will fall, so the compulsive drive for money dominates all policy decisions.
Consequently, in a country in which millions barely subsist on pitifully scant rations Kim has directed that thousands of hectares of agricultural land be diverted into opium production. After harvest the opium is refined into potent heroin and exported, primarily to Southeast Asian markets. Chemical narcotics, methamphetamines, are manufactured for export, primarily to Japan and South Korea. Some of this extremely addictive junk makes it to the US through Hawaii where its street name is ‘ice.’
In a country with life-threatening sanitation and health deficiencies, scarce technological resources are diverted into producing long range guided missiles that can be sold to rogue regimes with hard currency and soft morals. Most ominously North Korea has aggressively pursued development of chemical and biological weapons along with its nuclear program. It is foolish in the extreme to think that these horrific weapons are not on the auction block for any Islamist terrorist with sufficient cash.
Most North Korean weapons-narcotics contraband is exported in an aging but seaworthy fleet of merchant vessels flying the North Korean flag. Other ships sailing under flags of convenience are North Korean owned. Many of these ships transit Japan, particularly the port region of Osaka-Kobe. In this largely industrial region of western Japan resides a huge Korean-Japanese population. They are generational descendants of workers imported from Korea during the 1910-1945 colonial period. Many are part of the yakuza, or gangster element. The Kim Jong Il regime has deep ties within this criminal community.
For years North Korean shipping was given a pass by Japanese customs and port inspectors rather than upset the always delicate bilateral relationship. Since 9-11 Japan has actively supported American efforts to combat terrorism worldwide. A large part of this effort has been refocused attention on North Korean shipping. While not engaged in anything resembling a blockade, of course, Japanese inspectors are extremely concerned with safety violations on some of these ships, often requiring repairs and re-inspection that keep them tied to the wharfs for an extended time. Customs and narcotics investigators, meanwhile, sift through cargo to detect the narcotics and weaponry banned by international agreement.
Farther to the south US, Australian, Singaporean and Philippine naval and customs authorities are intercepting, boarding and on occasion seizing North Korean ships. One such freighter loaded with heroin was stopped en route to Sydney. Others have been nabbed by the highly professional Singaporean authorities. US Navy vessels, alerted by intelligence sources, possibly Japanese, not long ago intercepted a North Korean ship loaded with missiles that were listed under bills of lading for Yemen but were destined for Syria.
This quiet strategy is paying off. Even if some shipments slip through, as we realistically know that they must, more contraband is being taken out of circulation than ever before. This means less sorely needed foreign currency reaches the desperate North Korean regime, and the weaker it becomes. The strategy reminds of the anaconda, a snake that is mistakenly thought to kill its prey by crushing it. Rather the anaconda wraps tightly across the chest of the victim tightening its deadly coils to take up slack when the prey exhales. Eventually the prey suffocates. So too the Anaconda Strategy is slowly, inexorably tightening pressure across the most vital economic airway of the North Korean regime. It is too soon to predict accurately demise of the loathsome Kim Jong Il regime but it is reassuring that proper steps are underway to make that happen.