On October 9, 2006, Kim Jong Il apparently backed up his bluster and detonated a nuclear device in a test area northeast of the capitol of Pyongyang. So now, faced with a North Korea openly nuclear, what is the world – and more importantly, America - expected to do?
Last week, when North Korea was pulling yet another threat from a seemingly bottomless basket, the world community immediately went into predictable reaction mode: running in ever-decreasing concentric circles around their desks while shrieking “the sky is falling.” The New York Times editorial page even pulled the much-maligned phrase “domino theory” out of its Dictionary of Vietnam Terms to apply to the anticipated test. “North Korea tests a nuclear weapon, and Japan, South Korea and Taiwan start thinking they need one too.” When I said much the same thing two years ago in my book, Separated at Birth, left-leaning publications like the Times dismissed such considerations as ultra-conservative hysterics.
Now the Times concedes that in light of North Korea’s progress “Iran’s neighbors start asking themselves why they should even wait for Teheran to go nuclear before starting their own programs.” In this rare moment of agreement with the Times editorial page, I think that even here they don’t go far enough. For there are others, most particularly Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, who also have his eyes on a nuclear weapon. He – along with the aforementioned countries – might well decide that if a long-time US enemy like Kim Jong Il can have atomic bombs without reprisal then why not them? This waterfalling proliferation has been the issue all along in the modern struggle between western powers and North Korea to keep them without atomic weapons.
Now that the test is done – at least until we receive absolute verification from CIA, Defense Nuclear Agency, and Department of Energy analysts that it was a real nuclear test – we are faced with a new quandary. The proliferation issues are at the fore, as well as the immediate threat to neighbors. As always in foreign affairs, success is incumbent on leadership. We ought not expect much from the United Nations. Its track record with crises is dismal, and at best a tough-sounding but essentially toothless resolution (or series of ineffective resolutions) is about the most that could be generated. On the bright side, a UN condemnation does provide as former Ambassador to both China and South Korea James Lilley notes, “the moral high ground” for further action. The quandary is exactly what action that might be.
Analysts from all along the political spectrum are in agreement in one regard to North Korea and that is that China is the single credible player in the Kim universe since the collapse of the Soviets. While America, Japan, South Korea, and even Russia may try to persuade, the only party with its hands firmly positioned to squeeze Kim’s most tender spot is China. But as any leader knows, possessing power is one thing, using it quite another. Two years ago Chinese generals told former Ambassador Lilley that if North Korea tested a nuclear weapon that they would have to “take action.” While undefined at the time, Lilley speculated that such action could range from removal of Kim Jong Il at the most aggressive, to a strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities, to simply turning off the spigot on essential aid including fuel oil. Given that China is considered the key player – even more than Japan and the US – by most analysts, it will be interesting to see if any such eventualities materialize. On the morning of the reported nuclear test, Lilley appearing on Fox News was pessimistic about China seriously perusing regime change. “They fear the rapid influx of millions of refugees” Lilley commented, “with acute economic and social consequences.” Further, he noted, that should one of “those hard-faced North Korean generals with medals from his neck to his belt suddenly assume power over a North Korea armed with rockets, missiles, and nuclear weapons,” the Chinese would fear loss of control over their surrogate and potential destabilization in the region. Do not look for anything like “punitive” sanctions from the Chinese, Lilley concluded.
Rather, Lilley looks to a combination of activities that would pressure North Korea over the long term. He agrees that China can exert the most immediate economic pressure. It provides more than 50% of fuel oil and food to North Korea. The food is probably equally consequential to Kim as is the oil. He needs the latter to supply the voracious energy appetite of the 1.2 million man military force he keeps poised on the volatile Demilitarized Zone, some units a mere 25 miles distant from South Korea’s bustling capitol of Seoul, a densely populated, modern urban center with 12 million plus residents. Further he needs the food not for his brutalized, oppressed population about whom he cares not a whit, but in order to feed the physical appetites of his military and the financial appetites of his party leaders. The latter regularly divert thousands of tons of food aid from the population and sell it in China and Southeast Asia to black market purchasers to line their corrupt pockets. So, yes, a slow strangulation of food and fuel would certainly have an effect on Kim. But would it be sufficient to force him to back away from nuclear weapons?
That outcome is highly doubtful even if China decided to exert full sanctions. For the first time in decades of dependency on the Soviet Union and Peoples Republic of China, North Korea now has other serious partners, a few of whom are also seriously wealthy with oil revenues. Prime among them are Iran and Venezuela, both of whom openly lust for regional if not world power and who are run by rabidly anti-American dictators who have no compunction about spending their peoples money for improved weapons. Either Iran or Venezuela singly would be fully able to supply North Korea with its essential needs. Do not misunderstand: North Korea does not care how many of its people, within reason, suffer malnourishment or starvation or continue to live at appallingly substandard conditions. Even during the salad days post 1994 and the Clinton administration’s high touted but abject diplomatic failure the Agreed Framework, aid poured into North Korea at record levels. Despite tons and tons of food upwards to 3 million North Korean people starved to death or suffered debilitating malnourishment as part of a deliberate regime policy. Kim is perfectly willing to maintain the hedonistic lifestyle he and his top leaders so enjoy on the bones of his people. Only a highly unlikely blockade of North Korea by the US and allies would seriously impede aid in kind from rogue states like Iran and Venezuela and that would be an act of war that no one is willing to address at this stage.
Some may ask, why ought we care about North Korea anyway? The region of Northeast Asia is home to many of America’s top economic trading partners: China, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. And just down south lie the expanding economies of Southeast Asia. All would be affected, probably adversely, by what could be a rapid destabilization in the region caused by an open nuclear weapons race. From a geopolitical standpoint, the generally accepted Post-WWII delicate balance of power that saw Japan move from a world military power to an economic power with highly restricted military force, would be jeopardized.
Certainly China, with mid-century ambitions to absorb Taiwan into the sphere of Greater China would be forced to amend that strategy to be at least an additional century distant. While known for its long-horizon vision, even the Peoples Republic could not be happy with that scenario. Nor would China be pleased with a nuclear Japan causing a dramatic tilt in the regional military balance. Suddenly China would be at atomic parity with its ancient rival Japan. This status change would also be a stick in the eye for China’s aggressive military posture. For a decade-plus China has been seeking power projection capability in the form of expanded missile and space technology, deep water naval power including aircraft carriers and submarines, and amphibious warfare capability. Certainly a Taiwan invasion was part of its contingency plans but what else?
China is energy-starved and competing against two big energy eaters – India and America. Anything that slows either rival down is considered a net plus to the Peoples Republic. For this reason China has been tolerant, even encouraging of Kim’s bad behavior. China is desperate to secure all the oil supplies it can including control of nearby undeveloped fields – like the Sprately Islands – that it disputes with several neighbors. With the US far distant and Japan restricted to its home island defense, China is in a position to intimidate the region including heavy-handed moves into the Spratelys. But if Kim’s rash nuclear actions trigger a re-armed, up-armed Japan or Taiwan then China could get faced down in its own back yard, thwarting its ambitions to be energy independent and turning its grand strategy into trash.
Either choice is a decision and one that the leadership will have to explain and live with. While hardly as world-opinion or UN-shy as the US, China is also considerably less monolithic than most outsiders picture it to be. Debate has to be raging behind closed Beijing doors on steps to be taken against North Korea including the ever-so-important issue of timing. Beijing leaders – especially the military and intelligence community – are far less concerned with a toothless organization like the UN than they are perceptions within their own country. Anything that seems to weaken their grip on the country has to be avoided. Should a strike against North Korea or a covert move to de-fang Kim be made public then the internal face loss might be huge, giving a boost to the perception that Chinese leadership is only reacting to US pressure. While probably not true the mere perception itself could be very damaging to a regime consumed with tight political control.
How to play China? As Lilley said at a recent School of Advanced International Studies conference that featured several other former ambassadors to South Korea, “very, very carefully. Whatever happens will require patience, may not be on America’s timetable, and will take a long time to unfold.” This is exactly the area in which America is vulnerable. As a nation our attention span is limited to the present news cycle and we expect foreign quandaries to be resolved before we get bored with the “breaking news” logo. China might be convinced that it is in its best interest to “take action” now against North Korea by skilled messengers laying out the messages that we have reviewed above. But it is unlikely to listen to any of the current crop of State Department cookie-pushing diplomats who have already been branded as weak-kneed appeasers. Something of the nature of Nixon-Kissinger to China would be required in order to pull it off. Perhaps a personal message from President Bush delivered by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The significance of a strong message coming from the military side rather than from the State Department would not be lost on the Chinese who appreciate such subtleties.
Meanwhile, what are some immediate options for those opposed to Kim’s nuclear ambitions? Ambassador Christopher Hill said at the same SAIS conference “North Korea can have nuclear weapons or North Korea can have a future.” Even on the morning of the supposed North Korean nuclear test the President said that possessing such capability was “unacceptable.” Pretty strong words, to be sure, but where is the credibility to back them up? The capability is there: if America is serious we could issue a dual ultimatum to Pyongyang. If any missiles are tested they will be killed in place when they are erected on the pad. And, second, if North Korea moves closer to an atomic test the facilities at Pyungyeyok – in remote northeastern North Korea where analysts suspect the test site to be located – will be struck. Such actions could be accomplished by Tomahawk cruise missiles, ship- or submarine-launched, augmented if necessary by stealth aircraft strikes. The need is to degrade not necessarily destroy and these objectives could be accomplished remotely. But to date there is little US credibility in the region to back up Hill’s not-so-veiled threat. Since Operation Iraqi Freedom the US has deferred to the toothless UN or to the antiquarian EU to do any heavy lifting in regard to stopping nuclear proliferators.
There is another, so far unstated possibility. Suppose all this is smoke and mirrors? That North Korea has detonated hundreds of tons of explosive and simply faked a nuclear test in order to convince possible customers and intimidate the world into giving it more aid? Kim has pushed the envelope previously with success. He was rewarded in 1994 for pretending to cease nuclear development. Maybe this time he’s trying a new wrinkle? Perhaps he wishes to impress potential clients like Chavez that he really has the bomb. Perhaps he thinks that he can intimidate South Korea. Either way the sand is running fast in the hourglass and the only person who seems to be in control is Kim Jong Il, a totally unacceptable situation that cries out for change.