I found myself snorting with derision last night while watching a news bulletin about the Korean situation. The sight of a Gummy Bear like Kim Jong Un vowing to obliterate the United States was too much after a long day. But then I checked myself: what if, this time, the madmen are serious?
It is, of course, a leap to say that a regime of such longevity is mad. There is cunning in Kim Jong Un’s apparent lunacy, which has been heightened yet again by news that he has closed the border to South Korean workers in a jointly-run industrial zone. Such actions are not created ex nihilo.
Almost exactly twelve months ago, Mitt Romney, then the Republican presidential hopeful, launched an assault on the failure of the Obama administration’s North Korean policy when Pyongyang tested a long-range rocket. Romney, keen to demonstrate Hawkish sensibilities, said:
‘Instead of approaching Pyongyang from a position of strength, President Obama sought to appease the regime with a food-aid deal that proved to be as naive as it was short-lived.’
Romney was, as ever, being disingenuous: US policy has long been to concede food and other resources to the Kim regime in exchange for peace and nuclear stability. The hope is that some of the resources end up in the mouths and arms of the benighted population. Hope is dashed because the Kims invariably confiscate the resources and up the stakes, daring the US to abandon North Korea’s people and risk wider conflict. The Kims threaten. They hold interminable rallies. They murder a few South Koreans. They shell an island or two. They torpedo a ship. They launch a rocket (sometimes with success).
They do all of this; but they never go all the way. We hope that this is what they are up to at present; but there are dimensions that increase uncertainty.
Kim Jong Un’s succession is taking place in difficult circumstances. The North Korean economy is, according to those who’ve seen it, beyond description. About 12 months ago, I interviewed Shin Dong-hyuk, the only man born in a North Korean concentration camp known to have escaped to the West, and his account of the country is telling: nascent black market capitalism is growing, tolerated by a regime that is incapable of supporting the people, many of whom are malnourished, ill-educated and unskilled. The Kims’ iron-glove has been corroded. CIA assessments suggest that the greatest challenge for the regime is to find enough military recruits who have not been cognitively and physically impaired by malnutrition.
Emergency suits the Kims’ purposes at home and abroad: they can bolster the security services and blow money on the armed forces, while also seeking concessions from the Americans, who, in truth, cannot risk assuming that they are being bluffed, particularly because the stakes seem higher than usual as the juvenile dicatator seeks to establish himself, and at a time when US foreign policy is being recalibrated.
The Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ to the Far East has changed the rules of the game. This is the first time that they are being tested. North Korea has been dragged further into the US’s orbit. This is, on balance, a positive development: Kim Jong Un apparently wants more openness with the United States, presumably with an eye on building commercial ties to lessen his economic headaches. Such an ambition would, obviously, require dialogue between the two countries; but it’s a noisy part of the world: China, South Korea and Japan, and perhaps Russia, would all have a say. China’s voice would be the most important due to its regional dominance and apparent opposition to a united Korea, assuming that the South even dreams of such an entity. The dynamics of this imagined conversation, between players of differing sizes and interests, would be complex. There is a danger that this diplomatic background might impede US efforts in the foreground, which, in turn, could exacerbate tension in Pyongyang.
Is threatening nuclear war a sign that a rogue state wants to come in from the cold? Is this merely another demand for yet more blankets? Or is this a real threat to turn the cold war hot?
Logic suggests that the Kims must know that their game is nearly up, so maybe they want to talk (though perhaps not in public). If that fails, they will need more blankets. And if those don’t arrive, we are left the third option.
The Iranian regime (and any other would-be pirates who view nuclear weapons as a tool with which to bribe the rest of civilization) will be watching to see if and how the US and Far Eastern powers resolve the North Korean problem. North Korea may not deserve to be taken seriously; but we laugh at our peril.
UPDATE: The new Spectator is now out and Clarissa Tan’s cover piece on Asia’s arms race is the best primer you’ll read on what’s really going on there.