Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

09 June 2009

Two Generations of Imbecile-Dictators Are Enough


Fifteen years after Bill Clinton first offered to trade oil and food for a halt in North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs, it’s clear that policy has failed. Kim’s travesty of a government has broken every promise and made every possible threat including, recently, offensive first use of nuclear weapons.

The main reason for the recent escalation of threats of war from Pyongyang is obvious. An ailing and failing Kim is trying to maintain control of his Stalinist apparatus and insure that power passes to one of his three sons, reportedly Kim Jong Un. The threats are classic demagoguery, designed to get the North Korean people to rally around their ailing and increasingly irrational “Dear Leader” and his prince, and to set the stage for tarring any internal challenger as a traitor in wartime.

This is medieval stuff. It was old in the Medicis’ time. The king foments war to thwart internal contenders for the throne and crown his chosen prince.

If North Korea’s threats were only verbal, our best policy would be to ignore them and so persuade internal dissidents that the greatest source of bellicosity is the Kim regime itself. But unfortunately that is not the case. North Korea is the world’s single most dangerous weapons proliferator, selling arms, missiles, and possibly its nascent nuclear technology to anyone who can pay.

At the same time, the North’s nuclear weapons are becoming more powerful. While the first blasts were duds, the latest reportedly had the force of the blast that destroyed Hiroshima. We don’t know whether the North has other weapons of similar power, but we have to assume the worst.

So we have three problems. We have an intransigent dictator who threatens war whenever he can’t otherwise get his way. The proper term is bully. That bully also happens to be the world’s most dangerous weapons proliferator, and his nuclear weapons stash is growing more dangerous day by day.

We certainly don’t want to start or threaten a war ourselves. That would play right into Kim’s hands, allowing him to suppress any semblance of internal dissent or revolt. On the other hand, temporizing might also help Kim’s internal strategy succeed. Internal dissidents won’t stick their necks out except to avoid a calamity.

So we may have to engage in a bit of brinksmanship to achieve a good result. The closer to war it seems (as long as the threat is clearly internal and not from us), the more likely forces inside North Korea are to remove the weakened Kim family to avoid a catastrophe. We know so little about Kim’s government, but his subordinates are unlikely all to be as paranoid as he.

Kim’s actions lately have been so spastic and desperate as to suggest a real chance of internal change. Now therefore may be the best time to act. All it might take is a few brave souls—a Khrushchev or Gorbachev—to avoid a third generation of imbeciles (after Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il) turning North Korea into a permanent, nuclear-armed version of the Sinaloa Drug Cartel.

Here’s what we should do.

First, we should make sure we have South Korea fully committed. It has by far the most at stake. Seoul, a gem of Asia, lies only miles from Kim’s massed conventional weapons and now the threat of a nuclear strike. But it should be clear to the South most of all that negotiation has accomplished nothing, and that the best chance to insure against North Korea becoming a permanent, nuclear-armed bully is to take action now.

Second, if South Korea agrees, we should immediately implement and begin enforcing an embargo on shipments of arms and nuclear and missile technology from North Korea. We should do this together with the South, Japan, Russia, China and any other country that will help. If possible, we should ask a country besides us and the South to be the first to board ships.

Kim has said an embargo would be an act of war. We should call his bluff. If there is no one high in North Korea’s government who will risk his life to stop a war for the “right” to blackmail the world and proliferate dangerous weapons, then war is probably inevitable anyway. It’s just a matter of time. Now, when Kim’s regime and succession are most vulnerable, is the best time to make our move.

Third, we should make as clear as possible the vast imbalance of nuclear force that Kim faces. Quietly and covertly, we should inform Kim that any full-scale attack on the South, or any use of nuclear weapons, would result in several 50-megaton warheads descending in tandem on Pyongyang. We should accompany this warning with videos of test blasts at Bikini and scientific reports on the results of those tests. Kim has no defenses against our nuclear submarines and short range missiles, and his military advisers (if not Kim himself) know this. It’s time to counter threats with a threat of retaliation, but covertly. (It doesn’t matter whether we actually intend to carry out these threats. We have the capability; let Kim and his underlings guess about our intentions for a change.)

Fourth, we should do everything we can to persuade China to commit to cutting off all oil, coal and food to North Korea, immediately, in the event of any large-scale military mobilization or threat of immediate nuclear action by the North. We should ask China to announce this policy as openly as possible, including on Korean-language broadcasts directed at Pyongyang. The broadcasts should emphasize that the North is the warmonger and that the cutoff policy is designed to prevent war, not start it.

China’s help in this regard is absolutely crucial in case Kim decides to start a conventional war. North Korea has no indigenous oil, and you can’t wage conventional war without it. Existing oil reserves are vulnerable to air attack.

Finally, we should attempt to communicate with senior North Korean leadership, saying that rapid and dramatic improvements in relations (along with cessation of any hostilities already begun and massive economic aid) are possible under two conditions: (1) the North ceases any hostilities and threats already begun, and (2) the North agrees to dismantle its nuclear weapons program under effective international inspection. The subtext is that the imbecile family is gone, but we needn’t say this out loud. We might convey this message covertly, but the best approach might be simply to publicize our policy in the international press and on the Internet.

There will never be a better moment to act. Kim’s twisted regime is vulnerable to internal challenge, or he wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing. His nuclear program is getting more dangerous by the day. Waiting will only make him and his offspring stronger.

The unfortunately plight of the two female journalists just sentenced as “spies” does not argue for any less tough a response. Just like Iran with Madame Saberi, the North is using them as bargaining chips, lest its crude threats of war fail to produce a basis for bargaining. But on our side we have little to bargain with. It’s hard to bargain when you are already lying prone on your back, which is about where we’ve been vis-à-vis North Korea for the past decade. Getting tough will give us some leverage to negotiate these hostages’ release.

A soft touch worked with Iran because the last administration had been unreasonably tough and Iran is modernizing and democratizing as we watch. In any event, Iran is only enriching uranium, it insists for peaceful purposes. North Korea has nuclear weapons and insists that any attempt to keep it from spreading them around the globe will be an act of war. Which nation poses the greater threat to civilization?

There is no comparison between Iran and North Korea, except that the hard liners in Iran appear to be taking some lessons from Kim, and vice versa. North Korea is sui generis in isolation, political and social pathology, and unremitting (and so far successful) bullying. If the international order cannot stop it from becoming a nuclear-armed criminal rogue state, then the “new world order” will be the law of the jungle in the nuclear age. Civilized people can’t let than happen.

The disastrous example of Neville Chamberlain has been used wrongly by analogy so often that it has become a tired and unwelcome cliché. But this time the analogy fits. If the world does nothing, the threat will only increase, and increase dramatically. Two generations of North-Korean imbecile-dictator-proliferators—let alone armed with nuclear weapons—are enough.

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