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

21 May 2010

The Korean Philosopher’s Dilemma


[For an update on Tuesday, May 25, click here.]

Of all the places on Earth where another war could break out, the Korean Peninsula is the most dangerous. There are several reasons for this.

The first is the threat of nuclear war. Nuclear weapons under control of an erratic and unstable leader like Kim are the world’s worst nightmare. He has threatened war repeatedly. He has even threatened first use of nuclear weapons. (Iran has done neither.) Now he has risked provoking war by sinking the South Korean Navy ship Cheonan.

Even without nuclear weapons, the Korean Peninsula would be the world’s most dangerous place. Nowhere else on Earth have inimical armies of so many soldiers (at least a million), faced each other over such a short distance (the so-called “Demilitarized Zone”) for so long a time (56 years since the “Armistice”). Nowhere else does a democracy that has made such an extraordinary success in peaceful commerce face a four-million person starving army fed bellicose propaganda for half a century.

The Korean Peninsula is also unique in what is at stake. In many respects, South Korea is the Athens of Asia. It has made a successful transition from authoritarian rule to real democracy. It has wrought the world’s greatest “economic micracle” since Japan’s, rising from the ashes of war to become a global leader in cars, shipping, semiconductors and consumer electronics. Everyone who owns a Hyundai or a Samsung or LG camera, TV or screen can personally attest to this economic miracle.

Seoul is a gem of a city, particularly its newer parts. I have described its grandeur and charms in an earlier post and won’t repeat the description here. But I suspect that Seoul is as impressive in its modernity, size and prosperity as any Chinese city, the more so because it represents the fruits of real democracy.

Seoul reflects all that the South Korean people have achieved in half a century. But it is literally under the gun. The DMZ is so close to Seoul, and the North has so many conventional rockets aimed at Seoul from the nearby DMZ, that it exaggerates nothing to say that Seoul has a gun to her head. The world has not seen anything like this since Athens and Sparta two millennia ago.

The final and most important risk factor is timing. People tend to forget the horrors of modern warfare, especially when life is as short and hard as it is in North Korea.

Less than sixty years ago the Korean Peninsula became a vast butcher shop. North Koreans old enough to recall the carnage would have to be at least in their mid-sixties, maybe closer to 70. (Ten years old―the minimum age of reason―plus 56 equals 66. Reaching puberty during the war would put the age closer to 70.) With life span so short and so many purges by an erratic leader, it’s safe to assume that few in North Korea’s ruling class, let alone its middle ranks, have clear memories of that long-ago war.

Why is that important? Because clear, personal memories of war’s horrors make leaders cautious. In 1962, Nikita Khrushchev and his colleagues made a sensible deal with us to avoid nuclear Armageddon; the devastation of their country a mere seventeen years earlier was still fresh in their minds. Despite all its bluster and threats, Iran has made no serious moves to start a war against Israel or anyone else. No doubt one reason is freshness in memory of its war with Iraq, thirty years ago, in which at least half a million Iranians died.

But North Korea’s present military and political leadership have little personal recall of the war that divided their peninsula. Kim himself was born in 1941 and was only thirteen when the war ended. He was also the privileged son of a modern (so-called “Communist”) Asian emperor. His chief advisers, military and political, likely have similar histories. Lack of personal experience of war creates temptation to military adventures like the sinking of the Cheonan, as leaders seek imagined advantage and glory with no personal understanding of modern war’s industrial-scale carnage, devastation, suffering and death.

So if you had to rate the world’s hotspots on a scale of one to ten, the Korean Peninsula would fill the first four places.

Who is responsible? The answer is obvious: Kim Jong Il and a few dozen senior military and political operatives. While holding North Korea’s 24 million people in a virtual prison camp, they threaten a peaceful, prosperous society of nearly 49 million people with imminent destruction. And they use that threat to extort things from the world: acquiescence in their nuclear adventures from everyone, plus oil and rice from China.

This situation is a philosophy professor’s hypothetical come to life. Should a few dozen people, progenitors and captives of a perverted slave culture, be allowed to threaten the peace, stability, prosperity and happiness of some 73 million, and indeed the world? If there is no justification for murder here, there never is.

Of course there is no merit in provoking a war to prevent one. Today’s cautious approach of the South, China and the six parties is warranted. But there may be a way to provide deterrence, as well as perhaps cut short any war that starts by miscalculation.

We have a strong rule against assassinating foreign leaders. But every rule has exceptions. Our President George H.W. Bush reportedly tried to assassinate Saddam after he invaded Kuwait. Saddam reportedly returned the favor―an act that undoubtedly served as psychological, if not official, motivation for his son’s foolish invasion of Iraq.

Neither assassination attempt succeeded, but the son’s war eventually caused Saddam’s death indirectly, through an Iraqi judicial process. The world has a clear image of Saddam, unshaven and unkempt, crawling out of a hole in the ground surrounded by American troops.

That scenario will never occur in Korea. We have neither the money nor the troops to invade North Korea successfully. And in the final analysis, China probably wouldn’t let us.

But we do have the most accurate and effective unmanned airborne weapons in history. We’ve got medium-range, submarine-based and intercontinental ballistic missiles that Kim can only dream of. We have cruise missiles. We have the Predator drones, which are proving so effective in Waziristan. Many can carry cluster weapons, bunker busters, air-to-air missiles, and short-range, low-yield nuclear weapons.

What would happen if we simply announced a new policy: if North Korea begins a war, on whatever alleged “provocation,” Kim and his top leadership immediately and automatically become fair game, wherever they may be, including in an airplane or a public appearance, anywhere in the world?

Any such announcement should make clear that there is no change in our general policy against assassination. But Kim is a pathological case, in every sense of that word. Our announcement would make that point clear and repeatedly assert the uniqueness of this case.

Right now, our deterrence lacks credibility. Although we have the capability, no one believes that we will incinerate Pyongyang with a 50 megaton thermonuclear warhead if war starts. And they’re probably right: too many innocent people would die, and too many nations have or are developing nukes to weaken the taboo against using them.

But what if we declared at the outset that the purpose of any retaliation would be killing the perpetrators, not their innocent internal victims? And what if we sent a carrier task force to patrol the Japan Sea, plus a few specially-outfitted nuclear attack submarines, to make our threat credible? If nothing else, that threat would keep Kim and his minions cowering in bunkers for the duration of any conflict, disrupting command and control. If might also make Kim’s underlings and successors more amenable to reason and perhaps more interested in mutiny.

Why wait for actual war crimes to act? Why not declare now what will be a capital crime―starting a war―and impose the death penalty in advance, executable immediately, any time the criminals are vulnerable? Kim and his minions may scoff for public consumption, but with Taliban dying almost daily in Waziristan, they may privately think twice.

Update: Cracks in the Wall (5/25/10)

Today Kim pre-empted South Korea’s imminent informational and economic sanctions. Late last night, Korean time, he imposed an unprecedented freeze in relations with the South. His freeze did not mention (or apparently include) the private South Korean corporations that employ an estimated 40,000 North Koreans in a near-border industrial park.

Two goals of Kim’s freeze are obvious. By “striking first,” he is trying to establish an internal narrative that the coming economic hardship (from the South’s sanctions) is a necessary austerity measure in reaction to the South’s “aggression.” While that narrative sounds absurd to us, it may fly with the North’s serf population, which has no access to outside media and is undoubtedly unaware of the South’s claim that the North recently sank the Cheonan.

Second, the freeze intensifies the North’s perennial mood of bellicose paranoia, which Kim and his father have fostered to cement their twisted rule from the beginning. That mood makes Kim’s serfs, like the horse in Animal Farm, complain less about their blinders and work even harder on less food. As I have noted before, the current goal of intensifying the fear is to let power pass to the Dear Leader’s anointed prince without notice or objection.

The Wall Street Journal’s experts discern a third goal of Kim’s: discrediting the increasingly hostile conservative regime of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, in what the Journal’s experts portray as something of a personal feud. I think that motive is overblown. It would be hard for the North to “discredit” the South’s leadership more than to convince its serfs (as it has tried to do for decades) that the South is on a hair trigger, waiting to invade at the slightest provocation or sign of weakness. As for attempting to influence the South’s elections, believing that the South’s free and well-educated voters will not see through this obvious ploy insults their intelligence. It’s hard to believe that even Kim is that stupid or deranged.

The least-discussed cause of the North’s “pre-emptive freeeze” is by far the most important. The South has decided to resume long-discontinued FM radio broadcasts northward, as well as loudspeaker broadcasts ostensibly audible ten to fifteen miles beyond the DMZ.

This measure has made Kim especially furious. He has authorized his soldiers to shoot out the loudspeakers. But it’s not so easy to shoot down radio waves.

It’s beyond my comprehension why these broadcasts were ever discontinued. Three things have allowed Kim and his father to maintain 24 million people in a state of virtual serfdom for several decades: (1) totalitarian methods, including relentless propaganda, (2) modern weapons, now including crude nuclear devices, and (3) a nearly complete blackout on news from the outside world.

The North’s news blackout has no parallel in the world today, when even Iranians watch Al Jazeera and CNN and surf the Internet. It is unprecedented since Nazi Germany and the height of the old Soviet Union’s Stalinist terror. In the age of global telecommunication, North Korea remains hidden behind an iron curtain that not even the last century’s worst tyrants could match. Why?

One of the greatest miracles of the twentieth century was the fall of the Soviet Union without a shot fired. What made that miracle possible was decades of straight news, plus entertainment, broadcast into Soviet territory by the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.

Despite clumsy Soviet attempts to “jam” these broadcasts, they informed the Soviet intelligentsia and ruling class just how ridiculous Soviet propaganda was. By the late 1980s, everyone of consequence inside the old Soviet Union knew just how much more prosperous and happy the West was, and how little (apart from its own paranoia) it bore evil intentions toward the Soviet (now Russian) territory or state. (I have direct personal knowledge of these points, which I’ll make public when I drop my anonymity.)

Information is power. Accurate information, which subsequent events corroborate, is self-verifying. These truths, plus our nuclear deterrent, were what caused the Russian people to reject Soviet lies, peacefully and irrevocably. The same thing will work in North Korea, given enough time.

Kim is smart enough to know this. That’s why he’s tried to label news broadcasts directed northward as acts of war. But Kim has threatened war so often that it’s hard to take him seriously. Now the South’s leaders have apparently decided to call his bluff.

We Americans, whose technology created the Internet, commercial satellite communication, and the global cell-phone revolution, should help in every way we can. The surest way to keep Kim’s twisted regime from passing to yet another generation of imbecile dictators is to open the North’s serfs’ eyes and ears. Whatever our present state of national decline, we know how to do that.

Kim is old, sick and weak. His son, young and inexperienced, has not yet entrenched his power, or Kim would not be playing brinksman to seat him. The South’s leaders, who have the most at stake, have decided to go forward. Apart from Kim’s death, their plan to give the serfs a glimpse of life outside their castle walls is the cheapest, most effective, most humane and least risky way of resolving the Korean philsopher’s dilemma.

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