Thursday, July 20, 2006

Assessing the North Korean Threat: Victims and Targets

The group of people who by far face the greatest danger from the North Korean regime is the very population of the country. Whether that danger takes the form of starvation given the horrendously stupid agricultural policies and even stupider distribution of economic resources (a huge portion of the North Korean budget goes to the military and weapons development), the threat of imprisonment for political crimes, or simply being the bullet in the gun that is the North Korean army that Kim Jong-Il is raring to discharge at his enemies in purely suicidal fashion, the North Korean people face incredible odds. No one will suffer more if we leave the regime alone; no one will suffer more if we confront the regime head on. This is the catch-22 of North Korea. How do you destroy a regime that is willing to sacrifice its own people?

The country that faces the gravest threat from the North Korean regime is, without question, South Korea. As much as clueless youths and completely ignorant politicians (insert the name of nearly any Uri party member here, especially Kim Won-Ung who may perhaps be the dumbest lawmaker in any country ever. I have NEVER seen more incompetence in a single interview) want to convey the fact that North Korea doesn’t want to attack the South, only hates the US and Japan, and if they do attack will only fire at US bases (courtesy of Kim Won-Ung), the fact of the matter is that North Korea holds South Korea hostage. The only reason that North Korean remains a communist nation and hasn’t been wiped off the map is due to it proximity to South Korea. Seoul lies within artillery range of North Korea and the destruction that North Korea’s army would wreak on the peninsula before US forces could destroy their fighting capabilities is incomprehensible. Thankfully, South Korea has made some steps in the right direction of late and looks to be cutting off their unmonitored aid to North Korea. However, Roh Moo-hyun and the current administration seem to lack any sense of direction in how to deal with North Korea and have rejected the idea of sanctions.

Japan feels perhaps as threatened as South Korea because they realize that North Korean missiles can reach their nation and that North Korea would need little reason to launch against Japan. This adds a little more clarity to Shinzo Abe’s comments on the possibility of a pre-emptive strike on North Korea. Combining North Korean recalcitrance with the vivid memories of what it is like to be attacked with nuclear weapons understandably has Japan on edge. So much so that they were the first to throw in their resolution against North Korea (including the drastic Chapter 7 invocation) and they are likely to be the first to levy sanctions against North Korea, which may include freezing the assets of groups in Japan that help finance North Korea. Japan has balked before, but it seems that – with the approval of the UN Security Council behind them – they won’t likely succumb to North Korean threats. Now, there are simply too many nations to threaten.

The United States faces little in terms of direct threats when it comes to North Korea. Even if their Taepodong 2 works as some expect it might (though the July 4th launch was certainly a poor showing) it would only be able to hit parts of Alaska and the bases in Guam. Bases in Okinawa and Seoul were always possible targets, but if these two were ever directly threatened, much more would already be at stake. The only real threat to the US comes in the form of our commitment to defend the interests of our allies. War on the peninsula poses a serious threat to the US (though certainly not as tragic a threat as South Korea faces). Thus, the real question of whether North Korea is a threat comes down to whether they are actually willing to wage a war.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Assessing the North Korean Threat: Background

Recently, I posed a question to the kids in the SAT prep class I teach in Korea: does North Korea pose a realistic threat? Admittedly, this was probably not the most ethical thing ever, as I fully intended to use their responses for the purpose of this article (and did I mention I never told them that?). Similarly, this doesn’t provide a very good indication as to what South Koreans think, as many of my students have spent more time in the last 5-6 years outside of Korea than in it. One student had to ask if it was okay that she was answering because she was “biased” after having lived in the US for too long. Generally, however, when asked if they thought North Korea posed a threat (to South Korea, Japan, the US, the world – I left it open ended) most of them thought that the belligerent little dictatorship of Kim Jong-Il’s was not a realistic threat. Most had good reasons. Some had awful ones, but that happens in these prep classes.

However, it raised an important question that I realized I had no answer for. What threat does the North Korean regime pose and to whom? The question itself raises other important questions about whether or not the North Korean regime acts rationally and whether that rationality is based on the country as a whole or merely resides in the leadership. Stated more concisely, is North Korea primarily and extension of Kim Jong-Il or is it an actual state – albeit an abnormal one. Since both of these questions are rather difficult to answer for any analyst, it is perhaps better to look at North Korea itself and the situation in which it finds itself.

The launch of 7 mid to long range ballistic missiles represents just the most recent show of brinkmanship for a country that has a long history of brinkmanship. In fact, this missile launch is not extraordinary because it took place, as a similar show of force occurred in 1998 when the Hermit Kingdom launched a volley of missiles over the northern Japanese islands, causes frantic responses form a now seriously endangered Japanese government. Similarly threatening actions and statements can be found in nearly any front of North Korean foreign policy. In their conflict with Japan over sanctions in response to failed efforts to resolve the ongoing abductions issue, North Korea stated that any such sanctions would be viewed as an act of war. Japan subsequently backed down. When it comes to normal North Korean announcements, war, destruction, annihilation, and a host of similarly ominous terms constantly fill their responses to any overt act against them. It seems that blustering and blowing and making it seem that the house might come down is simply the way that North Korea operates. And it seems that they have a number of reasons to be concerned.

North Korea currently is feeling the mounting weight of both external and internal pressure in a degree that the regime has never before experienced. There are a few reasons for this. For starters, frustration amongst the countries involved in the six party talks is perhaps at an all time high as last summers glimmer of hope in the form of a joint statement was immediately shot down by North Korean retractions and revised demands. Nothing except further stall tactics has taken place since. Secondly, North Korea’s ability to make money through its illegal operations has been sharply curtailed. More and more countries are becoming aware that even embassies can double as drug trafficking hubs and North Korean cargo ships also may be carrying enough drugs to finance the entire regime. Similarly, the severe US response to North Korean money laundering has cut off numerous venues for revenue and even turned North Korea’s partners in crime away from them. Reports point to US punitive efforts as a source of frustration as the North Korean economy has been stalling again.

On top of this is the food crisis. Though, it may be argued, North Korea never truly recovered from the crisis of the mid 1990s, Pyongyang saw it fit to force out international aid organizations that were responsible for feeding nearly a third of the country’s population. Among those groups was the World Food Program (note: the United States was the single largest donor through the WFP and it is interesting to mention that the WFP still described its efforts in North Korea as “emergency relief” even after nearly ten years of work) [see WFP reports on donors and activites]. Most analyst saw this as a foolish move despite North Korean claims that its food distribution system was ready to get back up and running. On top of this, they continued to receive aid from both China and South Korea. However, neither country monitored the distribution of their aid with any vigor nor questioned North Korea when told they could not monitor its distribution. Despite the presence of Chinese and South Korean aid, it seems that famine may be rearing its head again and calls have gone out for the WFP to consider returning to North Korea. This fact brings us to our first target of North Korean threats.

next post - Victims and Targets

Sunday, July 16, 2006

God Bless America

For the fourth time in as many years, I spent Independence Day in a foreign country, nearly forgetting that the day had arrived. It isn’t that I don’t value what the day represents. I try to remember days like that. Others that are on the radar include December 11th, June 6th, and September 11th. I guess that I will just blame the lack of fireworks, or that I just fundamentally take for granted the blessing it is to be an American.

Unfortunately, for many, that blessing no longer is a badge of honor, but rather a mark oh shame. It has become something that people try to hide as if it were some giant, crimson ‘A’ emblazoned on their chest, evoking some terrible sin of which they are horribly ashamed. Honestly, reading articles and blogs with tones that disparaged the honorable occasion that July 4th ought to be was tremendously frustrating. Such comments do not reflect a greater understanding of our country’s current failings; they represent a complete lack of understanding in regards to our nation’s history. When we fail to respect and revere the celebration of American independence we show ourselves to lack any understanding of what America even means.

American democracy was never about being right; it was about having the system in place to make it right. This is the cost of freedom. When we allow ourselves to be free, we allow for the myriad despicable things that such freedom creates. Contemporary critics of America – not of Bush’s America, the critics of America as an idea – fail to recognize a fundamental truth. Governments, especially democracies, represent (or ought to represent) their citizens. Given how flawed and foolish we are as individuals, why is it any surprise that our governments are flawed and foolish? It isn’t perfect and it never will be. It isn’t supposed to be perfect. At best what we can hope for is the possibility that we can right our wrongs and correct ourselves when we find that the path we desire and the path we tread have ceased to converge. That is why America is beautiful.

Case and point: for a few years now, the existence of the Guantanamo Bay prison has been a point of heated debate. Whether it was right or wrong to create such a prison is not even the question – at one time, it seemed necessary to those making decisions. What is so very right and wonderful is that we debated its existence. We could criticize, attack and accuse the system that produced it and, as we found most recently, we could even eliminate (or begin to change) that which we saw as an aberration in the system. The cause of people who are viewed as enemies can find voice in our own courts and their rights defended against our own government. Where else is such change and debate as heated and as intertwined with the fate of a nation? And Guantanamo is not the only example.

Perhaps the most poignant example of the relentless nature of the American experiment was the civil rights movement. To many critics, both then and now, the injustices – which were unforgivably awful – represented a complete failure of the American democratic system. To support that line of thought is to miss what the Civil Rights movement accomplished. A minority group which was discriminated against and relegated to poverty and political weakness found in the system the means to inspire change. Martin Luther King did not struggle against American democracy; he struggle for it. That minority group was able to oppose and transform the majority. Hundreds of years worth of oppression fell to pieces (or at least began to crumble to the ground) as the product of a people who would no longer live without their portion of the American democratic tradition. This was not the low point of American democracy; it was American democracy in its purest form.

This July, wherever you find yourself, take a moment to remember what that tradition is that we hold so dear. Remember the leadership of Washington, the writings of Madison, and the vision of Jefferson. Remember the resolve of Lincoln, the hopefulness of Wilson, the compassion of Roosevelt, and the insurmountable courage of King. And remember that the crisis that we face are not indications of flaws or failures in the America that we have put our hope in, they are merely another opportunity for that America to show its incomparable capacity to overcome. The experiment continues. The dream is yet alive. God bless America.

Goodnight, and good luck.