05 July 2006

North Korean Missile Tests

Everybody has no doubt heard that North Korea has test-fired at least seven missiles, including its Taepodong-2, which is said to have sufficient range to hit the west coast of the United States. What I am getting tired of hearing is that the tests were done because its Stalinist dictator, Kim Jong Il, "just wants attention." No less than fifty times have I heard people say this, as if Kim desires nothing more than to get his face on television by lobbing missiles at the Sea of Japan.
This caricature is dangerous and is a very incomplete portrait of North Korea's intentions and rationale. If the DPRK merely "wanted attention," Kim would have made another claim of having nuclear weapons. There is something more at play here, and it has to do with selling missiles illicitly. North Korea has earned a reputation to be a one-stop missile shop, "Missiles R Us," and my inclination is that he's using these test-fires as a twisted sort of 'diplomatic code' that they're ready to sell off a new bunch of Scuds, Nodongs, and short-range missiles.
Unfortunately for North Korea, the spectacular failure of the Taepodong-2, which reportedly konked out within a minute of being launched, will probably hurt his arms sales somewhat. But the Scuds worked fine, and that will likely result in him netting a couple hundred million dollars that he can turn over to his generals for more R&D. There's probably also a job opening at the head of the T-2 program; Stalinists tend to punish failure severely.
The diplomatic consquences of the missile tests will result in a slap on the wrist from the UN, unilateral sanctions by Japan, and potentially a kick-start to a new round of six-party (US, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia) negotiations to disarm the DPRK and give it some security gurantees and economic assistance. The UN may produce a resolution that condemns the action, but there won't be multilateral sanctions because of China, which will use the threat of the veto to protect any severe inducements against its client state. Japan doesn't like it when the Korean lob missiles into the Sea of Japan, and given that we've been through all of this before, they're going to slap more stringent sanctions than they did back in 1998. The six-party talks, which have stalled since the DPRK decided to back out of agreements made last September, may get going again but may prove as futile as they have in the past.
The United States will, of course, be involved heavily in what happens next. When an 'axis of evil' state goes out of its way to justify the label, Washington tends to respond. Whatever the criticisms of the Bush Administration's weak policy on North Korea, this type of provocation will result in some form of action. They have to walk a difficult balance here; they can't be too far ahead of the other four parties working to disarm North Korea, or the chessboard will be shaped as the United States v. North Korea. That's not in the American interest, but neither is tepidness because China does not want to be too harsh. A Clinton official on CNN yesterday said that the United States should have preempted these missile tests by lobbing a few of its own missiles into North Korea to take out the missile silos. Maybe he didn't get the memo from Kim Jong Il that said he'd respond to any preemptive strike with nuclear weapons, and momentarily forgot that such action would be a de facto and de jure act of war. Moderation is important in this latest diplomatic crisis, and starting a war--which would escalate rapidly if Kim's statements are to be taken at face value--is more than a little counterproductive in such circumstances. And they say that the Bush Admin. are a bunch of warmongers; this is a Clinton guy saying that the use of force is the way to go!
Now, I'm all for getting rid of Kim Jong Il and his little dynasty, but that is something which is going to happen organically. It's nonsensical to risk a nuclear war to accomplish a goal which will ultimately realize itself. Kim has bankrupted the DPRK, and his only claim to 'legitimacy' is his nuclear arsenal. Remove that from the equation, and there's not a whole lot left. I don't see the current regime enduring beyond the current Dear Leader, and the collapse of the state is a very likely event. The goal for the United States thus is to disarm--finally, completely, and verifiably--North Korea and move along such that the conditions for the regime's collapse become inevitable.


Joanne (True Blue) said...

Interesting perspective, and no, I didn't pick this for a topic today. ;)

I did just listen to an analyst on talkshow radio though, he said that Kim Jony is like a spoiled little child who sees that the attention has been focussed on Iran's nuclear armaments, and he likely wants a piece of the disarmament action.

This is not my area of expertise, but I just thought I'd throw that in.

Riley Hennessey said...

Kim does want attention, not only to throw a hissy fit but as Richard points out, he is trying to sell missiles to African and southeast asian countries. This guy is serious and he is most definitely spoiled.

Joanne (True Blue) said...

And dangerous.

Carrie said...

*sings* He's so wronrey!!! *stops singing* ((you've seen Team America right?!:p))

Wow. That's really scary to hear that. I actually hadn't heard word that they were firing missiles.
Kim spends a hell of a lot of money on his military doesn't he?
...But I have a feeling that you're right about North Korea eventually collapsing.

I can't figure out anything else to say about this... And now all this stuff is floating in my head and I can't figure out ways to word it out or I'd say it...


RGM said...

To the younger twin,
About this: Kim spends a hell of a lot of money on his military doesn't he?

Yes he does. And he relies on the "international community" (such as it is) to provide his people with food and other basic necessities of life. In that regard, the rest of the world indirectly subsidizes the missile programs because it allows Kim to avoid the hassle of, y'know, taking care of his own people. It's a pretty morally bankrupt way to go about your days, and really pumps some credibility into the adage: dictators give money to generals, democracies give it to moms.

Jason Jason Bo Bason said...

Richard, I'm confused here on your thoughts.

NK has WMD.
You legitimately believed Iraq had WMD.
You supported a war on Iraq.
Yet you do not support an act of war on NK.

I have to admit, I don't understand the difference here. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. In my mind: Roque Stalinist dictators should not be allowed to possess WMD - period. But I'd like to hear what differentiates these two to you, if you don't mind me asking.

I admit, I find your position surprising here. Still, I'm all ears to what you have to say.

Candace said...

jason jason bo bason - did you miss the part about Kim saying hostile actions will be met with nuclear reactions? Bit of a difference, wouldn't you say?

Also, who has the personnel or cash to fund another "forceable removal" (or however you spell that)?

Have we learned nothing from either Iraq OR the dissolution of Russia (organic) OR the removal of the Taliban from Afghanistan (where we now have forces at the invitation of the gov't)?

Jason Jason Bo Bason said...

Gee Candace, no, I wouldn't.

We thought Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons that were ghastly killers.

I recall that we didn't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud - but we still took Saddam on.

Right now, NK's long range missiles capable of hitting the US haven't worked.

True, there are certainly allied targets within NK's range, but so were there within range of Iraq.

Your position has no logic at all. If one supported the war on an imminent threat in Iraq, then why not support a war on an imminent threat now?

Bit of a difference, wouldn't you say?

Of course it is - on one hand, we attacked a dictator without nuclear weapons, and on the other hand, we've all bent over backwards to make sure that a dictator can obtain nuclear weapons. So you're right, there is a bit of a difference there.

RGM said...

Jason Jason Bo Bason,
In a word, prudence. There's a very large difference between using 138,000 American troops (plus the Coalition's contributions) and the tools of the world's most advanced military forces, and lobbing a couple of missiles into a nuclear-armed state to take out launch pads for a couple missile tests. The former was a full-scale invasion with a defined political and military strategy, the latter is the typical Clintonite half-assed "plan" that would result in the problem not being fixed and would indeed create larger problems (remember Bosnia? Lots of air strikes, no resolution of the problem and they had to go back only four years later). There's a very large difference between a preemptive war and an act of war.

On this point, I fully agree with you: "In my mind: Roque Stalinist dictators should not be allowed to possess WMD - period."

I absolutely agree with you that Kim Jong Il should not possess nuclear weapons. He should not have been allowed to have their precursors in 1994, when the Agreed Framework merely suspended (at least on paper) their plutonium-based program instead of requiring the DPRK to give up its 8,000 plutonium rods, and it should not be allowed to have them now. Rumour has it that in addition to never really stopping the plutonium program, they've also added a uranium-enrichment program. It has been a failure of American foreign policy, the IAEA, and North Korea's neighbours (especially China) to ensure that the Koreans lived up to their agreements. However, just because the consequences for Iraq failing to do just that amounted to a war, it's not prudent for the same to happen in the Korean Peninsula. Anybody with a memory of 1950-53 knows why.

Simply put, a US invasion of North Korea, without China and Russia onside, would be an invitation to an unmitigated disaster. I find Kim Jong Il to be among the most odorous leaders in the world today; the manner in which he supplies his generals all the cash they require while demanding that the rest of the world feeds his people is despicable and is the worst type of leadership. But being China's client buys him a stay of execution from the American military. To send in hundreds of thousands of Americans (as Candace pointed out, where will they come from? Bring back the draft? I didn't think so) would be an extreme provocation of China, and that's just not something worth risking.

The key word is prudence. I'm all for regime change when it comes to Stalinist despots, but only if it can be done with a minimum level of casualties to civilians and without the spectre of a nuclear war on our hands. You have to weigh out the costs of your actions relative to the benefits which will result. Kim Jong gone would be great, but there's still the question of what the other nuclear powers in the region will do, and what to do with North Korea afterwards. Reunification is a great idea, but will be much more difficult than the Germanys because the DPRK is said to be exponentially worse than East Germany was.
On a final note, you have to consider American public opinion. They're already getting tired of one democracy-building project and trying to find ways to get out of Iraq while the cake is still in the oven, you'd be hard-pressed to find the massive support required to take on another project, especially with all the factors I've already discussed in mind.

Jason Jason Bo Bason said...

Richard, thanks for indulging my curiousity, I appreciate your generous thoughts.

Personally, I feel that we must do ALL that we can to get rid of Kim Il Jong. After September 11th, I'm simply to willing to allow a (megolomaniacal and probably insane) dictator who hates the West to have nuclear arms for his own use, or for the purpose of selling them. We all know the "suitcase nuke" fear in Manhattan or London or etc.

I don't buy Candace's thinking at all - which seems to be, "Oh, well he's got nukes and is ready to fire them - we shouldn't treat him the way we did the last WMD harbouring Stalinist".

I guess, Richard, that if we live in a world where the US (whom I support fully and am in no way opposed to) can use the world's mightiest military ever to knock around tinpot dictators, but play by different rules when it comes to a nuclear armed threat, then I want to go bury my head in the sand. It's hard to express to you how much that idea depresses me.

When I say this, I realize I don't have all the answers, and it's just my gut emotion talking, not logic: No nuclear proliferation among rogue states or rogue organizations, and if means going against China - well, I don't *want* to, but to me, being from the West means standing up to injustice and any threats to freedom, and if it means hard losses, so did World War II.

Oh, I must sound like such a bloodthirsty imperialist there. I'm really not.

I can't accept that it was right to move on Saddam Hussein, and allow Kim Il Jong to become a nuclear power. I will never accept that - ever. Not in all the years ahead in the rest of my life. If it's right to disarm one totalitarian butcher, then it's right to disarm another.

I must stress that I'm all for prudence, I'm not really a fly off the handle person when it comes to serious matters. I don't say what I say with "hate" in my heart for Kim Il Jong - it makes me unhappy and sobre to say that we should knock out his nuclear facilities. We have to stand against nuclear proliferation, at almost any cost - the consequences to me look too great to risk.

This was long - apologies.

RGM said...

Absolutely no apologies necessary. I wholeheartedly agree with a lot of what you said in there, particularly the following:
-Kim Jong Il must go
-dictators should not be allowed to have nuclear weapons
-I also fully support the U.S.
-no nuclear proliferation, no new nukes, no new nuclear states
-we must stand up to injustice and threats to freedom
-it is right (and indeed, I would add, an obligation) to disarm totalitarian butchers

So there's a lot in there on which we agree, but there is a time where we've got to let diplomacy prevail, and I think that when we're dealing with fully-armed nuclear states, that prudence comes in handy. I don't believe that we are, yet, at the point where the consequences of inaction outweigh the consequences of forcible regime change. In my M.A. thesis I propose a quite radical solution to the North Korean nuclear threat; I'm not going to divulge it publicly (gotta keep some things on the down-low about it for now) but if you'd like to know shoot me an email: rmcadam@dal.ca and I can fill you in on the idea and we can discuss it in that venue.

Thanks for the thoughts. Oh, and don't worry, it's not imperialism. Empires stay, democracies leave when they're asked. But that's a subject for another post entirely (and again, something I've discussed in my thesis)

Devin said...


One retired staffer makes a comment on CNN and you paint the entire Clinton administration, and presumably the Democratic Party, as warmongerers of the same ilk as George Bush and his gang. Get real...

RGM said...

At no point did I say that; I kept my critique strictly limited to the singular Clinton official. Any further extrapolation of that comment is your doing, not mine.

Devin said...


You did not say so explicitly, but you did implicitly. If you had not intended to make the implication you would not have associated the staffer with Clinton in the first place. You contrasted the Clinton administration with the Bush administration, which has been characterized as "warmongering" (a characterization I assume you disagree with), for effect.

RGM said...

I didn't associate him with Clinton, he was a Clinton-era official. He associated himself with Clinton, and was identified as such by CNN. He's not Joe Schmoe the analyst, he was a member of the administration. I don't remember the name, I wish I did because it clearly would have been helpful to the story, but, IMHO, you're going too far to defend the supposed good name of the Clinton Administration.
If anything, my implication was to suggest that it's not just Bush folks that will recommend military force, but a lot of well-reasoned Americans, be they Republicans, Democrats, hawks, doves, you name it. It's not a contrast; indeed, it's more a demonstration of continuity and a genuine reflection of the make-up of the American foriegn policy elite. Clintonites can be hawks, Bushites can be doves.

Jason Bo Green said...

Richard, I'm sure I can learn quite a lot from your thesis, I may just take you up on that. Thanks for the offer - you may hear from me later this week.