North Korea

2007 04 08
North Korea arms Ethiopians as U.S. assents

That’s the big news today. It isn’t that the U.S. (appears to have) actively helped Ethiopia get spare arms parts from the North Koreans; just that it allowed a transaction to go through at a time when it was useful for the U.S. to be able to help Ethiopia out with Somalia.

For this to make sense, you would need to believe that the success of Ethiopia’s Somalia project is more valuable than:

a) imposing an actual embargo on North Korea;
b) retaining U.S. credibility on the issue of nuclear proliferation in general;
c) building support for U.S. policies with respect to North Korea.

U.S. support for Ethiopia’s actions in Somalia didn’t make sense to me before I learned that the Bush administration was willing to engage in this kind policy trade-off. But even if there were good reasons to back Ethiopia, it’s hard to believe it could be worth this price. I just don’t understand why the Bush administration would put so much energy into a Security Council resolution and then undermine it three months later while at the same time acting very huffy about the prospect of anyone else undermining the same resolution. It’s just bizarre and irrational.

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2007 02 13
The deal

I’m very glad that the U.S. and the North Koreans are talking, and that things are apparently going well, and I hate to be a pessimist, but I don’t think the odds are very good that the deal is going to stick. It seems unlikely that the North Koreans are done acting completely bonkers; indeed, their past negotiating style suggests that they’ll do something dramatic to derail things at the last minute, on the off-chance that they’ll be able to do even better than they have. And there are still powerful elements in the Bush administration and Congress that will be looking for reasons to scuttle the deal one way or another. Still, this looks more like progress than anything else we’ve seen in the last few years.

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2007 02 07
After the fall

Totalitarian societies stay standing in large part because everyone in them believes that they’ll stay standing. It’s hardly surprising that these societies look especially rugged from the outside, and that once people within lose faith in them they can crumble almost overnight. We’ve learned this much just from watching it happen a couple of times in our own lifetimes. What we haven’t learned, and what we’re unlikely to learn, is how to predict exactly when it will happen. Still, once an entire social order collapses, we have some empirical data — from the elements of the former U.S.S.R., from Poland, from Yugoslavia, from East Germany, etc. — about the difficulties these societies face.

I’m thinking today, for no particular reason, of North Korea. North Korea looks like it’ll be stuck in its own wretched version of hell for quite some time. But it’s entirely possible that it will collapse this week, or month, or year – as possible, I suppose, as the bleak alternative of continuing on exactly as it has for the next twenty years. Eventually, however, it will collapse, and in a way that will probably surprise nearly everyone. Unfortunately, when this happens the other cases I mentioned above will be only rough guides to the difficulties facing the country, and the region. Things have been so bad for so long in the country that when the current social order finally breaks down, we have to expect massive refugee flows, an enormous humanitarian crisis, absolutely massive corruption, possibly a civil war within competing factions of what is left of the society, and more. And South Korea has to expect pressure to follow West Germany’s example to integrate a society that is thoroughly broken. And yet the (hardly pain-free) integration of East into West Germany can hardly serve as a model for this project, since the circumstances of North Koreans are just so much bleaker, in both relative and absolute terms, than anything that East Germany endured.

About all of which I have only this to say: I wonder what sorts of contingency plans the regional actors have in place now for the day this does happen. There really will be a need to have a coordinated response to deal with the mess, and by the time anyone realizes they need a plan, it’ll surely be too late to draw up a careful and effective one.

Howls of outrage (2)

2006 04 18
North Korea, Iran

I’m busy but I do hate to disappoint my many fans. So, quick post, in the form of a question or two: What’s the deal with North Korea these days? When the administration was last starting to sound serious about North Korea, you could hardly hear a peep about Iran from anyone (except Michael Leeden, crying in the wilderness). Now Iran’s all the rage and you’d think that raising the North Korea issue would get you nothing but yawns and blank stares. What gives? Has the administration simply thrown in the towel on North Korea? Or is the next stage to turn away from Iran and start sounding all Churchillian about North Korea again? Granted, this might confuse the hell out of both North Korea and Iran. But what’s going on? Have I missed something? I had the impression earlier that the President was trying to mediate between competing factions in an administration divided between a party that wanted to engage North Korea and a party that wanted to get serious about military action. Did he forget to decide?

For the record, I think that a North Korea with nukes is a bit more terrifying than an Iran with nukes and that military action against either would be insane. It’s a tough call, but my vote for the crazier course of action goes to military action against North Korea.

Howls of outrage (10)

2005 03 24
How wretched does your country have to be . . .

. . . before a poor Chinese province seems like a promised land of freedom and wealth? Ask a North Korean refugee.

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2005 02 22

Such a pretty flower:

Pyongyang, February 2 (KCNA) — Immortal Kimjongilia is now appreciated by people at home and abroad as a “flower of the sun revered by all people”, “valuable flower representing the times”, “the best flower in the world”, “king of flowers”, etc. This flower was awarded a special prize, gold medal, diploma and other top prizes at the 12th International Flower Show held in Czechoslovakia in May 1991, the Nordic Flower Show in Sweden in March 1995, the Jilin, China, Flower Exhibition in August 1997, the China 99 Kunming World Horticultural Expo in May 1999, the Begonia Show held in California of the United States in August 2004, etc. The facts go to clearly prove that Kimjongilia is the most beautiful flower in the world.
The flower received the top “Grand” prize and diploma at the China 99 Kunming World Horticultural Expo, the largest in the world, as it brought together 69 countries and 26 international bodies.
It also won the first prize ribbon at the Begonia Show in California where on display were flowers of various species belonging to the begonia family cultivated by at least 60 flower production units and organizations, horticulturists and flower lovers. Kimjongilia was formally registered as new variety No. 991 by the unanimous approval of the jury of the show.
Amid the growing of admiration for this flower, Kimjongilia greenhouses were opened in different countries including China, Japan and Madagascar and Kimjongilia associations and Kimjongilia lovers societies were formed one after another in Asian, Nordic and other regions.
Kimjongilia is now being rapidly propagated in at least 60 countries to be loved by hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Hat tip to my friend, Sudha, who has recently become obsessed with the North Korean news agency. She tells me that it’s hiliarious – until you remember that there’s a complete lack of irony in everything they write. And then it’s just chilling.

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2005 01 08
State mandated hair styles in North Korea

Creepy. So very creepy.

Via Metafilter.

Howls of outrage (4)

2004 12 02
North Korea

The Poor Man has some thoughts on North Korea. I think he may push the “they’re completely crazy” line a bit too far – at least I hope he’s pushing it too far. But the main point – that North Korea has absolutely no good reason give up nuclear weapons and a number of good ones to pursue them – seems correct.

A surprising amount of commentary in the U.S. about nuclear proliferation seems to overlook this fairly basic point. I hope to return to this point – along with a few sticky moral questions about anti-proliferation efforts – in connection with Iran as soon as I get a chance.

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2004 12 01
Bush:American People ::Kim Jong Il: Kim’s father


Interviews with dozens of North Korean refugees in China and South Korea reveal a popular disillusionment with Kim…They suggest he hid the collapse of the economy in the 1980s from his father by feeding him a string of false statistics. People first began starving to death in the 1980s, but Kim Jong Il persuaded his father to accelerate the nuclear-weapons program and inflate the size of the military.

Other notable news is that while Kim Jong Il does seem to be toning down the cult rhetoric, he “continues to be addressed with more than a thousand honorifics such as ‘The Lodestar of the 21st Century’ and ‘Guardian of Our Planet.’

Howls of outrage (2)

2004 11 18
North Korea

Like a lot of people, I’ve been scratching my head recently about North Korea.

I wonder what the hell is going on over there.

Howls of outrage (2)

2004 08 07
Cole on troop reallocations

Juan Cole writes:

It is amazing to me that there has been no national debate about Bush’s significant transfer of military troops from South Korea to Iraq. It is not as if the Korea situation is stable. The US only had two divisions there, and only one of them was a fighting division. A division is about 20,000 troops. You take 3,600 troops away for Iraq, and that is significant. Indeed, the plan is to reduce US troop levels in South Korea by 12,500 in the next year and a half. North Korea has a million-man army and at least two nuclear weapons. The reduction is welcomed by the South Korean liberals, and maybe it is a good thing. But it demonstrates that Bush has over-stretched the US military by his overweening ambition in the Persian Gulf, and that he is having to steal from Peter to pay Paul. It is the sort of thing that calls for a debate, but there isn’t one. When did the United States become a monarchy in regard to foreign policy?

I don’t follow.
Continue Reading »

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2004 06 18
Vaclav Havel on North Korea

Via Normblog, I see that Vaclav Havel has some firm views on North Korea:

Kim Jong-il wants to be respected and feared abroad, and he wants to be recognised as one of the most powerful leaders in today’s world. He is willing to let his people die of hunger, and uses famine to liquidate any sign of wavering loyalty to his rule.

Through blackmail Kim receives food and oil, which he distributes among those loyal to him (first in line being the army), while the international community has no way to ascertain who is receiving aid inside North Korea.

Now is the time for the democratic countries of the world – the European Union, the United States, Japan and last but not least South Korea – to unify under a common position.

These countries must make it clear that they will not make concessions to a totalitarian dictator. They must state that respect for basic human rights is an integral part of any future discussions with Pyongyang. Decisiveness, perseverance and negotiations from a position of strength are the only things that Kim Jong-il and those similar to him understand.

It is hoped this is something that the world does not need any more horrifying testimony to realise.

Havel is absolutely right about the moral depravity of the North Korean regime. But I can’t help noticing that Havel’s advice is a bit thin on specifics. Negotiate? With what leverage? Yes, the North Korean regime gets aid, and that aid can be cut off. Indeed, I think if it were up to me I would cut aid, since as far as I can tell it goes mainly to propping up the regime. But the North Korean regime also has tricks up its sleeve which ought to make anyone nervous. It might increase even more its trafficking in arms, drugs and counterfeit money. Well, crack down on that too, you say? Steady there, my friend. If you increase pressure too much you significantly raise the likelyhood of a catastrophic exchange across the DMZ which would kill hundreds of thousands. The Bush administration has struggled with precisely this problem for a while, first indulging in quite a bit of Churchillian swagger (as Josh Marshall called it at the time), and then retreating into sullen confusion after it had taken the trouble to size up North Korea’s actual strategic situation. The status quo now actually reflects the balance of power (in the sense that both can produce catastrophic damage on the other) between the parties fairly well, even if the North Korean regime is, at the same time, in fairly desperate straits.

I am, for the same reason, a bit tired of hearing the South Koreans constantly described as nervous nellies for their “sunshine policy” to North Korea. It’s not a policy I’m terribly impressed with, but then again neither I, nor the many people who are more critical of the policy, are forced to live under the kind of threat the South Koreans face. I notice that that Churchillian swagger comes most naturally to those us out of the range of the artillery shells.

What should we do? I have been very tempted to advocate cutting off North Korean aid, on the grounds that that alone is not likely to precipitate a military conflict, and that it doesn’t do much good anyway. I would at the same time temper the rhetoric a bit. Just because the North Korean regime is crazy, doesn’t mean that acting provocatively won’t make it crazier. Putting North Korea into some axis of evil and then attacking one of the members of the axis isn’t the sole cause of what may be an arms race on the peninsula – but it sure as hell didn’t help. It may be that the best hope for the international community now is to apply pressure to . . . China. As Havel notes, China has dealt with the North Korean refuge problem in a consistently brutish manner. And it is far more open to pressure than North Korea.

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2004 02 28
And another thing . . .

Here’s another way of making a point I’ve made in my remarks about Normblog’s position on the Iraq war.

Everyone agrees that North Korea is ruled by a vile regime, as vile at Saddam’s Ba’ath party was. But as far as I can tell neither Norm nor anyone on the pro-war left has advocated just going in and attacking North Korea.

And rightly so: For one, the human costs of such a plan rule it out immediately.

But they do not accuse themselves of failing to “resist evil” when they fail to advocate a war against North Korea, as they do accuse the anti-war left for failing to advocate a war against Iraq.

Now, I think that the obvious and immediate risks of attacking North Korea are considerably more daunting than the obvious and immediate risks of attacking Iraq were prior to the war. But I think that if you take a hard look at the likely long term consequences of the war in Iraq, there’s a good case to be made for the view that the cases are considerably closer than a first glance might suggest.

So here’s one thing worth noting: That last observation is a non-moral claim, in the sense that it’s a predictive claim about how things are likely to turn out, not about how they ought to turn out. And here’s the next thing: If Norm and other had accepted this non-moral claim, their position on the war against Iraq might well have been the same as their position on North Korea, i.e., don’t do it.

And that despite the fact that they – and we – are all anxious to resist evil.

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2004 02 12

Wow. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq really couldn’t get anything right.

It’s sort of interesting to reflect on the tendency to overestimate Stalinist societies. During the Cold War, many hawks tended to overestimate the strength, resolve and capabilities of the USSR. Now, that’s not to deny that the USSR was a very serious danger. All those nukes pointing at the US were real, and they came alarmingly close to being actually deployed. And the USSR was able to do an extraordinary amount of damage to its victims (Afghanistan being perhaps the most gruesome example). Still, the broad tendency in estimates of Soviet strength and capability was to overrate it, and the tendency was more pronounced the further to the right you got. I suppose it’s neither here nor there, but I’ve always thought I detected a note of wistfulness in the real hardliner’s descriptions of Soviet capabilities during the Cold War. If I’m right, that wistfulness entered into their accounts of the relative strengths of the societies partly because they saw openness as a real liability for their own side, without ever really understanding the damage that a closed society can do to itself without anyone noticing.

I suspect the same thing happened with Iraq. Everyone knew, of course, that part of what made Saddam Hussein so worrying was the sheer impossibility of his ever getting good advice. The hawks said that repeatedly. And yet, and yet, people never followed this through to its logical conclusion: that although Iraq might well be able to do extraordinary amounts of damage (e.g., Kuwait) in this spite of this liability, it was a state enormously handicapped by its lack of openness. One wonders how much of Iraq’s perceived strength on the part of many (not all, of course, or even most) hawks was due to a half-conscious (to be charitable) jealousy stemming from the fact that at least Saddam Hussein didn’t have to put up with all those damn protesters getting in his way, and that in their eyes this represented some kind of real net gain for him.

Now, two cases does not a pattern make. But these reflections make it natural to speculate about North Korea. The state, which has the power to wipe out most of my wife’s extended family, scares the bejeesus out of me. It doesn’t need nuclear weapons to do this. It has enough concentrated conventional artillery fire staged along the border to destroy a great many souls within the space of half an hour. This much I believe. The options for dealing with North Korea are all of them deeply unpalatable. Buy off North Korea’s nukes program? Perhaps – perhaps – necessary, but a truly revolting thought, since the price would be very steep, and would essentially go to propping up the regime. Ignore it? Not a happy thought either, if it sparks an arms race in the region, or raises the risks of war further, or North Korea essentially becomes the next Pakistan of nuclear proliferators.

One wonders, though, exactly how far along North Korea actually is. Might there even be doubledealing among North Korea’s nuclear scientists? This country is not exactly a meritocracy: How much of the strange noises we hear coming from the government are the result of sheer incompetence and how much the result of a cunning strategy to throw the US off balance? And although there’s no evidence whatsoever that the state is on the verge of a breakdown, one can’t help wondering how much internal strength is actually does have.

None of this is to say that it would be prudent to assume the best about the country. But it might lead us to downgrade our estimate of its sheer offensive capabilities, and our estimate of its aggressive intentions. North Korea has nothing whatsoever to gain from actually initiating a war. Unlike the Iraq of August 1990, it has no vulnerable neighbour, and unlike that same Iraq, its leadership can have no doubt about the US’s view of such any aggression. A closed, paranoid society like North Korea’s often has its hands full clamping down on dissent, and brutalizing its citizens. So although we ought to regard North Korea as a serious threat as a potential nuclear proliferator, and a very serious threat if its existence is threatened, and a horrible burden to its citizens, I doubt it now represents the aggressive threat that it once clearly was.

So what to do? This is, I think, the hardest policy question there is today, bar none. (The case of Iraq was much easier. An invasion was unjustified. Now that they’ve invaded, a early pullout would be unjustifiable.) In Bush’s shoes, I’m not sure I could bring myself to offer aid to North Korea, even at existing levels. If I did offer North Korea an aid package, it would be with strict conditions attached to its disbursment, conditions strict enough that North Korea would probably reject it. If I was going to bribe any country in the region, it wouldn’t be North Korea, it would be China, since that is really the state with the most leverage over it. I suppose I would try to work with China to press very hard for internal reforms in North Korea, pointing out that it would do little longterm good to China to see North Korea slip into further poverty and risk of complete collapse. And I would try to contain the proliferation threat with increased surveillance, and interdiction efforts. I would also sign a non-aggression pact (consistent with interdiction efforts), recognizing that while the state is going to be paranoid and detached from reality for a long time to come, constantly threatening it with war probably isn’t the best way to stop it from spurring an arms race. But while I would be much less threatening militarily, I would attempt to draw as much attention as possible to North Korean human rights abuses, and I would put pressure on every government with serious dealings with North Korea to do the same. This does have an effect, though it takes real effort, consistency and a willingness to subbordinate other policy priorities to it when you’re forced to choose.

All of this leaves North Korea with a serious ongoing humanitarian crisis and risks leaving it a serious proliferator. But if you can figure out how to actually improve the lot of North Koreans, please do let me know. Right now they’re being held hostage by a nut job, and any attempt to rescue them – as things are now – would lead to enough widespread suffering to nullify the results of the effort. And although there’s a very real risk to refusing to buy off North Korea’s nuclear program, it’s probably containable.

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2003 12 02
[Nice move]

Is this really what the Bush admin wants to do now, in the middle of delicate negotiations with other governments over how to handle Iran and North Korea?

I’m the last person to want Iran or North Korea to get nukes. It’s not just that they’re potentially quite unstable countries led by people I don’t at all trust. It’s that the more countries with nukes, the greater the chances of miscalcuation and disaster.

Still, for Pete’s sake, at what point does a position just become too hypocritical to sustain? If you really believe in non-proliferation, if you noisily trumpet the danger of nuclear weapons, does this carry any corresponding responsibilities to restrain yourself with the same class of weapons?

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