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.