North Korea — What to Expect

It is hard to see what direction Secretary of State Pompeo will take negotiating with North Korea.  I say this because the ultimate objective for the United States is for North Korea to denuclearize, but having nuclear weapons is really the only card North Korea has to play.  So why would they give them up?   They wouldn’t.

If they do give up their only winning card, the question remains, how would North Korea be protected from a US attack, which is what they really fear?  A treaty could be arranged so that Russia or China, even Russian and China, would guarantee the North Korea borders from attack — that if North Korea were attacked by anyone, one or both would come to their aid.  But why would North Korea trust such an agreement, as it would put one or both of these countries at odds with the United States without much to gain from it themselves?

Furthermore,  everyone is keenly aware of what happened in Libya.  The United States negotiated with Muammar Gaddafi to back away from having nuclear weapons.  He agreed, but subsequently the United States became very involved in his overthrow.  Remember the once all-powerful Gaddafi hiding in a storm drain, and then slaughtered by his angry captors?  That lesson of how vulnerable a country and its leader are without having the ultimate weapon was not lost on Kim Yong-Un or anyone else.  So that the United States might guarantee the North Korean borders if the regime agrees to denuclearize — all of that rings kind of hollow in this light.

Consequently, I see the basic negotiation of denuclearizing North Korea going nowhere.  But does that mean there is no benefit from further negotiation?  Here there is some hope, for there is a subtle benefit that is realistic and achievable.

North Korea and South Korea are technically still at war.  What was signed way back in 1953 was an armistice, not a treaty that ended the war.  So technically they are still at war.  In fact, up until recently, the tension in the demilitarized zone was palpable and very threatening.  The two sides down through the years have shown recurring bouts of open hostility, including an active series of “war games” with American participation in South Korea and unrelenting warlike broadcasts by North Korea.

It could very well be the case that some wars are not started from a sudden decision, but rather a series of small steps and irritations that slowly lead to a crescendo of outrage on either side, so that the slightest spark reaches — to use a nuclear metaphor — critical mass,  and so you have an explosion of outright hostilities.  You have yourself a war.  This was certainly the case in World War 1 where the spark was the assassination of  Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.  Just imagine — an entire world set ablaze because just one person is shot dead.

But it might be that peace works in the opposite direction — a series of small steps at forgiveness and reconciliation until the parties involved become surprised at and even taken aback by any animosity, so that the thought of war seems preposterous, remote.  That first step toward peace in this case might be a much ballyhooed peace treaty that finally ends the war between North Korea and South Korea.  That’s the achievable benefit.  It would in fact change little about the current circumstances, but it would change the mood dramatically, and would be that tiny but real first step away from war, away from the abyss.  A journey of a 100 miles begins with the first step.

But, unfortunately, there is further reason for pessimism about the Korean predicament.  It has to do with the prospects for the country to become unified again.  What you have in South Korea is a Western-style democracy and a capitalist society.  It is a wealthy, industrious, and innovative country with its citizens used to quite a bit of personal freedom as well as civil rights and voting rights.  In short, the people are independent, well to do, and exercise a good deal of self-determination in the conduct of their own lives.

Contrast all of that to what exists in North Korea.  North Korea is a hereditary military dictatorship based on the cult of a supreme leader.   It is a poor country that is barely able to feed itself.  We’ve all seen the satellite night photographs of a pitch black North Korea.  Much of the country’s productive capacity is spent on developing an overly massive military or wasted by the regime for showy propaganda structures that serve no useful benefit for its society.  Its people have no rights and have been thoroughly indoctrinated in a Stalinist-like regime where individuals who voice the slightest disagreement with the regime simply disappear, either permanently or to Gulag-like prisons.  So there is no dissent to speak of, and the people are like robots in their total submission to the state and its supreme leader.  I submit that two such disparate regimes will never ever be reconciled, certainly not without a lot of bloodshed and civil war.

It’s interesting to sit back and look at the Korean situation from the point of view of what would be the worst case scenario from the American perspective and from the North Korean perspective.  The American perspective is pretty easy to understand.  We would not want to see South Korea overrun by North Korea.  This could happen in either of two ways.  The United States might negotiate to leave South Korea if there was sufficient guarantees that North Korea would not invade.  But the United States having left, North Korea might renege on this agreement and invade anyway.  Alternatively, an outright war could break out.  Seoul would be destroyed by the artillery bombardment, the tactical nuclear weapons used by the United States might not be effective in deterring the million-man North Korean army that invades South Korea, and so the whole peninsula, or what’s left of it, would fall to North Korea.  In either of these possibilities, the net result would then place Japan at severe risk — the next domino to fall.  And there is also the outside chance of a North Korean nuclear-armed missile managing to hit American soil.  That’s the American nightmare.

The North Korean worse case scenario is pretty obvious.  The United States military always has its “hawks” recommending that now is the time to take advantage of the enemy — that any further delay is to our disadvantage.  The hawks are always there pressing this argument in every international conflict.  After all, fighting and killing are what they do.   Actually, in this case, the hawk argument, that time is not on our side, is not a hard one to make.  North Korea today probably does not have the reentry technology or the accuracy to hit specific targets in the continental United States, but in 5 years?  Today it is estimated they may have 15 nuclear weapons, but in 5 years?  The clock is ticking.

Nevertheless, should the perception unfold that the North Korean regime is consciously trying to play us along in order to deceive the United States to gain the upper hand in a game of nuclear chicken, such a growing perception would play into the hands of the hawks who would merely reiterate that time is running out on our advantage to ATTACK.  The worse case scenario for North Koreans unfolds when leadership in Washington becomes persuaded by this argument and ultimately agrees with it.  If that synergy between Washington and the hawks were to happen, all of North Korea would hang by a nuclear thread hovering above an annihilation one can scarcely imagine.

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