Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Murky North Korea

North Korea is doing things again. On Monday, it announced a nuclear test, today it announced the treaty that ended fighting in the Korean War to be valid. From an external standpoint, its timing is off. Until now, the spirit from the Obama administration has been one of rapprochement; Obama even sent a senior official to Pyongyang in April, but North Korea did not receive him.

The test could be an attempt to bully Obama, but…how much can North Korea really bully? Any real attack on the American homeland would be suicidal, and any attempt to go rampaging through Asia would be nearly as silly. No one in the region would benefit from that, and many would be in a position to stop it. China, the United States, and South Korea are all armed to the teeth, and their economies are so enmeshed with each other (and with Japan) that each would suffer greatly if the region were to be destabilized. The best Pyongyang could reasonably hope for is to be left alone, and it already is. Missile launches are probably an attempt to ensure this, but I think there’s more to it than that.

We may not know what’s going on until the regime falls one day, but my guess is this has more to do with succession. If Pyongyang were to normalize relations with the United States, for example, that would mean ambassadors, talks, maybe even trade. All these things would mean the United States would have a much better idea of what is going on in North Korea than it does presently. If Kim Jong Il has indeed suffered a stroke, as has been widely reported, closer ties would mean the United States would be in a much better position to influence the choice of his successor. Detonating a nuclear weapon while ramping up hostile rhetoric is a perfect way to dissuade all outside actors, including the U.S., from trying to influence the country’s politics. It’s also a means of changing the subject – CNN is no longer talking about whether Kim Jong Il is incapacitated, it’s talking about North Korea’s threats against South Korean and American troops.

If Kim Jong Il has indeed suffered a stroke, current bets are that he will hand power to his 26-year-old son. He has older sons, but they have disgraced themselves nicely, the middle one was caught a few years ago trying to sneak into Tokyo Disney. If Kim does indeed tend to hand power to a 26-year-old, it may be to his advantage to keep his own top officials guessing about what will happen, lest a senior general or government official who has had decades to build up clout make a play for the top job. Disloyalty at the top is not unprecedented, especially in times when leadership in uncertain. In the early 90s, as Kim Il-Sung was dying and Kim Jong Il was consolidating his power, a group of generals is rumored to have plotted to seize control and modernize the country. The most recent missile launch occurred a few days before a meeting of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's Supreme People's Assembly. Scott Snyder at Global Security argues that the missile was meant to show that Kim remains in power. An earlier test, in 1998, also occured just before an SPA meeting and many observers believed it represented Kim Jong Il's consolidation of control over the nation and the party. This new launch may be a renewed attempt to assert the Kim family's control, especially if succession is murky.

So what should the Obama administration do? I favor Mitchell Bliss's idea of "malign neglect", in which the U.S. announces its desire to return to Six Party Talks as soon as the North does, and then says nothing else to Pyongyang, and instead focuses on its improving its alliance with South Korea and Japan. It would also welcome South Korea's joining the Proliferation Security Intiative, and encourage China to do so, which would send a message that the international community would not tolerate any nuclear exports from North Korea. Unsexy? Yes. But malin neglect places all the burden for change on North Korea, where it should be.

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