North Korea: Don't Worry

It's a totalitarian state with nuclear technology and an ideological slant against the rest of the world that also continually threatens the rest of the world with rockets and other attacks. Sounds scary. And indeed, North Korea shouldn't be underestimated. All of these things are true, and it has been launching ineffective rockets that may very well get more effective in the coming years. Still, I'm not worried.

There are a number of reasons why we should just roll our eyes and carry on with our business while Kim Jong-Il throws yet another tantrum. While it is true that assuming that foreign leaders are rational can be dangerous, it holds true in the overwhelming majority of situations. Although Kim and his forefathers have done many things that could be considered irrational from the point of view of the welfare of the citizens of North Korea, from the standpoint of keeping control of an entire country, they have actually been rather successful. There is little to suggest that Kim Jong-Il or anyone else in North Korea would like to see North Korea wiped out. Thus, I think we can fairly safely assume Kim is rational, if somewhat misguided.

Assuming he is rational, he has very few options. Who would North Korea attack and what could it possibly hope to gain from such an action? The easiest target would be Seoul South Korea, mere miles from the border to North Korea. But again, what would that get North Korea? It would likely result in a UN-sanctioned attack on North Korea, something Obama would not shy away from with widespread international support. Besides, there does seem to be some feeling of brotherhood with their relatives to the south, so killing millions hardly seems likely. How about Japan or the United States, two countries North Korea loathes? Again, wrath, probably much more so than even with an attack against South Korea. This could lead to the re-militarization of Japan and the destabilization of the entire region, something China would desperately seek to hinder. So what about China? China is the closest thing North Korea has to an ally. It would be madness to attack it and that therefore seems highly unlikely. I'm sure anyone can imagine the result if North Korea really succeeded in attacking the United States, especially if Americans were killed. The United States may have shown itself not to be omnipotent, but a country would still be incredibly foolhardy to provoke an attack from it.

Taking all this into account, North Korea is fenced in. It may sometimes seem that China is helping North Korea, but this isn't really true. China pushes other countries to respect North Korean sovereignty for two reasons: it wishes others to do the same with China, and it has no interest in seeing North Korea collapse and then having to deal with a flood of refugees over the border into China. At the same time, China has no desire to have a nuclear competitor as a neighbor. Its siding with North Korea may also stem partly from a desire to snub the West a bit, but at the end of the day, China wants to maintain its predominance (shared with the U.S.) in the region and doesn't want any new dangerous competitors. It may be happy, though, to play North Korea off the West and Japan in the meantime to deflect attention away from itself. This is also all purely rational. Although China's interests are not 100% in line with those of the U.S., they are also not really against them.

A student of mine (Austrian) also let me in on what he was more afraid of: that the U.S. would be hasty and attack North Korea. Here, too, I told him, he could relax. The reason? China, once again. China would be extremely angered by such a move and has too much leverage in the region. No president would endanger relations with such a powerful and important trading partner. Even George Bush realized that. For that reason, an unprovoked (by which I mean that North Korea does not openly attack the U.S. or Americans) U.S. invasion or military engagement against North Korea is extremely unlikely, even before looking at other factors. These factors include the massive debt the U.S. has built and its large deficits, its fighting (or nation-building/peacekeeping, whatever you'd like to call it) on two fronts (Iraq and Afghanistan), and, finally, Barack Obama's presidency, which promises to be a more thoughtful, cautious, and calculating one. All of these factors make it almost inconceivable that the U.S. would do anything militarily against North Korea. Kim Jong-Il knows this, and is pushing his limits and showing his muscle. But that's all it is: show, a demand for more respect.

In the meantime, I propose a sliding scale system of benefits for North Korea, which, once established, would be non-negotiable. This would let North Korea know that it will always be rewarded for doing good things, punished for doing bad, and this always automatically, non-negotiably, instantaneously, and in a predictable and transparent manner. This would prevent North Korea's leaders, current or future, from using tantrums to try to extract more goodies. The only way they could get more would be by improving. Those same benefits would then automatically and immediately be eliminated if things devolved again.

North Korea probably won't stay like this forever, but it is anyone's guess as to how much longer it will remain as it is. Maybe change will come with Kim Jong-Il's passing - maybe not. In the meantime, we should engage North Korea, but not pander to it. By being clear on exactly what consequences which moves will have, we can make it more likely that North Korea will respond positively. If not, it's Kim's loss, not ours. It may be a pity, but that's the way it is. In any case, its threat, though not to be underestimated, especially for its destabilizing effects for the region, should also not be exaggerated.


Popular Posts