Wednesday, 6 September 2017

A New Korea in a New Town

The hostile use of a single nuclear weapon by North Korea (aka the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) would obviously spell the immediate end of the Kim regime, probably care of a military coup orchestrated by China. For this reason incompetence, such as the failure of a guidance system causing an unarmed missile to crash on Hokkaido, is currently a greater risk than a miscalculation in brinkmanship. It makes sense for the North to be operating at the bleeding edge of its technical capability, but that amplifies the risk of a mistake. The world would be a safer place if North Korea had better missile systems. The odds of the regime doing something that could entail massive consequential damage, such firing an armed missile, are close to zero. Proving that they've got a H-bomb and a long-range missile is sufficient, even if there remains scepticism about their ability to use the one with the other. There just needs to be a realistic possibility of this for the other regional players to update their strategies.

That said, the Chinese would only decapitate the regime in extremis. Toppling the Kim dynasty would set a bad precedent for Xi and the CPC domestically, even if they could engineer it in such a way that North Korea implemented a more Chinese-like regime. In reality, a centralised party and an economic oligarchy based on existing military and security elites is pretty much what Kim Jong-Un wants anyway, so there is nothing to be gained by China in accelerating the regime's demise. Mutatis mutandis, North Korea seeks to take the same road as Russia and China in "normalising" the economy while preserving an authoritarian state. The success of China and Vietnam has convinced Kim that economic liberalisation does not axiomatically produce social and political liberalisation, while the varieties of national capitalism in East Asia, from Singapore to Siberia, suggest that there is enough latitude to accommodate a distinctive North Korean flavour.

The continuation of the Kim regime requires not only the development of nuclear weapons as leverage with the Chinese, who ultimately remain a greater existential threat than the distant US or the historic enemy, Japan, but the diversion of much of the DPRK's conventional military expenditure to other sectors of the economy. This is needed not just to improve general living standards but to buy-off increasingly disgruntled elites who are well aware of the wealth of their peers in China. The scale of the North's defence spending, which amounts to a staggering 23% of GDP, reflects the possibility of an invasion from the South (aka the Republic of Korea, or RoK), with which it is still technically at war. Though the "economic exhaustion" model was overplayed in the post-91 Western narrative of the eclipse of the USSR (Soviet military expenditure was about 9% of GDP, comparable to Israel or Saudi Arabia today), it is undoubtedly central to a society that has been on a permanent war footing since the 1953 armistice.

While the South spends only about 2.6% of its GDP on defence, that translates into an absolute expenditure that is many times greater than the North and ranks as the 10th largest globally. The technology gap between the two is much wider than it was in the early-50s, when the North was being supplied with WW2-era weaponry by the USSR. Most military analysts reckon the North's current capabilities are equivalent to the US in the era of the Vietnam war, which means they would be hugely outclassed in a straight fight with the South. It should also be noted that South Korea is much less dependent on the US today, not least because of the rapid growth of its domestic defence industry (which is expected to overtake China as the leading regional arms exporter by 2020). While Seoul's proximity to the border means the South would suffer terrible damage in any conflict, it is highly likely that it would prevail over the North within a matter of weeks. For this reason, the DPRK has long sought to develop chemical and nuclear weapons, along with sabotage and terror tactics (e.g. a dirty bomb in Seoul), to protect against the possibility of a first-strike by the RoK.

As a result, Seoul has long sought to reassure Pyongyang that it has no intention of invading the North, even in the event of a humanitarian disaster beyond the DMZ (as occurred during the 1994-8 famine). The RoK's preference is for a bloodless reunification in the manner of Germany, hence it is willing to patiently wait (or "appease", as Trump ignorantly described its strategy). The presence of US troops on the peninsula is less to provide crucial military support to the South than to ensure sufficient collateral damage in the event of a massive first-strike by the North. In other words, the US is providing de facto hostages as an insurance policy for the South. This is not dissimilar to the arrangement in the Federal Republic of Germany during the Cold War, where forward US troops could have expected to be quickly "expended" in any Soviet attack. There are also obvious parallels between the US deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea today and Pershing cruise missiles in Western Europe in the 1980s, down to the local political opposition it has prompted.

There is little evidence that Kim Jong-Un is either mad or reckless, and the tales of his ruthlessness appear designed to emphasise that he is rational and decisive, not paranoid or arbitrary. Assuming that the preservation of the regime is paramount, his strategic goals are obvious: the DPRK to remain an independent, sovereign state and the peninsula to remain partitioned. What he wants over and above that status quo is the winding-down of the North's conventional military expenditure and the opening-up of its economy to foreign capital, probably via state-licensed combines (modelled on the South Korean chaebol) that would be controlled by the current elite. Achieving this requires both a formal peace treaty and the de facto acceptance of a DPRK nuclear capability. The latter does not have to be large, but it does need to be sufficient to make the cost of regime change prohibitive for any foreign power. The RoK is probably open to this, both because of its growing military strength and self-reliance and because it recognises that opening up the North is the only realistic path to an ultimate, peaceful reunification of the peninsula. The evolution of the RoK as an economic power is as relevant to the current standoff as the DPRK's ambitions.

Many have noted that Kim has learnt the lesson of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, namely that without WMD you are vulnerable, though this logic fails to note that Iraq and Libya were only trashed once they stopped being useful - in the geopolitical containment of Iran and the covert control/exploitation of terrorism respectively - and instead became threats to Western interests. North Korea's geography and isolation places it in an altogether different category. It isn't doing a job for the West, so there is no chance of it being regarded as traitorous, while its threat to Western interests in the region is in reality negligible. Saddam appears to have thought the US would stay neutral in an Arab-on-Arab conflict when he invaded Kuwait, but Kim can have no such illusions. Gaddafi was only dropped by the West and attacked when his regime was clearly on its last legs. The internal strength of the DPRK state - the antithesis of the rickety Libyan setup - makes it unlikely that a similar opportunity will arise. North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons has not come about because the threat of regime change has increased, but because the cost of maintaining its conventional deterrent has become an obstacle to its domestic development.

A less remarked upon parallel is that North Korea is essentially pursuing a nuclear weapons programme for the same reasons as the UK: to provide international status and the cover necessary to reduce expenditure on conventional arms. To this end, both the UK and the DPRK emphasise the importance of their nuclear arms programmes as an expression of national sovereignty. The vox-poppers of Pyongyang who talk triumphantly of defying America are no different to the British button-fondlers who thought we could take down the Soviet Union in the 80s and who imagine the UK is still the world's policeman today when it isn't even the world's hobby-bobby. In other words, the weapons are chiefly symbolic, which is why a unilateral strike by North Korea is unlikely. Where the two countries differ is that the DPRK's system also has a specific utility as a deterrent against regime change. This is quite different to other states that have sought to join the nuclear club in recent decades, such as Israel, India or Pakistan, where the motive is more obviously antagonistic and where status is a secondary consideration.

The prudent course for the West would simply be to ignore the DPRK's "provocations" and encourage talks between North and South, but that is easier said than done when the US media (both neocon and liberal) sees North Korea as a "challenge". Centrists who imagine that Hillary Clinton would have been a safer pair of hands than Donald Trump are deluding themselves. Previous negotiations have involved a 6-party group, including the USA, China, Russia and Japan. As the two Koreas have a common interest in co-existence, and both are in effect committed to a "strong Korea" policy, the key to achieving a modus vivendi depends on not upsetting the balance of perceived influence and status between the other four powers. The strategic objective for China is less the continuation of partition and more the prevention of nuclear proliferation, particularly to Japan. In the short run, they need to prevent the South either acquiring nuclear weapons or allowing US deployments on its soil. In the long run, they would probably insist on the nuclear disarmament of Korea as the price for reunification. What's not clear is whether they will seek to nip the DPRK's nuclear ambitions in the bud now or try to mollify the RoK and Japan through limitation and inspection.

Russia's interest, echoing British policy of old, is to ensure that no other power becomes dominant. While they would be happy to see US influence in Korea decline, they don't want America to quit the region as that would strengthen China and potentially lead to a more assertive Japan. Getting the US to accept a DPRK nuclear arsenal as a fact of life is probably the limit of their ambition. Japan, for its part, remains ambivalent and some politicians are even now in denial about its historic crimes on the peninsula. It would prefer to maintain the status quo but it knows that a reunified and potentially assertive Korea is likely at some point in the future. This will encourage those on the political right who doubt the US's long-term commitment and who believe that Japan should develop its own nuclear capability and expand its conventional forces. A resolution of the Korea problem probably depends on a meeting of minds between Japan and China, centred on arms limitation and the economic opening of the DPRK in the short term, and disramament linked to reunification in the long-term. In this context, the US is an unhelpful wedding-crasher, and would be even if the occupant of the White House were not a loudmouthed ignoramus.


  1. Herbie Kills Children10 September 2017 at 14:37

    What are your sources for statement such as:

    "disgruntled elites who are well aware of the wealth of their peers in China"

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. (Fixed bad link)

      North Korea started to pragmatically turn a blind-eye to petty-capitalism during the famine of the late-90s (see pgs 14-15 of this RAND report - there's an obvious agenda here, but the incidental detail is plausible). A lot of the smuggling and bribery this gave rise to involved Chinese contacts, both because of proximity and because China accounts for around 85% of DPRK trade.

      Parallel to this, we know that North Korean elites have sufficient Internet access to probably have a good feel for social developments in China, including the material enrichment of CPC and commercial elites.

      A third factor is the knowledge that North Korean elites have been exposed to foreign life more often that is generally appreciated. For example, Kim Jong-Un spent a number of years at school in Switzerland, while his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, who was assassinated earlier this year, was living in Macau under Chinese protection.

      Given that all non-North Korean sources are potentially hostile, it is difficult to be authoritative on this, but the circumstantial evidence as much as simple logic suggests that the elites are familiar with the potential for personal enrichment in the Chinese style.

    3. Herbie Kills Children21 September 2017 at 19:46

      As I suspected you are projecting your decadent brain washed thoughts onto the the North Koreans.

      Now that was said with some degree of tongue in cheek but also with a little seriousness.

      It does make me laugh when I see people in the West claim it is the North Koreans who are brainwashed. That to me sums up the so called enlightened West n a nutshell.