Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Lucy and the football: North Korea

A couple of days ago the news sounded good--or at least what passes for good in the seemingly interminable attempt to talk North Korea out of developing nuclear weapons:

North Korea agreed Monday to stop building nuclear weapons and allow international inspections in exchange for energy aid, economic cooperation and security assurances, in a first step toward disarmament after two years of six-nation talks. The chief U.S. envoy to the talks praised the breakthrough as a "win-win situation" and "good agreement for all of us."

I'm no North Korea expert. But it didn't take an expert to have grave reservations on hearing the news, and I had reservations so grave as to amount to total disbelief. The history of North Korea's dance with disarmament is a timeline to give the most hopeful of optimists pause. It's a record of so many blatant lies, broken promises, bluster, and bombast as to belong in the realm of the pathological rather than the diplomatic.

There is no rational actor or honest broker in the government of North Korea. There is only, as astute commenter "veryretired" at Austin Bay put it, a government that:

...will say anything, promise anything, agree to anything in order to obtain the aid it needs to continue for a little longer. However, none of the promises or agreements mean the NK regime will actually carry through with whatever they were supposed to do. In time, they will claim that the US violated some aspect of the deal and demand further aid in order to be coaxed back into the negotiation process. The only point worth remembering in this endless courtship dance is that the NK regime is composed of psychopaths who have no shame, no inhibitions about lying, no ethical standards other than remain in power by whatever means for as long as possible.

Unfortunately, I think this states the case succinctly and exactly. North Korea reminds me of nothing so much as Lucy and the football in the venerable "Peanuts" cartoon. Over and over, Lucy persuades dupe Charlie Brown into believing that this time---this time, for sure!--he can trust her. Then, at the eleventh hour, she inevitably foils him once again.

So when North Korea demanded that it be given its reactors first, before any of its nuclear weapons are dismantled, it really was no more a surprise than Lucy's recurrent excuses to Charlie Brown.

Of course, North Korea (Lucy) is not the only player here. In this case it's China that appears to really hold the cards--or the football. When the six-nation talks reconvened two years ago it was China, in its role as sponsor of the sessions, that had a stake in not being made to look bad if the talks fell through yet again. But the economic leverage (stopping the flow of oil, for example) that China could exercise to turn the screws on North Korea has not been used, for reasons best known only to China, which no doubt is playing its own very complex game.

How does one negotiate with a psychopath, Kim Jong-il? Very, very carefully, and very, very skeptically. The usual concerns of a leader for the well-being of his/her citizens are absent here, so it's hard to know what sort of pressure would be likely to reach him. For anyone wishing further elucidation on the personality with which we are dealing in Kim Jong-il, I suggest reading Philip Gourevitch's powerfully ominous biographical essay "Alone in the Dark", which appeared two years ago in the New Yorker. Articles such as that one are the reason I have no intention of canceling my subscription any time soon.


At 1:06 PM, September 21, 2005, Blogger Baron Bodissey said...

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At 1:08 PM, September 21, 2005, Blogger Baron Bodissey said...

"Lucy and the football" is a very apt analogy in this case.

A good quote on this topic today from Bill Quick:

Somebody or other once defined diplomacy as the art of keeping a wolf occupied until you can find a big enough stick to kill it with. I hope that is the case here. But I doubt it.

At 2:21 PM, September 21, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The NORKs are not playing to diplomats and their concerns. They are playing to the audience, which is the voters of democracies, a number of whom seem to be easily calmed by wishful thinking.
Put out the okay--everybody's happy. Take it back. Half of everybody doesn't want to be unhappy, so they don't acknowledge it, condemn those who are concerned, or insist it doesn't matter.
IMO, this explanation is good for Israeli peaceniks who, some years ago, spoke of how difficult terrorism makes it to convince Israelis that the Palestinians are harmless. But they'll keep at it.
It is good for the appeasers prior to WW II.
And it explains a conservative's observation about arms control treaties with the USSR. "The sovs put something outrageous on the table and let the administration negotiate about it with the US liberals."

At 2:49 PM, September 21, 2005, Anonymous Paul said...

The proof of North Korea's intentions is in the pudding as they say. I wouldn't put too much trust in their words - action is what matters here. It would be welcomed news if North Korea actually did what they now say they will do. However, I remain quite sceptical.

At 3:21 PM, September 21, 2005, Blogger flenser said...

I can't get too worried about this, given that NK exists at China's pleasure.

If we inform the Chinese that Taiwan will get nuclear weapons the day after NK does, this whole charade will come to an abrupt halt.

At 5:11 PM, September 21, 2005, Blogger Tom Grey said...

Flenser is mostly right, but China is ALSO worried about Japan.

Kozumi's big win means Japan may start competing for influence in Asia a bit more energetically.

North Korea's ballistics tests are not comforting to Japan.

At 7:38 PM, September 21, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

I wish Bush'd just finish North Korea. And he can do it easily too, or at least with less time than he has already spent on "diplomacy". This is what would have happened with Iraq had "inspections" were furthered instead of the invasion. All Bush has to do is to bluff North Korea and China into believing that Bush is either stupid enough to have a war with North Korea, or angry enough to cause hostilities on the DMZ.

China doesn't want disruption in North Korea, but they also don't want to give the US a political victory, which pressuring North Korea to shut off their weapons program would do. So assuming that North Korea is doing this for simple survival, cause their regime is on their last legs, then China has to know this as well. China may not like nuclear weapons, and a possible nuclear confrontation between NK and SK/US, but China also doesn't want to give the US a victory and have a warzone next to their borders. Or at least a warzone where they can't go in and setup shop that is.

China also may be using the talks to "feel" out the US. They're trying to see how much they can get away with tweaking our noses in North Korea, and they will probably use this experience as a baseline as to whether to invade Taiwan or not just as Bin Laden used Somalia as a baseline as to whether to attack America or not.

The only way, and the only psychological reason, for NK to backdown would be that the alternatives would be WORSE than NOT having nuclear weapons. Since the worse is the destruction of the regime in the future, the alternative has to be that we have to make them believe we will destory their regime "now". Given a choice between fighting to the death now, or fighting to the death in the future, they'l back down and choose the future.

But for that to happen, NK and China has to believe Bush will start a conflict, regardless of the motivation. If China believes that if NK doesn't back down, that there will be a warzone on their border, refugees, and South Korea gets the entire peninsula, then China will force North Korea to back down and stay "viable" for a few more years. China doesn't want a US ally, South Korea, to be in control of territory bordering China. That makes any nation very very uncomfortable. That's why if we drop a nuke accidentally near North Korea, and say it was a mistake caused by the frustration in the War on Terror and how being hated on is annoying, we give them a decentive in the form of more uncomfortability.

Eventually, once China is convinced we are serious, they will stabilize NK for us by using their rather heavy handed tactics. If NK is convinced we are serious and China is serious, they will back down. And the deal will basically be that if the dictator shuts up, then we won't crash his regime and let the South Koreans clean things up.

Bush is sort of tunnel visioned. He knows that if he invades Iraq, it'll make an example and scare off other dictators so he doesn't have to do the same with them, he just has to get in their face and they'll be intimidated. Bush doesn't see that if he doesn't make an example of North Korea, there's big trouble up ahead in East Asia. And it's not the war with Oceania, either.

He doesn't finish this by the time he leaves office, then the terroist strategy will have worked. Their strategy is that if they don't attack us, we'll fall asleep and not exert our strength where it may count in the world.

People have short memories, and currently a lot of people don't see much political willpower in Iraq, given it's a guerrila war and not a very glorious one as the invasion was. If Bush doesn't remind them that America can still reach out and touch you, even if you're at Antarctical or bordering China, then people start to believe you've gotten weak and vulnerable and they will test you.

At 7:56 PM, September 21, 2005, Blogger Promethea said...

North Korea, France, the "Palestinians," and Iran all share the following characteristics--their words mean nothing, zero, zilch. I'm sure the U.S. government knows this as well as us humble blog readers do.

"Liar, liar, pants on fire" would be the undiplomatic way to respond, so we undoubtedly have diplomatic ways to respond like, "Yes, sure, whatever."

At 9:26 PM, September 21, 2005, Blogger Holmes said...

I'd just tell China to solve it or we're going to arm Japan with nuclear weapons and then Taiwan. That should give the proper motivation.

At 11:01 PM, September 21, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

I'd give China a motivation to initiate invasion plans early, because once they do get the nukes setup, it would be a lot harder to invade. Right now, you ain't GOT NOT NUKES ready to use in Taiwan. They're in the same position that Iran is in. If you don't got nukes, and we know you have nukes, we can nuke you now without fear, but if we wait too long, then we screwed.

The Chinese won't wait around, they'll go in early, first strike, and with the weakness shown by Bush in negotiating with NK< the Chinese will believe that we would be too "overstretched" to defend Taiwan. The reality in war rarely matters, most of the time the perceptions are what counts in terms of motivating action.

Giving Taiwan and or Japan nuclear weapons or making it go nuclear, is one nice way to start up another war.

At 3:04 AM, September 22, 2005, Blogger camojack said...

Negotiate? No.

Annihilate? Definitely...

At 6:38 AM, September 22, 2005, Anonymous Tatterdemalian said...

Since the Korean War, China has basically annexed North Korea, and I really don't think anything will ever convince them to give it back, no matter how crazy Kim Jong-Il gets, how destitute the nation becomes, or how strongly the US president demands it. It would mean admitting that their policy for the last 50 years was a mistake all along, and that's something a totalitarian government must never do.

At 8:57 PM, September 22, 2005, Blogger Holmes said...

"Giving Taiwan and or Japan nuclear weapons or making it go nuclear, is one nice way to start up another war."

I'm not convinced it would start a war, and rather think it would prevent one. Strength would deter China, not weakness.

At 9:03 PM, September 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you sure that he is a psychopath? He might just be a child at the helm of a totalitarian state forever striving to be a better "citizen" than his father.

At 9:43 AM, September 24, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

How does telling everyone ahead of time you're going to give the other guy a gun, a show of strength when all the other guy has to do is to tackle the other guy before he gets the gun loaded?

A show of bluff and bluster, but not a show of strength. The Chinese, in the same situation as the US and Iran is in, wouldn't dicker around waiting for some Euros to decide matters. They'd disarm a country trying to get nukes, early and permanently. Therefore I'm not convinced that you can just up and say to China's face, do this or we'll give people nukes that will then give you a timeline of etc to invade or give up forever, without compressing China's timeline for action.

NK already has the bomb. And aimed at South Korea, does indeed deter military action to some degree or another. Taiwan doesn't have things aimed at China.

When the Taiwanese start building silos, that's gonna be pretty obvious to China, and will end up like Cuba did in the Missile Crisis sans the Soviet Union but with the nukes.

We would have hit Cuba with everything we had, except for the fact that it might have started World War III. The Chinese WILL hit Taiwan, simply because it's in their backyard strategically, and either the US will have to committ fully or not committ fully.

Unless the Taiwanese got a mutual defense treaty with the US, they'd be fools to accept any "nuclear technology" whatsoever from the US that was above the board.

The Chinese would "love" the pretext of being threatened by nuclear weapons to act, handing them a propaganda ploy cause it "appears" to show strength is an invalid line of reasoning.

The Chinese would in fact acquire lots of public support for a war just by saying the US is going to arm Taiwan with nukes. About as well received as the knowledge that the Soviets were arming Cuba with nukes, and Cuba was right near our shores.

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