Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Between the Scylla of dictatorship and the Charybdis of anarchy, Part II: North Korea

North Korea is a country formed by a war that never ended.

Pacifists are fond of saying that war never solves anything. I beg to differ--war, for example, solved the problem of Adolf Hitler and German expansionist aggressiveness, although at great cost.

But that war was fought to the bitter end, unlike many subsequent ones. Revulsion at war--which I share, by the way, although my critics won't credit that--has led to a series of unfinished, prematurely truncated wars. And like most unfinished business, there's a tendency for these conflicts to come back to bite us.

The Korean War was the first modern "limited war," a concept with which we've grown familiar. (The division of Korea was a result of the conclusion of World War II, by the way--so you might say that, if that Second World War solved the problem of Hitler, it led indirectly to the creation of the problem of Kim Jong il.)

Why was the Korean War not fought to a conclusion, but rather a stalemate? Each side wanted to unify the peninsula under its leadership, and each side failed. Each side was supported by a much larger power in its endeavors, but the larger powers were both exhausted, partly from fighting the Second World War. The US was reluctant to use the atomic bomb again, which would certainly have broken the stalemate--although MacArthur was purportedly in favor of it.

Little was accomplished by the Korean War in terms of change in the borders between the two countries, unless you consider the killing of hundreds of thousands of people an accomplishment (I don't). The best you can say is that it kept the South from being swallowed up by the North--which, given what the North has become, is certainly a good thing.

But now the long-postponed conflict is coming to a head once again. And now North Korea is a dictatorship of such tyranny and oppression that it's hard to find anyone who wouldn't consider the end of such a regime to be an unequivocally good thing.

But as I wrote in yesterday's piece, it's not always so simple. This article by Robert Kaplan, appearing in the Atlantic, poses the question: what will happen when [and if] North Korea fails?

Answer: a potentially chaotic humanitarian and political disaster, as the tyrannical structure that holds together the failed state and its suffering people fails apart:

“It could be the mother of all humanitarian relief operations,” Army Special Forces Colonel David Maxwell told me. On one day, a semi-starving population of 23 million people would be Kim Jong Il’s responsibility; on the next, it would be the U.S. military’s, which would have to work out an arrangement with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (among others) about how to manage the crisis...

In order to prevent a debacle of the sort that occurred in Iraq—but with potentially deadlier consequences, because of the free-floating WMD—a successful relief operation would require making contacts with KFR generals and various factions of the former North Korean military, who would be vying for control in different regions. If the generals were not absorbed into the operational command structure of the occupying force, Maxwell says, they might form the basis of an insurgency. The Chinese, who have connections inside the North Korean military, would be best positioned to make these contacts—but the role of U.S. Army Special Forces in this effort might be substantial. Green Berets and the CIA would be among the first in, much like in Afghanistan in 2001.

Does this mean it's best to keep Kim Jong il in power? Of course not. But be careful what you wish for, and be prepared--much better prepared--to deal with the consequences than you were in Iraq.

After the horrors of World War II, we faced the problem of reconstruction in Germany and in Japan, as well as most of Europe, which was in near ruins.

But, just as World War II was a total war, the reconstruction was an all-out effort as well. At the time, the US held no fear of words like "occupation" in Japan. If we were imperialist, so be it; we were out to change the country we had conquered. And change it we did, and most agree it was for the better.

Reconstructing North Korea would probably be a much more daunting task than reconstructing Japan. And all-out war, plus all-out reconstruction, doesn't seem to be an option. But without the latter, the prospects seem grim.

Scylla and Chraybdis, indeed.

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