When Joe Biden "guaranteed" in October that there would be a foreign crisis to test the mettle of a President Obama, he provided no specifics, and John McCain predicted that he would have the wrong response. For the moment we seem to have evaded the collapse of the financial system, swine flu, and the retreat of the Pakistani government, leaving global warming for another day. Enter Kim Jong-il, the Asian pillar of the Axis of Evil, with his erratic behavior seeking who knows what, and leaving little room for Obama to "meet with any world leader without preconditions" in search of "Peace in Our Time".
What we do know:
- Since Kim's father withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty in 1993, Presidents Clinton and Bush have tried everything- Six Party talks; Chinese leadership; US engagement; food and energy aid; a promise of nuclear energy assistance; non-aggression commitments; offers of a peace treaty ending the 1950's Korean war; olive branches from the South. It is not a question of finding better adjectives and adverbs.
- North Korea, a country of 24 million, has an Army of 1.2 million to go with its significant missile program, and the nuclear program which has achieved Hiroshima-sized explosions. Although there is no evidence that they can deliver the bombs any distance at this point, that is not far away - at least relative to South Korea and Japan, two countries which have relied on the United States for defense, much to the relief of the remainder of Asia. Between the two allies, we have about 60,000 US troops to supplement the South Korean regular forces of some 520,000 army and 70,000 navy troops, and 600 aircraft. This is not like the Wizard of Oz where the facade crumbles when confronted.
- The military has firm control, having displayed little concern during the famine of the 90's which killed between one and two million people. This satellite photo of the Korean Peninsula at night shows the state of affairs.
- Yongbyon, the center of the nuclear program, is too far from Tel Aviv to count on the Israeli's to clean up the mess. But the Iranians are watching the American response closely.
- The South Korean stock market is up 22% through May. What me worry?
What we can assume:
- Smart people in diplomatic and military positions throughout East Asia are considering all alternatives. The North's nuclear and missile facilities could be destroyed with conventional weapons, but that leaves the million-man army concentrated along the DMZ, which is within 25 miles of Seoul, the South's thoroughly modern capital with over 10 million people. There is no good answer.
- The hope has been that over time the next generation of leaders of the North would migrate toward the prosperity of the south, a la East Germany. But Kim Jong-il replaced his father in 1994, and his 26-year old son, Kim Jong-un, is apparently being groomed to replace him with no change to the marriage between the military leadership and the Kim family business. Neville Chamberlain would still bank on this path.
- My guess - the Obama administration will migrate from saying that a nuclear-armed North Korea is unacceptable, to saying that they cannot be allowed to export nukes. (They have been exporting missiles to Iran for decades, and were apparently involved in a nuclear site in Syria which the Israeli's took out in 2008.) The issue will become the ability to inspect outbound cargoes, a prospect that the South Koreans have recently endorsed, but which the North Koreans consider an act of war. To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, we will "walk stickly and carry a big soft." The press may even give more coverage to the two naive reporters from Al Gore's "Current TV", who were captured doing an investigation of refugees going to China - real people are always more important than a few theoretical nukes.
- Plan B would involve some elements of further economic embargo, incentives for cooperation, more UN resolutions, and a Chinese pledge to shelter the North Korean leadership in the event of a collapse. Then, serious interdiction of shipping, large-scale civil defense planning in the South, and a collective holding of our breath. In a year or two, even this will not be possible.
To put the implications of North Korea's nuclear program in context, this week's You Tube is an investigative report by John Oliver of the Daily Show on this Fall's experiment to test the results of high energy collision of nuclear particles.
Bill Bowen - 6/5/09