Tag: North Korea (page 2 of 4)

“Kim Il Sung will always be with Us,” or what I learned in NK (4)


This is my final post about NK; here is one, two, and three. The post title comes from a remark a local guide made to me, and that is the standard KIS image in the pic.

7. The Korean People’s Army is pretty much everywhere.

This is easily the most militarized state I’ve ever been in. Soldiers and other uniformed military are everywhere, and units of KPA were doing all sorts of even banal things, like going to the Pyongyang fun fair, together en bloc. Guards carried automatic weapons openly in public with disturbing frequency. And the KPA was pretty clearly a captive, exploited labor force. Again and again we saw KPA young men fixing roads, constructing buildings, working in the fields, felling trees, and doing all sorts of things with little connection to actual soldiering – and doing all these dirty tasks in uniform, looking very uncomfortable and overheated. Guides regularly told us about a ‘heroic, glorious’ KPA work brigade that built that or this, but all I could think of was how miserable those young men looked making bricks or hoeing a field in the August heat while in a uniform wholly unsuited for the job and probably getting paid zippo. This wasn’t the army – it was impressed labor in a workers’ state. Ironically, if there’s any one thing East Asia has in abundance, it’s construction companies; SK, Japan, and China love building white elephants. What a shame then to waste your 20s as semi-enslaved labor building a crappy highway for the KPA that no one will use anyway, because no one owns a car.


8. Don’t Personality Cults face Time-Constraints as They Age?

Another thing I kept wondering about is how long this whole ideological structure can lurch on, when everyday takes North Koreans further and further away from the actual life and exploits of KIS. In the first post, I noted that NK felt like a neopatrimonial absolute monarchy or even theocracy – mostly focused on the persons themselves of KJI and especially KIS as a Korean-communist version of Jesus. So if NK isn’t even Korea anymore, but the “Kim Il Sung state,” then how long can it hang on – or to be more specific, remain ideologically coherent – without KIS around? If the whole show is built around one or two guys, and they aren’t around, then isn’t there a time limit to how long such an ideology can actually remain convincing to anyone? For example, we saw students using computers at a university. KIS (d. 1994) never saw any computers and provided no guidance on them. So as computers become more common in even NK, how can that be connected to a personality cult whose traits are frozen in time, i.e., KIS’ lifespan, 1912-94?

This problem strikes me as inevitable for any highly personalized system. At some point everyone, even Stalin, dies; time continues to tick by; eventually new generations grow up for whom this stuff isn’t even a distant memory, it’s just ritual. Maybe the ‘KIS state’ can sorta work 18 years after his death, but what about 50 or 100 years? George Washington, a similarly lionized founder, may have been such an inspiration to early Americans that he was offered the kingship of America, but it’s hard to imagine a ‘George Washington state’ by, say, 1850. At some point, the sheer passage of time would undercut any such personalistic regime, no?

Maybe NK is aware of this, because it looks like they’re trying to replace one personality with another in the personality cult (KJU replaces KJI replaces KIS), but doesn’t that violate the basic premise of a personality cult – that one awesome personage (Hitler, Stalin, Mao) instantiates everything great about a certain national community? (If you’ve actually studied personality cults and their longevity, please chime in here). So instead of NK being a personality cult, I guess it’s now a ‘family cult’? Does that even make sense? Can that work if the latest guy in the family line has almost no accomplishments at all? At least, KJI had the nukes.

As the pics in this post show, KIS is everywhere, but he’s been dead now for almost 20 years. I guess that is not too far in the past yet, but inevitably it will be. Time marches on, and no matter what the regime does, eventually KIS will become a distant memory – a frozen almost mythic great leader, again like George Washington is to Americans perhaps, but not an actual present figure guiding the state. The personality cult of KJI was already a struggle and less convincing. KJI never equaled his father in terms of (real or apparent) successes, like struggling against the Japanese or founding the DPRK, and there aren’t nearly as many statues and such of KJI as there are of KIS. Is KJU just up to the task? I doubt it. People are mortal and can’t be institutions, no matter how powerful they are.

Similarly, the cult felt frozen because it rehearsed again and again for us the ‘glory days’ – KIS’ guerilla war against the Japanese, the founding of the DPRK, and the Korean war. (Not surprisingly, the propaganda wildly overblows KIS’ role in both the defeat of Japan and the creation of NK; there’s almost no mention of the American, Chinese or Soviet role in any of this. And apparently NK won the Korean war too.) So if you’re a N Korean, you really get it that KIS did some great stuff in the 40s and 50s. Ok. But what about the other 60 years since then? There’s almost nothing. What did KIS do in the 60s or 70s or 80s? I have almost no idea judging by the statuary, the murals, the parks and locations we visited, the talks we got, etc., because it all focused on the independence struggle and the Korean war. (KIS smiling and pointing to a dam or the metro hardly compares with defeating Japan, and sheer volume of imagery of the latter over the former makes that pretty clear.) But the further in time these glories recede, the more it becomes stale no matter how much it gets mythologized. At some point, the past is past, and nothing we saw told me that NK has a strategy for the future.


9. A Few more Notable Observations

a. Just to reinforce just much NK really is the KIS state, NK runs an alternate ‘Juche Calendar’ whose point of origin is the year of KIS birth. So 2012 is Juche year 101. This was all over the literature we received.

b. Forgetting where I was for a moment, I asked our guides if they had email addresses so I could send some pictures. None of them had one. When we were showed computers (see we’re modern), they all ran on bootlegged copies of Windows XP, and the ‘internet’ was actually a NK intranet. No surprise there, but notable nonetheless.

c. Corn was planted in almost every accessible nook and cranny of the countryside. We saw it constantly – up and down in hills in crazy-quilt patterns, or in gullies and ditches next to roads at terrible angles – all of which will be pretty hard to access for harvesting. We took that to be a mark of just how food-desperate the country was.

d. Dilapidation was everywhere. We saw people starting trucks by cranking the engine with a crowbar (I don’t think I’ve ever seen that outside of the movies). On the Soviet-era plane we flew to Mt. Paekdu, the overhead bins had no doors. If we’d hit turbulence, imagine the bags flying all over the place smashing into people’s heads. Flush toilets outside of Pyongyang were a luxury. Beds were flat boards with a blanket on top. Brownouts and back-up candles were common; hot water was not. The roads were atrocious; everyone began to avoid the back of the bus.To be honest, it kept reminding me of traveling in southern Africa where nothing worked right and our drivers kept saying ‘TIA.’

e. I kept wondering what SK will do with all this commie crap when they finally take over (and I do think NK will collapse one day). The historian in me says it’d be a terrible shame to rip it all down. It’s history, whether we like it or not and shouldn’t get airbrushed out. The political scientist in me says the opposite: tear it all down ASAP as symbols of possibly the worst government in the history of East Asia and get on with reorientation toward democracy. Tough question.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

“Kim Jong Il was Born on Mt. Paekdu,” or what I learned in NK (3)

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There is KJI in the middle – he was even born in uniform
Actually, he was probably born in the USSR during the war.
Here are parts one and two of this series.
5. Pyongyang the Potemkin Village?
The usual line is that Pyongyang is a potemkin village compared to the rest of the country. I can’t say, but I think so. Unfortunately, we only saw the capital, Nampo, and the Mt. Paektu area. And what we saw was quite controlled of course. We were told at certain points that we were not allowed to photograph out the bus windows. But honestly, I didn’t see any extreme poverty. I certainly didn’t see anything like what I saw in southern Africa or India. There was nothing like the gigantic slum-and-shack ‘city’ around Mumbai that is a terribly depressing shock the first time you see it.
My impression instead was that almost everything, beyond the most important government buildings in the elite district around Kim Il Sung Square, was run-down – the sort of crappy, broken down socialist world of faceless, concrete block ‘living units’ portrayed in A Clockwork Orange. Just as Alex lived in “’Municipal Flat Block 18A, Linear North,” so do most North Koreans. In our hotel, there was even restaurant no. 1, no. 2., no. 3, and no. 4. Apparently the Presidium of the Fourth Committee for Ideology in Quadrant B12 decided in the Eighth Five Year plan that restaurants in NK must be as bland as possible…
Like so many of the ex-communist countries I’ve visited, the architecture was hideous – concrete was everywhere, and it was cheaply made, so everything seemed to cracking and crumbling. It reminded me of Mozambique or Vietnam – desperately in need of a good cleaning, more humane architecture, and a lot of foreign investment to tighten things up. And the architecture that was in good repair was that typical soul-crushing communist gigantism. What better way to remind you of your insignificant role as a cog in the KIS machine than epic concrete monumentalism towering above you. Awful.
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6. Moral Discomfort.
The guides are smart enough to realize that foreigners, especially westerners and/or the deeply religious, would have a fair amount of trouble if we were expected to bow to images of KIS and KJI as often as North Koreans must. Do the North Koreans really believe it? Who knows. The problem of ‘hidden preferences’ is pretty obvious in NK. But foreigners have a little bit more room to dissent. I made sure to roll my eyes occasionally or drift away from the group when the presentations got more over-the-top than usual. We only had to bow twice – once at Mansudae, which is obligatory for any foreigner visiting, and once near Mt. Paekdu. There was a opportunity to buy flowers with the bowing at Mansudae, which I forewent. A bit of resistance.
The other obvious problems are one, going to NK itself, and two, how to respond to guides and other North Koreans as you meet them and they are polite and pleasant with you. On the first one, I wrestled with this a bit. Travelling to North Korea is expensive – $3-400 a day, the bulk of which goes to the regime. So in going you are supporting it I guess, which still makes me very queasy. But I have to say that my morbid curiosity won out. I didn’t make it the east bloc before the Wall fell, and China and Vietnam hardly count anymore. So I was terribly curious to see a stalinist system before it disappears, which I do think one day will happen in NK. But it was a morbid curiosity – you go not to take a vacation or tour some exciting, exotic place. You go to see what a mess it is. It’s ‘disaster tourism’ – like those people who took bus tours of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. You couldn’t care less about KIS, instead you are going to see how the regime obsesses over KIS. You go to observe the personality cult and wonder about its freakishness, not to actually participate in it. This is why I went to see Mao and Ho in China and Vietnam too; as a political scientist, I found it absolutely fascinating, in a very, very disturbing way, to watch it all.
The other issue is how to respond to the North Koreans you meet. Inevitably the people you meet are pleasant and polite. We drank beer with our guides, small talked with the drivers, chatted with students we meet, etc. Inevitably this humanizes them, which is presumably one reason NK permits such tourism and why SK dislikes foreigners going. Do I feel like NK is any less awful and barbarous after talking with people in NK? Were we Lenin’s ‘useful idiots’ to be deployed in propaganda later to show the foreigners do in fact find NK a nice place?
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More in the 3 days.
Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

“Of course the Americans Started the War,” or what I learned in NK (2)

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I have 50+ similar pictures of me standing with KIS murals, statues, busts…

I went to NK this summer. In my first post, I noted how NK should probably be re-named Kim-land. Here are some more impressions:

1.a. Kim Jong Un was not so emphasized.

In passing, it is worth noting that KJU was not stressed that much. At the Arirang games, portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were put up, but not KJU. Nor did we see any images of him at all. No portraits or murals. There were a few slogans using his names, but no imagery anywhere. We were told that is because of his modesty. He does not want to so glorified while he is still alive. I don’t buy that for a moment. Maybe it suggests he is still getting a hold of the state? Not quite sure what to make of it.

1.b. KIS and KJI equally deified?

Also noticeable was the equality between KIS and KJI, which surprised me. At the most famous image of KIS, the Mansudae grand monument, KJI has been placed right next to him, in similar size and on the same plane. The kremlinologist in me noted right away that KIS was not elevated above his son. This was also the case for their images on horseback at Mansudae Art Studio and when their images were presented to us at the Arirang Games (below). I kept trying to get a sense of which one was more important or greater, but couldn’t (and the guides ducked any questions that even hinted about this).

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I kept thinking of how Stalin was placed in the Red Square mausoleum next to Lenin immediately after his death, but then, with destalinization, he was removed. He was buried behind the mausoleum, and even under the partial re-stalinization of Brezhnev, he was not put back. NK arguably reached its high point under KIS, who seems a little less dangerous than his son was. I wonder if a ranking will eventually emerge?

2. Get your terminology right!

My Korean is already an embarrassment, but all the unique NK vocabulary made it a pain and signaled that I had training in SK. Korea was ‘Choseon’ not “Han-guk,” which I knew beforehand but kept forgetting to say. This was politely ignored, but no one teaches you how to say ‘long live the great general comrade KJI’ in SK language schools. D’oh! And the Marxist-Juche vocabulary was a even harder – I don’t think I ever learned the word for ‘peasant,’ because there aren’t any in SK, but now I know. I would also forget to attach titles to KIS and KJI, like ‘comrade,’ ‘general,’ etc, which the guides were fastidious in using. I also kept almost using the South Korean parlance for North Korea (buk-han), which was a major mistake, but the words DPRK in Korean were a mouthful to learn. All in all, I kept putting my foot in my mouth.
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3. Not as much propagandizing of the tourists as I expected.

I heard that visits to the Soviet Union involved a lot of ideology and agit-prop for the tourists, but this wasn’t the case for us. Maybe with the Cold War over, the travel service realizes we’d just fall asleep if they rolled that out. But I was surprised given NK’s reputation and the very obvious efforts to indoctrinate the N Koreans themselves. Occasionally we got guides who seemed like true believers, and the video at the captured USS Pueblo was a real hoot about decadent US imperialism turned back by the quiet heroism and might of the Korean people and so on. But as a rule, we weren’t bombarded by claims about western failure and socialism’s triumph and all that. When unification did come up, the idea of ‘one country two systems’ was the typical response. No one argued for a war (which was hardly surprising I guess, but still nice to hear). We were however sure to be told that the US began the war – not even Syngman Rhee and the South so much as the mi-guks.

4. God forbid you fail on-the-spot guidance.

We heard so much about KIS and KJI coming to this or that location to provide nuggets of wisdom like, ‘this restaurant should serve healthy food and the workers,’ that it got to be second-nature. Typically, when we reached a place or facility, a local guide would tell us what the institution was, and by the second or third sentence, tell us when KJI and KIS came to visit. In the metro museum, these dates were recorded in detail with a light display indicating when, where, and how often. Typically the guidance was banal – this ‘bridge should heroically serve the people’ – which apparently caused the builders to redouble their efforts and dramatically improved the quality of the bridge. Often the guidance was then inscribed into a gold-leaf plaque that was hung by the entrance so that all could read it immediately on entering. Or the plaques would be free-standing concrete edifices, presumably to indicate the enduring strength of the state. On My Paekdu, the locations where KIS/KJI stood were roped off with guards drifting about.

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One moment stood out. We visited a collective farm that had heavy investment by China. Unlike so much else we had seen, it looked clean and functional. There was no cracking concrete, hulks of blown-out tractors, broken windows, etc. By NK standards, it was a marvel. Yet our local guide made sure to tell us in his second sentence that KJI had approved of it. And she said it in such a way that implied that if KJI hadn’t approved, they might have burned down the whole facility and plowed it under. This site was enormous and represented a large portion of NK agriculture in certain sectors. Yet all that hung on the capricious fancy of one man. The way our guide told us of his approval made it sound lucky that this otherwise excellent facility was approved and therefore operational. Good thing KJI wasn’t having a bad day that time or was otherwise upset – I guess that would have been a good enough reason to deprive the whole country of fruit. This was one of those moments that really reinforced the royalism I argued for in the first post.

More in 3 days.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

“Against Dogmatic Bourgeois Flunkeyism,” or what I learned in NK (1)

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My North Korean Visa

In August, I visited North Korea for the first time. It was the most unique travelling experience I’ve ever had. I’d certainly recommend it to political scientists and Asia experts, but it wasn’t anything close to a ‘vacation’ or break or anything like that. (Yes, some of the sites marketing tours of NK actually call it that.)

At a bookstore devoted to the works of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, I stumbled across an essay, from the latter if I remember correctly, about social scientists’ commitment to the revolution and juche. It included the title line – that we must avoid ‘flunkeyism’ toward ‘bourgeois’ forms. We are supposed to contribute to revolution, not critique too much, and not ‘ape’ western ideas.

(I love that sort of over-the-top Marxist writing – I remember the first time I read Maoists decrying ‘capitalist roaders’ and their ‘imperialist running dogs.’ I couldn’t even figure out wth that meant until I got to college. Who doesn’t miss the Cold War? But wait – perhaps Kim Jong Il is wired into the ‘poverty of social science theory’ debate and knows about the flunkeyism endemic to grad school?! A-hah! He knows! He is the great leader! He sees all!)

So here some thoughts that presumably demonstrate my flunkeyist failings:

1. It really is Kim-land

There is an endless debate over the ‘real’ nature of NK – is it a gangster state? A neo-Confucian kingdom? A typical stalinist half of a country divided by the Cold War? Semi-fascist? Presumably the answer is some mix of all that, but what really struck me in-country was the personality cult. Back in April Kim Jong Un referred to NK as “Kim Il Sung nation,” and that is certainly what they showed us. The Kims, especially KIS, were all over the place – statues, placards, and their names on one institution after another.
One defining moment came as I was catching up to our guide, and I walked past a large stadium in Pyongyang. Forgetting where I was for a moment, I asked what it was called, only to be told it was Kim Il Sung Stadium. By this time, after a week in-country, one of my friends in the group looked at me like I had a hole in my head. Of course, it’s KIS stadium – my juche spirit was flagging momentarily.

So if had to answer the ‘what is NK really’ question, I would say a royalist, absolutist cult. It felt like France before the revolution, when whether or not Louis XIV clipped his fingernails that morning was a more important political moment than whether or not peasants were starving somewhere. From all the statues and placards, as well as the relentless Kim-focused presentations by all of our guides – without exception – the dominant ideology was the personal awesomeness and perfection of the two preceding Kims. KIS as something like Jesus Christ seemed far more important that Marxism, juche, and the rest of it.

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Two examples really stick out. At a bowling alley, the ball and pins which KIS bowled on the facility’s opening were kept under glass at the entrance, surrounded by flowers, with photos and a dedicatory statement from KIS inscribed on the wall. At a museum dedicated to the construction of the Pyongyang metro, the entire presentation was focused on KIS’ on-the-spot guidance of the construction, not the metro itself.

The museum should have been called the “KIS Visits the Metro” museum. A steel cup from which KIS had drunk while visiting the construction had been retained under glass (insert juche holy grail reference here), as well as the subway seat on which he sat on its opening (it had been cut out of the car to seal under glass). Huge pictures throughout showed KIS smiling and pointing, and the guide made a point to tell us how the subway ran better because of his guidance. That guidance included installing ventilation and flood control, because I guess NK engineers thought a flooded, unventilated subway system would be a great success. Good thing KIS was around to point out such subtle improvements. After seeing so many places where the Kims sat or stood or pointed, I asked semi-seriously if we would eventually visit the KIS bench museum.

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Now there’s some Flunkeism for you!

I could go on like this for pages, but in short, wherever possible, the magnificence of the Kims, especially KIS, was emphasized. Busts, statues, murals, and slogans were everywhere. “Long live the great Korean leader comrade KIS!” was the standard.

All this was far more emphasized than ideology, the revolution, juche, Marxism, the party, songun, even unification. At the Juche tower, several dedicatory plaques just gave up and referred to “Kim Il Sungism,” which dispensing of the fatiguing ideological posturing I found strangely refreshing. At the Juche section of the ‘Three Revolutions Museum,” we learned that Kim Il Sung wrote 18,300 books (that figure is even inscribed on the wall in a huge plaque).

What can you even say at this point? To me it all looked a lot like evangelical Christianity’s intense focus on the person of Jesus, except in the language of a political-stalinist personality cult. A good book on religion in Korea even makes this argument about the North. Deification doesn’t strike me as particularly Confucian, Korean, or Marxist. KIS’s mother was a Christian, so perhaps that is where it came from.

More in 3 days.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

Guest Post: Dave Kang – “Confucian North Korea”

I am happy to guest post my friend Dave Kang of the University of Southern California. I think Dave’s work on east Asia and IR theory is excellent; I would start with this or this if you’re interested. REK

Confucian North Korea
Figure 1. Korean Worker’s Party symbol

It is easy to caricature North Korea as a “bizarre” “land of no smiles” full of brainwashed robots. In the past few years, North Korea has become somewhat prominent in popular culture either as a salacious joke or a freak show of a country. (And yes, I refuse to give you too many links to articles I think are misinformed caricatures). The trope of North Korea as a nation of automatons, grimly marching through each day is very powerful.

It is absolutely true that the regime itself is horrific and reprehensible, and engages in systematic human rights abuses. Indeed, the people of North Korea are the most direct victims of the ruling regime. I am totally for regime change, or a regime that modifies its ways and introduces economic and social reforms that improve the lives of its people. However, wishful thinking has gotten us nowhere, and rather than simply sit back and laugh at North Korea or call it names, perhaps we might explore why the regime has survived as long as it has.
In addition to extensive repression and selective bribery, what is widely overlooked is that the North Korean dictatorship is built on deeply traditional Korean cultural and Confucian roots. In fact, the best way to understand both the regime and its people is to remember that North Koreans are Koreans more than anything else. Far more insightful than any other description such as “communist monarchy,” North Korea is identifiably Korean, and there is a coherent internal logic in much of its way of life. As a result, the regime is more stable and enduring than commonly thought. (The arguments I make here have been made much more cogently by Bruce Cumings and Suk-Young Kim, among others).
Take a look at picture at the top of this page, which is a photo of the official emblem of the Korean Worker’s Party. Although the hammer and sickle are easily recognizable as signs of all Communist Parties from the Soviets to the Chinese Communist Party and others (Figure 2),

Figure 2. Flag of the Chinese Communist Party

North Korea is unique in that there are actually three symbols. What is that middle symbol in Figure 1?

1. Candle?
No. Wrong. C-

2. Paintbrush?
Warmer. What kind of paintbrush?

3. A calligraphy brush they used in olden times to write Chinese characters?

It is a Confucian scholar’s brush – perhaps the most direct and vivid symbol of traditional learning, culture, and scholar-elite rule in Korea since the 9th century Silla dynasty first introduced an examination system for selecting government officials.

This is pretty remarkable. The Communist Party everywhere has stood for an utter rejection of the past and tradition as feudal and oppressive, and the basic message from Stalin to Mao has been to destroy the past and totally rebuild society. Yet the North Korean regime, rather than attempting to erase the past, has grafted itself onto traditional Korean traits, and reached back to some of the most traditional iconography possible: a hierarchic and elitist symbol of education, with all the other Confucian connotations that go with it: a ruler who embodies both the country and the “mandate of heaven,” an emphasis on centralized political control, and a clear set of hierarchical relationships that create harmony.
What about the role of women? Figure 3 is prominently displayed in Pyongyang, and depicts a generic and heroic “Mother,” fighting against the Japanese.

Figure 3: “Mother in a Sea of Blood”

What is interesting about that painting? As with the KWP symbol, it might strike the viewer as somewhat odd that she is wearing traditional Korean women’s dress (“hanbok,”or “choseonot as they call it in North Korea). Compare this with the standard depictions of revolutionary Communist women from China or the Soviet Union – they are all in drab “Mao jackets” that reject and depart from any traditional and feudalistic tendencies (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Chinese Revolutionary Women

But in North Korea women have been presented with an image that emphasizes their Koreanness – a traditional dress that is far more common in Pyongyang and North Korea than in South Korea. The regime explicitly is telling North Korean women that they are a link to a way of life that is Korean, and the way they dress is the most obvious manifestation of that link.

What about the “cult of personality” and the rise of the grandson? Surely that’s bizarre, right? Not really, in a traditional Korean context. The Confucian emphasis on family places the father as the head of the family. Kim Il-Sung simply placed himself as father of the country, and grafted an authoritarian state onto the existing social and cultural roots. Leadership by a powerful family makes sense in a Korean context. Korea is a clannish country, and the family is the basic building block of social, political, and economic life.

The best way to understand the role of families is by comparison with contemporary South Korea. The foundation of Korean life in both North and South is the clan. For example, most major business conglomerates are family-run, and often the grandson of the founder is now in charge. This is the case even of the biggest companies in Korea. In addition, it may appear to outsiders that Korea is a country with only three last names (Kim, Park, and Lee, hahaha). But all those Kims are actually divided up into dozens of different clans, each connected to a hometown, each with extensive family lineage records, and each vividly distinctive to other Koreans. Thus, there is Kimhae Kim, Seoul Kim, Kyongju Kim, etc. So powerful was the clannish nature of Korea that until 1998, members of the same clan could not legally marry, even if they were separated by tens of generations. Similarly, Kathy Moon has recently argued that the blather over Kim Jong-un’s marriage is mostly misguided: “For Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel…Unless one is married (and with children), one is not fully an adult. In both Koreas and in dynastic cultures, those pieces are supposed to come in the same box, to be pieced together into a coherent puzzle.” Thus, within a Korean cultural context, multigenerational leadership in North Korea and family as the building block of society is common sense.

Why does this matter? Because the story the North Korean regime tells itself and its people is aimed at domestic audiences, not at international audiences. They are telling a story that — however warped and corrupted — resonates deeply and instinctively with Koreans: North Korean are the true Koreans, and are the only ones remaining true to the essence of being Korean. South Koreans have been corrupted and forgotten who they are. The Kim family is leading the fight against external oppressors such as Japan and America. If the people must endure some hardship in order to maintain a Korean way of life, that’s a small price to pay.

This is one reason I tend to think an Arab Spring or uprising is not likely. Questions of imminent demise overlook the fact that North Korean dictatorship has grafted itself onto deeply traditional Korean culture roots. As a result, the regime is much more stable than some may think. For some people of North Korea, conditions may become so horrific that they choose to try and leave. But far more remain, and they remain not because they are brainwashed and not only because of repression. Many stay because North Korea is their home, where they grew up, where their family and friends live, and it is what makes sense to them.

Why N Korea Gets Away with its Stunts: a Response to Jennifer Lind

NKl trajectory
Jennifer Lind has a good piece up on Foreign Affairs this week on why NK seems to regularly get away with with hijinks like last week’s rocket test (which directly contravenes UN Resolution 1874). She notes, correctly, that NK has been pulling unanswered, wild stunts like this for years – shootouts in the Yellow Sea, nuclear tests, kidnappings, etc. Further, the US particularly tends to hit back when hit. Indeed, looking at the GWoT, America’s problem is over-reaction rather than passivity. If we look at the Israelis, it’s similar. They have a well-established reputation of hitting back, hard, when provoked. So why don’t the democracies of the Six Party Talks (Korea, Japan, US) do the same here? They easily out weigh NK.

Her argument is that NK manages to deter counter-strikes through a bizarre mixture of the ‘madman theory’ (what will the loopy, hard-drinking, megalomaniacal Kim family do next? so let’s just not provoke them), regional fear of what would follow a NK implosion (après moi le déluge), and traditional nuclear deterrence (if Saddam and Gaddafi had nukes, they’d still be alive, so we’ll never give them up!).

None of that is wrong, but I think she’s missing the big factor – SK domestic politics. Lots of countries and other international actors do wacky, crazy stuff; the question is whether the target wants to counterstrike and risk escalation. So it is SK ultimately (not the US or Japan) that decides whether or not to hit back. And SK doesn’t want to, because 1) South Korean population centers are extremely vulnerable to Northern aggression, and 2) South Koreans just don’t care that much about NK anymore.

I’ve written a lot before on the issue of SK’s extreme vulnerability and how this ties the Korean military’s hands (here is the full write-up, also here; this, picked up on Lawyers, Guns, and Money, is a long discussion thread of my argument). 50% of South Korea’s population lives northwestern SK, in the extremely dense Seoul-Kyeonggi-Incheon corridor. The southern most tip of this massive agglomeration is less than 70 miles from the DMZ. The extreme demographic concentration of the Seoul area is worsening too. Busan, the second city, where I live, is shrinking, even though we are a paltry 3.5 milllion, and Incheon, the site of a super-fancy new airport, is growing. This corridor is huge, proximate, defenseless city-hostage to the North. NK does not need nuclear weapons to jeopardize these inhabitants, which is why I remain skeptical of the hawk/neocon line that NK’s nukes change the balance in big way. (Lind herself has a made a similar point.)

I have brought this point up again and again at conferences here, and I have gotten no real response. Does it make any sense to hyper-centralize a country in a direct competition with a dangerous neighbor and place the grossly overpopulated national capital just 40 miles from the border? Who thought that would be a good idea? Look at what the West Germans did. But decentralization never happens because of the cost and resistance of Seoul-based elites who like the convenience.

Remember how Cold War planners used to say that the US had an advantage over the USSR, because its many federal layers of government and widely dispersed population meant it could absorb a Soviet strike better? By contrast, because the Soviets centralized everything in Moscow, they were very vulnerable to a decapitation strike. The logic is the same here. The ROK is extremely centralized (a legacy of the Park Chung Hee dictatorship), not just politically, but in just about every way – culturally, economically, demographically. And it’s all but impossible to shield these people from a NK rocket and artillery bombardment (even non-nuclear). That Korean urbanites live in towering apartment blocks vulnerable to World Trade Center-style collapse if bombarded only worsens the vulnerability. This dramatically ties the hands of the SK government. Even if none of Lind’s three variables applied, this huge risk alone is enough to prevent SK escalation/response (as is likely the case in the foregone retaliation after the Yeonpyeong incident in 2010).

Next, Lind does not address the growing disinterest in SK for retaliation, or even otherwise engaging NK. Several Korea-based western analysts (me, Brian Myers, Brendan Howe) have made this point. In a post-Yeonpyeong analysis for the Korean National Defense University, I argued that the most likely way to end the Korean stalemate is get greater South Korean commitment to ‘win’ rather than simply manage-when-necessary-and-ignore-when-possible, today’s current ‘strategy.’ And at the Korean Institute for Defense Analysis last year, I argued for a significant effort to ‘harden’ South Korea to withstand this competition. When Brendan and I suggested raising SK defense spending, which is a paltry 2.3% of GDP, the room roundly said it’s politically impossible.

In IR lingo, SK is not really a revisionist anymore; it is a status quo power. De jure, (i.e., in its constitution), the ROK is committed to unity, but as anyone who’s lived here for just a little while can tell you, most South Koreans are genuinely frightened of NK’s collapse – not of NK, mind you, but of its collapse: the huge amount of money it will cost, the massive, generations-spanning reconstruction it will require, internal ‘refugees’ from the north decamping in southern cities, loss of the hard-won OECD lifestyle in the name of national sacrifice, etc. South Koreans would much rather buy iPhones, travel, study in the West, move to Seoul, and get a cool job with Samsung.

I see this in my students all the time. We talk about reunification in class a lot naturally. It’s an unnerving abstraction to them; they certainly don’t get fired up about it. I have never seen a Korean get passionate, angry, or intensely patriotic about unification, even though they are a very nationalistic as a people. In my experience, South Koreans get more angry and emotional over the Liancourt Rocks dispute with Japanor or the Dongbei/Mt. Baektu flap with China than over NK . Just look at the lack of interest and care shown to North Koreans who make it here (a terrible moral failing, IMO). Or, I’ve had students tell me that my discussion of the 1990s famine in NK that killed maybe half a million people was just American propaganda I picked up from the US military in Korea.

If you’re wondering if this really strange, yes, it is. North Korea has probably the worst long-term human rights record of any country in the world, yet South Koreans don’t want to talk about it. I guess a parallel is Germans under 40 years old by the mid-1980s. They too increasingly saw the inter-German border as a real border, not a temporary division. Divide a community long enough, and I guess it slowly becomes two. That’s not too surprising. It’s rather uncomfortable that outsiders, usually Americans, are the ones who seem to push the NK issue and worry about NK human rights and nutrition. I am continuously mystified and moral discomforted that NK doesn’t dominate SK politics.

But that’s how it is. And if we believe in democracy and self-determination, we have to respect Southern public opinion. We can’t get in front our own ally who will carry most of the costs if there’s a war or collapse. When I came to SK I shared the typical American hawk/neocon thinking regarding NK – on the axis of evil, the worst country on earth, run by power-mad lunatics, deserved to get punched in the face at the earliest opportunity, etc. All of that is still true of course, but the longer I live here, the more I have moderated on what that means for policy. South Koreans really don’t want a war or escalation, no matter how many times western IR and think-tank types tell them that NK is dangerous, erratic, terrifying, etc. (I’ve seen this so debate so many times here); they don’t want to risk much for regime change; they don’t want to ally with democratic Japan against communist NK and China, regardless of what structural realism and democratic peace liberalism say; SK is very vulnerable and neocon-John Boltonism looks reckless and scary to them; most don’t really believe in their hearts that their ethnic compatriots to the north will nuke them. Yes, there are demonstrations sometimes against NK, but look closely and you’ll notice that most of the demonstrations are small and the participants elderly. Washington may not like this (I don’t either), and it may feel morally uncomfortable, in that it effectively abandons North Koreans to the brutal status quo, but this is where Southern public opinion is.

So South Koreans seem increasingly comfortable letting NK go its own, bizarre way. I think this is why the conservative, anti-communist press here comes off so unhinged; they’re terrified that South Korea is effectively a status quo power now (which is true). President Lee’s post-Sunshine Policy return to confrontation is very unpopular here (even though lots of western analysts I meet here [me included] think it was a good idea to give it up). Even the conservatives in this year’s elections here are running as doves now. Lots of Koreas thought that the 2010 Cheonan sinking was a plot by the government or the even Americans, or that it illustrated the incompetence of the Lee administration; there was no post-9/11-style national outburst against NK. And a similar shrug greeted the 2010 Yeonpyeong shelling; there was no nation-wide outburst for war or even counterstrikes comparable to how, say, Americans would have responded to such an attack.  In the parliamentary elections that just concluded, NK wasn’t an issue, even though the rocket launch preparation was making global news during the campaign.

I don’t think I would call this appeasement of Lind’s ‘madman.’ That would imply a level of interest, if only to duck or hide from the North, that isn’t there. Appeasement would also suggest that SK would eventually spend more on defense so that it would have more choices against the madman next time. But as Brendan noted, SK isn’t doing any of this. The military is shrinking, the defense budget is astonishingly, irresponsibly low, and there’s no effort to generate force totals with the requisite skills even close to what Lind says is needed to pacify a unified Korea. And that’s because a unified Korea isn’t really on the public radar.

To my mind, the real reason SK doesn’t respond is simple disinterest; they don’t want to make the sacrifices and run the risks.  K-pop, climbing the social ladder, learning English, moving ‘up to Seoul,’ reducing the Gini-coefficient, going to school in the US, playing golf, Yuna Kim, the scandals of the Lee administration, etc. are far more common topics of conversation with my students, family, and colleagues. I am the one who brings up NK, and the answers just aren’t that passionate.

More than anything else, South Koreans just want NK to go away. The most scary implication of this is that if NK can hang on a few more decades, the South won’t even want unity.

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.

Kim Jong Un’s Ascent (2): Rocket Launch as a Sign of a Power Struggle?

Here is part one, where I argued that Kim’s rise scrambles our conventional wisdom on NK, opening a lot of unexpected room, at least early in his tenure, to try to deal. The cold war stand-off in Korea is now so bad, that there is little to lose in trying to talk with him, and it would seem like a huge missed opportunity to simply blow him off as identically awful to his father. For my regular argument that negotiating with Kim Jong Il was impossible, try here and here (or if you’d rather just read about the ridiculous Homefront video game, try this).
The tentative ‘Leap Day deal,’ from the recent US-NK high level talks, of aid for a nuclear halt, represents just such a possible opening. As predicted, the extreme centralization of NK allowed a dramatic policy U-turn once Kim Jong Il was replaced. The deal is tentative, but it is almost certainly a direct consequence of the change at the very top. It is hard to imagine that Kim Jong Il would have agreed to this; his prestige was too tied to the nuclear program. So if Kim Jong Un is already willing to deal, only ten weeks after his father’s death, this is very promising. It hints at wider possibilities for change. A new leader with such wide policy-making authority, who is not yet heavily tied to the nuclear program, military, or other vested interests, is encouraging. Talks should be pursued, if only because confrontation is always an easy fall-back position. The threatened rocket launch might also be interpreted in this way. Vested interests in NK (probably the military), worried about any opening or change, are pushing back. Rather than reading the contradictory progression from Leap Day deal to rocket launch as typical NK back-and-forth shenanigans justifying the cancellation of the Leap Day deal, it might instead be a sign of the widely-expected post-Kim Jong Il power struggle. If so, then abandoning the Leap Day deal over the rocket launch would set back Kim Jong Un internally against the military. But it is so frustratingly hard to tell.

Hawks will argue that Kim’s room to move is less wide than I suggest. He will clearly face constraints, from the military, and from the regime elite’s expectation that he will keep the kleptocracy rolling. Worse, in the back of the mind of everyone associated with the extreme repression of the DPRK is the fate of Gaddafi, Ceausescu, and the Nazi war criminals. So the new Kim is not likely a Gorbachev, because no one in Pyongyang wants to face an Arab Spring-style uprising, or SK post-unification courts with access to the death penalty. But Kim will also have room to change course, simply because the regime requires his lineage. Many observers expect a radical course change would provoke a coup. And indeed it is likely that Kim Jong Un’s toughest years will be his earliest. There is almost certain to be a power struggle to establish the pecking order of the new regime. But Kim Jong Un will likely be retained regardless. With the collapse of communism, juche and other legitimizing ideologies, the Kim family cult is central to the DPRK as we understand it today. It is almost impossible to imagine a recognizable NK without a Kim monarch, as that is now the effective legitimating ideology of the country.

Hence a military backlash to any changes by the new Kim will be limited by the need of the regime to keep him and his family. While the military might be tempted to ‘evolve’ into a junta like Burma and dispose of the Kims, that would be uniquely risky in this case. The standing alternative of unification with SK requires that NK continually gin up unique and extreme justifications for its separate, poorer existence. The Kim god-cult provides this. It is therefore unlikely the Kims will be replaced, and if Kim survives the coming years as more than a figurehead, he will increasingly set the tone of NK foreign policy as his father did.

Hence engaging with him now is a unique chance to draw him out early, before he is locked into routines by other regime elements. International engagement and success may generate internal legitimacy for him and may vest him in further international successes as a route to greater legitimacy and autonomy when those around him seek to control him for his youth and inexperience. There is much to gain from a major SK-US-Japanese effort to engage the new Kim and little to lose, as the standoff with NK is already in deep freeze.
Clearly negotiations will follow the established pattern of inch-by-inch concession and counter-concession. Kim Jong Il’s unexpected death does not alter the North’s ministerial or bureaucratic players for talks, at least not yet. The regime is still desperately dependent on foreign imports of almost every variety, and Kim Jong Un apparently shares his father’s outsized appetites. The usual gimmicks and twists will certainly apply, but these are now old hat for American and SK negotiators. After twenty years of this, it is extremely unlikely that the democracies will get conned at the renewed Six Party Talks. There is no reason not to try. The new Kim is probably no Gorbachev, but what do we have to lose?

At the one of countless conferences I have attended on the NK question, a colleague once remarked that just about every theory, idea, concept, bargaining tactic, negotiating ploy, gimmick, and other tactic has been thrown at NK over the years to no avail. At this point, we’re so desperate that we’ll try almost anything that has a chance of moderating the regime. This is, however disturbing, correct. As Churchill said, ‘jaw-jaw is better than war-war,’ and NK is so cruel, capricious, indecipherable, and dangerous, that just about anything that offers a chance to temper the regime is worth a try at this point. This does not mean the Six Party democracies should ‘undersell’ concessions to get any deal at all, but it does mean that we should be constantly trying to engage NK, always suggesting ideas, looking for opportunities. Like Europe’s militaries before WWI, the militaries in the peninsula are highly attuned to each other’s moves. The risk of escalation from a spark like Yeonpyeong is pronounced. The democracies should negotiate from a position of strength, but they should return to the Six Party Talks given this extremely unique opportunity.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog and Korean National Defense University.

Kim Jong Un’s Ascent (1): A Unique Negotiating Opportunity

Kim-Jong-un-Meme-GeneratorOr maybe not…

The following short piece for the Korean National Defense University was written after the Leap Day Deal, but before the rocket launch announcement. In the interim, the US has decided to cancel the leap day deal, which is entirely understandable, but a mistake nonetheless I think. NK’s elite has to do something for Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday this month (the cause of the launch); the regime depends on these sorts of shows. But this is a lot more tame than other possible hijinks, like another clash in the Yellow Sea, could be. Kim Jong Un might be signaling us from within the almost certain, post-Jong Il quiet power struggle now gripping the Pyongyang. For a similar and, I think, persuasive argument, try this. My full text at KNDU can be found here.

Kim Jong Il’s death is more than just the passing of a chief executive; given North Korea’s (NK) hyperpersonalization, it is transformational. As such, Kim Jong Un’s ascent offers a unique opportunity to try engagement once again with NK. It may fail, as it has so often before, but the very fluid new circumstances make it worth a major effort. NK is such a dangerous country and the cold war standoff with SK so severe now, that to pass up this rare window would be a tremendous missed opportunity.

Negotiating with NK has been deeply frustrating for the three democracies (US, SK, Japan) of the Six Party Talks for two decades. Even China clearly finds NK fatiguing at this point. The general consensus is that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is not serious about denuclearization, unabashedly lies to interlocutors, and otherwise games negotiations for its own internal interests. Negotiations, at least under Kim Jong Il, seemed an end in themselves for the DPRK. They served the prestige of the regime, by keeping it in the global limelight. They served NK’s state survival, in that every Northern concession could be ‘sold’ for rice, fuel oil, spare parts, and other necessities. Frequently these concessions would then be retrenched under some fatuous circumstance in order to be re-sold again. US officials have noted repeatedly how America ‘will not buy the same horse again’ from NK.

Perhaps most disturbing, the seemingly endless negotiations provided myriad opportunities for NK to ‘shake down’ interlocutors for elite personal comforts like alcohol, HDTVs, and automobiles. Most famously, Kim Jong Il was personally bribed $500M to attend the 2000 inter-Korean summit. In general, the broad public perception among the relevant democracies is strongly negative; negotiations had devolved into a gimmicky venue for NK to ask/demand/blackmail for aid, concessions, and favors. Despite the Sunshine Policy and the 2005 Joint Statement, NK cheated and went nuclear anyway. Hence, aid to NK seemed more like appeasement – leading to ever greater Northern appetites rather than pliability. This is most clear in the SK population’s turn against the Sunshine Policy several years ago, and the Democratic Obama administration’s continuing unwillingness to extend any meaningful, unreciprocated aid (‘strategic patience’). By Kim Jong Il’s death last year, few in the democracies trusted NK to follow through on anything, and there was little interest anywhere in negotiation. Even China seemed unsure what to do with its ‘ally.’
But NK is – or, perhaps, was – a highly autocratic, neo-patrimonial system, in which almost all relevant policy flowed from Kim Jong Il and the tight coterie around him. That means that his death generates enormous uncertainty. In polities with established institutions that exist beyond their rotating office-holders, those institutions provide continuity as personnel change. Institutions are greater than their passing occupants, and future occupants will face precedents and long-established policies and procedures. These constraints prevent wild swings in policy. But in dictatorships, especially extremely personalized and centralized ones like NK, institutions are shallow and corrupted. Power flows not from one’s formal portfolio but one’s personal relationship with the autocratic clique. Hence the irrelevance of the NK presidency and the importance of the otherwise unknown National Defense Commission from which Kim Jong Il choose to rule. Therefore the replacement of a dictator, unlike the death of an elected president, opens huge policy space for change. Kim Jong Il’s death is more than just a chief executive passing; it is the personal-cum-structural transformation of the DPRK.

Hence Kim Jong Il’s death scrambles many of our established expectations of negotiations. It opens dramatic and unanticipated space for talks. This is a unique opportunity to engage NK in search of an alternative to the severe, cold war-style confrontation that has become the Korean norm. The new Kim may not be a Gorbachev, but there is no good reason not to engage as if a break with the past were possible. At worst, if NK falls back on its old, well-known bargaining tricks, the democracies can always retreat to their established confrontational postures. Furthermore, a democratic response to a Kim Jong Un outreach may be an external way to bolster his position against the military and others fearful of change. As Gorbachev parlayed international acclaim into domestic legitimacy to contest reactionary elements in the USSR, Kim may be able to do the same. We just do not know, but the current opportunity is so rare, that it would be a huge missed chance to not make a real effort.

The rest in three days.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog and the Korean National Defense University.

China’s Counter to the Asian ‘Pivot’ (1): Korea, India

So the US is supposedly going to pivot to Asia and start worrying more about China. This makes sense (which is probably why we won’t do it). The Middle East has become a pretty terrible sinkhole of American power. Increasingly the verdict on the war on terrorism is negative, and we should probably retrench from the Middle East (but we won’t because of the religious right’s interest in the region). Mearsheimer argued that if it weren’t for 9/11 we probably would have focused on China a lot earlier. Kaplan sketched how the US would defeat China in a war. I argued a few years ago, at the height of the ‘China-has-changed-into-a-scary-revisionist’ hype of 2009-11, that containment of China was likely (maybe even desirable Sad smile). And clearly China’s behavior over the last few years has raised the likelihood of at least soft containment; even the Vietnamese and the Filipinos are asking for US agreements now.

But I don’t see much Western discussion of how China would/should respond. So in the tradition of those old CIA A team/B team exercises, here are five ideas for how China should/could respond to its incipient encirclement:

1. Pull Korea into its orbit by dumping NK and supporting finlandized unity.

This is such a no-brainer. China’s big regional political problem is that no one really trusts it. So its allies are lame – NK and Myanmar, and even the latter is drifting now. The best way to head off the encirclement that hammered both the Germans and the Soviets in the 20th C is to break the ring with some decent allies, and nasty, dependent dictatorships are not enough. SK is a pretty central link in any containment ring around China, but one where China has a lot of leverage.

Before the 20th C, Korea was Confucian China’s closest ally/subordinate for a millennium. Korean culture is very close to China (even if modern nationalist Koreans don’t want to admit it): the language is shot through with Sinic roots, the philosophy of Confucianism comes from China, social traditions are similar (food, dress, etc.). Koreans will not tell you that China is a big enemy of Korea, no matter how many Japanese and US scholars, pundits, etc. say it is. I see this in class and at conferences all the time. Structural realism and liberalism both say that Japan and Korea should ally against China and NK. Nope! The average Korean just won’t buy that no matter how many times you repeat your IR logic. Instead, he thinks that Japan, and even the US, is a greater threat to Korea than China. Dokdo activates Koreans a lot more than China’s growth.
Also Korea has a long tradition of anti-Americanism too. Yes, they are a good ally to the US, but mostly because they need us a lot more than most US allies, not because they really like us that much. Lots of Koreans that I meet think that the US is heavily responsible for the division of the country, bullies SK leaders, forces unfair trade deals on the country, sends pot-smoking English teacher to prey on their young girls, etc. All this may or may not be true – hold that thought – but consider what an opening this gives China.

Finally, Koreans really want unity, and China is probably best placed to give it to them (more so than the US actually). I have written about this a lot before, but if we accept that NK is all but dependent on China now, then China could basically force a deal in which Korea got unity on southern terms, but only if US Forces in Korea left. Yes, lots of Chinese see NK as a buffer between the robust democracies of Japan, SK, and the US. But NK is a losing horse. Someday it will crash and burn, and how much does it really help China now anyway? Its elites are so unpredictable than the CCP must always be wondering wth they will do this week. A Chinese-backed finlandized unification would electrify the region, neutralize a major link in the ring, isolate Japan, and confuse the US (would the US oppose unity to keep troops in Korea and Japan?).

2. Keep flattering India.

India and China will never be too close (barring a democratic revolution in China). Their long border and history of tension makes the relationship tough. But China would at least benefit if India did not throw in its lot completely with the US camp in Asia. In 2010, I predicted that India would have US bases within the decade because of the almost tailor-made fit between India and the US. That is, both India and the US share both values (liberal democracy) and security concerns (salafism and China). No other major US ally has that nice contiguity (see the chart below). But a tight Indo-US link would be clearly worsen China’s position, complementing the current tight US-Japan link and providing an obvious anchor on the other side to a ring running from Japan through Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, and India. That really would be encirclement along the lines of what happened to Germany before 1914.  But India isn’t really following this script. They’re hedging the US somewhat, and the evolution of the responsibility to protect into triumphalist western regime chagne in Libya looks to New Dehli like neocolonialism all over again. There’s an ‘BRICS solidarity’ opening for China here. Given the India is still pretty soft on American option, a charm offensive, however humbling, would be wise.

Great Britain/NATO
Japan/East Asia

Part two will come in 3 days.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

Seoul 2012 Nuclear Security Summit

This week is the big nuclear security summit in Seoul, with something like 60 attending countries and over 40 heads of state or government. A friend from a Korean expat magazine here in town asked me for a brief write-up. Here are the issues as I see them from Korean IR and the local media. For full-blown think-tankery on the summit, try here.

1. Obama’s personal commitment to de-nuclearization: I can’t think of any president since Reagan who seems as personally offended by nuclear weapons as Obama. Back in the day, Reagan watched ‘The Day After,’ ‘Wargames’ and other nuclear war movies and came to dramatically oppose mutually assured destruction as it had underpinned US policy since flexible response. This helped Reagan achieve the first nuclear stockpile  reduction in history (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – a point anti-New Start neocons conveniently forget). But Obama is going beyond that, talking about ‘global zero’ – the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons everywhere. Wow. This is why there have been two of these summits in three years, but nothing like this under Bush. To be honest, I don’t think the complete elimination of the American nuclear deterrent is probably not a good idea (although we can go pretty low); nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of US sovereignty and democracy, and many US allies, like SK, rely on our extended deterrence. In any case, Obama’s personal interest in this issue is a major driver for this thing.

2. NK, always and again: It takes absolutely no imagination to realize that NK is, inevitably, the big focus on these sorts of gatherings. The placement of the summit in SK is to make that pretty clear. NK is easily the most dangerous nuclear-weapons state in the world. (Even Israel’s most dire opponents would probably accept that; well, ok, maybe they wouldn’t.)  Not only is its policy process incredibly opaque and its leadership capricious, NK has no declaratory policy on use (such as NATO’s ‘no first-strike, but reserved first-use’). So we have no idea what NK’s redlines are (which is probably one reason why no further retaliation for Yeonpyeong was approved). Beyond that, NK is a well-established proliferator with known involvement in the programs of Iran, Syria, and Pakistan. To boot, it is a delivery system (i.e., missile) proliferator too. They’re so desperate for cash, it seems like they’ll sell anything. With Kim Jong Il deceased, a new push to move NK toward denuclearization is likely, and this summit is part of the pressure to get NK back into the Six Party Talks to deal for real this time. Similarly, it is likely that the Summit will strengthen the Proliferation Security Initiative, which is also aimed primarily at NK. (On the problem of retaliation and the risk of out-of-control escalation in Korea after Yeonpyeong-style incidents, try here; on nuclear first-use in a Korean war scenario, try here.)

3. Heading off a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East: To everyone’s relief, India and (less so) Pakistan are managing their nuclear stockpiles pretty well. There will be little pressure on South Asia. The US interest in nuclear materials safety within Pakistan probably won’t be mentioned publicly, because we so desperately need Pakistani cooperation in the war on terror. Instead, the geographic focus, after NK, is almost certain to be Iran, and possible cascading Sunni nuclearization (Saudi Arabia and Egypt particularly) if Iran weaponizes. As Obama noted at AIPAC, there is a lot of ‘loose talk’ floating around about war with Iran. So this summit will probably be yet another venue for the administration to blunt the Likud-neocon demand for airstrikes. If Obama can get some global commitment, particularly from Asian states like Japan and Korea, for sanctions against Iran, that buys him time to defuse the war he’s partially backed himself into.

4. Materials Security: In the early post-9/11 years, there was a lot of talk at the conferences about the so-called ‘hand-off’ – a rogue state would hand-off a nuke to a Qaeda-style group who would then use it in a western city. This threat thankfully seems to have been overblown, but there’s a lot of nuclear material floating around. About 2,000 tons to be precise. That’s actually pretty terrifying if even just one-third of that were in corrupt, semi-dysfunctional states like Russia, NK, and Pakistan. In fact, I gotta agree with Graham Allison that it’s fairly amazing there’s no been nuclear use since the Cold War’s end, given how much processed plutonium and uranium there is in weak Eurasian states and how big the black market for it is now. Inevitably, the conference will emphasize security at the source. It’s obviously far easier to prevent proliferation than to rein it in once material is out the door. This also means more funding and inspection capabilities (also informally pointed at NK) for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

5. Fukushima and Nuclear Power: This isn’t technically a weaponization issue but a production one. And under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, states have the right to pursue nuclear power for energy (weaponization is a different story). But clearly the catastrophe of last year hangs over all this. In East Asia, it’s gotten, lots of press as you might imagine. Ironically, nuclear power is fairly safe, but the public has taken an especial fear to it. (My guess is that this fear comes from too many scary images in movies and TV and because if nuclear plants do meltdown, the potential catastrophe is enormous and unusually unpredictable because of the fallout). So there will be long-term commitments to find alternative energy sources.

Bonus Silliness: Finally, it wouldn’t be a global conference of consequence in Korea without some cringe-inducing, gratuitously inappropriate K-pop addendum to trivialize it all. Really, who vets this stuff? ‘Enjoy’ that uber-cheese vid above if you can actually make it through to the end. I sure wish the ROKG would stop looking at these sorts of conferences as a marketing gimmick for Korea (don’t miss the daily countdown marker in the top left corner of all Arirang broadcasts now and the relentless advertising blitz) and stay focused on the weighty issues at hand. Just as CNN International blew its credibility by re-cycling Demi Moore (?), complete with drug problems, as a wholly unconvincing ‘anti-slavery campaigner,’ I can think of no better way to drain the gravity of nuclear disarmament than to pointlessly shoehorn in a Korean soap opera actress and boyband with orange hair. Good grief – who thought that would raise the level of discussion? Just a few more rads of gamma rays, boyo, and that hair really will be orange. God save us from Hallyu shallowness…

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog and Busan Haps.

Kim Jung Il is Dead

In a week filled with the death of intellectuals and political activists, we now have the death of Kim Jung Il. Other than the fact that this destabilizes an already crazy country (and I mean ‘crazy’ in that professional IR kind of way), I can’t think much of us will miss him. Except maybe the creators of South Park.

But who knew Juche could be so funky?

Tears of Appreciation (and McDonald’s) in North Korea

Sorry for the blogging hiatus, I’ve been on the road in South Korea and Japan for the past six weeks and not able to blog. I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking to folks in Seoul about the situation in North Korea and whether or not we are likely to see any movement in the relationship. North Korea is again suffering acute food shortages and another famine appears to be unfolding.
The poster above, according to North Korean Central Television as reported in the Korea Times

was reportedly made by soldiers working at a construction site, contains an image which shows that soldiers wipe away their tears, and the word, “Oh, bulgogi!!!” and “Soldiers are choked by Kim’s ‘passionate love’ toward them.”

In another image, a group of soldiers sit down together and eat bulgogi.

While North Korean Central Television was reporting on all of this “passionate love” for the glorious leader, the international media uncovered a different story. Last week we heard news that the regime (in defiance of the international sanctions) has increased its level of importing luxury goods from China — including having McDonald’s hamburgers flown in and delivered to the homes of key government and military officials (to ensure their loyalty to Kim Jong Il during the on-going planning for power transition to Kim’s son).

The real question here in Seoul is the vulnerability of Kim Jong-Il’s regime. Almost no one thinks we’ll see any kind of “jasmine revolution” in North Korea — there is no functioning civil society. There is a general sense that at some level Kim Jong Il and others in Pyongyang understand that the country needs to open up to save the country, but doing so would almost certainly threaten the regime by exposing its lies, propaganda, and dysfunctions.

Yet there is clear anxiety here about the future of the regime — especially in the midst of the power transition that is now underway. Seoul is bracing for more provocations from the North as power is transferred in the coming months/years and the current South Korean government under President Lee plans to respond aggressively. The defense establishment here has a plan for that.

What the South Koreans don’t have a clear plan for, and the cause of significant anxiety, is what happens if the regime — under the weight of another famine and apparently being held up by McDonald’s hamburgers– simply collapses.

Presidential Reading List: (After you probably get through the ones with ‘Bacevich’ on the cover)

Dan Drezner has issued a call to arms!… or to your library card:

“I therefore call upon the readers of this blog to proffer up their suggestions — if you had to pick three books for an ambitious U.S. politician to read in order to bone up on foreign affairs, what would they be?”

I have a gut feeling that all of the answers are going to be grand strategy, grand strategy and some war on terror/Afghanistan. (Although, maybe I’m not being generous enough… but looking at the comments on Drezner’s post, I don’t think so.) So I’m going to suggest three books that touch on issues presented by ethical and political leadership as well as the war on terror, with a little bit of history thrown in on the side. Oh yeah – they’re all very good reads – Senators are going to be reading these things on planes, right?

(And for comparison, with an American IPE guy, Kindred Winecoff’s take is here.)

1. Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea.

I think this book actually deserves its own post, let alone a mention here. It won (and very much deserved) the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize in 2010. Basically Demick interviews North Korean defectors who now live in South Korea about their experiences north of the 38th Parallel. But it’s not just a book about North Korea – most of the individuals in the book lived through the famine that struck the country in the 1990s. And gradually, as the story of the expats unfold, you learn what it is like to live through a famine – bonuses slowly disappear, soon the shelves aren’t stocked, and people begin to sell off their possessions to buy food on a dangerous black market. It gets worse – seeing increasing numbers of abandoned children at the train station, walking overtop of people literally starving to death – but in such a way that you’ve become numb to the suffering, so as to not be overwhelmed buy it. And eventually to see your family and friends die.

“From the outside, Chongjin looked unchanged. The same gray facades of the Stalinist office buildings stared out at empty strtches of asphalt… But Mrs. Song knew better. It was a topsy-turvy world in which she was living. Up was down, wrong was right. The women had the money instead of the men. The markets were bursting with food, more food than most North Koreans had seen in their lifetime [in the black markets], and yet people were still dying from hunger. Worker’s Party members had starved to death; those who never gave a damn about the fartherland were making money.” (p. 157)

It’s a powerful book and a brilliant insight into a country which we know little about. In short, learn about North Korea, but also what it is like to live through starvation and suffering and how people cope and survive. And I’m sure there’s a lesson in there for dealing with North Korea for the aspiring policy maker.

2. Peter Hennessy, The Secret State: Preparing for the Worst 1945-2010

This is a book by one of the UK’s foremost historians of the Cold War. Effectively, it is about how governments counter threats – whether it is through intelligence agencies or nuclear deterrence. It is on this later topic, nuclear weapons and nuclear politics where Hennessy’s book is really chilling. How would a society cope with the ultimate worst case scenario – nuclear war? How can governments plan for the unthinkable? One of the most unsettling chapters is about Exercise INVALUABLE – a simulation for UK government officials in 1968 of a weeklong countdown to WWIII. According to the exercise at 1200 hour ZULU:

“Today’s newspapers give particular prominence to Soviet advances into West Germany and of the fighting in Northern Norway and on the Jugoslav/Italian border. Radio programs were interrupted this morning to report the amphibious attack against the Danish Islands. In leading articles, the ‘Times’ and the ‘Guardian’ urge that the West should not initiate a tactical nuclear exchange.”

Beyond this, it is a useful look back at how government looked at ‘subversive’ organizations, managed intelligence and threats to the nation. It’s a useful reminder of where we’ve been with regards to national threats that provides good insight as to where we might be going.

3. Conor Folely, The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War

An excellent book by a former (recovering?) humanitarian. In short. Folely looks at the real consequences of good humanitarian intentions. How, for example, the international community’s intervention in East Timor completely distorted their economy – raising prices in local communities; and how the Timorese saw little of the billions of dollars spent on the peacekeeping mission there.

“A sudden, large influx of resources will invariably distort the local economy and the arrival of an international mission will have a destabilizing effect. However well-intentioned, the intervening participants will almost always be inadequately informed regarding specific local politics and culture. Even the worst-paid international aid workers are likely to earn several times more than the average local salary. …” (p. 143) 

Or while the intervention in Kosovo helped to protect the Kosovar Albanians, it failed to preent a reverse population expulsion as the Serbs were forced to leave Kosovo. It’s a very good critique – and a useful reminder that every humanitarian action seems to have an equal and opposite reaction. Additionally, it’s a useful examination of what happens when bodies established to alleviate human suffering and put an end to war end up making a case for just that.

So there you are – three books that have done well in the UK which may have some lessons for US policy makers (and none with Bacevich on the cover!)

Cheeky honourable mention: I realize that I have no IPE on this list. Not my area – but I like the writings of Michael Lewis. I’ve just started The Big Short and I’m looking forward to Boomerang.

DPRK’s attention-deficit disorder (updated)

Pyongyang’s “pay attention to me! right! now!” routines seem calculated to convince the United States, South Korea, and Japan of one thing: that military force is the only effective long-term solution to North Korean intransigence. Which means, naturally enough, that Pyongyang’s recent rounds of “WTF” are most likely driven entirely by domestic DPRK politics.

World history is flush with with examples of more prosperous states repeatedly buying off uncouth and belligerent barbarians. But one has to wonder how far Pyongyang can push the South Koreans. Will there come a point when Seoul decides to risk war rather than see the DPRK’s retrograde regime become even more awash in “Sampson Option” capabilities? I assume that the South Korean policy toward North Korea is rooted in a belief that, if Seoul waits long enough, the regime will implode. But what if that calculation changes?

What makes this interesting (and dangerous), is that ROK forces–even without U.S. help–are more than a match for anything that the North Koreans can field. This means that the South Korean leadership has any number of plausible military options; if the South Koreans begin to significantly alter their assessment of current trends, these military options will likely appear increasingly attractive.

Still, none of this suggests an alteration in the basic factors that restrain Seoul:

  • Before they collapse, North Korean forces will kill a lot of South Koreans and do a lot of damage to South Korea’s economy;
  • The United States has no appetite for taking part in an additional large-scale military conflict;
  • Uncertainty surrounding Beijing’s likely actions in the event of a conflict; and
  • The significant challenges that would come from assuming control of North Korean territory if the conflict leads to ROK victory in a full-blown war. 

These four factors–two of which aren’t particularly manipulable–make significant escalation unlikely. But with the developments of the last two days, I’m less sanguine than I was even after the sinking of the Cheonan–especially about the long-term prospects for a peaceful Korean peninsula.

UPDATE: that there’s some serious brinksmanship.

South Korea warned today that it will unleash “enormous retaliation” if North Korea launches fresh attacks against its territory.

North Korean troops bombarded Yeonpyeong, an island in disputed waters, with dozens of rounds of artillery earlier today, reportedly killing two South Korean soldiers and injuring around 20 people.

Seoul placed its military on its highest non-wartime alert level, scrambling F-16 fighter jets to the western sea and returning fire, officials said. It warned that the attack was a violation of the armistice that ended the Korean war in 1953.

The South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, who convened an emergency security meeting shortly after the initial bombardment, said an “indiscriminate attack on civilians” could never be tolerated.

“Enormous retaliation should be made, to the extent that [North Korea] cannot make provocations again,” he said.

While war remains unlikely, audience-cost dynamics can combine with political miscalculations in unexpected, and unpleasant, ways.

Drip, drip, drip

I do not own a copy of the George W. Bush memoirs, but I have been following the bits and pieces that appear in my newspaper. I’m going to try to blog about a few of the most important items, especially as they pertain to my past blogging and/or research interests.

For example, the former President confirms that Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor in September 2002. This has long been a matter of discussion on the Duck.

Even more interesting, Bush says he rejected Israel’s request that the US bomb the facility. Given Bush’s “preemptive” war policy, Israel may have viewed this as a perfectly reasonable favor. Apparently, however, the CIA “had only ‘low confidence’ that Syria had a nuclear weapons program,” though they had “high confidence” that Syria had built the reactor — thanks to North Korea.

What this means is that the Bush Doctrine did have limits after all!

Then again, perhaps it is more accurate to say that Israel simply implemented US policy:

“Prime Minister Olmert’s execution of the strike made up for the confidence I had lost in the Israelis during the Lebanon war,” Bush writes. “The bombing demonstrated Israel’s willingness to act alone. Prime Minister Olmert hadn’t asked for a green light, and I hadn’t given one. He had done what was necessary to protect Israel.”

I’ll try to examine additional tidbits soon.

Nuclear Myanmar

A recent credible report by the Democratic Voice of Burma that North Korea may have assisted Myanmar’s junta to acquire nuclear weapons technology has raised concerns at the international and regional levels.

Myanmar is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but it is technically exempt from IAEA inspections. If it is in fact pursuing a nuclear weapons program aided by North Korea, it would represent one more nail in the coffin of the non-proliferation regime.

The US response has been limited so far, most likely due to the fact there are potentially more pressing violations of the NPT in the Persian Gulf. However, Senator Jim Webb, the chair of the Foreign Relations panel on East Asia, cancelled his scheduled trip to Myanmar last week. The US approach to this development will most likely continue the establishment pattern of seeking to isolate and impose sanctions rather than engaging in a dialog with this repressive regime.

From a regional strategic perspective, a nuclear armed Myanmar would be a serious concern for India. The prospect that India would be surrounded by an axis of three nuclear powers is a major challenge to India’s ambition of transcending its regional shackles.

If Myanmar is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, it is most likely intended to deter America rather than India.  (The project may also be intended to ensure the domestic longevity of the regime.) India and Myanmar are not enemies. While Indian influence in Burma pales relative to China, India has been engaging with the regime for years and it has achieved a measure of cooperation in building a “land bridge” from Imphal to Mandalay which is designed to facilitate trade and help India police its troubled Northeast region (currently the road only extends to Kalewa, which is still 482km from Mandalay).  Nevertheless, India will have to look at capabilities rather than just intentions.

Similarly, Myanmar’s neighbors in Southeast Asia, several of which are closely tied to the US, might also feel threatened by a nuclear armed Myanmar. The issue has already created a stir in ASEAN circles.  At the Shangri-la Dialog last week, Myanmar denied to the Singaporeans that it was pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

In any case, if the allegations are true, Myanmar is clearly in the very early stages of its program and it does not have sufficient delivery mechanisms even if they were to develop a nuclear weapon in the future. Experts also doubt that Burma has the economic resources and scientific resources to sustain this program.

Of course, one is reminded of similar arguments about Pakistan’s technical and economic ability to acquire a nuclear weapon, but as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s prophetically quipped, “… we will eat grass or leaves, or go hungry, but we will get one [nuclear bomb] of our own.” Where there’s a will, there’s a way…

Belligerence 101: North Korea options

First, from the archives: Vice President Dick Cheney was quoted by Hamish McDonald, “Cheney’s tough talking derails negotiations with North Korea,” Sydney Morning Herald, December 22, 2003:

The Knight-Ridder newspaper chain said a senior official had quoted Mr Cheney as telling the meeting: “I have been charged by the President with making sure that none of the tyrannies in the world are negotiated with. We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.”

Next, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this past week, as quoted on May 27, 2010:

“This was an unacceptable provocation by North Korea and the international community has a responsibility and a duty to respond,” Mrs Clinton said, after talks with her South Korean counterpart, Yu Myung Hwan. “We cannot turn a blind eye to belligerence and provocation. We will stand with you in this difficult hour and will stand with you always.”

The Times of London journalist Richard Lloyd Parry helpfully added that “she failed to specify any concrete measures, underlining how few options short of full-scale war were available in dealing with the North.”

Open Thinking-Outside-The-Box-on-How-To-Out-Crazy-North-Korea Thread

Daniel Drezner asks whether there are any options for dealing with evidence of North Korea’s involvement on the sinking of the Cheonan besides diddling around in the UN Security Council with a resolution that China may well veto. He rightly suggests that this is essentially a game of chicken that the North always wins because it seems crazier and less predictable than most civilized states (true). He points out the conventional wisdom that war must be avoided at all costs because Pyongyang is poised to deal a devastating blow to Seoul (and Pyongyang, for its part, knows it would probably be defeated). He proposes that the international community not allow North Korea to participate in the World Cup.

That latter is not a bad suggestion. As Alegi and Bolsmann have documented, sports sanctions made a difference in ending apartheid, and a rash of new studies including this one make similar arguments. And as a human security analyst, I’m glad to see that the protection of civilians in Seoul is a top priority for those ruminating over how this crisis might develop.

However, as a human security analyst, I’m equally concerned with two things:

a) the protection of civilians in North Korea, where 30% of the population is starving, where 400,000 people languish in Soviet-style gulags, and there is a near-complete absence of civil and political rights) – something that can probably only be accomplished by significant changes in the political culture of the DPRK and

b) the long-term stability of the region, where the status quo seems to be based on “containing” a (crazy and unpredictable) North Korea – a move that may ultimately fail, with catastrophic later consequences for civilians in Seoul and elsewhere.

So I’m wondering if the real answer to Dan’s question about chicken requires rethinking the structure of the game. I don’t have enough expertise on the region to translate this into concrete recommendations but the way I would re-frame the question is like this:

What are the range of options (if any) for sending costly signals to DPRK that imply that South Korea might be readier to absorb the consequences of a land war than DPRK would be to absorb the likelihood of losing one? For example, since one of the key concerns is the vulnerability of Seoul to artillery fire, what measures if any could be taken by South Korea and the international humanitarian community to reduce the likely civilian casualties of a strike from the north on Seoul, thereby making the threat of massive casualties less crippling in such an event? Or, what measures could be taken by South Korea’s allies to preempt such a strike rather than waiting for it (which would probably be within the limits of the UN Charter regime as well as responsibility to protect doctrine given recent DPRK actions)? And are there any options that put improving the lot of North Korea’s own civilian population on the same footing as concerns about Seoul’s civilians or regional stability?

I ask these questions of Dan in my latest bloggingheads diavlog. In asking these questions, I’m not suggesting (or at least not meaning to suggest with any certainty) that all-out war on the peninsula is desirable (though limited strikes may be – I’d have to understand the force structure in the region better than I do). But my key argument is that behaving in any situation as if we think war is unthinkable gives the opponent all the leverage. If this is actually a game of chicken as Dan argues, how might the policy dilemma be framed in such a way that North Korea, who actually wants to avoid war, might start to believe that it’s not the craziest party in the equation anymore or the one with the least to lose?

Readers, I pass the buck to you.


In every episode of the classic 1960s television series “The Prisoner,” Number 6 and Number 2 had this exchange:

Number 6: Where am I?
Number 2: In the Village.
Number 6: What do you want?
Number 2: We want information.
Number 6: Whose side are you on?
Number 2: That would be telling. We want information… information… information.
Number 6: You won’t get it.

The lack of information is a problem widely recognized by international relations scholars.

Face it, we study a field marked by secrecy and imprecision. The central unit of analysis is the state, with interests (or motives) that are virtually impossible to discern. Even capabilities are often ambiguous. As one scholar put it recently, “The force of uncertainty is absolutely central to every major research tradition in the study of international relations.”

The world was reminded of the certainty of uncertainty last week when the BBC and other media reported the following in regards to a mysterious recent incident in Asia:

An “external explosion” probably sank the South Korean naval vessel which went down near North Korean waters last month, an investigator says.

“The possibility of an external explosion is far higher than that of an internal explosion,” Yoon Duk-yong told a news conference in Seoul.

North Korea denies that it sank the boat.

Duck readers might be reminded of the mystery surrounding the destruction of something in Syria in 2007. Did Israel strike? Was the target a nuclear facility?

Indeed, it is not difficult to generate a short but nonetheless impressive list of important things we do not know about contemporary international politics:

What is the status of Iran’s nuclear program?

Is Osama bin Laden still alive? If so, where is he hiding?

(For Earth Day) What is the carrying capacity of the planet?

Actually, before I attempt to continue this list, I’ll just close with Donald Rumsfeld’s famous words on this subject:

“…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

Some days, I feel like someone who tries to read tea leaves or divine the present from a crystal ball.

New Nuclear Posture

Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Defense presented its latest Nuclear Posture Review Report. I haven’t had a chance to read the entire document yet, but media reports have focused on a new policy declaration that is of great interest to states and scholars alike.

The statement garnering the greatest attention is included in the “Executive Summary” of the NPR (p. viii):

The United States will continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks.

To that end, the United States is now prepared to strengthen its long-standing “negative security assurance” by declaring that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.

Essentially, the U.S. is reversing longstanding nuclear policy by promising merely to employ “devastating conventional military response” against threats it previously used nuclear weapons to deter: potential chemical or biological weapons (CBW) attacks against the U.S. or its allies. The document makes this explicit, noting that even though the U.S. had abandoned its own CBW programs, it “reserved the right to employ nuclear weapons to deter CBW attack on the United States and its allies and partners.”

Among scholars, this development is interesting because it potentially contributes to strengthening a norm (or perhaps tradition or taboo) of non-use of nuclear weapons. As McGill’s T.V. Paul argues in the book that I just linked, the U.S. refusal to preclude the threat of nuclear retaliation against states using CBW had long weakened the tradition — to the dismay of non-nuclear weapons states everywhere. In fact, during the last decade other nuclear-armed states had followed the U.S. lead and weakened prior non-use pledges in the face of CBW threats in the post-9/11 era.

By excluding the threat of nuclear retaliation against CBW attack, the U.S. is now potentially strengthening the tradition (or norm or taboo) and could serve as a role model for other states that emulated its more threatening previous posture.

Non-nuclear weapons states are likely to be pleased by the new U.S. declaratory strategy since many of them have been arguing since the 1960s for these kinds of “negative security assurances.” It was a point of contention even in the original NPT debates.

Before anyone gets too excited about the U.S. announcement, it should be noted that Iran and North Korea are excluded from the U.S. promise. These states, now apparently called “outliers” rather than “rogue states” by the U.S., have now been explicitly warned that they could still suffer a nuclear blow if they used CBW against the U.S. or its allies.

Indeed, even as the NPR reduced the number of nuclear threats the U.S. is making, Defense Secretary Robert Gates also arguably increased them. By isolating and highlighting the “outliers,” the U.S. is essentially trying to leverage a nuclear threat for counterproliferation purposes:

“If there is a message for Iran and North Korea here, it is that if you’re going to play by the rules, if you’re going to join the international community, then we will undertake certain obligations to you. But if you’re not going to play by the rules, if you’re going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you,” said the secretary of defense.

Still, Gates called the use of nuclear weapons a “last resort.”

This statement amounts to a renewal of the Bush Doctrine, linking the potential first use of military force — in this case nuclear weapons — to counterproliferation aims. As Phil McCauley and I recently warned, the fears about biological weapons proliferation are sufficiently strong that they render the current taboo against their use illogical by classic arms control standards as they increase the risk of war.

The U.S. needs to couple the new policy with active efforts to strengthen the chemical and biological arms control and disarmament regimes as well. It was the U.S. after all, that blocked the negotiated verification protocol to the Biological Weapons convention just months after the 9/11 attacks.

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