April 10, 2013

Why does North Korea continue to exist and why it is a global problem?

The problem with North Korea and the Kim dynasty is that they will continue to exist as long as they have a certain utility for major regional or global powers. This appears to be the case for all parties involved, including China, the US, Russia and Japan. North Korea is in an awkward way a necessary evil that holds regional powers in balance and helps to maintain a functioning status quo. When this delicate balance crumbles, a whole new security structure will have to be found. Nobody appears willing to take the first step into the unknown. North Korea’s leaders seem well aware of the situation and are trying to exploit this to their own advantage i.e. trying to ensure regime survival and international acceptance as a nuclear power.

The problem with North Korea and the Kim dynasty is that they will continue to exist as long as they have a certain utility for major regional or global powers. This appears to be the case for all parties involved, including China, the US, Russia and Japan. North Korea is in an awkward way a necessary evil that holds regional powers in balance and helps to maintain a functioning status quo. When this delicate balance crumbles, a whole new security structure will have to be found. Nobody appears willing to take the first step into the unknown. North Korea’s leaders seem well aware of the situation and are trying to exploit this to their own advantage i.e. trying to ensure regime survival and international acceptance as a nuclear power.

The 60-year old Korean conflict is escalating to new heights at a time when other major stand-offs appear to be waning. The war in Iraq is over, Saddam’s evil tyranny is now becoming a distant memory. Bags are being backed in Afghanistan with most allied troops leaving in 2014. Osama is dead. The official line is that the Afghan troops are deemed to be ready to take over security responsibilities and some of Taleban can actually be talked to.

The escalation of tensions surrounding the Korean Peninsula and the emergence of a new international pariah in the form of Kim Jong-un is now well under way. His country, North Korea, has been labelled as part of the Axis of Evil, a Lighthouse of Tyranny in the world, the largest prison camp in the world etc. Who could rival Kim? Libya’s Gaddafi is out, Venezuela’s Chavez is gone, Iran’s Ahmadinejad will be gone after the elections in June, Cuba’s Castros and Zimbabwe’s Mugabe are just too old and Myanmar’s Thein Sein is now wearing a suit instead of an army uniform. There is simply no-one to equal the character of Kim.

One might wonder how a state such as North Korea can actually continue to exist. North Korea has managed to alienate itself from the international community with amazing vigour. Cold War era alliances with the former Communist Bloc are now history. Besides Syria, Iran and possibly some small African states, no country wants to be seen as a friend. China’s position is becoming increasingly ambiguous – it certainly can’t be called an ally anymore. There is an unusual consensus over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes in the UN Security Council. No-one is defending North Korea’s actions, even the former comrades in China condemn their behaviour.

The world knows of the decades of famine and starvation, the massive prison camps (you can even see these on Google Earth now), the terrible state of infrastructure, the lack of modern technology, the refugees trying to flee the country etc. The size of North Korean economy (24 million people) by GDP PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) is roughly similar to that of a little Baltic State of Latvia (2,2 million people). South Korean GDP is now 40 times greater than that of the North. South Koreans are on average 4,8 – 5 cm taller than their brethren in the North. Northerners simply don’t get enough to eat. A country that successfully tested a ballistic missile last December and conducted a third nuclear test in February recently cut the minimum height of its new army recruits to 142cm from the previous 145 cm. There are around one million men in the army which makes the North Korean army the 4th largest in the world. Militarization drains all resources from other spheres of the state and society, economic inefficiencies and mismanagement are inevitable as the command economy structure does not reward any initiative.

It appears logical that North Korea would have long perished as a state, were it not for the continuation of the Cold War – type great power struggles for influence. During the Cold War, the great powers found allies amongst poor and weak Middle Eastern, African, Asian and Latin American states. Those countries then struggled in endless conflicts, civil wars and real wars, often on behalf of their great power allies. The Soviets and the US never got into a direct military confrontation during four decades of global rivalry. Wars were conducted using the hands of Asians, Africans, Middle Easterners and Latin Americans while providing them with arms, training and economic support. The North Korean case is in many ways similar, except the actors have changed.

The Chinese are reluctant to see the North Korean regime crumble for a number of reasons. They worry that the future state would be as close to the US as South Korea is today. The Chinese are concerned about the US military presence in the region as it is. They certainly don’t like the idea of US bases in a country which directly borders China. The Chinese would also be concerned about state collapse in the North as it would inevitably bring about refugee crises and a humanitarian emergency affecting the whole region. China’s exclusive economic relations, particularly in extractive sector, would be seriously disrupted.

The whole world is watching the new global rivalry emerging between China and the US. President Obama’s characterisation of the 21 Century as a Pacific Century is no coincidence. It is grounded in an understanding that as global economic gravity shifts toward Asia, new security challenges and rivalries must be faced there too. Threats emanating from North Korea provide every convenient reason for the US to continue to maintain bases in South Korea, Japan and the wider Pacific. Without North Korean input, the whole strategic calculus would have to be redefined – the US might find it difficult to explain the necessity of permanent bases within 1000 km (25-30 min flight time) of the Chinese capital of Beijing, little over 1000 km from Taiwan and 750 km from Vladivostok in Russia.

There has been a long and contagious debate between Russia and the US over the US plans to set up a missile defence system in Central Europe. Now those plans are changing with the US mainland and Pacific territories getting more attention. As the North Koreans threatened the US (we saw Kim Jong-un standing in front of a target map) with a pre-emptive nuclear attack, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the new missile defence systems in Central Europe are to be restructured. The US has suspended Phase 4 of the missile-defence program in Europe, which envisioned the deployment of advanced SM-3 Block IIB interceptors in Poland by 2022. Those sophisticated interceptor systems would be capable of countering attacks from long-range missiles capable of striking the United States. They are also the interceptors whose deployment was most opposed by Russia. The Russian government will have to thank Kim for scoring a major strategic victory in Europe.

The division of the Korean Peninsula might suit other states in the region as well. A strong and united Korea would certainly become an even stronger economic and political regional rival to Japan. Given the past historic grievances between the Koreans and the Japanese, these relations might turn tense over a range of issues, including territorial disputes. While the Japanese sense a clear animosity and an occasional threat from North Korea, they might not be interested in seeing war-mongering Kim go altogether. Japan’s relations with China have deteriorated in recent years over territorial disputes in the East China Sea. Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has announced that he would like to look into making the SDF (Self-Defence Forces) a full-fledged military, not only a protection force. If the Japanese Government was really intending to change their post-war pacifist constitution, then an aggressive and threatening North Korea is certainly offering extra arguments in favour of change.

Given the recent events such the North’s third successful test of nuclear device and the successful launch of a ballistic missile, it is now most likely that North Korea will not be willing to return to 6 – party talks about dismantling its nuclear programme under any circumstances. This would have serious implications for the future of East Asian regional security. This means that South Korea and Japan as election-holding democracies will have to respond to North Korea’s threats by some visible and popular form of action. Both states might be tempted to respond by their own nuclear programmes leading to a regional arms race. There is no doubt that South Korea and Japan are technically capable of creating nuclear weapons in a relatively short period of time. South Korea has conducted successful (producing both plutonium and near weapons grade uranium) secret nuclear experiments from the 1970s and the 1990s, but abandoned this programme voluntarily almost a decade ago. The signs of such a debate are already emerging. Former four-term Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, now a parliamentarian, and co-leader of the Japan Restoration Party, has stated that Japan should have nuclear weapons to counter China, North Korea and Russia. South Korean lawmaker Chung Mong-joon of the governing New Frontier party has recently made statements supporting acquiring nuclear weapons in the National Assembly.

All attempts at traditional diplomacy and conventional security approaches have exhausted themselves when it comes to North Korea. If new approaches of engagement or pressure are not found, we could see a major conflict involving some of the world’s biggest economies, emerging in East Asia. North Korea is no longer a regional, but a global problem.

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