Four Reasons North Korea Won't Stop Being a Pain in the World's Ass
This week's tests were a local propaganda success gone globally awry, and a foreign-policy expert has bad news for us: The totalitarian, war-crime-worthy Pyongyang government and its cult of personality aren't going away anytime soon — unless, of course, Obama calls Kim Jong-Il's bluff.
By Thomas P.M. Barnett
North Korea, that persistent outlier somewhat reasonably ignored until this Memorial Day by an Obama administration with far bigger fish to fry, once again jumped back onto the global media's front pages when the pugnacious Pyongyang government detonated its second nuclear device — and fired off a couple short-range missiles to boot. As far as I'm concerned, you can enjoy all the fear-mongering military maneuvers ("Watch Condition II," as joint U.S. and South Korean forces triggered this morning), the ritualistic condemnations from the faces of a new administration ("consequences," as Hillary Clinton put it), and the stern warnings from all the usual suspects (China said it was "resolutely opposed"), but don't expect any progress anytime soon.
Yes, there will be new sanctions, even predictably "unprecedented" cooperation among the U.N.'s Security Council members (Gentlemen, start thumbing your thesauri!), but the sum total of these efforts will accomplish nothing beyond meeting Pyongyang's immediate needs for greater insulation from the outside world. Ambassador Susan Rice, America's representative to the United Nations, vows that North Korea "will pay" for its latest provocations, resulting in King Jong-Il's regime being "further isolated and further debilitated." And in advance of Bob Gates's trip to the region for talks with Japan and South Korea this weekend, anonymous "American officials" are already stoking the military flames.
And you know what? The Kim family couldn't be happier with how this past week has played out.
1. Succession Paranoia Breeds Nuclear Distraction
The much-maligned, oft-mocked "Dear Leader" in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-Il, is on his way out the door. The stroke he suffered last August was a doozy, as evidenced by recently released photos that show the left side of his face decidedly drooping. All evidence points to Kim soon stepping back from the day-to-day exercise of power, just like Fidel Castro formally did in early 2008. In North Korea, the role of "Raul" apparently falls to Kim's 62-year-old brother-in-law, Chang Seong-Taek, a once rising star who temporarily fell to disgrace a half-dozen years ago but was recently resurrected to stand — with symbolic precedence — at Kim's side in public appearances.
What exactly Chang's ultimate ambitions are, nobody knows. But it seems Kim's clear goal is to have Chang step up into a regency role that buys time for the state's formidable internal propaganda machine to suitably condition the desperately beat-down masses into accepting the orchestrated rise of Idiot Son No. 3, Kim Jong-Un, to Pyongyang's top spot.
So how long will it really take before the world doesn't have to deal with Kim Jong-Il anymore?
Well, you have to remember that Kim himself was singled out as the obvious successor to his father and North Korea's founding "Great Leader," Kim Sung-Il... roughly a dozen years before the decrepit dictator finally passed in 1994. And then it took another four years for Pyongyang to formally admit that the "eternal" Kim was really gone and that his son had formally succeeded him. Compared to that kind of careful build-up, the process today is proceeding at a veritable reckless speed.
And therein lies the rub for the world's most truly totalitarian regime: Idiot Son No. 3 from Unimportant Wife No. 3 is reportedly not yet even thirty years old. Kim Jong-Il was in his early forties when he emerged as heir apparent, and in his late fifties when he truly assumed the throne. By that time, his manufactured legend had been methodically drilled into the skull of every citizen-inmate of the Hermit Kingdom.
In contrast, almost nothing is known about son Kim Jong-Un, not even his actual age. The only verified photo dates back to his childhood. And this simply will not do for a regime that obsesses — to a level that would have turned Josef Stalin deep green with envy — over the leader's cult of personality. Kim Jong-Un cannot simply step up. According to the regime's loopy tradition, he must be transformed into a near god before his official succession; hence the need for Chang's regency.
To the outside world, such a transition seems — if I may be allowed to abuse that term — "logical" enough, but inside North Korea's ultra-paranoid political culture, it cannot seem anything less than frighteningly uncharted waters. And do you know what happens when a totalitarian state suffers such a panic? It must create a far larger one externally; hence the "unacceptable provocations" of this week.
So, no, we won't be breaking this crazy-ass regime any time soon. It's only going to get much worse and stay much worse for a very long time.
2. On the Korean Peninsula, America Is Growing More Irrelevant by the Day
Of course, Republican hard-liners are going to jump all over this situation with glee. "See?" they will chortle, "Obama's 'engagement strategy' has already failed! Now witness what happens when America goes soft!" Such analysis is sophomoric in the extreme, revealing only the complete absence of any strategic thinkers in the GOP ranks — a sad and unhealthy state of affairs for our republic.
The truth is that Obama has made no real attempts at engaging North Korea, and if the regime had remained quiet, the administration would have been more than happy to let that sleeping dog lie. When Obama's new special envoy, Stephen Bosworth, has sought to engage Pyongyang, the regime has gone out of its way to signal its complete lack of interest in any carrots that might be offered, including the one that had long been Kim Jong-Il's "holy grail" — normal relations with the U.S.
Whereas Kim was happy to string along the Bush administration in its final years, it makes no pretense of doing the same now with Obama's team, knowing full well that it is greatly occupied by far larger concerns. The timing couldn't be better for Pyongyang's paranoid leadership: a new American president deeply engrossed by a global economic crisis that reveals Washington's profound dependence on Beijing's financial forbearance — the same situation in which North Korea has long found itself.
So, no, it won't matter much at all whatever the Obama administration does in coming weeks and months, because its leverage is minimal-to-nonexistent compared to China's. Even a significant naval blockade wouldn't work — although it might be a good idea, because now North Korea is completely incentivized to pursue its criminal-network connectivity with the outside world to the fullest degree, to include its penchant for nuclear proliferation (see Iran's recent visits).
A truly bold Obama move would be to explicitly support South Korea and Japan's near-term achievement of nuclear weapons, but that sort of aggressive realpolitik has already been ruled out by the president's truly retro — and wrongheaded — call for "a "world without nuclear weapons." (Where's a pre-Hinkley Ronald Reagan when you need him?) Yes, North Korea would stomp and fume like never before, but, frankly, the regime's conventional military capacity is easily discounted relative to South Korea's, and its nuclear weaponization program strikes most objective experts as just this side of pathetic. (Cue up a foaming-at-the-mouth John Bolton on Fox News!)
The real target of such moves would be Beijing, which would quickly and convincingly be made to realize the cost of its complete lack of urgency in dealing with this war-crime-worthy regime.
3. Beijing Holds All the Face Cards
Talk about a "Who's Your Daddy?" scenario: Beijing currently supplies Pyongyang with a significant amount of its energy supplies and food, and while Kim has already proven his iron-clad resistance to outside interference (right down to the regime's last remaining rural peasant, malnourished within an inch of his life), there's no question that China could inflict a level of suffering that would force some sort of denouement — be it bloody or bowed.
But Beijing's leaders fear the precedence of participating in the downfall of a fellow "socialist" regime — a title neither state comes anywhere close to earning. And so, China's ruling Capitalist Party dreams of flipping Kim's rule into something resembling Deng Xiaoping's early-'80s reforms, hoping that it can rehab the stunted patient into something less frightening enough that stingy cousin South Korea might be persuaded to step in at the appropriate point and engineer a slow-motion merger that takes this ungodly creature off its hands.
I know, from today's perspective, that hope seems far-fetched. And yet, I can't help but thinking from my recent illuminating visit there that maybe Beijing knows something about the North Korean regime, its future regent, and/or Kim's likely replacement that persuades its party leadership to believe that it can still salvage the world's biggest concentration camp. You know, Kim Jong-Un once studied English in Switzerland and allegedly loves American movies and...
But don't go holding your breath on that one, because the idiot son always studies abroad and always loves Western movies. And once he's placed on the throne, such hopes usually prove completely unfounded.
4. Talks Make Progress, but Real Reactions Uncover Fake States
If no easy answers are to be found, then what do we have to look forward to, other than a ceaseless stream of chill-inducing segments on cable news?
The good news is this: In the grand scheme of things, not only do North Korea's nukes have virtually no impact on global stability, the prospect of the regime's sudden collapse no longer presents the possibility of triggering great-power war. The six-party talks that have brought together the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea (in addition to North Korea) over the past few years actually have served their underlying purpose: demystifying the collapse scenario to the point where none of the players envision conditions under which they'd fight one another over the rotting North Korean carcass.
And so long as we collectively keep South Korea's crazy cousin effectively imprisoned in the upstairs attic, that's all that really matters.
Having said all that, Pyongyang's declaration yesterday that it's tossing away the fifty-six-year-old armistice with South Korea makes clear that North Korea is freaked out enough over the Kim transition that it would consider re-engaging (or at least threaten to re-engage) the South in some military skirmish or even war. And it begs for an alternative solution: The West could call Kim's bluff by proceeding with every "hostile act" that we know will push his buttons. If nothing else, direct hostile reactions might reveal the fraud that is North Korea's decrepit military might, and — who knows — maybe they would actually tip things over into the regime-ending conclusion the whole world is looking for.
Unlike, say, Iran, North Korea is a completely fake state — the unnecessary tailbone still remaining from the Cold War — plus it's truly totalitarian, meaning engagement is a fool's errand. So let's not pretend this is any test for America or our new president, because it's not. This is an existential crisis for an artificial nation that's survived long past its expiration date — and it shows. If there is one spot on the planet where President Obama could get away with aping Bush's "bring it on" bravado, North Korea is it.
Esquire contributing editor Thomas P.M. Barnett is the author of Great Powers: America and the World After Bush.
Fake state needs time to facilitate changeover of regent and so the fairly blunt sabre is rattling extra hard.