Thursday, June 09, 2005

Is China the True Target of North Korean Nuclear Blackmail?

On June 3, our ambassador to Japan said:

``If you had a nuclear North Korea, it just introduces a whole different dynamic,'' Schieffer said. ``It seems to me that that increases the pressure on both South Korea and Japan to consider going nuclear themselves.''

Statements like these are meant to rattle China’s cage.

There is nothing that China would like less than a hostile, right-leaning Japan armed with nuclear weapons.

Forestalling a nuclear Japan is a good reason for the Chinese to put pressure on North Korea. Pressure is applied accordingly, and the DPRK signals its willingness to return to the Six-Party talks.

So what happens today?

Just when it looked like things were going so well, and the ROK’s President Roh is on his way to Washington to justify his appeasement-lite policy of engagement toward Pyongyang, the North Koreans add conditions to their return to the talks and, as a bonus, go out of their way on ABC to announce they got lotsa nukes.

What’s going on?

Are the North Koreans nuts?

As readers of China Matters know, I go out of my way to look for rational motives for dictators and countries that it is fashionable to describe as “irrational”.

No exception here.

There is, I believe, a more subtle dynamic than raving madness at work behind the otherwise mystifying behavior of North Korea.

Kim Jung Il is deliberately fomenting the nuclear crisis in order to extort Chinese aid and support.

According to this scenario, when he gets what he’s looking for, he’ll back down and remove the easiest pretext at hand for Japan to go nuclear.

And China can breathe a little easier.

This interpretation fits in with the few observable facts and conservative conclusions we can draw from them about North Korean behavior.

First of all, North Korea has used the nuclear gambit before, against the United States, in an effort to compel engagement and aid from the Clinton administration.

This tactic isn’t effective against the Bush administration.

President Bush possesses a visceral hatred both of Kim Jung Il and of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy initiatives (in Bush’s first term, his approach to North Korea and the Palestinian problem were defined as ABC—Anything But Clinton).

Bush enrolled North Korea in the Axis of Evil and enshrined America’s unilateral right to attack evildoers in his first term. In his second term, he upped the ante by explicitly committing his administration to a worldwide democracy crusade, thereby asserting our right to destabilize dictators we don’t like even if they didn’t present a plausible threat to our national security.

The Bush administration prefers regime change in North Korea, and rapprochement with North Korea is both distasteful and close to politically impossible for the Bush administration.

Flaunting a nuclear threat isn’t going to bring Pyongyang aid and concessions from the US. It’s only going to bring the day of reckoning closer.

With the US hamstrung by military overstretch in Iraq and hostility to its regime change style of diplomacy by all the key players in Northeast Asia except Japan, why is Kim Jung Il perversely and seemingly profitlessly provoking the US and making it more difficult for everybody to move past this crisis?

I think the key distinction here is to view Kim Jung Il as rational. Presenting him as a goggle-eyed, delusional dingbat princeling with an unslakable thirst for reckless confrontation is amusing and partially accurate, and makes it easy to rally international opposition against him.

But it’s only part of the story.

He’s at the center of a regime that is struggling desperately to cope with virtually total economic collapse triggered by the end of Soviet aid in 1989, agricultural failure, mass death and starvation, domestic dissent, and the determination of the world’s only superpower to end his regime.

He’s planning and scheming obsessively—and rationally—to create some breathing space for his regime so it can continue its recovery and transition into a dictatorship with a market-oriented, more globalized economy like China’s.

Kim Jung Il only has a few assets to deploy, some positive—a big army, draconian security apparatus, lukewarm support from China, and tentative engagement with South Korea.

He’s got two giant negative assets—the threat that the collapse of his regime will destabilize the Korean peninsula to the detriment of China and South Korea, and the threat that his nuclear program can provoke an arms race throughout Northeast Asia.

Add to that his personality. Like George W. Bush, another ruler who owes his rise to his family connections and considers it grounds for a feeling of entitlement, Kim Jung Il strives to maintain the upper hand in any relationship. He doesn’t want to beg or persuade, he wants to dictate.

Kim’s relations with China are notoriously prickly. (For a superb dissection of PRC-DPRK relations, see Andrew Scobell’s China and North Korea: From Comrades-in-Arms to Allies at Arms’ Length).

Kim lacks the deep rapport his father held with the Chinese leadership, based on their shared fight against America and South Korea in the Korean War. He found China’s rapid and profitable engagement with South Korea and concurrent neglect of North Korea—just when the cutoff of Soviet aid and natural disasters put his country through the wringer—intensely annoying.

The Chinese clearly are not interested in subsidizing North Korea as a socialist client state as the USSR did. Instead, they drain DPRK foreign exchange reserves by denominating energy exports in dollars and goad Kim to make politically risky reforms in agriculture and economics in order to become self-sufficient.

In response, Kim denounced Deng Xiaoping as a traitor to socialism and even went so far as to play the Taiwan card by opening discussions with the ROC concerning, of all things, a Taipei to Pyongyang air link.

Without leverage, Kim can rely on little more than malign neglect and lip service from Peking in his dealings with the US.

And what better leverage, what better way to dictate and preserve the initiative in Northeast Asia—and make China dance to his tune-- than by threatening to acquire nuclear weapons and provoke a massive injection of Western nuclear and anti-missile deterrent into the region by Japan and the United States?

So don’t believe for a minute that China will threaten to cut off aid and impose sanctions—as the US hopes—in order to bring Kim Jung Il to heel. If anything, the exact opposite will happen.

Don’t look for those pesky North Korean nukes to go away until North Korea’s demanding supremo feels he is getting all the respect and support—from China—that he needs.