Thursday, April 26, 2007

Maybe I'm just a Pessimist....

In light of Will’s post (which I enjoyed by the way) and our discussion in class, I thought I’d link to this IHT piece that addresses “Army First” politics, North Korean nationalism, and denuclearization in much the same way as we did last night. It explores several of the themes we addressed and answers some of the “factual” questions we raised. (Somehow, that word just doesn’t look right to me without the quotes!) =)

(Every time we say the ‘F’ word, I think of Washington Post newspaper vending machines around town. If any of you have seen them, you’ll know what I mean. A very prolific graffiti artist (who in DC, of course, must have a political slant) has scrawled “Lies!” across the see-through plastic window of many of the machines. This has the effect of causing passersby to see the title of the newspaper and a couple of headlines, then the “Lies!” across it all. It always makes me chuckle. Anyway, back to the article.)

Like any “balanced” journalistic endeavor, it contains quotes from “experts” on both sides of the “Will Kim give up nuclear weapons?” aisle. Yet, I think much of the piece mirrors our general sentiment in class, though…that there is a good deal of pessimism as to whether the DPRK will voluntarily denuclearize. The author, Choe Sang-hun, notes that nuclear capabilities have been highlighted in the run up to the 75th birthday of the North Korean People’s Army.

Choe adds that state media have credited nuclear capabilities with finally allowing citizens of the DPRK to “feel safe from foreign invaders.” Apparently the DPRK media credits Kim Jong-il’s songun (“Army First”) politics with this success. Choe observes that if nuclear weapons have become a part of North Korean nationalism, serious questions must be raised about Kim’s willingness and ability to give them up.

After seeing the raccoon in the documentary we watched, I’m becoming more and more convinced of the centrality of these weapons to at least some in North Korean society. Others in the piece feel that songun politics means simply that economic aid must be accompanied by normalized ties and security assurances, not that denuclearization is impossible.

Factoids from the piece (of interest or that answer questions raised in class):

- “Army First” politics apparently debuted in 1999, as part of Kim’s attempt to maintain his grip on power during the famine that took many North Korean lives. Kim apparently needed a way to explain why the military was being treated so well while so many others were suffering.

- Not only did it create support for Kim within the military (come on, who doesn’t like funding?), it fostered a sense among North Koreans that they were under attack (don’t ask who, the US, of course).

- In policy statements issued around the first of the year, the North has apparently stated that because of a “quantum leap in military power,” it would shift its focus to developing its economy. This supports the security argument in terms of the development of the weapons and the pessimistic view on whether Pyongyang might give them up.

- Apparently, police in Japan have raided the home of a 55 year-old woman in Japan accused of helping Pyongyang abduct two children a few decades ago.

While, like Will, I’d love to be more idealistic/optimistic, I’m wondering if the best we can hope for is something akin to the current situation. Would it be more realistic to follow a strategy that hopes to get North Korea to where China was in the late 1970s, by say, 50 years from now?

Again, though, as I mentioned in class, I’m not in love with the suffering that continues to go on in North Korea or the security risk it constitutes (which I realize can be over/underplayed). Some would say that hitting the North over the head with the human rights issue hasn’t worked and has been counterproductive. That’s proven to be the case with other nations. But does that mean you don’t address the issue at all in official talks? The inherent bargain in allowing time for engagement to work is that you’re adding the costs in terms of human rights (lives) and security to the material cost of getting the North to cooperate. Policy makers understand this, right? (Yes, I know their hands are tied to some extent.) And I guess, as a guy who looks at China every now and then, it seems that’s a bargain we’re willing to make.

Anyway, I guess I have to stress again what I said in class. I hope I’m wrong. I really do. But I just don’t see the current regime giving up nuclear weapons because of what they’ve invested in developing them, the status and prestige involved (domestic & abroad), the importance they’ve assumed with respect to nationalism, the North’s (reasonable) perception that they are faced with some sort of a threat, and the cold, hard reality that, lately, the US (with some caveats) rewards states that violate non-proliferation agreements.

Note: I’m also going to try and post the article by Scott Sagan I referred to in class yesterday. He tries to answer the question of why states develop nuclear weapons, and addresses several of the themes we discussed in his model, which focuses on security, domestic politics, and norms. One important observation he makes is that many states claim many different motivators, but none only claim one. It was a piece that Professor Mochizuki assigned as part of the non-proliferation unit in this semester’s PSC 289 Asian Security class. There shouldn’t be any issues, copyright or otherwise, but, to be polite, I’d like to ask Professor Mochizuki for his blessing before I do so.


Sayaka said...

I have the same warm and fuzzy feeling as Will does and support the full engagement policy. Sure, it is very unlikely that we can persuade North Korea to give up their nuclear technology for a variety of reasons that Jap Chae elaborates. But I wonder, do we really need to wait to do anything until North Korea gives up its nukes?

I hope Platkovskiy is right in his argument that nuclear brinkmanship diplomacy would not be Pyongyang's only way of interacting with the international system. It seems to me, though, the nuclear issue is the only interest the US has in engaging in NK. The US is so obsessed with the idea of completely terminating NK's nuclear program before doing anything. We agree that it is very unlikely to happen, and this attitude will easily lead both parties to a deadlock. Can the US putting the nuke issue aside a little while and start engaging in NK?

Will Buck said...

I think Sayaka brings up a good point. Denuclearizing North Korea seems like the wrong objective. Certainly it is the most pressing objective, but I think the focus needs to shift towards a longer term goal of eliminating the need, or the perception of need, for a nuclear weapons program.

As Sayaka and Larry have both pointed out, the US has a lot to gain beyond just immediate denuclearization of NK, from addressing a humanitarian crisis to confronting the socio-economic and political sources of the nuclear program.

If you change the objective away from denuclearization, you would conceivably eliminate the current controversy over policy. Of course, changing the objective stirs up controversy itself.