A bitter and unresolved struggle behind the scenes for control of North Korea, the world’s most regressive regime, is the likeliest explanation for Pyongyang’s unprecedented deluge of threats against South Korea, the U.S. and Japan.
For heavy hangs the head of Kim Jong-Un, heir to the world’s only Communist monarchy, a novice never reared to manage the complex game of maintaining control of a starving population and pursue blackmail of aid-givers to sustain the regime.
Kim may be the spokesman. But it seems unlikely the 30-year-old could be calling the shots for the carefully programmed rising level of attempted intimidation of North Korea’s neighbors. Nor does it seem likely his generals, whatever their personal ambitions and relationship to the throne, are not aware of the ultimate imbalance which exists between their war-making capability and the U.S. and its allies if conflict does lead to miscalculation.
In riposte, slowly, given the long history of provocation both on the Peninsular and through illicit deals with pariah states around the world, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo now are forced to call Kim’s hand.
Unlike the political climate in Washington, both Seoul and Tokyo have new conservative governments after a period of left-wing administrations which sought unsuccessfully, among other things, an accommodation with Pyongyang. In general, although they may not realistically anticipate the cost, both South Korean and Japanese public opinion have been aroused by the threats from Pyongyang [and China, for that matter, in Japan’s case]. To some extent the tail may be wagging the dog: the U.S. is forced to back its allies in what could turn into a dangerous confrontation with Pyongyang. For it would be American military might which would bear the weight of any conflict, at least after an initial phase in which exposed Seoul — with a quarter of South Korea’s population — would take a pounding from North Korean artillery.
Whether young Kim can maintain his throne when he eventually has to lay his cards on the table is the question of the hour.
Indeed, at issue may be whether the regime can survive the disappearance of the monarch if he is neutered or forced out. The latter would seem an impossible outcome after six decades of a regime based exclusively on the appearance, at least, of personal dictatorship.
But Seoul, Washington and Tokyo have been forced into picking up Kim’s challenge – perhaps most reluctantly with the Obama administration – since much more than the fate of a small and fragile rogue state in northeast Asia is at issue.
The successful continued pursuit of weapons of mass destruction by Pyongyang – and the logic of Kim and his generals’ position is that it constitutes their only ace in the hole in the game of bluff they play with the U.S. – means even more than a permanent threat to peace and stability just in that region.
The problem of continued proliferation of nuclear weapons much further afield, increasingly in the hands of more and more volatile regimes, may be hanging on the outcome of events in Northeast Asia.
Suddenly the possibility of a wide ranging spread of nuclear weapons is very much in prospect. Perhaps it is that wider view that has now dictated Moscow’s Vladimir Putin reversing Russia’s line of trying to achieve some modicum of advantage on the edges of the Korean muddle.
China, despite its traditional public cavalier attitude toward nuclear war going back to Mao Tse-tung’s bravado about how his country with its vast population would be the only survivor, has at least publicly now too joined the chorus urging caution on Kim. Whether, as so often happens with Beijing, this will actually be reflected in action pressuring Pyongyang as virtually its only supplier of energy and food, remains to be seen.
For simultaneously Beijing continues to court a new proliferation disaster in Pakistan. There, along with Pyongyang, China has not only aided and abetted that country’s nuclear armament and its own proliferation activities in defiance of the international community, but is now contemplating selling new nuclear power plants. They would add eventually to Pakistan’s growing stocks of nuclear weapon fuel.
Beijing has the rationalization that Washington, after long decades of embargoing nuclear technology transfers to India because of New Delhi’s refusal to sign and abide by the non-proliferation treaty, is now courting sales there. In fact, as a member of the exporting countries, under the terms of the anti-proliferation agreements, China would have to give its okay for any such U.S. or European sales to the Indians, Pakistan’s permanent rival and three times opponent in war.
Given the continuing instability of the Islamabad regime – now facing its first elections ever for a completed five-year civilian government term – China is adding to a growing breakdown of the whole effort of the major powers to limit nuclear-clad states. Yet Beijing is unlikely to resist the temptation to cater to Pakistan’s traditional effort to match New Delhi’s rapidly expanding armaments program including missile-bearing nukes. Despite recently mushrooming trade and 50 years of unproductive border negotiations, China and New Delhi continue to escalate their confrontation along the Himalayas.
And Beijing’s pursuit of strategic advantage with Pakistan [and Sri Lanka] in the Indian Ocean against New Delhi’s ambitions to dominate that vast waterway recently got a fillip when Singapore abandoned the construction and management of Gwadar, a long-delayed second port for Pakistan at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. The Chinese have taken over construction and maintenance of what could be an important oil terminal and, perhaps, for Beijing at least a submarine base. Beijing flirts with the unlikely prospect it could build pipelines across Pakistan to deliver Mideast oil and gas to western China and on to its industrial areas in the east rather than the long sea route through the Indian Ocean to the Malacca Straits. That freedom of passage and general absence of piracy has, ironically, been guaranteed during the whole post-World War II era by the U.S. Navy.
Even more pressing than the threat of Pakistani proliferation, the Obama administration continues to argue a diplomatic route is still open to solving the equally perplexing problem of a terrorist-sponsoring regime in Tehran moving toward nuclear arms. It is clear that however much sanctions have hurt the Iranian economy, they have not blocked the drive toward reaching enriched nuclear fuel and a bomb. [In fact, there is a well-documented hypothesis sanctions have given the Mullahs the protective cover they needed with their suffering population to make needed economic reforms, for example, cutting back on imports including half their refined fuel, and boosting long neglected non-petroleum exports.]
President Obama again reitereated in his recent visit to Israel and Jordan that a military option was “still on the table” if the Mullahs persist in their attempt at nuclear weapons. But Washington’s sometimes humiliating effort, rejected brutally by Teheran, for bilateral negotiations speaks volumes.
There is at least the suspicion that Chuck Hagel in reality did not misspeak in his confirmation hearing when the then Secretary of Defense nominee said Washington’s aim was “containment” of Iranian nuclear weapons, i.e., “permitting” nuclear capability but accepting Tehran’s pledges not to “weaponize”.
If the Obama Administration is, indeed, toying with that idea, it will not reassure either Israel or the Sunni Arab states or Turkey. Tehran’s successful development of nuclear weapons would almost certainly produce a gaggle of proliferating nuclear efforts in the Gulf and throughout the Mideast.
Looking back on more than six decades of nuclear weapons, it might be considered something of a miracle they have never been used since Hironshima and Nagasaki, either tactfully on the battlefield or as intercontinental weapons. But that is in part because they have been limited to a relatively small number of states, most of them the traditional “great powers” with relative stability expressing some restraint.
Failure to contain Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions now could open a new era of rapidly multiplying nuclear-clad states, many of them less than stable historical entities. That is what is really at issue in the torrent of bombast from Pyongyang.