North Korea just topped a couple weeks of bluster by launching a series of missiles over the ocean. The launches were mostly Scuds, a refinement of the German V-2 of World War II fame, but they did launch one Taepodong-2 missile whose 43 second misfire and funky name ought to inspire Jon Stewart for weeks to come. The U.S. took matters to the U.N. where no one is happy but China and Russia don't want to do anything of substance. A cynic might argue they're trying to score some points at our expense, but the Bush Administration has already bent a few U.N. Resolutions into pretzels in order to invade Iraq. Still, the world was uniformly appalled, and international condemnation was met with yet another round of bluster and dire thereats of more launches.
What to do about Korea?
The truth is nobody really knows. North Korea has raised xenophobia to high art. North Korean children grow up singing songs like "Lets Kill any American Soldiers We Meet Today". Not exactly Mr. Rogers. Every single house has a radio, it can't be turned off, and it can only be tuned to one station. That's the Propaganda Network, and North Korean propaganda sounds like something from The Onion. One story ran "The largest shrimp ever caught threw itself into the nets of North Korean fishermen in honor of the birthday of our Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il."
They say that if you tell a person they're ugly long enough they'll believe it. Imagine hearing crap like that every waking moment for life. The average North Korean can't have a clue what's going on the real world. Sure they may know that a lot of it is crap, but how to know what is BS? Propaganda that bizarre and pervasive has to skew the worldview of an entire population. Even the 'Dear Leader", Kim Jong-il, cannot have escaped entirely. Who does he surround himself with? Who does he read? Somehow I don't think it's E.J. Dionne and David Brooks. A steady diet of 'suck-up' is not conducive to clear thinking.
So yesterday I was listening ot the radio where John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org said we should take out the launch sites. When asked if that might provoke war Pike blithely replied, "No, that would be stupid."
Pike is right, a military response from North Korea would be stupid. They can launch a nuclear weapon at South Korea and Japan, but that would probably lead to their own annihilation. They could invade South Korea but things have changed a bit since 1950. South Korea really isn't a Third World nation any more, its knocking on the first world door, and South Korea's soldiers enjoy a good reputation for professionalsm and ferocity. Most think that if North Korea picked a fight the South Koreans would win without American paricipation. Which they would get.
Pike figures that North Korea's missile-rattling is military equivalent of child's tantrum, North Korea wants attention and most everyone agrees on that point. He figures that if you flatten a few launch sites the North Koreans will suddenly realize how dangerous the game they're playing is. He's figuring an attack will be a wake-up call for them and they'll be shocked into some sense and negotiate seriously.
Pike may be right. Certainly the rational thing for North Korea to do would be to follow that course. They have shown a certain pragmatism when confronted with presistent pressure.
But I'm not so sure that 'rational' in the North Korean context means the same thing it does elsewhere. We got through the Cold War with the Soviet Union at least in part because the Russians were sane. They were as terrified of nuclear war as we were, and they played the game like realists. They worked with real information. Sure we academics used to joke that "There's no truth in Pravda and no news in Izvestia" the truth is the Soviet media was the BBC or NPR in comparison to the North Korea. They didn't have a family dynasty running things, they had a political party and the cult of personality in Russia died with Stalin.
In other words, they were people we disagreed with, but you could talk to them and they understood what an agreement was. Does that sound like North Korea to you?
If the North Koreans really were rational they wouldn't keep two thirds of their military age males in uniform. They might bluster, but they would concentrate on clear and readily achievable goals, like lots of aid. They'd reform in private. And when they got what they wanted they'd shut up. What they did do was ensure that they'll get less aid than before.
North Korea is coming apart. Hunger is growing and without foreign aid many of their citizens would starve. They let some South Koreans in for visits to bring in foreign exchange and suddenly a bunch of long lost relatives showed up driving a brand new Hyundai and wearing a Seiko. That radio can talk all it wants about the achievements of North Korean industry, but nice clothes, a casual manner with money and a shiny new Sonata speak volumes. There is lots of discontent in North Korea and all it needs is the right spark.
I think North Korea is rattling missiles because it's desperate. Sooner or later, all will come apart, and like the fall of Ceausescu the end might come in a really big hurry. The only thing North Korea has going for it a very large military, whose soldiers also enjoy respect. Nobody is more dangerous than a country with a big stick and nothing to lose.
Pike might be right. Maybe hitting the missiles will act like a cold glass of water to the face. Maybe, and I've heard smug assurance about what the other guy do in the recent past. But I'm worried they'll panic and lash out like they dying animal they are.
Most Americans regard the Korean War as a draw. It started badly, but turned around thanks the Inchon landing. Thanks to MacArthur's blithe disbelief in the idea that China might intervene it turned into a long and bloody stalemate. But if we hadn't fought that war South Korea would be part of North Korea. Maybe a victorious North Korea might have enough confidence to open up, but I'm doubt it.
The way I see it is this: North Korea is a shithole. South Korea is an emerging prosperous democracy, and if things there aren't perfect the difference between it and its Northern half are starker than night and day. If we hadn't fought that war, South Korea wouldn't exist.
I think it's time to put that war in the 'win' column and pray we don't fight another one, a war that would bring North Korea to an end.