October 9, 2006 was a departure in the history of the Far East. There are now three regional nuclear powers - Russia, the People's Republic of China, and North Korea. I won't bore you with the details of exactly what happened; we all know by now that this is not Wikipedia. Nor shall I make a particular effort to examine the history, which I have done elsewhere on this site.
Instead, I want to provide a brief narrative of how we got to where we are. Maybe by looking at this, we can decide how we make our next destination more palatable.
With a closed regime like North Korea, we can never hope to know exactly why they have arrived at certain decisions. Even the best intelligence service in the world wouldn't allow you to know that, because the true reasons for things are stored in the heads of various actors and it's nearly impossible to build a complete picture. Those best able to infiltrate the North, South Korea, have for nearly ten years pursued the 'Sunshine Policy' of co-operation with the North. Among other things (none of them particularly helpful), this discouraged espionage which might be provocative to the North.
It didn't, however, discourage repeated provocations by the North, including the murder of South Korean servicemen. Nor did it in any way encourage the North to moderate its behaviour. Indeed, this most provocative of acts has occured while the Sunshine Policy is in operation, and while the Bush administration has continued the Clinton policy, which is tantamount to appeasement. Rest assured, you members of both parties who now scrabble to point fingers, that this error knows no partisan bounds.
Recent negotiations with the North (the 'six party talks' you hear so much about) have essentially this character: the North is pursuing nuclear weapons, and we're trying to bribe them not to. This was the basis of the 1994 Agreed Framework, and it's the only possible basis of further talks. The North is indeed facing a humanitarian disaster, one with which the world would be only too happy to help if the conditions were right. The North could open itself up to aid and carry out internal reform to prevent future famines - a sort of perestroika, if you like. At first, the world would not even demand glasnost to go with it. This would be a start!
Sadly, this is not how paranoid and entrenched dictators do things. The North clearly perceives a huge threat to itself from the United States of America, and I believe it perceives this sincerely, at least strategically.1 The Axis of Evil malarkey didn't help and was, as such, a tactical error. (More on this later). They've felt this threat for decades. Any weakness or concession to the USA would be seen as a sign of weakness, and the leaders of the North would feel they were selling out their revolution to the Americans. But, the North is not only faced with the most belligerent American administration in decades (towards them, at least), but also with the one least in a position to actually carry through its threats. Given all this, they find it easier to extort their way out of their humanitarian situation.
The United States withdrew tactical (battlefield) nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991, and it has scaled down its forces in the South since. This scale down is in part due to the force multiplication effect of high technology, but also because it is generally thought now that the South's conventional forces could destroy the North's with the aid of American air power - which, take note, has been massively augmented in the region recently. It would be easy to state that this is the reason the North has sought its nuclear weapon - now that the South is on conventional parity, it needs an added deterrent. But it's not that simple.
Whether the North understands it's not that simple is another matter. But, here it is: the costs of a conventional war for the South would be unbearably high, even without the war going nuclear. It all comes down to Seoul. Seoul, the capital of the South, is one of the most populous cities in the world - but also one of the smallest. It also lies only 30 miles (50km) from the North Korean military. The North could inflict massive damage on Seoul, and maybe even occupy it, before the South could stop it. It doesn't matter that the South would eventually prevail - millions would be dead, and other costs - economic, psychological - would be incalculable.
That's why we've got to the point we're at now, and why the Sunshine Policy, essentially a policy of accomodation, seemed necessary in 1998. It's also why the North was able to pull off its gamble that it could develop nuclear weapons without anyone doing anything about it. Even if the Sunshine Policy is ended now, something similar will be back in a few years, unless the North oversteps itself and brings about a war. It simply would be remiss of the South's leaders to expose their population to such acute danger - accomodation will always seem the best way to go, until the regime collapses on itself. Who knows what will happen then.2
The South, then, can be expected to try and peacefully accomodate itself to the situation. It has no other choice. But what of the rest of the world? What, crucially, of the United States of America?
October 9, 2006 might well be chosen by future historians as a departure in world history, not just the histroy of East Asia. Chapter headings will read "The decline of American dominance" or "The end of the American century". George W. Bush set out early in his term the Axis of Evil, three countries which he had a problem with and he was going to do something about. He has manifestly failed to carry through on his threats, except with regard to Iraq. Indeed, it is questionable whether the provocation of the Axis of Evil idea was wise without the requisite action to back it up.
The action that was taken, the invasion of Iraq, instead tied down American forces and American political capital. This allowed North Korea and Iran, who were on Bush's shopping list but obviously not about to be attacked imminently, time to shore up their defences by seeking nuclear weapons. Bush's national security strategy was global in scope, yet the US lacks the resources and the political will to pursue an assertive, global strategy. How helpful was it to categorically say the North would not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, when in fact they would be? We need no more empty threats.
The United States military is supposed to be able to fight several large conflicts at once. Being able to deal with two crises at once is sort of a test to prove you're a superpower. Even if militarily the US is capable of doing this, which it undoubtedly is, it clearly lacks the internal will to go intervening in far-off regions of the world where the US national interest is not clearly defined to the public. The US has to realize that not all problems are amenable to force, and that its capabilities are not limitless. Yet to listen to political discourse, there seems to be a dichotomy: one side thinks force is the solution to everything, the other thinks it's the solution to nothing.
Things aren't this simple and American foreign policy debates need to stop being this simple. And if US leaders want to pursue a global strategy which is capable of confronting the increasingly bloody and costly wars that seem to beckon just over the horizon, they need to clearly explain to the public why they think this is necessary. They also need to effectively persuade other nations to bear some of the costs of maintaining stability and enlarging the sphere of democracy and human rights. Bush promised the world and he's delivered portions of the Middle East. America currently can deliver little more. No more empty promises.
It is arguable that the North was able to get away with this because of the peculiar circumstances described above which make it singularly resistant to invasion. However, if the United States fails also to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, it is clear we have entered a new phase in world politics: the age of increasing nuclear proliferation. This new era would carry unbearably high risks, especially given the possibility of a state providing such weapons to a terrorist group. Eventually, there would be an incident, and retaliation would begin. The costs of intervention now may be lower than the costs incurred if we allow things to reach this point.
As the most powerful state in the world at this time, the United States is the one most in the position to do something. Yet it must adjust itself to the reality that it is not all-powerful, and that it shares the world with increasingly powerful and influential regional powers. The most important debates in American foreign policy now are how the US adjusts itself to a world of regional powers, and how it can address the problem of nuclear proliferation in such a world. Here's a starting point: no more empty promises, and no more empty threats.
1. That is, over the long term. They are clearly aware that tactically (that is, over the short to medium term), things change. The provocations that led to Operation Paul Bunyan were carried out because they perceived a tactical opportunity to strike while the US was at a moment of weakness after the fall of South Vietnam.
2. It's interesting to speculate on the possibility of Chinese intervention to pick up the pieces. A lot depends on whether North Korea's leaders push the big red button on the way out. It's likely China and South Korea would squabble over intervention, but China would clearly be most welcome to the North Korean military and population. They are also in the position to militarily dictate to South Korea. While this might provide for a smoother transition to some form of normalcy in the North, it inevitably raises the question of exactly what form this normalcy would take under Chinese guidance. Nor would the Japanese be happy about it.