Monday, July 26, 2004

Target North Korea: Pushing North Korea to the Brink of Nuclear Catastrophe, by Gavan McCormack

Gavan McCormack, Professor of Japanese History at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, ANU, argues for what I will call the sensible view (to pick a neutral term) of the standoff between North Korea and the US, which is held, with minor variations, by academics specialising in East Asia across the political spectrum (from Selig Harrison to Bruce Cumings, for instance). An alternative is what I will call the uninformed and potentially catastrophic view (again, not wanting to prejudge the debate) held mainly by newspaper columnists, for example, Johann Hari in the UK, who writes in The Independent:
The nations of the world united through the UN (and we can all surely agree that Kim Jong Il is the last person alive who we'd like to have his finger on a nuclear button) must take out the North's nukes with a targeted use of special forces, intelligence and bombing. This is not as dangerous as it sounds. As Chris Bellamy, The Independent's military expert, explains, "A nuclear weapon won't detonate if bombed. If it goes off accidentally, the worst that will happen is that the conventional explosives will go off. The chances of a nuclear explosion are negligible."

North Korea - if the regime doesn't implode - can then be invaded and liberated.
Read the whole article at Hari's website.
To be fair, Hari has changed his mind, in an article on his website: "I do not believe in invasion: I simply propose that along with the food aid we offer, we should also try to undermine the regime by flooding the country (as some brave human rights activists currently do) with transistor radios and information" he wrote last December. But he still thinks that the sensible view (which he caricatures and attributes to the peace movement, and which we are coming back to, I promise) is wrong:
It is, I would have assumed if I had thought about it, impossible ? simply impossible ? to make this particular situation fit the [John] Pilger tune of Blame America. For once, they would be forced to admit, I would?ve thought, that ? sometimes, just sometimes ? there is an alternative source of wrong-doing to the United States in this world. Yet I underestimated the extent to which their world-view has calcified and hardened so that they cannot see beyond it even when the evidence is whacking 20 million North Koreans in the gut. So how do they contort themselves to say that America is responsible for a regime it has opposed for its entire existence?

?Ekk? [a contributor to a discussion on the Medialens site] makes the first claim: that despite publicly opposing the regime, offering funding to its enemies, maintaining a massive demilitarised zone to prevent the regime from expanding, actually the Americans wanted to keep Kim Jong-Il in place! ?If the USA did not have a very selfish interest in keeping the/those bad bogey men in power there then helpful economic/trade and cultural/humanitarian mutually beneficial links would long ago have been opened from the South,? he explains. ?But without having an excuse of a threat to keep the most massive US military force in place there, the American hold on that whole rapidly developing economically important region would be immediately severely weakened.?

At what point were these options of North/South co-operation quoshed by the US? Er, never. This is nonsense. Indeed, the US has worked to foster just those very links, and spent ages building a ?Sunshine Policy? peace process between the two countries, which only collapsed when it was clear that the North was not keeping its side of the bargain when it came to nuclear weapons. But ? hey ho! ? what do facts matter, when you have a pickled dogma to uphold?
A good question, since Hari seems to be happy to ignore the facts - and the scholarly consensus on their interpretation - in order to preserve his own views from change. One does not have to believe that the US administration sees keeping Kim Jong-Il in power as the best option to think that nonetheless, their actions have tended to prevent Korean unification and strengthened the hand of hardliners on both sides of the DeMilitarized Zone, and that those consequences suit them just fine. (Just as they wanted Saddam Hussein gone from power after 1991 but imposed sanctions that tended to strengthen his power over Iraq, preferring a coup with minimal regime change to a popular rebellion and the democratic government it might bring - and the example that it would be in a region where the US's best friends are dictators.)
I have previously quoted the US official in charge of negotiations with North Korea during the crucial period in the 90s admitting that the US had broken its obligations while North Korea had mostly or fully conformed to the treaty. Perhaps Hari isn't aware of what Robert Galluci has said. But you would think that before writing a piece in a national newspaper calling for the bombing and invasion of another country (war crimes by Nuremberg standards) he might have read some of the standard texts on that country. If he had, he would have encountered the sensible view in one form or another. So let's see what it is, taking it as it is advanced in Gavan McCormack's new book (as reviewed by Jeff Kingston in The Japan Times). The first point of consensus is that the US is pouring oil on the fire, quite unnecessarily:
"Target North Korea" argues that the threatening posture of the U.S. and demonization of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has stoked suspicions and tensions in the region. Gavan McCormack believes that the DPRK "harbors no aggressive or fanatical threat to the region or the world and that its defiance masks an appeal to normalize relations and 'come in from the cold.' "

Another commonly agreed point is that:
"...the insistence on North Korean nuclear disarmament as a precondition for normalization is a recipe for deadlock."
Like other analysts of East Asia, McCormack is not happy about the current plight of the North Korean people, and like other analysts, he rejects violent solutions in favour of negotiation:
Clearly, McCormack is no fan of the DPRK and acknowledges its shortcomings in detail, but in his view, "to label North Korea 'terrorist' is neither to grasp the burden of the past, nor to offer any prescription for the present or future." He points out that "as the record in Afghanistan and Iraq shows, the attempt to resolve complex problems of violence and terror by counterviolence and counterterror offers no prospect of a lasting solution."

He sees more hope in the thickening web of negotiation and cooperation between South and North Korea and an alternative regional order that is not subservient to the "American imperium."
Many analysts, including McCormack, have suggested that the current situation is in some ways favourable to US hawks because it serves as an excuse to keep forces in the region containing and putting pressure on Japan.
"Paradoxically, Japan is easier to rein in as long as North Korea is a threat," McCormack points out. One reason that the Japanese government is resigned to dispatching Self-Defense Force troops to Iraq is its perceived need for U.S. protection from North Korea. In McCormack's view, though, this threat is actually elevated due to U.S. policies. The North Korean threat is especially useful to the U.S. in generating pressures on Japan to shed its Article 9 military allergies and become, in the words of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, the "Britain of the Far East."
The reference to Armitage is to a speech he made last week in a 'private' capacity where he presented his personal opinion that Article 9, the clause in Japan's constitution rejecting aggression and projection of military force beyond its borders, made it impossible for Japan to play a full role in the international community, so that it would have to be renounced for Japan to join civilized nations as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Is there any hope for North Koreans and inhabitants of the region generally? Well, again, the consensus view is that there is hope since there is evidence that the North Korean regime is anxious to work towards better relations with Japan and the US and that Japan (along with China, Russia and South Korea) has been putting pressure on the US to back down and find a diplomatic solution, knowing that the alternative would be disastrous for the region:
McCormack argues that Kim Jong Il sought to advance normalization by taking the bold step of admitting that DPRK security forces had abducted Japanese nationals. ... [but] Kim's attempt to promote a thaw in relations ended with ties in the deep freeze, in no small part due to [Japanese] Foreign Ministry miscues.
Japan is playing a constructive role, urging the U.S. to negotiate, as it knows "all too well from its own experience what a desperate, isolated leader-worshipping and highly militarized regime will do if threatened by a blockade and the cutoff of vital resources."

Brinkmanship generates too many chances for miscalculation in a situation where the consequences could be catastrophic; this helps explain why the Bush administration sensibly flip-flopped on negotiating with the DPRK.

I would be less optimistic about the Bush administration's motives than Jeff Kingston seems to be. (I think the last comment is pure Kingston rather than Kingston paraphrasing McCormack.) I think that they have held back from launching attacks on North Korea partly, as I have said, under pressure from the other major forces in the region but largely to avoid military overstretch and because they have not prepared the US public for it with the kind of disinformation campaign we saw directed against Iraq. A strike against Korea will be a possibility if these factors can be overcome - by neo-cons or by the Democrat heirs of Clinton's close approach to military action in 1994.

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