Monday, October 09, 2006

Shot heard 'round the world

Thanks to everyone who has called, written, or text messaged to let me know that, about 24 hours ago, North Korea detonated a nuclear weapon. For those who don't know me, I've spent the last year and a half procrastinating finishing a master's paper on North Korea. I'm just about finished (presented oral arguments a couple of weeks ago) and have been held up from making final corrections as life has intervened a bit.

While it is quite likely that Kim Jong Il, the "Dear Leader" of the DPRK is misguided, I think it very unlikely that he and his advisors have abandoned reason. Quite the contrary. It seems more likely that the North Korean leadership is playing a game of Chinese-style self-interested real politik. Here's why:

1. South Korea's President Roh has based his foreign policy on improving relations with North Korea. He is most likely to go for reconcilliation rather than conflict.
2. Japan has a new Prime Minister--quite publically a 'hawk' when it comes to North Korea--so North Korea doesn't lose anything by incurring his wrath. Especially since Japan still doesn't have offensive military capabilities.
3. The U.S. is too bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq to mount a serious, sustained military action against the DPRK. Further, with the U.S. still holding war-time command authority on the Korean Peninsula, the South Korean forces (though fairly capable themselves) are effectively held to defensive actions without a more robust U.S. presence to use as an offensive force.
4. This may be the most significant, though the least certain: North Korea has wagered that China's drive for internal stability and economic growth (especially presently, during the once every 5-year plenary session of the National People's Congress) will outweigh China's desire to put resources into maintaining the previous status quo along it's periphery.

This last piece, though a gamble by North Korea, if correct, could allow North Korea to dramatically shift the terms of battle in their favor. And whether intentional or not, they would be using precisely the same tactic the West did against the USSR during the Cold War. The U.S. knew the Red Army was signficantly larger than our own forces, and would be able to reach deeply into Western Europe before we could mount a serious resistance or counter attack. So the U.S. used our forward stationed troops as "trip wires". If the Soviets began a major assault on Western Europe, word would quickly get back to Washington, and we'd fire nuclear weapons against the Soviets. (It's not ironic the concept for the ultimate shape of this conflict was "MAD".)

At present, though, it seems to be a general consensus that the North Koreans are unable to mount nuclear weapons on a missile for delivery at any distance (with accuracy). Their last (and first) long range missile test blew up just above the launch pad. This means that the only conceivable targets (in a traditional, nuclear combat scenario) are South Korea, or China. We can fairly well rule out China, if for no other reason, that the Chinese, if attacked, would have no mercy--and the North Koreans know this. This leaves South Korea as the main target.

The impact of using this type of weapon against Seoul, or another major population center in South Korea would be devastating. Likely, tens of millions of people would die within a few days or weeks. South Korea would be devestated--not just physically, but psychologically and emotionally as well. Remember, it is a very (geographically) small country. The resulting retaliation South Korea--and it's newfound allies around the world--would wreak upon North Korea preclude this option as well unless as a completely desperate act.

So if you were Kim Jong Il and had these nuclear weapons, and wanted to get something, what would you do? My guess is that he will try to blackmail China, S. Korea, Japan, and the U.S. into either buying the weapons, or more likely, leave open the idea that the material might somehow be sold to other parties interested in acuiring nuclear material.

But this still leaves the question--which I have yet to come up with a plausible answer for--of what is it that North Korea is seeking in it's game of real politik? If you have ideas, please send them my way.

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