2003 February 14 Friday
Is Iraq Distracting From Dealing With North Korea?

Some criticise the Bush Administration for preparing to invade Iraq in the face of North Korean moves to develop nuclear weapons. The argument made by many critics is that since North Korea is the greater threat it should be dealt with first. These criticisms are unconvincing for a very basic reason: there is little that would be prudent for the United States to do about North Korea that war preparations and diplomatic efforts against Iraq are preventing.

Lets consider what the US might do to deal with the growing threat from North Korea. Lets start with military options. One could claim that if only the US didn't have so many military assets tied down preparing to invade Iraq that the US could instead be building up military forces near North Korea. In order for a build-up of military force to be credible as a source of pressure to bring against the North Korean regime the US has to really be willing to use it. How many of the critics of the coming attack on Iraq are prepared to instead support an attack against North Korea that would be, compared to the coming Iraq war, much more risky, economically costly, and result in enormously higher casualties? Precious few is my guess.

Another option would be to try to do covert operations to bring down the North Korean regime. Such operations wouldn't necessarily have to be for the short term goal of organizing a coup. Economic and propaganda tools could be used to gradually weaken the regime (and one can only hope that the CIA is running such operations). Surely the CIA is big enough to run operations against Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's regime while also running operations against North Korea to smuggle in information for propaganda purposes and to bribe well-placed North Koreans for information and to get influence in North Korea. It is hard to see why dealing with Iraq is as big of a problem for the CIA as watching and attacking Al Qaeda. Therefore if the CIA is distracted away from North Korea by anything it is far more likely to be by Al Qaeda than by Iraq. It seems dubious to argue that US intelligence agencies are strained by Iraq and therefore can't deal with North Korea.

If military options against North Korea are not a good idea at this point (and I don't think they are yet) and if intelligence resources aren't being overly strained by the run-up to the Iraq war (again, if they are strained over anything its Al Qaeda) then in what other way might the US be getting distracted by Iraq? One could argue that at the top level of civilian leadership and in the diplomatic corps US officials just don't have enough mental time to think about North Korea properly because they have to spend so much time thinking about Iraq. This argument at least seems possible. Still, it implies a rather low regard for the capacity of diplomats and top national security types to deal with more than one big international issue at a time. My guess is that they can handle multiple big issues at once and that when the National Security Council meets to hash things out in the White House that North Korea gets more attention than the White House gives it in public pronouncements.

An argument that the US is paying too much attention to Iraq and not enough to North Korea ought to be looked at in light of just what exactly the US ought to do to deal with North Korea. Think about whether the Bush Administration tactics toward North Korea make sense. We know that the Bush Administration does not want to get into a direct two-party negotiation with North Korea. Why? First of all, if an agreement could even be reached the North Koreans wouldn't honor any agreement that might come out of such a negotiation. Also, the rest of the world would complain to the US about any outcome from such negotiations (unilateral cowboys that we supposedly are). Negotiating with the North Koreans is a no-win game for the US. We also know that North Korea is trying to escalate the crisis in order to get the US to make concessions. The North Koreans want the direct negotiations for the same reasons that the Bush folks want to avoid them. Democrats in the US who are calling for such negotiations are playing into Kim Jong-il's hands.

Knowing that the US doesn't have enough leverage with the North Koreans, the Bush folks want China to apply pressure to North Korea. China doesn't want to do that and so China is recommending direct talks between the US and North Korea. The most important diplomatic game over North Korea is between the US and China. Bush wants China to accept that it has a responsibility to discipline its client North Korea. China wants North Korea to be free to continue to make problems for the US.

There is one additional card that Bush has set into motion which is the most important reason why North Korea and China are so eager to see the US directly negotiate with North Korea: The US has cut off aid to North Korea and some other countries have done so as well. The North Korean regime is going to feel under increasing economic pressure as a result of this. China may need to step in to help. Given the reduction in foreign aid and current trends North Korea's economic problems are going to get worse.

In public pronouncements Colin Powell, George Bush, Ari Fleischer and other officials say that the US is pursuing the diplomatic route with North Korea. For understandable reasons this is an incomplete and misleading description of what is going on. The US doesn't want to admit that it is probably doing covert operations against the North Korean regime and that the intelligence agencies of some other governments (e.g. Japan, South Korea) are doing likewise. The US doesn't want to dwell on the fact that the aid cut-off is going to help make poor North Koreans even poorer. The US is definitely applying economic pressure (e.g. the cut-off of oil shipments) and trying to convince other countries to apply economic pressure as well.

The most important argument going on at the diplomatic level is surely that between the US and China. The US is trying to convince the Chinese leaders that it is in their interest to prevent North Korea from becoming a serious nuclear power. South Korea and Japan are also surely making the same argument to China. There are compelling arguments that can be made for why it is in China's interest to restrain North Korea. Most notable is that a nuclear North Korea might lead to a nuclear Japan and to Japan joining much more vigorously to help the US develop missile defense systems. Another argument is that if North Korea sells nukes and some cities get vaporized as a result fingers of blame are going to be pointed at China for its failure to control its client. It is by no means certain that the Chinese leaders can be convinced by these arguments. But it is worth it for the US and its local allies to make the argument.

China is in the position of wanting the US, South Korea, and Japan to pay to prop up a regime that is the source of increasing security threats to all of them but China. This has worked for China up until recently. But North Korea's actions and statements combined with a more hawkish US president are making China's expectations of outside help for North Korea increasingly unrealistic. The Bush Administration has to have the patience to wait for China to accept that it has reached crunch time over North Korea. China has to decide whether it wants to step in and spend the money to replace the aid that North Korea used to receive from other countries. China also has to face the anger and possible subtle forms of economic and diplomatic retaliation that a decision to prop up the North Korean regime would provoke from both the US and Japan.

Update: On Fox News on Sunday Colin Powell mentioned some reasons why China holds many cards in dealing with North Korea.

Take China, for example. China has said that it is their policy that the Korean Peninsula not be nuclearized -- in fact, be denuclearized. Well, therefore, China should play an active role in making sure that that is the case. They have considerable influence with North Korea. Half their foreign aid goes to North Korea. Eighty percent of North Korea's wherewithal, with respect to energy and economic activity, comes from China. China has a role to play, and I hope China will play that role.

There is a limit to the amount of economic pressure that the US can bring to bear on North Korea as long as China is funding the continuing existence of the North Korean regime.

Update II: China's San Francisco consulate Deputy Consul-General Qiu Xuejun claims China is trying to get North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons development.

"China has been going through its own channels to convince North Korea to change its (nuclear) stance," said Qiu, admitting it hasn't had much luck.

"North Korea is an independent country. Of course, we can pass along messages to them, but China's influence on North Korea is ... well, they make their own decisions," Qiu said.

It is unlikely that China has reached the point of threatening to cut off aid if North Korea doesn't comply. China's leadership is not yet demonstrating firm conviction that North Korea must be stopped.

Update III: If you want to read more about the problem of North Korea read my Axis of Evil category archive.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 February 14 01:43 AM  Axis Of Evil

Tom Roberts said at February 14, 2003 6:26 PM:

The only way China would worry about North Korea is if Japan invaded it again or the North recognized Taiwan and implemented popular democracy.

razib said at February 14, 2003 7:17 PM:

great post randall!

Dick Thompson said at February 15, 2003 5:30 PM:

Bottom line: N Korea is tough, and we're afraid to take 'em on, but Iraq looks like a pushover, so we're eager to punch 'em out.

But what are we going to do about North Korea when Iraq is history? I seem to remember that the original police action in the Korean peninsula was as bloody a war, given its length, as we've ever fought in. Afghanistan has shown that our vaunted trick weapons are not much use in the mountains. So what will we do?

Bob said at February 15, 2003 7:24 PM:

Prayer wouldn't hurt.

Tom Roberts said at February 16, 2003 2:20 PM:

Dick: let the Japanese dust off a Greater East Asia Co Prosperity Sphere as a foreign policy option.

Alonia Correspondant said at February 28, 2010 11:13 AM:

China is main goal is to force Korea to disarm it nuclear program. They do not want to start comflict with Korea. However, Korea Premier wants to portray himself as a someone not to reckon with by China or US.

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