2003 February 23 Sunday
The Problem of North Korea

The major players with strong interests in whether the North Korean regime develops nuclear weapons and missile systems to deliver nukes are China, South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Lets review how these players are reacting to North Korea's plans to develop nuclear weapons. The US position is that North Korea has so violated the 1994 Agreed Framework that the agreement is dead. The US view is that North Korea could become a Nuclear KMart selling nuclear weapons to anyone with the cash. The US would like help from other nations to make North Korea stop developing nuclear weapons.

While China has not yet taken a firm public stance against North Korean efforts to do WMD development some of China's national security intellectuals see reasons why North Korea should be prevented from developing nuclear weapons. The biggest motive that China has to restrain North Korea from doing nuclear weapons development is that China fears any changes in East Asia security conditions that would prompt Japan to militarize and to more closely align with the United States.

HONG KONG - While much remains unsaid, the strategic defense community in China is closely watching the morphing of the US-Japan relationship in light of how Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which renounces war, is interpreted. This process has been going on for at least a year.

In August 2001, former prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa affirmed in San Francisco that Japan should lift its self-imposed ban on exercising its right to collective self-defense in the interests of a more effective Japan-US alliance. He spoke of the need for Japan to adapt to changing global realities.

A Japan that feels insecure is a Japan that is going to become more militaristic. Also, a Japan that feels insecure is going to move closer to the United States on security matters. China would like to avoid both of these outcomes.

In response to a nuclear ballistic missile threat from North Korea Japan could rapidly build nuclear weapons and increase its cooperation with the United States to build a missile-defense system.

There is also a fast-growing body of opinion in Japan saying that that's precisely what the country should do. Latest on that is a December "Nuclear Declaration for Japan" by influential Kyoto University international-relations Professor Terumasa Nakanishi (co-author with Fred Charles Ikle, undersecretary of defense for policy in the Ronald Reagan administration, of a widely noted Foreign Affairs article "Japan's grand strategy") and literary critic Kazuya Fukuda calling on the Japanese not to cave in to the North Korean nuclear threat: "The best way for Japan to avoid being the target of North Korean nuclear missiles is for the prime minister to declare without delay that Japan will arm itself with nuclear weapons." They also want Japan to get on with construction of a missile-defense system, post haste.

The threat of this possibility conceivably might prod the strategic thinkers in Beijing to threaten North Korea with aid cut-off if North Korea doesn't stop all nuclear weapons development, turn over all nuclear weapons materials, nuclear weapons manufacturing equipment, and nuclear bombs as well as open all of its weapons development facilities to inspection by Japanese, American, and Chinese inspectors. However, the problem with the inspections approach is that it is easy for a government to hide things. Japan is going to feel threatened because it knows North Korea has ballistic missiles and has to fear that North Korea may manage to build nukes even while subjected to an inspections regime. Japan's security would be enhanced much more if the North Korean regime was overthrown and replaced by rule of North Korea by the South Korean government.

Hopeful signs in China are the security and strategy intellectuals in Beijing who are arguing that North Korea shouldn't be allowed to have nuclear weapons.

"There is increasing recognition here that if North Korea is finally armed with nuclear weapons, it will be a big threat to China," said Zhu Feng, director of the international security program at Beijing University's School of International Studies. "I have a strong sense at this crucial moment, my government will change its mind to resort to another approach rather than just, say, use the veto right to block any U.N.-imposed sanctions against North Korea."

Keep in mind that the academic policy specialists are not speaking for the Chinese government. The Chinese government has yet to provide any public indication of resolve on this issue.

Asian Times writer Francesco Sisci thinks its conceivable that China could back a US preemptive strike against North Korea.

But time is running out. North Korea could well have just a month to stop its nuclear program before US ally Japan feels itself backed into a corner.

Within a month, with the first nuclear weapon about to be completed, China could consider the possibility of backing a US preemptive strike against North Korea atomic facilities, the one thing that could reassure Japan.

This seems unlikely. Even if the Chinese were willing the problem with such a move is that North Korea could retaliate by raining artillery shells (possibly carrying biological or chemical weapons) on Seoul's northern suburbs. The North has thousands of artillery pieces dug into caves (i.e. very hard for US air power to knock out) that are in range of highly populated areas of South Korea and North Korean artillery could very quickly (within hours) could cause tens or even hundreds of thousands of South Korean casualties. South Korea's current government can therefore be expected to oppose such a plan.

Some in the Bush Administration, the US military, and the US Congress argue for US military withdrawal away from the DMZ that separates North and South Korea followed eventually by a withdrawal from South Korea entirely.

"It's a no-lose proposition," noted one conservative congressional staffer. "If we get our troops out of range of the North's guns, our freedom of action for acting against the North is greater. And if Roh gets worried about being left to the tender mercies of [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-il, that gives us more influence."

Such a withdrawal would fulfill a long-term ambition of North Korea to get the United States out of South Korea. The North Korean regime thinks it could then finally invade and unite the Korean Peninsula under Northern rule thus assuring the survival of the Northern regime. While the regime probably would lose in a conventional war against the South it might be able to win if it has nuclear weapons or if it can first convince the South to reduce the size of its military. The North Korean regime believes the existence of two separate governments on the Peninsula is not sustainable. Its view is basically that it has to win the unification struggle or the regime will cease to exist.

Just because North Korea would welcome US withdrawal that is not necessarily a reason to rule it out. If the US withdrew and the North then attacked this would provide the opportunity for the US to finally unleash its full military might against the North. One risk of that approach is that the North might by then have ICBMs with nuclear warheads capable of striking the US. Hence North Korea might be able to deter the US from coming to the aid of the South. The decision to withdraw has uncertain benefits and uncertain costs.

South Koreans dislike the United States.

A recent opinion poll conducted by Korea Gallup found that 54 percent of South Koreans surveyed disliked the United States, up from 15 percent in 1994. The new president, Roh Moo-hyun, takes office Feb. 25, and some Bush administration officials expect him to ask the United States to reduce its troop presence.

The older South Koreans who directly experienced the Korean War are going die off. The animosity toward the US and the lesser fear of the North are characteristic of the younger generations and therefore both sentiments are likely to grow. A lot of Americans are worried about where anti-Americanism comes from. Are we to blame? Well, in some cases such as in South Korea the government has made a conscious choice to direct blame toward the US.

To emphasize the building of trust, the Kim government in the South has invested heavily in the North. It has also kept negative news and a steady series of embarrassing brushoffs by the North out of the South Korean media - a policy that continues.

"For five years now, the KDJ government has successfully changed public opinion toward North Korea and the US," says Kim Tae-hyo, a professor at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul. "The North is no longer regarded as an enemy. The North's nuclear program, the West Sea incident [where the North killed sailors], missile tests, the kidnapping of hundreds of South Koreans - it doesn't matter to ordinary people anymore. At the same time, you hear the US blamed more often."

This South Korean government strategy to cast North Korea in a more favorable light while also casting the United States in a less favorable light is being done in order to increase domestic support for Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine" policy of warming relations with North Korea. It is important to note that this attempt to cast North Korea in a favorable light was done because Kim Dae Jung views North Korea as so dangerous and unstable that South Korea needs to have more contact with it in order to reduce the paranoia and hostility in the North Korean regime. Martin Sieff reports on his own conversations with South Korean intelligence officials where they reveal Kim Dae-jung's motive for detente with North Korea is to placate the paranoid and dangerous North Korean leadership.

First, senior South Korean intelligence officials and close advisers to President Kim Dae-jung have repeatedly told UPI Analysis that former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and his innermost circle are truly ignorant of the nature of democratic societies in the wider world. Even worse, these top South Korean officials say, North Korea's Kim and his advisers are also still in a very much of a state of paranoid fear about everyone outside their own tightly policed borders.

That is why South Korea's Kim made his "Sunshine" policy of very cautious détente with North Korea the centerpiece of his nation's national security policies.

Consider the logic of the South Korean policy. KDJ thinks North Korea is so incredibly dangerous that it is essential to develop warmer relations with it. Because the North Korean regime is so dangerous the South Korean government works to convince the South Korean people that the North Korean regime is not that dangerous. Essentially, in order to build support for the "Sunshine" policy the South Korean government decided that South Korean people have to be deceived for their own good. This seems like folly to me.

The advocates of the "Sunshine" policy claim that George W. Bush's rhetoric is undermining what would otherwise be a successful policy. The problem with this point of view is that it is now clear that North Korea never stopped working on nuclear weapons development after the 1994 agreement. From an American perspective of wanting to stop WMD proliferation and the sale of WMD technology by North Korea to others the "Sunshine" policy is useless. Also, North Korean possession of a large arsenal of nuclear wewapons would lead to bolder North Korean attempts to blackmail South Korea, Japan and the United States.

In spite of the failure of the "Sunshine" policy to change the nature of the North Korean regime Kim Dae Jung's strategy has been so successful in changing domestic South Korean public opinion that it is causing the South Korean people to underestimate the size of the threat that North Korea poses. North Korea is escalating its threats against the US and it is moving to manufacture many nuclear weapons and yet the United States is being blamed for the behavior of the North Korean regime. The problem this poses for the United States is that the changes in South Korean popular opinion lessen South Korean popular support for policies that would apply pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

The real flaw of the "Sunshine" policy is that it misses the reason for the paranoia of the top North Korean leadership. Yes, they are isolated and ignorant about some aspects of the rest of the world. But their paranoia is motivated by an entirely rational understanding that outside influences, if allowed to reach the North Korean populace, would undermine the support that their populace gives to their continued rule. The North Korean leadership understands that increasing exposure of North Koreans to conditions and ideas from South Korea and elsewhere will eventually lead to the overthrow of the North Korean regime. Quite simply, the North Korean leadership is going to work very hard to prevent the sorts of influences from seeping in that Kim Dae Jung hopes the "Sunshine" policy will bring.

Decreased South Korean support for a tough position against North Korea has a number of consequences for the United States. First off, it increases the need for the United States to try to convnce China to pressure the North Korean regime. It makes US strategists consider total US troop withdrawal from South Korea for a number of reasons. One reason is the argument that the US shouldn't have troops where they are not wanted. Another is that the US is unlikely to use South Korea as a base from which to attack North Korea. Hence US withdrawal from South Korea would put the US in a position to argue that what it says and does via other means can't be used to blame the US if the North Korean regime attacks South Korea.

Sanctions are not a quick solution to the problem of North Korean nuclear weapons development.

A U.S. intelligence source says a Washington-led embargo against Pyongyang would take time to loosen the regime's grip on power, since Kim has already shown that he's "willing to let a lot of people die off." But eventually sanctions might take their toll, as even top government officials and members of the security services began to feel the pinch. "If the regime can no longer maintain the lifestyles of [those] people," says the source, "it could be in serious trouble."

It would be far more effective if China joined in. If China simply doesn't increase its aid to North Korea (which already gets half of China's foreign aid) then an embargo by the rest of the world would do increasing damage to the North Korean economy. But an embargo by the US and its allies could be undermined if China stepped up its aid to compensate.

Thinking in the governments of United States and Japan appears to be moving in a similar direction with regard to North Korea. An embargo strategy might be able to be agreed to by the United States and Japan. South Korea's government is moving in an opposing direction. The position that China will take over the use of aid cut-off against Noth Korea is as yet unknown. Therefore it is not clear whether aid cut-off and sanctions can contribute to the collapse of the North Korean regime. It is very much worth it for US diplomats and foreign policy thinkers to address arguments to the Chinese as to why it is in China's best interests to work for either the collapse of the North Korean regime or to increase effective control of North Korea by China in order to stop and undo its WMD development efforts. As part of the US attempt to get the Chinese actively working to change the North Korean regime the US could make clear to the Chinese that unless they step up to the plate and solve the North Korean WMD problem that the US will have to solve it and will do so in a way that produces an outcome that is less satisfactory for the Chinese government.

Another card the US could play would be US withdrawal from South Korea. Such a withdrawal would satisfy a long term North Korean goal. But if in response the North Korean regime overplayed its hand and attacked South Korea then this would provide the United States with the opportunity to take out the North Korean regime. The full weight of US air power could be brought to bear. However, the North Korean regime might instead respond to a US withdrawal by deciding to pursue an attempt to extort steadily increasing amounts of aid from South Korea while also pressuring South Korea to disarm. While a significant portion of South Koreans would essentially be getting something they brought on themselves this course of events would allow the North Koreans to continue to do WMD development and manufacture and eventually to sell nuclear weapons on the world market. Its not clear that a US withdrawal from South Korea by itself makes sense unless it is combined with some other strategy to bring down the North Korean regime.

The third major strategy that the United States could pursue as a method to bring down the North Korean regime would be to make a major effort to infiltrate information about the rest of the world into North Korea. The North Korean people are probably the most informationally isolated of any people on the planet. As I've argued in the comments section of a previous post I do not see signs that the US is pursuing the information infiltration strategy on a scale that is commensurate with the size of the problem inherent in attempts to break the North Korean regime's monopoly on the information that most North Koreans receive.

We can not know what might be getting said in secret discussions between the principal concerned governments. Therefore it is difficult to judge whether the US is exerting sufficient effort diplomatically. However, it seems easier to judge how hard the US is trying to break the North Korean regime's information monopoly. I'd welcome evidence to the contrary but at this point it doesn't appear that the US is trying hard enough on that front.

The United States faces a serious problem on the Korean Peninsula. Each potential solution has drawbacks that would be either extremely costly in lives and money, risky, or uncertain to be successful or more than one of the above. The information infiltration strategy is basically a propaganda campaign in which the propaganda could all be true. It makes sense to pursue that strategy in parallel with attempts to bring the Chinese leadership around to the view that North Korea's WMD development efforts have to be stopped entirely. If neither strategy can work quickly enough then military strategies may become necessary. But the downsides and costs of military options are so great that those downsides are compelling arguments for first making much greater efforts to stop the North Korean regime in other ways.

Update: If you want to read more about the problem of North Korea read my Axis of Evil category archive. Also, be sure to read my exchange with Tom Holsinger and Trent Telenko in the comments section of the post Why Military Option Against North Korea Unattractive.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 February 23 02:51 PM  Korea

Brent M Krupp said at February 24, 2003 10:21 AM:

Love your blog, lots of great essays.

One big question though: how does "break[ing] the North Korean regime's information monopoly" accomplish anything useful? NK is a Stalinist dictatorship. I can't see that propaganda will do anything. They already ship dissidents and their families to prison camps (I almost said death camps, which is what they nearly are). The people are already on the brink of starvation. Won't propaganda just make them a bit more aware of their nearly hopeless situation? It's not like a popular rising is possible in a situation like this. The elite wouldn't care about the propaganda, they do well out of the current situation.

Randall Parker said at February 24, 2003 12:19 PM:

Brent, thanks.

Breaking the information monopoly is important because as much as the North Koreans have suffered many of them still do not doubt the legitimacy of the regime. There are defectors who spent time in the prison camps who have stated that they didn't start to doubt the legitimacy of the regime until they'd been imprisoned for 9 months or a year. They do not have a separate point of reference from which to interpret what they see. They may not know that the suffering is totally unnecessary. They may not blame the regime as much as they blame fate or external factors. They receive a level of brainwashing that is mind-boggling.

I also think that at least among those living in cities they have an inaccurate picture of how bad it is in their own country. One doctor who defected said he didn't learn there was famine in the countryside until he made it into China. He got out in 1998 (if memory serves) and did not know that people in his own country were starving to death. The cities are better off than the countryside. Likely he lived in Pyongyang and simply didn't know how bad things were outside of Pyongyang because the regime didn't want him to know. Well, regime control depends far more on how people think in the capital than on how people think in the countryside.

As for whether the situation is hopeless given the extent of the control: I've certainly argued (see the comments sections of previous North Korea articles which are in the Axis of Evil category archive) that it is very difficult to internally overthrow a regime which still has such an effective brutal mechanism for repression and control. Therefore its the army officers and other members of the elite that the breaking of the information monopoly should be aimed at.

If, say, lots of plastic wrappers with books of pictures and descriptions of life outside North Korea start floating up on North Korean beaches and soldiers get sent out to collect the packages before the peasants get ahold of them then that is not a failure. Its inevitable that some army officers are going to look at the materials and learn things that will change their attitudes toward the regime. Even if the army officers are doing well their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters might not be. This might lead to assassination attempts and therefore a decrease in trust between Kim Jong-il and the military.

If support for the regime becomes more reluctant then the potential for corruption will increase. That will open the door for additional methods for breaking the information monopoly. Larger amounts of black market smuggling will bring more opportunity to ship in radios and printed materials. There will also be an increase in the number of people who are aware that they might be able to sneak out of the country and make their way to a much better life in South Korea.

This approach is not guaranteed to work. But the problem with North Korea is that all of the options either won't work or come with a high price (a direct military assault has a cost of hundreds of thousands or even millions of lives). It is worth trying to break the information monopoly. Given what is at stake a couple of billion dollars a year for this purpose would be money very well spent.

Ashley Lilly said at March 4, 2003 12:01 PM:

My fiance (ARMY) has been in South Korea for two months and still has ten more to go. I am so worried for all of the US troops over there. My biggest fear is that the North will try to launch attacks in Seoul and the entire southern penninsula. Do you think an attck will happen? If it does will troops be reloated before thousands of lives are lost? Or will the US have a greater advantage and in the end stop the firing? Please write back with your comments!!!

Randall Parker said at March 4, 2003 2:58 PM:

Ashley, In a complex situation with many factors at play and with only some of those factors visible to the public we can't be certain about how it will play out. It is very hard to know whether the North Korean regime might suddenly start to collapse. That is the big wild card here. The North Korean regime could start to collapse in a month or two or it could hobble along for years.

I still think a war is not likely. i.e. the odds are less than 50:50. The North Korean regime does not want a war because it would lose. South Korea, the US, and Japan would like to avoid war because they'd all lose a lot of people. North Korea could shoot conventional, bio and chem warhead missiles at Japanese cities. So its not just the US and South Korean soldiers and South Korean civilians who would die.

North Korea is going to keep making bigger provocations as its economic situation deteriorates. So tensions are probably going to increase. Its not impossible that the Norht Koreans could do something that the US and South Korea would feel compelled to respond to with a counter-strike. So there are no guarantees here.

Nathan Fujiki said at May 9, 2003 7:41 AM:

Interesting article. I bascially agree with your assessment of the situation. I was just wondering if you think the UN can and/or should play a role in resolving the crisis?

Randall Parker said at May 9, 2003 10:21 AM:

China will block UN sanctions. What else can the UN do? As for the "should" part of it: I do not like the UN. I'd have the US withdraw from it if it was up to me.

Nathalie said at November 10, 2004 9:29 PM:

Hi, I'm french, I loved your blog. I'd like to know more about the relationship between South and North Korea nowadays. thanks a lot

tt said at April 17, 2005 6:57 PM:


Emily said at May 2, 2005 6:48 PM:

Did anyone hear about North Korea testing a missle on May 1? The missle exploded off the coast of the Sea of Japan. I heard it on the news this morning, but can't find any articles about it.

Jake said at May 6, 2005 10:12 PM:

Did you guys hear about this? North Korea has repeatedly said it would consider sanctions from the United Nations a declaration of war. Let me rephrase: North Korea said that any actions taken against it by the UN, currently made up of 191 countries including Japan, would be grounds for war.

sunrisedatacare said at March 27, 2010 5:02 AM:


sunrisedatacare said at March 27, 2010 5:04 AM:


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