Saturday, May 06, 2017

20.10 - Foreign policy and North Korea

Foreign policy and North Korea

The big foreign policy issue these days, at least if you judge by the headlines, is North Korea, so I wanted to offer some of my thoughts. A lot of this of course is speculation and interpretation, but I have learned over the years to trust my instincts on matters such as this and so that's what I'm going to do here.

So let me say at the beginning that I don't think this will result in war. I have no faith in the reasonableness or emotional stability of either Donald TheRump or Kim Jong-un, but in each case they have people around them who are at least somewhat grounded in military and political realities.

One such reality from our perspective is that North Korea is incapable of inflicting significant damage on the US. In the event of a conflict, it could sink a ship or two, which certainly would mean the deaths of soldiers and sailors, but in terms of the United States, it simply does not have the power or the means. However, with an army estimated to number 1.2 million, even with its obsolete weaponry it could inflict significant damage on South Korea, which we clearly would not want.

Meanwhile, the North Korean military knows, must know, if it doesn't know the Chinese would surely tell them, that going to war with the US amounts to national suicide. And China, which surely does not want to get into a war with the US, especially not over North Korea, still could feel obligated to come to the defense of its ally in the event of open fighting. So everyone has cause, good reason, to avoid a war.

So I think there will not be a war unless someone gets stupid. Skip the jokes, you thought of them, I thought of them, let them pass. By stupid, I am here talking about getting wrapped up in thinking about what you want, what your action can be, such that you don't think about what the reaction might be and so wind up facing unintended consequences.

With that in mind, there are a few recent events I think significant.

The first is that in a big break from tradition, Japan's largest warship, the Izumo, is escorting a US supply ship heading toward the Korean Peninsula as it passes through Japanese waters.

By its Constitution, Japan can only act militarily in self-defense, but a new law allows its ships to come to the defense of an ally that's protecting Japan, regarding that as self-defense. Which means that Japan is saying by accompanying the US ship that it regards the US fleet gathering off the Korean Peninsula as "protecting Japan" and therefore any attack on any of those ships potentially could be construed as an attack on Japan. Considering the history between Japan and Korea, that is likely to cause consternation in North Korea and raise there the specter of a reassertion of Japanese militarism. It can't help but make the North Korean military more on edge.

Then in what may be the most significant bit of news to come out of the region of late, on Wednesday, May 3, North Korea's state media publicly criticized China.

Chinese state media commentaries have been calling for Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program to be shut down and had been suggesting tougher sanctions against North Korea toward that end. A commentary carried by the official Korean Central News Agency called that "an undisguised threat" against the country.

The Korean commentary accused China's "People's Daily" and "Global Times" newspapers, regarded as reflecting official government stands, of "a string of absurd and reckless remarks" that "render the present bad situation tenser" and added that "China had better ponder" the "grave consequences" of "its reckless act of chopping down the pillar" of relations between the two countries.

What is interesting about this is that the US has been pressing China, which is North Korea's only major ally, to restrain Kim Jong-un's regime and this appears to be clear evidence that not only is China doing so but that North Korea is feeling the heat.

China had cut off all imports of coal from North Korea in mid-February, saying the ban would extend throughout 2017. While North Korean economists tried to shrug off the decision, saying other exports are more important, coal is the country's biggest export and China its biggest customer and the recent hostility toward China could be a sign that the ban is starting to pinch.

Which can seem like good news if your goal is to put the screws to North Korea and force it to do what we want, but this is actually right where you need to tread carefully.

The fact is, historically, when nations feel cornered, when they feel the choice has come down to war or humiliation, they have shown a depressingly consistent preference for the former. Similarly, when nations feel squeezed economically, when they face or at least believe they face the prospect of slow but certain strangulation, the risks of war, great though they may be, can look to be the better choice.

The bottom line is that if you do not want war, if you are not trying to provoke war, then when you have the upper hand, especially when you have the upper hand, you have to give the other side a way to back out without appearing to back down.

Which is why I'm concerned over what appears to be an unseemly rush to ratchet up the sanctions on North Korea just as existing sanctions appear to be having an effect. The House just passed by 419-1 a bill that would, if enacted, not only increase US sanctions on North Korea but would also sanction any nation that has certain dealings with the government. That bill is supposedly related to North Korea's use of slave labor, not its nuclear weapons program, but I doubt the leaders in Pyongyang will note that distinction or care about it if they do. Pushing too hard too fast is exactly the sort of stupidity I mentioned earlier that we need to avoid.

So it is still a touchy, tense, time but again, I believe that the leadership of everyone involved - even allowing for the fact that one leader is a sociopathic egomaniac and the other is a spoiled brat with delusions of grandeur and it really doesn't matter which is which - but the full scope of leadership of each party has good reasons to avoid war.

All we have to do is find a way to allow both Kim and TheRump to come out of this with their egos intact. Not easy, true, but certainly not impossible considering that both of them have in the past declared their failures to be great victories.

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