The key to changing North Korea

Thomas Friedman compared Lybia, Iran and North Korea (cached if the link dies), quoting Robert Litwak, the director of international security studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Brilliant analysis. He provided the key to that "axis-of-something" problems.
  • How so? Go back to the impressive deal that the Bush team did pull off in 2003 to get Libya’s leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi, to give up his crude nuclear weapons program. How did that happen?
  • “What actually brought Qaddafi around was a tacit but clear U.S. security assurance that if he did give up his nuclear program the U.S. would not seek to oust him from power,” said Mr. Litwak. “That is what made the difference. ... If Libya gave up its unconventional weapons, the U.S. would give up its efforts at regime change.”
  • What has been missing from the Bush approach to Iran and North Korea is that kind of clear choice. If the North Koreans want direct talks with the U.S. and bilateral relations, who cares? Give it to them — provided it is in return for a verifiable limit on their nuclear program. If Iran’s ayatollahs want a tacit security assurance from the U.S. — in return for a verifiable curb on their ability to produce nukes — give it to them.
  • Iran and North Korea will also collapse from within — but it takes time. And in that time they could build lots of nukes. So we need to end their programs now, even if it means giving them tacit U.S. security guarantees, à la Libya.
  • This is not an endorsement of either regime,” added Mr. Litwak, author of the forthcoming “Regime Change: U.S. Strategy Through the Prism of 9/11.” “Rather, it is a pragmatic approach to deal with the fact that the nuclear weapons development timeline is not in sync with the time it takes for regime change to unfold.”
  • Five decades of America’s isolating Cuba has produced five decades of Fidel Castro. As long as we maintain our ambiguity vis-à-vis Iran and North Korea — regime change or change in behavior — they will maintain their ambiguity about their nuclear programs. I have no idea if they would give up their weapons now, even if the Bush team gave them security guarantees. It may be that things are too far gone. But we need to test.
  • If we do not test that proposition, we will never know if there is a peaceful solution to the Iranian and North Korean nuclear challenges — and we will never have allies for a tougher policy if there isn’t.
The only concern is, are there interest groups (e.g. defense industry) who would prefer a non-solution? Would the strong be willing to give up the ambiguity which provides it with more option (does it know that more option does not neccessarily lead to better strategy?) ?

Dr Barnett agrees in general but dissents on North Korea

  • Where I part with Friedman is casually lumping North Korea in with Iran. Iran is a real country, the DPRK is not. Tehran sports a tired authoritarianism, amply susceptible to death-by-connectivity, while Pyongyang is true totalitarianism, not given to such taming techniques.
  • Am I being realistic here? Two good examples: Iran appproached us back in 2001 on helping us with the Taliban takedown. China's military has very quietly approached the Pentagon on cooperating when Pyongyang falls (which means we're in the same zip code on discussing a more pro-active approach).
IMHO the argument for DPRK may deserve more debate, but i found the China-1978 analogy quite useful. Even for a totalitarian regime, it is not impossible to change. China in 1978 under Mao was not much different from NK today.

But before going into the analogy I would like to address Dr Barnett's concerns above.
  1. "Pyongyang might not give in to the taming techniques" -- but as Friedman said, "We need to test"
  2. "North Korea has a battered population that is literally shrinking from malnutrition (so a moral argument for regime change that's just not there with Iran)." -- But China 1978 was worse (see below)
  3. "[KJI He has no desire to be Lee Kuan Yew..." -- Kim Jong-il approached Albright/Clinton is the past; had been asking to direct conversation with US all the time (though this continues to confuse the world, is it easier to blackmail on a one-one basis, i.e. without witnesses?); KJI also made multiple attempts on economic reform, first setting up a special economic zone in Sinujiu and then touring
However, Dr Barnett is right that the China-1978 analogy difference ends there.
  • Mao had to die for Deng to arise. KJI is still very healthy and 'young'
  • China also had a battered population suffering from malnutrition, plus a less educated population sitting on the ruins of the infamous Cultural Revolution.
  • For PRC, the threat of admitting to failure vs Taiwan/HK is smaller since the sizes are incomparable, as Dr Barnett correctly pointed out, "[KJI] has no desire to be Lee Kuan Yew because once he stakes his regime legitimacy on economic development, the dangerous comparisons to the South ensue."
Can these differences be overcome?
  • China and Vietnam both provided examples of success. So reformers in NK are at a much more favorable position (it is not venturing into the wild). With vast example of precedence and lessons, it does not take a genius like Deng to do a decent job in reformation
  • Would KJI risk admit to a failure compared with SK? He toured China's Shenzhen last year, and had made some half-hearted attempt in setting up Sinujiu as a special economic zone in 2003. It is definitely possible that he is ready to face that challenge. What he needs is, re-assurance from SK and US, that they would not seek to topple him when his regime is the most vulnerable. Let me bring back the China-1978(79) analogy here. Even Deng Xiaoping the visionary needed to visit US and obtain assurance before he charged ahead with his reform
So the key to DPRK, (a softkill is always less costly than a hardkill if at all possible, per Sun Zi's "win without fighting"), lies with a concerted effort from US, China and S Korea. Russia's influence on NK has diminished. Japan's presence in 6-party talk only proved to be feet dragging.
  1. SK (and US) needs to re-assure NK that SK is not going to threaten its 'legitimacy' or engage in subvertive activities, and profit from its vulnerability. So that NK will feel safe to take the China/Vietnam road of reform. Again, "this is not an endorsement to the DPRK regime" (as in Litwak's words), it is just a pragmatic lesser evil approach for solving a problem
  2. China needs to be able to subdue Kim and force for reform (it is to China's own interests if NK takes the Vietnam path). NK is not really listening to China all these times. China needs to threaten NK with reducing aids (stick). Then promise to help by sending in advisers and investors (carrot)
  3. Most importantly, US needs to have the courage to give up its regime change agenda. US also needs to persuade Japan that even though NK could provide it with a bogeyman for re-arm, the danger of a rogue nuke state at the neighborhood far exceeds any benefit of re-arming, or a few disappearing hostages. Finally, US also needs to assure China that China does not need the Korea card to be treated fairly (Fortunately this is already happening, US policy has already adapted to what Zoellick and Barnett advocated)
This requires a full strategy and coordinated effort from US, China and SK. Without the whole package, either SK, China, or DPRK will not buy this solution.

Finally, will more economic clout lead to a more dangerous NK?
  • Following Dr Barnett's thought on PNM, when people are rich they have more to lose, they will be less erratic, and tend to integrate with the core
  • Imagine we give KJI 10x the cash he has today, all he has is still WWII technology, and only marginally different from what he has today. So NK is not going to present a larger threat to the world

1 comment:

bobby fletcher said...

IMHO another attribute that's unique to NK and Iran is America's history with these two countries:

- We got rid of Iran's democratically elected government back in the 50's and install the ruthless Shah dictatorship, resulted in the Iranian Revolution 20 years later where Americans were taken hostage.

- The Korean War.

I think that's enough for any US president to not play ball and stick to our "democracy" bit. America always need an enemy anyway, in order to effectuate our fascist rally cry.