Think Again: The Korea Crisis

North Korea is not crazy, near collapse, nor about to start a war. But it is dangerous, not to mention dangerously misunderstood. Defusing the threat that North Korea poses to its neighbors and the world will require less bluster, more patience, and a willingness on the part of the United States to probe and understand the true sources of the North's conduct.

By and , the Maria Crutcher professor of international relations at the University of Southern California.

"North Korea Belongs in the 'Axis of Evil'"

No. The only link between North Korea and Iran and Iraq, the other two members of the "axis of evil" identified by President George W. Bush in his 2002 State of the Union speech, is financial. North Korea has sold missile technology to Iran, as it has to a number of countries, including U.S. allies Pakistan and Egypt. Unlike the original Axis powers, Japan, Germany, and Italy, which were joined formally by the Tripartite Pact of 1940, North Korea, Iran, and Iraq do not coordinate or work together beyond the sale of goods to one another. Furthermore, North Korea does not share any religious, ideological, or strategic goals with Iran and Iraq. North Korea's concerns focus solely on the peninsula and do not extend to the Middle East. Although it does nasty things like sell drugs and make counterfeit money, North Korea has not engaged in terrorism in the last 16 years, and there has never been any link, nor any suggested, between North Korea and al Qaeda.

Iran, Iraq, and North Korea do share some common traits, the main one being an adversarial relationship with the United States. They are also authoritarian, have allegedly supported or sponsored terrorism, and have programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. However, using those latter criteria, several other countries could fit in the axis. Why not U.S. allies Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, for example?

"North Korea Belongs in the ‘Axis of Evil’"

No. The only link between North Korea and Iran and Iraq, the other two members of the "axis of evil" identified by President George W. Bush in his 2002 State of the Union speech, is financial. North Korea has sold missile technology to Iran, as it has to a number of countries, including U.S. allies Pakistan and Egypt. Unlike the original Axis powers, Japan, Germany, and Italy, which were joined formally by the Tripartite Pact of 1940, North Korea, Iran, and Iraq do not coordinate or work together beyond the sale of goods to one another. Furthermore, North Korea does not share any religious, ideological, or strategic goals with Iran and Iraq. North Korea’s concerns focus solely on the peninsula and do not extend to the Middle East. Although it does nasty things like sell drugs and make counterfeit money, North Korea has not engaged in terrorism in the last 16 years, and there has never been any link, nor any suggested, between North Korea and al Qaeda.

Iran, Iraq, and North Korea do share some common traits, the main one being an adversarial relationship with the United States. They are also authoritarian, have allegedly supported or sponsored terrorism, and have programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. However, using those latter criteria, several other countries could fit in the axis. Why not U.S. allies Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, for example?

"Kim Jong Il Is Crazy, Unpredictable, and Undeterrable"

Wrong. Kim Jong Il is as rational and calculating as he is brutal. Dictators generally want to survive, and Kim is no exception. He has not launched a war, because he has good reason to think he would face fatal opposition from the United States and South Korea. In fact, like his father Kim Il Sung, Kim has clearly shown he is deterrable: North Korea has not started a war in five decades.

Dictators do not survive without sophisticated political skills. Kim has maintained power despite intelligence assessments that his leadership would not survive the death of his father in July 1994. And he has endured despite famine, floods, economic collapse, nuclear crises, the loss of two major patrons in Russia and China, and U.S. pressure. There has been no palace or military coup, no extensive social unrest, no obvious chaos in the military, and no wholesale purge of various officials. Moreover, Kim’s decision to proceed with North Korea’s tentative and measured economic reforms is further proof that, however morally repugnant he may be, he is also quite capable of assessing costs and benefits.

But his rationality does not make him any less dangerous. Under Kim’s rule, North Korea has engaged in a coercive bargaining strategy designed to ratchet up a crisis with the United States. Provocations such as test-firing missiles, shadowing spy planes, and walking away from treaties can grab attention and even force the United States and its allies to provide inducements persuading North Korea back from the brink. A risky approach, perhaps — but rational, too. If you have little to negotiate with, it makes sense to leverage the status quo for maximum bargaining advantage.

"North Korea Poses a Direct Nuclear Threat to the United States"

Calm down. Lost amid all the alarm and bluster is the reality that the logic of deterrence will prevail even though North Korea claims to have developed a nuclear force. North Korea pursues nuclear weapons not for leverage but for the same reason that other highly vulnerable nations arm themselves: to deter an adversary, in this case a superpower that is armed with nuclear weapons. But even if the North HAS developed nuclear weapons, the threat of a devastating U.S. response will prevent it from ever using them — after all, unlike shadowy terrorist cells, nations cannot hide from a retaliatory strike.

What about the North’s missile threat? Some analysts claim that North Korea already possesses a long-range nuclear missile capability. That’s false. The longest-range missile currently deployed by North Korea is the No Dong missile, which can carry a 1,500-pound payload approximately 800 miles. However, North Korea has reportedly tested the No Dong only once. The untested Taepo Dong 2 can potentially carry a several hundred-pound payload between 6,000 and 9,000 miles — far enough to reach the West Coast of the United States. But without adequate testing, such a nuclear missile would be highly unreliable.

The fact is, North Korea could blow up terrorist bombs in downtown Seoul every week if it had the desire to do so. It could smuggle a nuclear device into Japan, given the extensive network of Koreans in that country with ties to the North. For that matter, why should North Korea develop an expensive ballistic missile to shoot at the United States when smuggling a nuclear weapon in a shipping container would be so much easier? The primary value of the North’s missiles is as a military deterrent, not as an offensive weapon.

The only nuclear threat to the United States from North Korea is indirect, in the potential transfer of such capabilities to third parties. Pyongyang has shown no aversion to selling weapons to anyone with the hard currency or barter to pay for them. North Korean nuclear weapons or fissile material hidden in tens of thousands of underground caves would likely go undetected even by the most intrusive inspections. But a transfer of nuclear material would be a risky proposition for a regime that values survival above all else. Given the preemptive mind-set of a post-September 11 United States, the North would have to be confident that any transfer would escape U.S. detection and therefore the threat of a massive U.S. retaliation.

"North Korea Does Not Honor International Agreements"

Mostly true. Heralded for a half century as an outlaw state, North Korea has maintained some of its international commitments. It is a member of the Conference on Disarmament, Biological Weapons Convention, and Geneva Protocol. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the country signed on to two U.N. antiterrorism protocols. During the negotiations for the Agreed Framework, the United States required the North to improve relations with South Korea. Pyongyang eventually responded by agreeing to a summit (just prior to Kim Il Sung’s death). As of this writing. the North has also honored its 1999 ballistic missile-testing moratorium for four years.

But the North also has a history of engaging in "strategic deception" — signing agreements to convey reliability but purposefully cheating on them to its own advantage. The history of inter-Korean relations, for example, is littered with pacts that Pyongyang has not honored, including the 1992 denuclearization declaration in which North Korea agreed to forgo developing nuclear and nuclear-reprocessing facilities. The United States may have been slow to implement the Agreed Framework, but the North is blatantly breaking the framework’s spirit, if not letter, with its covert uranium enrichment program. But perhaps the best evidence of strategic deception occurred in June 1950: On the eve of the Korean War, North Korea put forth a major peace initiative to the South.

"North Korea’s Political and Economic Collapse Is Imminent"

Don’t bet on it. Observers have predicted an imminent North Korean collapse since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The country’s economic situation is desperate, but signs of political collapse are absent. The best indicator of regime stability is that social control, however vicious, remains solid. Although the flow of refugees from the North is increasing, there is no widespread internal migration, and few observable signs of protest.

Some evidence suggests that North Korea is serious about normal political and economic relations with South Korea and the rest of the world. By December 2002, North Korea had cleared land mines from sections of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea. Tracks are being connected on the Kyonggui Railway, which would run from South Korea through the western corridor of the DMZ into North Korea. Pyongyang has also begun work on a four-lane highway on the eastern corridor as well. In July 2002, the central government formally abandoned the centrally planned economy and allowed prices and wages to be set by the market. The government has also created three special economic zones to exploit tourism and investment and amended its laws on foreign ownership, land leases, and taxes and tariffs. Although these reforms have been halting and only marginally successful, they are also becoming increasingly hard to reverse.

Though the regime appears resilient, there are two sources of potential fissures. First, the decidedly mixed results of several recent initiatives by Kim — among them, his decisions to lift price controls and to acknowledge North Korea’s kidnapping of Japanese nationals in the 1970s — have exposed "Dear Leader" to potential disgruntlement in the top ranks. Second, the process of reform could create cracks in the regime’s foundation. As Montesquieu observed, revolutions don’t occur when the people’s conditions are at rock bottom but when reform creates a spiral of expectations that spurs people to action against the old stultifying system.

"China Has the Most Influence on North Korea"

Yes, but good luck getting the Chinese to use it. If a state’s influence on North Korea is merely a function of the North’s material dependence on it, then China holds the trump cards. Seventy to 90 percent of North Korea’s annual energy supplies, roughly 30 percent of its total outside assistance, and 38 percent of its imports reportedly come from China. Beijing played a quiet but critical role in inter-Korean dialogue leading up to the June 2000 summit. It also influenced Kim Jong Il and his decision to tentatively reform the North Korean economy by hosting Kim in Shanghai in 2002 and backing the creation of special economic zones.

Notwithstanding this close history, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials deny any influence on North Korea, complaining that "North Korea doesn’t listen to us, it doesn’t listen to anyone." But China’s protestations largely reflect its unwillingness to put real pressure on its neighbor. China’s traditional stake in North Korea has rested in keeping the regime afloat as a geostrategic buffer against U.S. influence on China’s border. It also has no desire to provoke a regime collapse that would send millions of North Korean refugees flooding across the border.

A different set of Chinese interests may now come to the fore. Beijing opposes nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula and delivered a dressing-down to North Korean embassy officials in Beijing in January about the country’s cheating on the Agreed Framework. For China, nothing good comes from a nuclear North Korea. Such an outcome could prompt Japan to move from merely developing missile defense capabilities to acquiring ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons. And Taiwan might also cross the nuclear threshold if the country’s leaders see North Korea successfully guaranteeing its security this way. While the rest of Asia provides China’s economic lifeblood, Beijing continues to throw good money, food, and fuel down a rat hole in North Korea with little prospect of major reform.

Chinese policy may change under a new cadre of leaders such as President Hu Jintao who are less wedded to the Cold War relationship with Pyongyang, which used to be characterized as close as "lips and teeth." Or more likely, Beijing’s hesitation to intervene may be tactical, as it waits for the United States to do the heavy lifting with North Korea (despite Bush’s rhetoric to the contrary) and then swoops in to help close the deal and maximize its influence.

"The DMZ Is the Scariest Place in the World"

Yes, if looks could kill. When former U.S. President Bill Clinton called the border between the two Koreas the world’s scariest place, he was referring to the massive forward deployment of North Korean forces around the DMZ and the shaky foundations of the 50-year-old armistice — not peace treaty — that still keeps the peace between the two former combatants. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, there have been more than 1,400 incidents across the DMZ, resulting in the deaths of 899 North Koreans, 394 South Koreans, and 90 U.S. soldiers. Tensions have been so high that in 1976 the United States mobilized bombers and an aircraft carrier battle group to trim one tree in the DMZ. The deployments and operational battle plans on both sides suggest that if a major outbreak of violence were to start, a rapid escalation of hostilities would likely ensue.

In practice, however, no such outbreak has occurred. North Korea has faced both a determined South Korean military, and more important, U.S. military deployments that at their height comprised 100,000 troops and nuclear-tipped Lance missiles and even today include 37,000 troops, nuclear-capable airbases, and naval facilities that guarantee U.S. involvement in any Korean conflict.

The balance of power has held because any war would have disastrous consequences for both sides. Seoul and Pyongyang are less than 150 miles apart — closer than New York is to Washington, D.C. Seoul is 30 miles from the DMZ and easily within reach of North Korea’s artillery tubes. Former Commander of U.S. Forces Korea Gen. Gary Luck estimated that a war on the Korean peninsula would cost $1 trillion in economic damage and result in 1 million casualties, including 52,000 U.S. military casualties. As one war gamer described, the death toll on the North Korean side would be akin to a "holocaust," and Kim Jong Il and his 1,000 closest generals would surely face death or imprisonment. As a result, both sides have moved cautiously and avoided major military mobilizations that could spiral out of control.

Ironically enough, as for the DMZ itself, although bristling with barbed wire and sown with land mines, it has also become a remarkable nature preserve stretching across the peninsula that is home to wild birds and a trove of other rare species.

"The Clinton Administration’s Policies Toward North Korea Failed"

No. The North’s breach of the Agreed Framework may make Clinton’s policies look ineffective, but consider the counterfactual proposition. If Clinton had not succeeded in freezing North Korea’s main nuclear facilities at Yongbyon for nine years, North Korea would today have enough plutonium for at least 30 nuclear weapons rather than the estimated two to six bombs’ worth.

Clinton’s engagement with North Korea also provided a useful test of North Korean intentions and expectations. Previously, the United States had little sense of the North’s interest in swapping its proliferation threat for external assistance. True, the debate between hawks and doves over this question still has a "he said, she said" quality to it: Hawks see North Korea’s violations of the Agreed Framework as evidence of the North’s lack of interest in such a deal; doves see those same violations as a reaction to the U.S. failure to fulfill the framework and still believe Pyongyang will give up nukes in return for outside support of economic reform. But now there is a baseline or "data" for a debate that previously took place at a theological and ideological level. Before Clinton, there was also no way to use leverage on a country with which the United States had next to no contact for five decades. Since 1994, the North has gained food, fuel, economic assistance, and diplomatic relations not just with South Korea but also Japan, the European Union, Australia, Canada, and others. Ironically, Clinton’s carrots have become Bush’s sticks, enabling the latter to pursue a harder-line policy by threatening to withhold what was once previously promised.

"The Bush Administration Caused the Current Crisis"

No. Bush’s "axis of evil" speech and his professed loathing of Kim may have exacerbated the current crisis, but they certainly did not cause it.

First, North Korea started its covert uranium enrichment program for nuclear weapons long before Bush took office. As far back as 1997, Pakistani nuclear scientists were shuttling to Pyongyang, providing technology for uranium enrichment in return for North Korean missile systems.

Second, prior to the October 2002 revelations [that Pyongyang had pursued highly enriched uranium to make nuclear bombs], and despite Bush’s occasional negative statements on North Korea, the United States had offered a string of consistent assurances at lower levels that it would pursue some form of engagement. These assurances included the creation of a package of new incentives and the expressed willingness to meet "any time, any place, and without preconditions." In addition, the Bush administration abandoned several initiatives cited as attempts to derail North Korean engagement — revision of the Agreed Framework and a push for conventional force reductions — after they proved to be nonstarters with U.S. allies. Compared with the Clinton administration’s effusive advances to North Korea, Bush’s aggressive posturing was portrayed by some media as a dramatic shift, but the U.S. predisposition for engagement remained. The North Koreans’ response? They refused to engage in direct bilateral dialogue with the United States, accusing Washington of high-handedness.

Third, there is no denying the harder turn in both U.S. statements and policy after October 2002. North Korea’s perception of the preemptive language in the Bush administration’s new national security strategy and nuclear posture review could only have heightened North Koreans’ worst fears. But Bush’s unconditional refusal to talk with North Korea didn’t create the crisis. The administration believes North Korea stands so far outside the non-proliferation regime that negotiating its return would be tantamount to blackmail. Should Pyongyang first make compliance gestures, however, then the United States would be willing to discuss incentives including security assurances, energy, and economic assistance. Sounds like a negotiating position to us.

"The United States Should Pull Its Troops Out of an Ungrateful South Korea"

Not yet. Massive demonstrations, Molotov cocktails hurled into U.S. bases, and American soldiers stabbed on the streets of Seoul have stoked anger in Congress and on the op-ed pages of major newspapers about South Korea. As North Korea appears on the nuclear brink, Americans are puzzled by the groundswell of anti-Americanism. They cringe at a younger generation of Koreans who tell CBS television’s investigative program 60 Minutes that Bush is more threatening than Kim, and they worry about reports that South Korea’s new president, Roh Moo-hyun, was avowedly anti-American in his younger days.

Most Koreans have complicated feelings about the United States. Some of them are anti-American, to be sure, but many are grateful. South Korea has historically been one of the strongest allies of the United States. Yet it would be naive to dismiss the concerns of South Koreans about U.S. policy and the continued presence of U.S. forces as merely emotional. Imagine, for example, how Washingtonians might feel about the concrete economic impact of thousands of foreign soldiers monopolizing prime real estate downtown in the nation’s capital, as U.S. forces do in Seoul.

But hasty withdrawal of U.S. forces is hardly the answer to such trans-Pacific anxiety, particularly as the U.S.-South Korean alliance enters uncharted territory. The North Koreans would claim victory, and the United States would lose influence in one of the most dynamic economic regions in the world — an outcome it neither wants nor can afford. In the long term, such a withdrawal would also pave the way for Chinese regional dominance. Some South Koreans might welcome a larger role for China — a romantic and uninformed notion at best. Betting on China, after all, did not make South Korea the 12th largest economy and one of the most vibrant liberal democracies in the world.

The alternatives to the alliance are not appealing to either South Koreans or Americans. Seoul would have to boost its relatively low level of defense spending (which, at roughly 3 percent of gross domestic product, is less than that of Israel and Saudi Arabia, for example). Washington would run the risk of jeopardizing its military presence across East Asia, as a U.S. withdrawal from the peninsula raised questions about the raison d’être for keeping its troops in Japan. A revision in the U.S. military presence in Korea is likely within the next five years, but withdrawal of that presence and abrogation of its alliance are not.

Victor Cha is professor at Georgetown University and senior advisor and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His newest book is The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future. This work was supported by the Academy of Korean Studies grant.

David Kang is the Maria Crutcher professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and a nonresident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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