6 thoughts on “North Korea Plans to Test Nuclear Weapon

  1. Meh.

    Granted that it’s a nasty, screwed-up place, I’m actually glad that N. Korea has nukes.

    If they didn’t, George W. might have put his “Axis of Evil” rhetoric into action by now and American kids would be dying over there too.

    That’s what I always told people in 2003 when they asked, “but what if Iraq really does have WMDs?” I wish such weapons didn’t exist, but Iraq then (like the DPRK now) was one of the few countries in the world that had a legitimate reason to need a nuclear deterrent.

  2. Well… maybe. I don’t think Bush would be so interested in NK as it is. Somewhere I read that North Korea was semi-arbitrarily fit into the Axis of Evil list as a kind of politically-correct gesture saying, “See, it’s not just Muslims we’re targeting here!” Besides, I think more than anything, South Korean domestic politics (and economic concerns) are a deterrent against American involvement in North Korea. The current Southern “Sunshine Policy” strongly opposes any kind of first-strike military action against the North. Nukes seem to me more likely to provoke a 3rd-party attack (especially while DPRK can’t produce long-range nukes capable of striking the US) than to deter one.

    That, and the fact that I’ve read more than once that there are strong theories that suggest DPRK strategy, in the instance of a political collapse in the North, would be just to indiscriminately nuke major South Korean targets — to go out with a bang! and take the South, particularly Seoul, out on the way — leaves me particularly unsettled.

    I think DPRK’s army is among the last militaries whose possession of nuclear weapons should be seen as a good thing. Especially now, when they’re really, truly hard up and walking a thin line to avoid internal collapse.

  3. Gord,

    That “strong theory” sounds *extremely* implausible to me. What on earth would the N. Korean generals’ motivation be for doing that? What would they gain?

    The classical thing for hawks to say at this point in the conversation is, “well, you can’t rationally predict the behavior of madmen”, which is exactly the same thing that people like that always said re: the horrible dangers inherent in Saddam Hussein having WMDs. I think we’d agree that this was absolute bullshit in the Iraq case. Nasty and despotic do not necessarily translate into irrational or lacking all survival instincts. I’m not sure why the N. Korean case is different.

    Moreover, the record shows that, far from being intransigent madmen who would wreak random nuclear chaos with no benefit to themselves, the rulers of the DPRK are always more than willing to negoatiate with enemies in exchange for greater short-term benefit…e.g. they were more than willing to negotiate away their nuclear program in the Clinton era and only resumed it when the U.S. renegged and never delivered the promised light water reactors.

    You could well be right about Bush not really caring about N. Korea. It’s clearly not too high on the priority list. On the other hand, I’m not terribly confident that South Korean domestic politics would influence American foreign policy if the neocons did decide at some point that North Korea was next on the list. Every one of Iraq’s neighbors, even Kuwait, was on record as fervently opposing U.S. military action in 2003, but as Bush classically said during the election, “my job is not to take an international poll.”

  4. Ben,

    You’re assuming motivations of gain, and clear, rational decision-making. Yeah, hawks are going to demonize the North as irrational, and that’s *mostly* bullshit when it comes to Iraq — especially since Iraq didn’t actually *have* WMDs and most of Iraq’s neighbours didn’t feel Iraq posed a threat. (I think if you asked Japan and China, at least the leadership, they’d quietly assert that NK is somewere between “somewhat worrying” and “quite worrying”, by contrast.) But the difference is, DPRK actually *does* behave irrationally from time to time. They kidnap Japanese schoolgirls and Korean movie stars. They every so often sail south and attack fishing boats. They release insane propaganda in the news, and they (attempt to) have their populace convinced that the rest of the world is even worse off than the NK citizenry. It’s somewhat like 1984 and while there’s a level on which that is deeply canny leadership, there’s another level on which that’s deeply psychopathic.

    You also missed my point that an attack would be more likely in the case of collapse. A total collapse, the final stages of a collapse, is where you’d see an attack. Survival instinct doesn’t enter into it, since there’s nothing to lose. Until the case of a collapse, of course, no attack is likely. (Especially since the ROK and US military present in Korea alone could smash DPRK quickly… which is likely their reason for wanting nukes… but the nukes are scary because the state is so relatively unstable. People are checking *into* gulags because there’s more food and shelter there; people in gulags envy those with more rats in their huts as it’s more to eat. The DPRK is really, absolutely, totally screwed up economically, and I think it’s foreign aid, from South Korea and China, that are preventing total collapse anyway.)

    In any case, people of various political affiliations can agree that during a collapse, decision-making isn’t likely to be executed along clear, hierarchical lines… as I wrote in a recent email to Ian, who asked me more about Chinese involvement, it seems that a collapse in DPRK would be likely to go in several directions at once… peasants would be doing various things, various leaders in the military would be doing different things — some, say, plotting a military takeover and the assassination of Kim whilst others fight to defend him and the North Korean state, a few madmen blasting the shit out of the south, and still others, seeing the end clearly, cutting deals with China and perhaps bringing their troops over with them to support a Chinese stabilization effort.

    From what I’ve read, the North has shown itself to be treacherous, highly untrustworthy, given to fits of violence, and wholly invested in short-term gain. In other words, it’s behaving like a state during wartime, which, in a sense, it considers itself to be. However, the history of states during wartime show that some pretty horrifying things seem within their reach once the unmistakeable end is in sight: they step up their genocides, blow up shit for no reason, and start implementing scorched earth policies.

    I think you’re missing a couple of important points about DPRK. First, the neighbours are all quite worried about it, unlike with Iraq. Second, one of those neighbours is powerful, huge, economically important to the US, and even has shown signs of interest in intervening in DPRK — China. While the US might not like the prospect of post-collapse DPRK being under heavy Chinese influence, the prospect certainly looks more stable — less bad — than the current state of affairs, and possible much better, in US terms, especially if China turned the area into a big economic development zone bolstered by foreign aid and exploitation. (There was no state like China in the Middle East that would both oppose the invasion in Iraq, or effectively do what the USA (in relative terms) wants there.) Meanwhile, in DPRK, I think, the USA has less of a historical, personal stake. Daddy didn’t not finish the job in North Korea, for example, but more importantly, North Korea didn’t become the focus of White House discussions early on, even though there’s way more grounds to worry about DPRK than there ever were to worry about Iraq… I think DPRK is a “real with it if we have to” situation, whereas Iraq was more of a, “let’s find an excuse to attack” situation.

    Finally, I don’t know that South Korean domestic politics would prevent US action, but I do know that SK domestic politics could drive ROK into the arms of China, temporarily, and would make Northeast Asian antipathy towards the US even stronger than usual (except in an appreciative Japan). That, too, might not matter, but I suspect the US might prefer not to actually cement by its actions an alliance between China and ROK.

  5. Gord,

    Iraq didn’t have WMDs in 2003. They did have various chemical and biological weapons, however, in 1991, and didn’t use them even when directly and massively attacked, which seems to me to be a good example of why its a mistake to conflate evil with irrationality. The Baathists were “nasty pieces of work,” as Ian would say, but they weren’t stupid and they weren’t SPECTOR-style “madmen.”

    Its interesting, too, that the Bush admin’s hysterical reaction in the last day or two hasn’t even referenced the collapse scenario. It’s all been reiterations of the same tired old fantasy, recycled from the Iraq rationale, that All Evil People Work Together and the NORK’s might share their nukes with “the terrorists.” As with Iraq, no one seems to be able to come up with a reason for believing this might happen beyond the fact that its not technically impossible.

    On the rest of this, it seems to me that you’re deriving predictions from the premise of unpredictability.

    *If* there was truly nothing to lose (and in almost any situation, there’s almost always *something* extra to lose), then perhaps survival instinct per se wouldn’t stop anyone in the DPRK leadership from nuking S. Korea, *but* that doesn’t mean that it’s particularly likely that they would do so. Even if for the sake of argument, they didn’t have anything to lose, what would they possibly have to gain? *Why* would they do it?

    All analogies are faulty, and there are always relevant differences, but it seems to me that we’ve already seen in different countries several cases where totalitarian states have internally collapsed, and in not one of these cases has the collapsing leadership or rogue elements thereof turned to engaging in insane, just-for-the-hell-of-it destruction.

  6. Ack, I had a long response typed up, but then Firefox crashed. (It has indeed gotten more unstable of late. Argh!)

    Anyway, the gist was that:
    Iraq wasn’t necessarily at the verge to total collapse in 1991, so I think your analogy fails to relate to the situation of North Korean collapse…
    The American news cycle and the take that is circulated through the American news is significant because spin reflects what various political players are hinting about what may come, but it is also significant because it reflects what they think the American people will need to get behind the Administration’s decisions. As Bill Hicks famously said in one bout of ridiculing the 1st Iraq war, they’ll put a little dead baby fetus on TV if people will be more willing to back the government’s decisions. (Or, to go to real-wrold claims, they’ll strongly imply a link between Hussein and bin Laden… when nothing of the kind ever existed. Because something like half of Americans are gullible enough to still believe it today.) Putting a terrorist spin on it, to me, more than anything sounds like a way of linking it to the whole “War on Terror”… In any case, I certainly don’t expect that what’s put out for popular consumption on the news is going to be the real sophisticated analysis of the situation… I’d wager talk of “collapse” would make too many people think DPRK is more toothless, rather than more dangerous. (If t’s already collapsed, why do we have to go there?)
    If you’re looking for predictability, then look at how North Korea has behaved recently. In the space of a couple of months, they’ve played political cards that, according to previous patterns, would have likely been played out over two or three years. They did so despite the fact that those cards weren’t guaranteed sells — the ICBMs tested didn’t work as well as Kim hoped, and the US made comments about the nuke being a smaller scale than Kim implied it would be — and that in itself is a little scary. I’m no expert, but it seems to me there’s possibly a message implicit in testing those two at once. A deeper message, not “America watch out!” but, “We’re desperately close to the edge here, guys…” If you look at that North Korea has done in the past — kidnappings, occasional attacks out of nowhere, tunneling under the DMZ, and even sending elite units into the south well into the 90s…
    Why would they do it? Here’s one for you: ideology. You see, as canny a dictator as Kim is, he grew up steeped in DPRK ideology. People have done all kinds of horrible shit in the name of ideology, man. And desperate to prove themselves right, they do it even more passionately when it looks like the end is near.

    I’m no expert on North Korean ideology, but I do know that capitalism, and American-influenced culture, are seen as a canker on the side of the planet, and that South Korea is seen as a colonial holding of America. What dedicated Juche idealist wouldn’t want to wipe that off the face of the earth, once and for all, even if it was his last act on earth (or his last act in power)?

    We’re not there yet… and I hope it never comes — since collapse isn’t the only possible scenario. And I hop I’m wrong. But you’re underestimating the power of beliefs in this whole discussion. And as analogies I don’t feel are faulty, consider the actions of the Axis troops towards the end of the war. A lot of Scorched Earth stuff going on there.

    So I wouldn’t characterize it as “just for the hell of it” as much as action driven by cult-like belief in ideology.
    I don’t want necessarily to make the case that North Korea is “special” among totalitarian states, but it certainly is the closest thing we have to Orwell’s 1984 right now. A society that is literally brainwashed (though there are signs that that’s wearing off in areas, defectors still report widespread conviction in the Juche ideology), and starving to death. I certainly hope the Kim elite doesn’t believe the Juche ideology, doesn’t believe that it should wipe out Seoul, but you know, they’ve a long history of skirting right up to the edge of open hostilities, starting things up, and backing off. They’ve had several days worth of artillery pointed right at Seoul for a very long time, and they have been for years promising to turn the area into a “sea of fire”. The way they’ve invested in their military at the cost of everything else in the country, it makes me think we might, just might, be dealing with something a little different.

    I certainly do hope that you’re right, and that some motivation would hold back the leaders of the DPRK. It’s not as if I want to see Seoul nuked. I live there, as do many people I care about. But I don’t think it would necessarily surprise me, given what the DPRK is like, to see it happen sometime.

    What reassures me is that it’s not likely they can launch what they tested, at least not yet. There’s still time for that to be averted. The how of averting it, though, worries me too.

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