19.05.2003
Two Scenarios for North Korea
№2 2003 April/June

It seems that the U.S. media has successfully indoctrinated much
of the public, as well as a remarkable part of the world’s
political establishment, with the idea that the “aggressive and
unpredictable North Korean dictator,” Kim Jong Il, has destabilized
the Korean peninsula with his desire to accumulate nuclear weapons,
in addition to his million-strong army. The proponents of the above
perception believe that Kim’s goal is to threaten his neighboring
countries and, if possible, conquer the prosperous South. This
perception is strengthened by the fact that his father, Kim Il
Sung, pursued this very same objective in the 1950s. This argument
immediately suggests a solution, which is to permanently remove any
nuclear, chemical or biological weapons from this dangerous
adventurer and blackmailer.

To all initial appearances, this solution may seem
understandable. But what is to be done afterwards? Is it possible
to allow the dictator to continue to rule after his arsenal of
weapons has been removed? Well, if we follow the logic now being
practiced by the U.S. in Iraq, that would be a half measure. A
totalitarian regime, even if it is brought to its knees, is simply
no good: the world must be freed from the danger of such threats
resurfacing again in the future, while the oppressed subjects
should be granted liberty and democracy. However, this will prove
to be a more involved process than simply replacing the vanquished
North Korean regime with a friendly government; North Korean
statehood would probably cease to exist and the reunification of
North and South Korea is a high possibility. However, those wishing
to go this far to eliminate the state of Juche are totally
convinced that the Korean peninsula will thereupon be enjoying
peace and serenity.

Those who proffer such “unsophisticated remedies” blithely
ignore the fact that following WWII a united (although always torn
apart by internal contradictions) Korean nation gave birth not just
to two states, but to two distinct civilizations as well. The
northern and southern Korean regions share only a small percentage
of similar views; the remaining part is alien and beyond each
other’s comprehension. Therefore, many questions need to be
answered: Are the twenty million inhabitants of North Korea ready
to accept radical changes in their lives? Can one count on their
being suddenly obedient to their southern “masters”? Is South Korea
prepared to bear the responsibility for their destinies, which
would prove to be exorbitantly expensive? Finally, how will such a
scenario affect the international security of this volatile region
where the interests of the United States, Japan, China and Russia
clash?

The North Korean “nuclear crisis” which captured headline news
in the fall of 2002, proves that there are no easy ways to undo the
sophisticated knot which has been made only tighter through many
circumstances: Korea’s ideological and physical separation, the
half century of confrontation between the communist and capitalist
ideologies and the inherent animosity between the U.S. and North
Korea. So before we start undoing this intricate garment by tugging
at the nuclear strings, we must provide an answer to the key
question: are we for or against the overnight disappearance of
North Korea? This is the final question that underlies the nuclear
controversy, and it is the answer to this question which will
determine how dramatically the views of the states involved in it
diverge.

Juche Specifics

What exactly is the North Korea of the early 21st century like?
Briefly, it is a country which possesses few natural resources, and
operates an archaic, closed economy inside a rigid political
regime. This society is structured more along the lines of
Confucian feudal traditions and nationalism, rather than purely
communist principles. The closed and isolated society still lives
by the iron laws of Stalin’s U.S.S.R., made even worse by an
oriental reverence for those in power who rule the country by
anachronistic command methods.

Living under such a system, of course, is probably quite far
from being a positive experience. This is due not only to
widespread poverty, but also because of the absence of elementary
freedoms. For both the people of North Korea and their neighbors it
would be more comforting to see a civilized and person-oriented
system in place of the present regime. (However, one should not
forget that the Oriental Confucian understanding of personal
freedom is narrower than that in the West; this fact is proven by
the present examples of South Korea.) North Korean society is
undoubtedly growing weary of its many years of stagnation. It has
even given birth to a rather inconspicuous agitation, thus
signaling that it may be prepared for modernization if provided
with a reasonable course of action.

Does Pyongyang present an immediate threat to its neighbors? The
answer seems to be no. First, the thousand-year history of Korea
provides no examples of its attempt to conquer other nations.
Second, North Korea has no overt reasons for aggression (including
attempts to impose its ideology, capture land or economic
resources). Nor does it seem to possess the real ability if
provided with the opportunity. North Korea’s military verbiage and
militarization, which seems so striking to the visiting journalists
and average Western citizens, are aimed at exerting strict control
over society and scaring away potential aggressors whom the top
Korean leaders fear so much. Whereas the late Kim Il Sung,
humiliated by his experience of the Korean War (1950-1953), hoped
against hope that Korea could be forcefully reunited, Kim Jong Il
and his men are more concerned with their own survival. This,
however, does not prevent them from probing the possibilities for a
future change.

The present impasse will be broken sooner or later, and there
are two options for this transition – evolutionary or
revolutionary. The evolutionary way, which appeared impossible for
the East European communist countries, looks quite probable with
North Korea, as it is a country with a bureaucratic monarchial
system rather than one based on pure Soviet orthodoxy. It is not
too difficult to imagine the North Korean leadership welcoming the
creeping privatization of public property. It could involve the
principal state authorities – the leaders of the army and special
services, the party bosses, and local civil servants.

Under such a transition, economic conglomerates would emerge,
like the South Korean chebols, but with a greater government
interest in them. By attracting foreign (mostly South Korean)
investment and orienting the economy on exports (the low cost of
labor in North Korea could make its products very competitive for
exports), such conglomerates are capable of forming the basis of
the country’s economic development. The monarchic absolutist
political regime could continue while gradually abandoning its
communist verbiage in favor of more nationalist declarations. Such
developments cannot bring prosperity to the working people in North
Korea, but they could provide a more decent life, at least without
the threat of starvation. The absolute power of the state would be
reduced and a transition to a new model would not be accompanied by
horrible calamities. In 15 to 20 years Kim Jong Il’s heir (who,
according to North Korean tradition, is to be nominated now) would
inherit an entirely different country, possibly featuring
government-sponsored capitalism and entertaining close economic
ties with South Korea. It would be far from a bona fide democracy,
but more acceptable to the world community. One or two generations
later the reunification of Korea could be on the agenda – initially
as a confederation or a union of states and later, as an entity
suggested by future developments.

In Washington, however, it seems the decision-makers prefer
revolutionary methods which demand some form of external
interference. They cannot count on any oppositional allies inside
North Korea – any dissident activity in the country is resolutely
thwarted. Moreover, any dissent is simply impossible in a country
where everyone is shadowed and where there is no reliable
information from the outside world. Any attempts at a ’palace
revolution’ would only incite a more belligerent stance against the
rest of the world – power would fall into the hands of even more
conservative leaders than Kim Jong Il – or would end in total chaos
and an eventual surrender to external forces, which would carry
many awful consequences. The revolutionary option would entail the
liquidation of the entire government system in North Korea and
necessitate a replacement by an occupation administration from
South Korea. Even if power falls into the hands of the
“progressive” Roh Moo Hyun, this turn of events will most likely
suit at least part of the Seoul establishment. South Korea hopes
for a peaceful occupation, together with the creation of a rigid
administrative system over the North Korean population.

However, the people of South Korea fail to consider the likely
alienation of the North Korean population, stemming from both the
ideological and traditional discord between the regions, as well as
their predictable unwillingness to become second-rate citizens in a
united Korea. Numerous civil servants and the military in North
Korea will fear possible reprisals at the hands of their new
leaders, therefore, an armed opposition would be quite possible,
and it would likely win the allegiance of the local population. The
many centuries of Korean history provides us with a glimpse of what
such a fight would look like: it could realistically continue for
many tedious decades and may even derail prosperous South Korea
from its respectable position in the global economy.

The enflaming of tensions in the Korean peninsula was provoked
by a conflict between the opponents of the evolutionary and the
revolutionary approaches. The advantages of the evolutionary option
have become apparent for China and Russia, as well as for the Seoul
administration of Kim Dae Jung and the Japanese government of
Junichiro Koizumi, although the positions of these countries may
differ in particulars. However, the President of the U.S., George
W. Bush, does not seem prepared to tolerate any “rogue
nations.”

Why Does Kim Jong Il Need An A-Bomb?

Having consolidated his power in the second half of the 1990s,
Kim Jong Il began to seek a way out of the Juche impasse. He could
not openly revise his father’s legacy (although he did take some
encouraging moves, like apologizing to Japan for several kidnapping
incidents) nor put at risk the stability of the existing power.
However, Kim seemed determined to end the isolation of his nation
(in which Russia played a decisive role) by pledging rapprochement
initiatives with the South, as well as normalizing its relations
with Japan and the EU. Through other bold domestic initiatives,
such as bringing salaries into line with work efficiency and
building an “open sector” in the economy, Kim clearly demonstrated
where his main interests lay. It is due to these actions that
Russian President, Vladimir Putin, dubbed Kim as “a man of modern
views,” and continued his support for him – even during Kim’s
confrontation with the U.S.

However, Kim’s “modern mindset” did not prevent him from
strengthening the country’s defenses which would deter his enemies
from their attempts to overthrow the regime. True, his interest is
to preserve his power and his country. However, he is not dreaming
of “barrack-room socialism,” but rather a form of constitutional
monarchy, independent and relatively wealthy, such as exists in the
Southeast Asian country of Brunei.

Why doesn’t this option, in which Russian diplomacy and Kim Dae
Jung’s government invested so much effort, appeal to President
Bush? Bill Clinton, for one, had initial plans for a military
solution to the nuclear problem but eventually acquired a better
understanding of the situation. Eventually, he became a proponent
of North Korea’s global “involvement.” The objections emanating
from Bush and his administration probably result more from their
animosity toward “the last stronghold of communism.”

The White House is of the opinion that nothing should assist the
current regime in North Korea, despite the fact that there is hope
for a positive, yet gradual, change. It is somewhat probable that
any rapprochement of the two Koreas will jeopardize U.S. strategic
interests in Northeast Asia, including the deterrence of China and
the control over Japan. More importantly, it seems that the
Americans consider it below them to bargain with “rogue nations.”
This contradicts the very concept of Pax Americana, which provides
Bush and his team with ready-made solutions as to what to do with
“the bad guys” – Iraq would stand as the latest example. Kim Jong
Il has no chances to be taken for a good guy due to his background,
and not least of all to American stubbornness. This is why the U.S.
administration did not support Kim’s innovations and forwarded a
strategic decision to combat his regime. It had very little
difficulty finding a pretext, and wasted no time in accusing the
“rogue nation” of developing weapons of mass destruction. However,
it was through the provocation of the U.S. which caused North Korea
to reactivate its nuclear program, thus creating the danger for a
nuclear military potential in the region. Russia cannot accept such
developments since they threaten the region with the classic domino
effect.

Regrettably, North Korea does not rule out the possession of
weapons of mass destruction as a means of deterrence, and
unfortunately has the same insouciance toward international law
concerning WMD as the U.S. has toward international law in general.
The events in Yugoslavia and Iraq have convinced the North Korean
leadership that they can only rely on themselves. Even before the
relations between Moscow and Seoul were normalized in the early
1990s, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze was informed
that since Pyongyang was denied the support of the Soviet Union it
was forced to develop a deterrence weapon. The North Korean nuclear
program was undoubtedly of a military nature, but it remains
unclear as to how successful it was. Many experts in Russia believe
that North Korea does not possess the technical and economic
capabilities necessary to develop an A-bomb. Nor has it a special
need for one: it possesses enough conventional deterrence weapons
capable of inflicting an unacceptable amount of damage to U.S.
troops stationed in South Korea, to South Korea itself and to
Japan, to prevent an aggression. This is why the 1994 framework
agreement was particularly beneficial for the North Koreans – in
fact, they sold a non-existent product (the U.S. entered into the
KEDO deal apparently hoping for the collapse of the Korean regime).
Now the Americans wish to kill two birds with one stone. First, not
to “pay the bill” by accusing the partner of violating the
arrangements and terminating the framework agreement. Second, to
create the necessary prerequisites for regime change should the
situation worsen.

A u.s. Plan For The Campaign

In October 2002, U.S. emissary James Kelly accused the North
Koreans of secretly buying uranium enrichment equipment. It does
not really matter whether it was true or not: in the opinion of the
U.S. administration, the presumption of innocence does not apply to
the “axis of evil” countries, and compared to Iraq, North Korea
could hardly whitewash its reputation.

Understanding this, Pyongyang embarked on a very dangerous game
– it decided to make the Americans nervous and force them into
negotiations. North Korea declared that it “can obtain not only
nuclear but more powerful weapons” to counter the American threat.
The North Koreans counted on the experience they had gained during
their contacts with the Clinton administration, which would have
begun seeking some sort of a compromise.

However, the North Koreans failed to understand who they were
dealing with this time – their position only played into the hands
of the new U.S. administration. Although the statement was rather
vague and apparently propagandistic bluffing, the U.S. took it as
North Korea’s admission that it is working on a secret nuclear
program (there has never been any proof of that), which further
aggravated the situation. The U.S. stopped delivering fuel oil to
Korea under the framework agreement, while North Korea restarted
its plutonium program and withdrew from the nuclear
nonproliferation treaty.

The North Koreans openly declare – and call upon Russia and
China to be witnesses – that they are prepared to make their
nuclear program more transparent and even admit inspectors into the
country, provided the U.S. give guarantees of inviolability
(suggesting that in this case they will no longer need deterrence
weapons). Washington, however, has no intentions to issue any
guarantees; it declines to enter into negotiations with Pyongyang,
despite pressure from Russia, China, and even Japan and South
Korea. The White House is showing no signs of willingness to learn
the truth about the North Korean nuclear program. The U.S. has
proposed bringing the discussion to the UN where it hopes to build
a coalition against North Korea when the situation becomes more
opportune. The North Koreans have interpreted this as the U.S.
playing a waiting game until the Iraqi campaign is over.

Things will hardly come to war – the potential damage of
Pyongyang’s retaliation is too great. However, the U.S. is capable
of isolating North Korea and choking it economically; especially
since Washington can appeal to the world for support as the North
Korean moves are provoking international sanctions. Stripped of
humanitarian aid, funds from arms exports and remittances from
ethnic Koreans living abroad, the convulsing Juche regime – without
raw materials and energy – will eventually collapse and the North
will be absorbed by the South. This will take time, but then
Washington is in no hurry, as it knows perfectly well that the
threat coming from North Korean weapons of mass destruction is only
marginal.

Kim Jong Il has only two options: either he honorably
capitulates or begins a risky game and places the U.S. before the
dilemma: either it starts a military conflict or yields and enters
into negotiations with North Korea. Consistent moves by the North
Koreans to “raise stakes” (the reactivation of a nuclear reactor in
Yongbyon, the demonstration of preparations for nuclear waste
processing to produce weapon-grade plutonium, interception of a
U.S. reconnaissance plane) testify to the fact that they have
chosen the second option – increase the tension and provoke the
Americans. Nor do they want to yield an inch to the American
“doves” by agreeing, for instance, on contacts within the framework
of the UN Security Council.

Such a game may have serious consequences. Russia – which up
until now has unreservedly supported Pyongyang – may eventually
become North Korea’s hostage. Kim Jong Il does not seem prepared to
heed the voice of reason. If talks with the U.S. never actually get
off the ground, or lead nowhere, he will simply have no choice. And
a cornered regime may commit a desperate act.

Peace or war in Korea? An answer to this question will be
provided in the next few months. It is critical that Russia and the
world community restrain Kim from an irreparable act, on the one
hand, and help Bush save face and resolve the issue peacefully, on
the other. However, not every dialog will be efficient. North
Korea’s proposal to abandon weapons of mass destruction in exchange
for the guarantees of inviolability will save the status quo in
Korea. The U.S. proposal – multilateral negotiations – is aimed at
turning up the pressure on Pyongyang and eventually changing the
status quo. This is unacceptable to Pyongyang, and if the U.S.
insists upon its option, the Korean peninsula could be swept away
by a conflict which would far exceed the scale of the war on
Iraq.