By now it is commonly known that the reclusive and autocratic North Korean regime has conducted a nuclear weapon’s test. purportedly much more successful than one conducted some years ago during the sunshine policy of the former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun who very recently committed suicide. This move is a clear thumb in the eye to President Obama’s new approach to foreign policy, and true to form he responded by letting the North Koreans know that they’ve been very naughty boys and girls and issuing a stern warning… something along the lines of “You do not want me to pull this car over!!”
Of course, I don’t blame Obama, and after all Joe bigmouth Biden did warn us that Obama would be tested and that it wouldn’t look like he would know what he was doing.
“Watch. We’re going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy. And he’s going to need help . . . to stand with him. Because it’s not going to be apparent initially; it’s not going to be apparent that we’re right.”
It’s a scary thing when Joe Biden is the most reliable figure in the administration.
Seriously though, North Korea has been an enigmatic puzzle for years. It is an autocratic Stalinist regime saturated in a cult of personality. Unlike most socialist states however, the leadership of North Korea really functions more like a heritable monarchy than anything else. And just like in monarchies of old, without a clear line of succession among the eligible heirs (Kim Jong-Il’s sons) there is much speculation about who the next leader of North Korea will be. More immediately though is the rabid questioning about just what is meant by the North’s pursuit of nuclear weapons technology.
I’m not a foreign affairs expert, but I believe that though the North Korean dictator may be brutal, he is not entirely irrational. Further, the effects collapse of the Soviet Union and the rapid growth of their only ally, China, have not been lost on the closed state. Despite famine like conditions in recent years and a stagnating economy, for several decades following the Korean War, North Korea actually outpaced the south in economic growth and standard of living. The last two decades have been devastating for the North Korean economy, and yet the demands of maintaining the world’s fifth largest military while possessing a 3rd world level of national income has been extremely challenging to say the least.
I believe that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have less to do with foreign policy directly, and have a great deal to do with the internal workings of the Korean political and economic system. It is little known that following the devastating famines of the 1990’s and the concurrent collapse of large scale economic aid from the Soviets, the north embarked on some small economic reform. Such reforms included the development of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in conjunction with South Korea. This joint venture is a major source of much needed hard currency for the North Korean regime, and its closure would hit the North Korean economy badly. These reforms have clearly stalled along with the North Korean economy, and the inclusion of North Korea in Bush’s Axis of Evil didn’t help.
Maintaining a large military and keeping the military leaders who are the base of his power happy, is a key aim of Kim Jong-Il. By acquiring a viable nuclear deterrent, and possibly a nuclear export business (God forbid!!) Kim will be able to redirect from resources away from the maintenance of a large conventional military and toward other parts of the economy. Though Korea seems threatening, I do not believe that Kim would launch what would inevitably be a suicidal attack on any of its neighbors, nor do I believe that China would permit that level of aggression, which would injure China’s interests as well. If however, the North Koreans are able to shift their resources, it may be possible to jumpstart the economy with Chinese style reforms that would radically reshape the diplomatic landscape in northeast Asia. I do not believe that Kim’s interest in self preservation is ultimately served by keeping his people at subsistence levels and living in the equivalent of a large scale prison camp. Kim is interested in the preservation of his own power, and like any politician, he has constituencies who interests he must consider.