In my opinion, a lot of the mockery of the North Korean nuclear test—the silly little man with his silly little bomb—is racism that reassures. It evokes the explanation for why many poor rural whites adopted a posture of racial exclusion instead of class solidarity with poor rural blacks in the American South: “because ‘If you ain’t better than a ****, who are you better than?’” We may have our problems, in other words, but at least we’re not North Korea.
But of course, the mockery has another, more unsettling note: that North Korea is one problem that we’re not solving. And we’d like to ignore that by retreating to the comforting assertion that the leadership of the DPRK is simply bugnuts.
It is an inconvenient fact that US North Korean policy has been a rolling fiasco for the last decade, climaxed by two years of chaos in 2005-7 as hardliners attempted to effect regime change in the DPRK through a campaign of financial sanctions. The effort backfired, literally, with the DPRK’s first nuclear test, in 2006, accompanied by frantic backpedaling by the Bush administration, and a half-year of desperate obstruction by the discredited hardliners. There has been a concerted effort to convert this resumé stain into one of the great achievements of forceful American diplomacy and, in the current issue of CounterPunch Magazine, in a piece titled Treasury’s Bomb, I have taken pains to lay out the little known history of this spectacular debacle.
Today, US diplomatic impotence vis a vis North Korea is acknowledged by a do-nothing policy of “strategic patience.”
And a lot of misplaced har-har about the stupid Norks.
On Twitter I saw the eye-rolling if somewhat tongue in cheek assertion that Kim Jong-un had conducted the test out of spite because the PRC had unceremoniously cancelled the concert tour of the NK-Pop band Moranbong for “anti-American lyrics.”
Actually, what it probably meant was that the PRC knew about the upcoming test, either because the DPRK officially or unofficially passed the word or because the PRC figured it out themselves (the preparations are not that easy to hide), and Beijing wanted to pre-emptively dispel any impression of friendly, hunky-dory relations with Pyongyang.
Mocking the DPRK’s nuclear dysfunction by questioning whether Kim Jong-un really had the vigor to detonate a hydrogen bomb also has an anxious edge. North Korea doesn’t really need an “H-bomb” i.e. a bomb that uses X-rays from a fission package to fuse hydrogen atoms and can be used to build weapons of virtually unlimited yield—and has traditionally been delivered by a strategic bomber force or heavy ICBMs, things that North Korea doesn’t have. North Korea does, however, have a vested interest in a “boosted” bomb, one that relies on the fusion of a tiny amount of hydrogen at the core of a fission weapon in order to increase efficiency i.e. release more energy before the uranium or plutonium sphere fragments and the chain reaction ends.
A boosted bomb bumps up the bang you can get out of a weapon small enough to fit on top of a Scud-based missile. And North Korea has a significant capability in these smaller, mid-range missiles, which can reach Japan and, of course, South Korea.
As to motivation for the test, it is apparently too simple for many commentators to even consider: the DPRK wants to convince the United States that the costs of not negotiating directly are becoming unacceptable as the DPRK improves and increases its arsenal unchecked in the absence of US engagement.
The flip side is that Kim Jong-un has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to distance himself from the PRC– an overbearing not-quite-patron with a predatory interest in exploiting the North’s resources and meddling in its politics. I suspect that the DPRK’s nuclear program is conceived as a double deterrent against the regime-change calculations of the People’s Republic of China as well as the United States.
One of the most interesting riddles of North Asian diplomacy is why the United States does not respond to Kim’s rather backhanded nuclear overtures and take this opportunity to stick it to the PRC by conducting a bilateral Myanmar-style rapprochement with North Korea, instead of continuing to endorse the PRC’s Six-Party-Talks formula for Beijing’s continued dominance of the DPRK’s foreign engagement.
Of course, the United States is hobbled by President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize-worthy commitment to nuclear non-proliferation, and the awkward fact that North Korea will never give up its nukes, thanks in part to President Obama’s distinctly non-Nobel-Peace-Prize-worthy effort to acquire some Arab Spring cred by backing the bloody deposition of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
In addition to creating a black hole of dysfunction, anarchy, and terror in what used to be one of the more prosperous enclaves in North Africa, the Libyan adventure undid one of the few foreign policy accomplishments of George W. Bush: the denuclearization (and renunciation of all WMD ambitions) by Gaddafi in an extremely expensive deal, whose outlines are worth repeating:
Gaddafi revealed and decommissioned his nuclear and chemical WMD programs under international inspection, acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention, re-opened Libya’s oil industry to foreign investment, and ponied up over US$1 billion in compensation for the Lockerbie bombing (if, as some suspect, Iran engineered Lockerbie as retaliation for the U.S. shootdown of Iran Air 655, the mullahs of Tehran must be grateful indeed). In return, Libya got normalized relations, a US shield from terrorism lawsuits, visits from Condoleezza Rice and Tony Blair, and the pleasure of receiving, incarcerating, and abusing repatriated anti-Gaddafi dissidents. The “Libya model” was actually touted as a precedent for bringing North Korea in from the cold.
Today, the “Libya model” works the other way.
North Korea’s jaundiced view of any security guarantees the US might be willing to provide is encapsulated in one of the rare examples of eloquence one encounters in its US-language press releases. In announcing the “H-bomb” test, the DPRK stated:
Genuine peace and security cannot be achieved through humiliating solicitation or compromise at the negotiating table.
The present-day grim reality clearly proves once again the immutable truth that one’s destiny should be defended by one’s own efforts.
Nothing is more foolish than dropping a hunting gun before herds of ferocious wolves.
If you look closely, it appears the DPRK is willing to show up at the negotiating table. As long as the nukes are not on that table.
A foolish consistency in non-proliferation policy is not one of America’s faults (or virtues), so any switch to a negotiated track with a nuclear-armed North Korea could presumably be finessed. For precedent, President Obama has followed President Bush in giving a free pass to India to bring its nuclear sector into the international system by brokering an inspection exemption for its nuclear weapons programs, and India has generously reciprocated America’s trust by proceeding with construction of a secret “nuclear city” whose probable objective is to add hydrogen bombs, real ones, mega-yield bombs, to India’s nuclear arsenal targeting China.
A factor in US reticence in engaging with North Korea is probably the PRC has declared unambiguously that North Korea is off-limits and Beijing will not brook any North Korean regime that is aligned with the US against the PRC. Washington’s road to Pyongyang, in other words, must run through Beijing. And the United States is not really interested in going down that road, and contributing to a revitalized North Korea that would simply serve as a more functional and formidable strategic and economic asset for the People’s Republic of China.
On other words, the US might tacitly acknowledge North Korea as a sphere of PRC vital concern—the northern analog to the much-contested South China Sea “core interest” formulation—but it comes at a price.
One price is maintaining the status quo of North Korea as a sanctioned pariah state, a resentful, needy, disruptive, bomb-detonating incubus that sees the PRC as selfishly and unreasonably blocking its attempts to engage with the world economic system.
As for the second price, I suspect that any US arms control-related priorities relating to engagement with North Korea on its nuclear threat and/or working with the PRC to “denuclearize” the Korean peninsula are submerged by the realization that for noble purposes of anti-Chinese pivot strategy and vulgar considerations of military contractor profit, it is better to use the North Korean program as a justification to make hay while the sun shines and slug in as many missile-defense systems as possible into North Asia and around the PRC. No need in rushing in to address a relatively insignificant threat at the expense of the greater strategic and financial good, in other words.
This is a mindset apparently shared by Prime Minister Abe, America’s BFF of the moment in Asia, so the threat/military buildup narrative inevitably has to get serviced before any thought of diplomatic jaw-jaw.
In the final analysis, North Korea’s “H-bomb” test is the price for doing nothing. And that’s a price it seems everybody is quite happy to pay.
Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.