“The U.S. po­si­tion is that a strike will take place if diplo­macy fails, but also that a con­flict with North Korea would be dif­fi­cult, dan­ger­ous and po­ten­tially dev­as­tat­ing to al­lies. Thus, the U.S. is post­pon­ing such an ac­tion as long as pos­si­ble”

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

The nar­ra­tive about North Korea, a nar­ra­tive I be­lieve to be true and have since early March, is sim­ple: The North Kore­ans have reached a point in their nu­clear and mis­sile pro­grammes where they could soon have the ca­pa­bil­ity to strike the United States. The U.S. isn’t pre­pared to let it­self be vul­ner­a­ble to the whims of what is seen as a dan­ger­ously un­pre­dictable regime in Py­ongyang. There­fore, the U.S. is pre­pared to strike at North Korea’s nu­clear and mis­sile fa­cil­i­ties.

At the same time, the U.S. is ex­tremely re­luc­tant to at­tack. The nu­clear pro­gramme sites are dis­persed and hard­ened, mak­ing airstrikes dif­fi­cult, and North Korean ar­tillery con­cen­trated near the de­mil­i­tarised zone could dev­as­tate Seoul. So as it con­sid­ers not just whether a strike should be made, but whether one is even pos­si­ble, the U.S. has been try­ing to mo­ti­vate China to use its in­flu­ence in North Korea to get Py­ongyang to halt its weapons de­vel­op­ment. The U.S. po­si­tion is that a strike will take place if diplo­macy fails, but also that a con­flict with North Korea would be dif­fi­cult, dan­ger­ous and po­ten­tially dev­as­tat­ing to al­lies. Thus, the U.S. is post­pon­ing such an ac­tion as long as pos­si­ble.

As time passes, it is i mpor­tant to re-ex­am­ine old as­sess­ments. The United States didn’t sud­denly in the last few months con­clude that an at­tack on North Korea was dan­ger­ous. The Amer­i­cans had to have known the North Korean nu­clear de­vel­op­ment pro­gramme was dis­persed and hard­ened, and they have pub­licly spo­ken about the ar­tillery threat to Seoul. But they might have been gal­vanised by in­di­ca­tions that the North Kore­ans had a minia­turised and ruggedised war­head and were close to hav­ing an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal de­liv­ery ca­pa­bil­ity. Given the de­gree of U.S. fo­cus on North Korea, how­ever, the ap­pear­ance of sud­den ap­pre­hen­sion is odd.

One way to look at this is that the North Kore­ans were also aware of the hur­dles in­volved in at­tack­ing them and knew that the U.S. would hes­i­tate. They there­fore de­cided to rush for­ward to com­plete a weapon that would threaten and de­ter the United States at a time when U.S. re­la­tions with Rus­sia and China were un­sta­ble and the new Amer­i­can pres­i­dent hadn’t yet set­tled in. They saw an open­ing they could push through to com­plete their weapon and hold the United States at bay.

The prob­lem with this the­ory is that North Korea didn’t re­ally need to keep the U.S. at bay. The U.S. has no real in­ter­est in North Korea. It has no de­sire to over­throw the regime, to re­form it, to trade with it or to visit it. The idea that a nu­clear weapon would make North Korea safer was du­bi­ous, and the regime must have known that. Since 1953 and the armistice, the U.S. was for­mally hos­tile and prac­ti­cally in­dif­fer­ent to­ward North Korea. On the sur­face, it would seem that North Korea had more to fear from ac­tu­ally threat­en­ing the United States.

In think­ing about this, I have be­gun to re­con­sider a model that I had used to ex­plain U.S.-North Korea re­la­tions since the 1990s un­til this past March and the begin­ning of this cri­sis. That model is what I call North Korea’s “fe­ro­cious, weak and crazy” pos­ture.

This strat­egy emerged af­ter the fall of the Soviet Union and the trans­for­ma­tion of China from a na­tion hos­tile to the United States into one that de­pended on it for trade. North Korea found it­self in an ex­traor­di­nar­ily dan­ger­ous po­si­tion. Ja­pan and South Korea were seen as hos­tile to­ward it, if passive. Rus­sia was in­ca­pable of pro­tect­ing it, and China had big­ger fish to fry. The U.S. was emerg­ing as a global power, no longer chal­lenged by other great pow­ers. North Korea was iso­lated, and in its mind, the U.S. was ram­pag­ing and top­pling regimes of which it didn’t ap­prove. There was no rea­son for it to think North Korea wouldn’t be a tar­get. Py­ongyang’s goal was regime sur­vival, and guar­an­tee­ing that was enor­mously dif­fer­ent.

The so­lu­tion was to po­si­tion it­self, at least in per­cep­tion, as some­thing not to be dis­turbed. First, the North Kore­ans sought to ap­pear fe­ro­cious. At the begin­ning, they ac­com­plished this with their mas­sive mil­i­tary (how­ever poorly armed) and by ze­ro­ing their ar­tillery in on Seoul. True, they had lim­ited re­sources, but the fa­nat­i­cal na­ture of the regime and its forces made the coun­try ap­pear dan­ger­ous and pow­er­ful be­yond its means. Fa­nati­cism was its force mul­ti­plier. No one wants to mess with a fa­natic un­less they have to, and no one had to.

The sec­ond el­e­ment of the plan, para­dox­i­cally, was to look weak. The famines of the 1990s were real, but they also made out­siders be­lieve that the regime had only months to live. The regime knew bet­ter. It knew that the in­ter­nal fe­roc­ity could be sus­tained and that un­rest would not turn into an up­ris­ing. But from the out­side, it ap­peared that the regime was tot­ter­ing. If the regime were on the verge of col­lapse, why should any­one take the trou­ble of bring­ing it down? Weak­ness was a de­ter­rent.

Fi­nally, the North Kore­ans said things that made them ap­pear in­sane. They acted as if they could de­stroy the world, threat­ened the U.S. with an­ni­hi­la­tion, and oc­ca­sion­ally sank a ship or blew up a group of South Korea diplo­mats. Fe­ro­cious as they were, why take the risk of en­gag­ing them?

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