26 May 2009

UPDATES: Oooh, Aahhh - Worldwide Condemnation for North Korea

UPDATE 2: Kim Jong Il apparently feels the need to announce his size by launching yet more missiles. One wonders if the only option here is to contain N. Korea, and prevent the sale of arms and weapons, and yet reports have Iran there already in observer status.

UPDATE 1: The President has announced that we will '... work with our allies to stand up to North Korea.' Isn't it great that we're now relying on others to know when, how and why to stand up?

As reported here the other day, North Korea conducted a successful underground nuclear test two days ago, and overnight (EST), the nation launched two missile tests. From the Guardian: 'A defiant North Korea fired two short-range missiles off its east coast today, according to news reports, hours after the UN security council condemned the apparently successful test of a nuclear weapon as powerful as the one that destroyed Hiroshima.' Apparently, and as predicted, North Korea really doesn't care what the US and UN have to say. That's nothing new. North Korea launches a test, we complain to the UN Security Council, the council makes noises, nothing happens. The US and the UN are fairly impotent when it comes to reigning in 'rogue nations,' as witnessed by last week's repeat missile test by Iran.

Of perhaps greater interest is the speculation surrounding why both nations seem to be pushing hard to conduct tests. Of course, it hardly matters when and why when you don't care what the neighbors think, but the potential reasoning in the case of Iran and North Korea may be more relevant than normally. In an article from yesterday, the Guardian raises three likely scenarios for North Korea. 1. Tensions over the possible succession to Kim Jong-Il. 'Signs of internal tensions have continued to grow despite Kim's political resurrection, including a cabinet reshuffle in which about one-third of ministers lost their jobs or were reassigned. A similar shake-up is said to have taken place among the highest ranks of the military.' 2. The normal paranoia under which North Korea operates. 'Jim Hoare, a former British ambassador to North Korea, said a second explanation should be considered: that North Korea was reacting to what it perceived to be threatening and destabilising external events, notably the ending of South Korea's "sunshine policy" that had encouraged deeper engagement.' 3. North Korea is descending into chaos, a situation that the Guardian understates as the 'least palatable' of the three options. '... the possibility that, increasingly, nobody is really in charge in Pyongyang and that the country is beginning literally to run out of control. If North Korea suddenly imploded, the US and South Korea might come in from one side and China from the other, Foster-Carter warned. The danger of history repeating itself was, he said, a "baleful prospect".'

Of course, calls for general 'military action' against North Korea are unrealistic and wildly optimistic, but it's difficult to see what other action might be successful. Clearly shaking our fist doesn't work. It might be helpful if China and Russia would fully cooperate with the US and Japan, presenting a unified face to both North Korea and Japan. It's possible that cutting off access to international funding and complete isolation may eventually bring pressure to bear on the nation. There are three problems with this second option: 1. North Korea may very well lash out in a way we are unprepared to deal with; 2. complete international compliance with such a strategy is impossible to achieve; 3. we'd have to stomach watching North Korea allow its own citizens to starve and suffer. A targeted military response designed to take out missiles and nuclear facilities may be the most feasible option, but of course, it would have to be completely accurate and successful to make it worthwhile. It's unlikely that either the President or Congress have the will to command such a strike, and its unclear if we're capable of it. It's even less likely that the UN would help with logistical support or personnel, leaving the US on its own to conduct such an operation.

Beyond the question of North Korea, Iran may be sharing information with North Korea and is likely to be watching the US and UN response to see how far we're willing to go. More particularly, both nations may be testing President Obama, and perceiving weakness in his determination to operate from international consensus. Additionally, Iran's most recent missile tests, along with its attempts to shut down access to electronic communication (email, social networking sites, etc.) in the lead up to the presidential election, may be more about internal communication. By all accounts, Ahmadinejad is deeply unpopular, having steered Iran's economy into a ditch, but there is also disorganization among the clerics that run the Revolutionary Guards. Ahmadinejad may be trying to win the election by benefiting from appearing strong and by capitalizing on the lack of a clear opposition candidate. A reformist is running, but there has been no clear signal that the Supreme Leader will back him. Ahmadinejad is a canny politician, willing to use a combination of bullying and bribery to win votes and temporary support, and without strong and clear opposition, he may very well win the election in June.

Whatever the reasons behind the actions of both North Korea and Iran, and they are probably multi-faceted, it seems clear the President Obama is going to need to do better than to pledge to 'work with our friends and allies.' Between his deep reluctance to take forceful and unilateral action, and the UN's perpetual unwillingness to take action of any kind, the next year may push the US into the same corner it experienced under President Carter.

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