Still Crazy After All These Years: what next for North Korea?

May 26, 2009 at 7:08 pm | Posted in International | 1 Comment

2004 team america 053

It’s not something I write often, but… thank god for Kim Jong-il. We’ve spent so much of the past month in an orgy of outrage over how much we’ve been paying to clean honourable members’ moats that some of us were starting to forget that politics can occasionally be about stuff that matters. Enter one cartoon villain with a habit of wasting what’s left of his starving country’s GDP on stupid nuclear experiments, and it’s suddenly okay to stop dribbling about dry rot and start writing about actual matters of life & death. It’ll never last.

Anyway, as you might expect for a country shrouded in secrecy and fuelled by isolationism and irrational behaviour, identifying the motives behind the North Koreans’ latest attempt to freak us out requires a PHD in Kremlinology. Many are taking it as a sign that the ailing Kim Jong-il has started the transition of power to some lucky successor; according to WSJ, the frontrunner was long thought to be eldest son Kim Jong Nam, but then he got arrested for trying to visit Tokyo Disneyland on a fake passport, and that didn’t go down too well with Daddy. The new favourite might be Kim Jong Un, which would be great because he’s reported to be a fan of western popstars, and the thought of sending Madonna & Bono there on a permanent peace mission is the kind of thing which gives me reason to live.

Others speculate that it might be a deliberate test of President Obama’s fortitude, an attempt to strengthen their hand for when multilateral negotiations finally recommence or just that the deteriorating ‘dear leader’ has grown impatient for the kind of trembling deference that all true tyrants crave. But whatever the intent behind these latest provocations, the episode further demonstrates the limits of what the Obama administration can achieve on its own. As David Sangar points out in the New York Times, the courses of action open to the Americans are limited to helping shape a unified international response and pursuing sanctions through the United Nations, and it’s not entirely clear that either of those things will curb the North Koreans’ aggression.

At the same time, the clamour for hawkishness will grow increasingly frenzied from those domestic commentators who’ve refused to learn anything from the misadventures in Iraq & Afghanistan. As Steve Clemons predicts, it won’t be long before Obama’s natural instincts of restraint, patience & dialogue become mangled by the neo-con noise machine as the excuses of a callow coward.

But whilst this incident rightly begs us to ask questions about the utility of American power in the 21st century, it should also make us ask questions about China. Clemons also reports that whilst the Chinese government has traditionally fed the North Korean people and played a key role in cooling international pressure on their nuclear programme, even they have had no joy in reigning-in their neighbours’ antagonistic behaviour. If the United States can’t pacify them, and China can’t control them, then what does that mean for efforts to reduce nuclear stockpiles? Could Japan finally build its own deterrent? Might Taiwan? Would China then want to add to its own deadly arsenal? It would be a deeply tragic irony if the era of a President who only last month made a very public overture on non-proliferation actually resulted in greater proliferation than during the time of his predecessor.

Of course, given the erratic, unpredictable nature of that country, this whole thing could blow over in a few months with Kim Jong-il’s government tempted back to the negotiating table by the offer of more goodies. But whichever way this thing develops it’s important to remember, as Rory Medcalf does, that the real victims of this mess are that wretched state’s repressed people. The nuclear card is the political establishment’s primary means of self-preservation: domestically, they’re able to paint the outside world as a place filled with violent aggressors who’re only kept at bay by fear of the Dear Leader’s military might, and internationally, they’re able to use those weapons to extort more aid, fuel and food from an international community worried that the guy’s just crazy enough to blow something up. Whether the situation escalates further or soon finds some short-term resolution, there’ll still be no respite for this malnourished, mistreated people.

Depressing, isn’t it? Perhaps we should just stick to writing about moat-cleaning, after all.

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  1. […] 27, 2009 by leftoutside After weeks of duck houses, moats, fork handles and so on some people are actually rather excited that something has happened. However, while some posts have been rather interesting, I was rather […]


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