[Viewpoint] Buying time, mocking conventions
Several years ago I came across what seemed to be an all-encompassing definition of power. That is, whoever has the most options has the most power.
For years this definition seemed to hold remarkably true. That is, until this decade, when a weakened North Korea has surprised and often exasperated the world with its behavior. To many casual observers, the North Korean leadership has been viewed as “crazy.” But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
The most common cause for misunderstanding Pyongyang is trying to apply logic by those who have many options in their lives.
But North Korean policy makers have few options. They hold their few friends in suspicion or contempt. They view, with justification, their nation being surrounded by a hostile world. Even when neighboring and powerful countries’ foreign policies are non-hostile, there remains the latent, long-term expectation that the North Korean government and its governing oligarchy will eventually fail.
This is not lost on the Pyongyang leadership. Consequently, economic and political independence are more than a revolutionary ideal: It is the foundation of the ruling families’ survival.
These elite frankly dread retribution from their countrymen, more than any harm from outsiders. Once the leadership’s mythology is exposed, most North Korean observers anticipate a political implosion, provided the Korean People’s Army does not intervene. And even if the army steps in, the general safety of the oligarchy may not be assured.
Given all of this, the nuclear weapon and missile development projects have been key to regime survival. First of all, the prestige of these undertakings underscores to the general populace the capabilities of their government and the threat from the rest of the world.
Second, the development of the same offers opportunities to earn hard cash from various client states around the world. And third, and perhaps of tertiary practical importance, these weapons offer a Swiss-style defense where the country’s invasion would extract too huge a cost for any nation to consider.
Over the past decades, North Korea’s hostility and isolationism, together with a long list of criminal activities, have resulted in most countries minimizing their dealings with the regime.
In effect, short-term tactics have remained, while long-term strategy has disappeared. The one remaining strategy is Pyongyang’s commitment to fully control the Korean Peninsula, complete with a peace treaty with the U.S. and other nations.
But returning to current realities, within their oligarchy’s view, there are no practical strategies for North Korea. For over a decade, foreign policy has essentially come down to buying time; time to develop weapon systems and for an unforeseen miracle to occur. At the same time, North Korea has gained a great deal of reluctant admiration for its skillful negotiations among its neighbors.
But one must remember that North Korea only has the one option: buying more time. The leadership dares not waiver as they fear the possible consequences.
Meanwhile, Pyongyang’s negotiating counterparts are regularly distracted by their multiple options, both within each nation and among themselves, such as at the UN or within the six party talks.
As a result, the weakest of all six nations, with its singularity in purpose, has proven to be the strongest negotiator.
This would be interesting simply if the consequences were not so horrific. The current global recession has exaggerated the world’s ineffective dealings with North Korea.
At the same time, the U.S. and its allies have been stretched over two concurrent wars. Recognizing this, Pyongyang has trumpeted its defiance, while thumbing its nose at the West and the UN. In so doing, North Korea may in effect be establishing itself as a role model for other nations who are consider considering nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
My frank concern is that North Korea may be opening the Pandora’s box of nuclear proliferation by demonstrating to other, smaller countries that the U.S., for all its military clout, is effectively a paper tiger. And if that seems like an exaggeration, consider if other countries followed the North Korean example.
We also need to recognize that it has been almost been two generations since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and almost a generation since Chernobyl. Even if future nuclear powers lack any serious intent to use these weapons, as nukes become commonplace, there is a greater chance for someone to under-appreciate the full and unique aftermath of an exploded atomic arsenal.
And we are not even considering the possibility of non-state, terrorist organizations having greater opportunities for acquiring nuclear devices.
Today, we witness multiple calls for a return to the six-party talks. While many of these statements come across as knee-jerk, some are comprehensive and thoughtful; but all are hopeful.
Still, none, as far as I can tell, really address the fundamental anxieties of North Korea.
A peace treaty with the U.S. would require recognizing the legitimacy of North Korea, but it should be noted that anything approaching even modest normalcy of international relations is frightening to the Pyongyang leadership.
Since ultimately, even peaceful, arm’s length diplomatic relations would set in motion uncontrollable forces that could lead to changes that the North Korean ruling elite construe as potentially lethal.
So where is this likely to take us? Within Pyongyang, a return to the six-party talks leading to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula might not be as desirable as bilateral discussions, though such talks would only be a tactic to buy yet more time.
As such, one of the great ironies in history may be developing. The weakest member of the six-party talks may prove capable of dragging all other nations from a strategic framework down to tactical discussions. In so doing, North Korea is making a mockery of conventional diplomacy.
The good news is Pyongyang may unintentionally be forcing other nations to create new foreign policy strategies better suited for the multipolar hegemony of the 21st century. The obvious questions are whether these innovative policies can actually be created.
And if so, can they be implemented in time?
The writer is the president of Soft Landing Consulting, a technology sales and marketing firm (www.softlandingkorea.com).
by Tom Coyner