Hanging on to old red herrings
Are we, who live in Seoul, a short distance and time away from a threatening North Korean nuclear powerhouse? One may think so, given recent announcements from North Korean think tanks and a February New York Times editorial.
There have been recent white papers issued by American think tanks speculating that by 2020, Pyongyang will be in possession of 20 to as many as 100 nuclear weapons. Furthermore, these ball gazers are guessing that the North’s engineers are making progress in miniaturizing nuclear warheads capable of surviving the vibrations and G-forces of being transported on missiles.
With all the current focus on the Middle East, perhaps the North Korea watchers needed to make some noise to divert attention back to their professional concerns. As one senior international scribe noted when I shared one of these papers, “What’s interesting here is the false modesty with which [the paper’s authors] acknowledge the difficulties of knowing what’s going on - and then the utter certainty with which they suggest they know a lot more than they do know.”
What I found to be even more ironic is the apparent neglect of North Korean history. Much of the current discussion centers on the ability of the North to deliver its nukes via planes and missiles, assuming that is precisely what Pyongyang has in mind. But even seasoned North Korea analysts may be overlooking an important aspect of the nation - asymmetry.
The North Koreans have always relied on asymmetry. The (1950-53) Korean War started with their Soviet-supplied army overrunning the South Korean de facto national police force. Their acts of terror and diplomatic actions have consistently operated via surprise by attacking from unexpected directions and often at unsuspected times.
As such, this weak country has been able to punch beyond its weight. And for that reason, I really wonder if it is spending much of its resources, beyond parade replicas of ICBMs, on systems capable of someday delivering miniaturized nuclear warheads. Rather, should the country be so suicidal, a much more likely delivery vehicle could well be a fishing trawler steaming into San Francisco bay or a shipping container offloaded into Yokohama.
Taking all of this into account, we naturally find ourselves reconsidering what the six-party talks are truly about. Ostensibly, the negotiations are for the North to abandon its nuclear arms. Even senior U.S. State Department officers admit in private the futility. The most realistic rationalization for the talks I have heard is a forum in which senior talks’ diplomats can develop rapport, so in the advent of emergencies, they can immediately get on to the same page and deal with the problems.
The North fantasizes that its nuclear program creates a survival guarantee for the regime. That is nonsense. It survives due to the complimentary, if different, geopolitical cynicism of keeping the North Korean status quo. Even South Koreans, once they get past their passion for national reunification, shudder at the cold prospects of what would be required for reunification.
The North Korean nuclear program’s real utility is to ensure that the DPRK matters to the rest of the world. Otherwise, North Korea would be allowed to brood and fester while the rest of humanity focuses on other more worthwhile endeavors. All of which suggests the neglected six-party talks may still have a more practical purpose, provided that there is a fundamental change in agenda. Namely, rather than nuclear weapons removal, the talks would focus on normalizing the North’s relations with the rest of the world.
But for that to happen, the six nations involved in the talks would have to make radical revisions in their foreign policies. For openers, the North would be recognized for what it is - a nuclear power. A pipsqueak one perhaps, but a member of the nuclear club. As such, the nation would have to sign up with the usual treaties and conventions associated with being a recognized nuclear power.
In exchange, North and South Korea would have to make changes to their constitutions and recognize the realities of each other, including according mutual diplomatic recognition. Impossible, one may say, but stranger things have happened in history. Given the shared but conflicting mythologies of the two Korean nation states, neither is going to surrender to the other. After 60 years, it is past time to properly recognize this stalemate and to move on.
Just as controversial, under this suggested scheme would be the recognition of North Korean refugees as illegal immigrants and that future illegal immigrants would need to be returned to the DPRK. This may come across as being heartless, but once the idea of not escaping becomes understood within a nation better integrated in the world community, pressure for reform from within is likely to build.
Finally, there would be the drawdown, but not total removal, of U.S. forces from South Korea and Okinawa as a means of decreasing international tensions.
Regardless of anyone agreeing with the above ideas, the concerned nations within the six-party talks appear to be incorrigibly hanging on to paradigms of decreasing relevancy with the 21st century. I’m sure that brighter minds can come up with a better breakout from the current impasse - but for some reason they are keeping their ideas to themselves.
*The author is a long-term resident of Korea and author of two books on doing business, including “Doing Business in Korea: An Expanded Guide.”
by Tom Coyner