Friday, October 13, 2006

Approaching North Korea: Realpolitik plus Human Rights

Let's not just flare up!
(Image from Wikipedia)

Let's assume that that, despite some nagging doubts, the North Koreans have indeed tested a nuclear weapon.

Granted, at about 500 tons of explosive force, the power was only one-fortieth the size of the atomic bomb that the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki. Thus, the test might have been faked using TNT.

However, Michael Levi, science and technology expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues in a New Republic article, "What Really Matters About North Korea's Nuke" (New Republic Online, October 12, 2006), that a faked test is unlikely:
Coordinating the detonation of several hundred tons of conventional explosives is not a simple task. More importantly, if any country could demonstrate that the detonation was indeed conventional, it would cause North Korea profound humiliation.
Levi doesn't explain this point, but I suppose that he means that getting a lot of TNT (or whatever) to go off simultaneously in one large explosion rather than sequentially in a number of smaller explosions is difficult. The test was therefore far more likely to have been genuinely nuclear than faked. Why, then, such a low payload? Levi cites three possibilities:
[T]he test may have been a partial failure. In an implosion bomb, which most believe North Korea has developed, high explosives are used to compress plutonium. If the explosives compress the material partially, but not as much as expected, the explosive power is reduced.

[Another] possibility is luck. A nuclear detonation depends on a certain random element. For this reason, U.S. military analysts estimated that the Nagasaki bomb, before it was dropped, had a twelve percent chance of falling short of its 20-kiloton potential. North Korea may have been unlucky in its roll of the dice.

A final theory holds that North Korea chose to test a more sophisticated weapon whose power was lower by design. Yet
North Korea apparently told China that its bomb would have a power of four kilotons -- substantially larger than the actual explosion.
Levi leaves us hanging on that last point ... or are we supposed to reject number three? Anyway, I'd go with the first or second theory, neither of which is clearly enough distinguished to clarify the difference, but I suppose the difference is that even if the plutonium is properly compressed, the randomness of chain reactions leaves open the possibility of lower-level explosion.

Anyway, let's assume the explosion was indeed nuclear. What now?

Well, let's look on the bright side of this nuclear flash. It has illuminated -- by the bristly manner in which the North Koreans have conducted themselves -- the underlying tensions that North Korea has with China.

Realpolitik -- and here we need a Nixon -- would dictate that the U.S. take geopolitical advantage of this opening and make a bold offer. Along with Japan and South Korea, the U.S. could offer "a peace treaty, full diplomatic relations, economic investment, and ... implicitly ... independence from China, at whom the nuclear test was partially aimed" (as I suggested yesterday at DPRK).

I know -- this is the failed "Sunshine Policy" writ large, but hear me out. Some of you may recall my March 2005 meeting with Korea University's emeritus professor of philosophy Shin Il Chul, one of the intellectual forces behind Korea's "New Right" movement (but who has, regretably, since passed away). If you recall, I was impressed by Professor Shin, about whom my wife learned this:
[I]n the 1970s, Professor Shin was invited by then-dictator President Park to join the government in an important position, but Shin refused. Why? Because, as he privately told Min, "Someday, I will want to have the moral right to criticize this dictatorship, and I can't do that if I join it."
Interestingly, Shin did not oppose engagement with North Korea but argued that it needed grounding in the classical liberal tradition:

From my own talk with Shin as well as from an NKHR lecture that he gave in 2001, I know that by "liberty," he means more than merely economic freedoms. At that meeting, he told me that he intends the liberal tradition's grounding in human rights. Neither the left nor the right in Korea have emphasized this, he explained, and he argued that this neglect is the main flaw in the "Sunshine Policy" of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

Shin thinks that engagement with the North should have been modeled on the Helsinki Accords, which emphasized human rights and cited the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If this had been an integral part of South Korea's Sunshine Policy, then economic engagement would have been conditional upon the North's commitment to human rights.

Would this work? I don't know, but do we lose anything by trying? As things stand right now, North Korea has nuclear weapons that work and that will improve with further testing. China, despite its anger at Kim Jong-il, will be unwilling to apply tough sanctions because these might either drive the North into the arms of another (e.g., Russia) or send the North spiraling into chaos, with unpredictable consequences. China, therefore, will do nothing to endanger North Korea's stability. If the U.S., along with Japan and South Korea, were to impose sanctions and isolate the North further, this would have the effect of driving North Korea closer to China but do nothing to alter Kim Jong-il's behavior. The only effective card that we have is to make a generous offer of peace in return for a human rights agreement and hope that North Korea fears China's long-term aims more than it fears engagement with the U.S. and its Asian allies.

If North Korea would take the bait, then over time, we could open that society up through the lure of capitalist 'corruption' as North Korean officials come to see that its democratic, capitalist 'friends' have more to offer than the Kim dynasty ever has.

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At 7:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The only effective card that we have is to make a generous offer of peace in return for a human rights agreement"

Interesting concept. What would Kim have to agree to in regards to human rights? Would it be something along the lines of us giving food etc. and then have monitors there to make sure they people actually get it? In other words, he would have to make sure his people are no longer starving to death?

It just seems like all this has been tried before, but maybe without the peace deal. What is the likelihood he would keep his end of the bargain?

And what if he takes the money and continues to build the nukes? Or will that be part of the deal?

Since there aren't really any good options, I think this is at least worth thinking/talking about, but would like to get a better understanding of what it might mean or rather, how it would look in practice.

At 8:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Cynthia, I'll have to think more about this issue before responding in any substantive way, but I'll return to your question when I have some words worth reading.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:33 AM, Blogger Al-Ozarka said...

Personally--call me brutal, immoral, evil...whatever--I think it's time that the U.S. gave the world something to talk about.


At 12:11 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Daddio, if we could pinpoint the nomenklatura and take them out instantly, thereby freeing the rest of the North Koreans to reunify with the South, then I'd be in favor of sending in the smart missiles.

But I know that we can't do that, and the North Korean military would strike back by raining missiles down on Seoul and killing a lot of people.

In which case, it's probably "Bye-bye, Gypsy Scholar."

But I'd go down blogging...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:18 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

I really doubt that Kim Jung-Il has the ability to implement better human rights. For dictators, everything hinges on the need to maintain power. They are usually as nasty as they have to be in order to keep the internal opposition from coalescing. It is a positive feedback loop. The need for increasingly provocative acts to keep his people, his military, focused on the external enemy can only go on so long. No matter what its motives have been for propping up the regime, the PRC will eventually reach its limit of tolerance. The US govt., despite handing this off to China, is also getting pretty nervous and may take actions of its own. There are so many bad things that can come from this.

The only thing that has made the human rights situation tolerable is anticipation of imminent collapse.
Whatever form that collapse may takes, the important question is how much destruction will be unleashed and how far down the collapse will take the North Korean people. I believe that the PRC and the US have just been enablers in delaying the inevitable. We are going to pay now, or pay more later.

You may be right that the PRC is going to keep helping them, but the true Realpolitik solution is to stop procrastinating. We need to accept the fact that we are dealing with a nuclear nation that has no controls. They have shown the expertise, and we shouldn't nurse foolish hopes that they are only bluffing.

It is really too late to do the China trick. Any business or assistance we give them will only be diverted toward more military enhancement, undermining any possible economic benefit. They cannot be corrupted or diverted from their central madness.

At 3:45 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JJ, thanks for the comments. As I noted to Cynthia, I'll need to reflect more before replying to criticisms of engaging North Korea.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:17 PM, Blogger GI Korea said...

Kim Jong-il would never agree to any human rights monitors because he has to keep absolute control of the people through intimidation and fear. There is no way he will let human rights inspectors into one of his prison gulags.

I do wish that more people would bring up the human rights issue though. The left really loses all creditbility with me when groups like Amnesty International routinely condemn the US for human rights violations at Gitmo which have been proven to be false but that is a whole different topic, but these same people do nothing about North Korean gulags.

It has been left to many conservative church groups to lead the charge on human rights in North Korea when it seems like this is an issue that both the left and right could work together on.

So I definitely share your spirit and maybe something symbolically about human rights could be put into the sanctions but as far as anything would really make a difference the North Koreans would never allow.

At 9:07 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, GI Korea, for the input.

You know, I used to belong to Amnesty International back in the early 90s, and I wrote letters politely asking for better treatment for political prisoners -- often in places like Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

I sometimes now wonder how many Islamists my letters freed. Probably none, but still...

I continue to hold more or less the same views on things like torture, restricted speech, etc., but Amnesty International often seems to be politicized, and I react to some of their announcements about the same way that I do when somebody of mixed stature or uncertain quality, respectively, wins the Nobel Prize in Peace or Literature, i.e., cynically.

It's sad that so many honors and organizations have become obscurely but perceptibly debased.

Anyway, I'm still thinking about this Korean issue ... and will perhaps post on it again when I have something substantive to say.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:51 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

It's an interesting idea, but...
How can you make a deal with a known liar and cheater?

At 5:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CIV, you figure out what he most desires and most fears.

That's a start, anyway...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:54 AM, Blogger Al-Ozarka said...

Sorry, Jeffery.


Maybe if we just took out Chavez instead?


At 11:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think that Chavez will self-destruct sometime soon. Why, how long can he last when he's stopping the Venezuelans from buying beer on the street?

Not a smart political move.

Jeffery Hodges

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