Tuesday, January 30, 2007

North Korea doesn't want (just) peace?

Pointing Right to the Future as Early as 1991?
(Image from Wikipedia)

In a recent Washington Post article, Robert Carlin and John W. Lewis explain "What North Korea Really Wants" (Saturday, January 27, 2007, Page A19).

According to the Post, Robert Carlin is "a former State Department analyst" who "participated in most of the U.S.-North Korea negotiations between 1993 and 2000," and John Lewis is a "professor emeritus at Stanford University" who "directs projects on Asia at the university's Center for International Security and Cooperation." Both men, we are told, "have visited North Korea many times, most recently in November."

The have a rather surprising message for us:

What is it, then, that North Korea wants? Above all, it wants, and has pursued steadily since 1991, a long-term, strategic relationship with the United States. This has nothing to do with ideology or political philosophy. It is a cold, hard calculation based on history and the realities of geopolitics as perceived in Pyongyang. The North Koreans believe in their gut that they must buffer the heavy influence their neighbors already have, or could soon gain, over their small, weak country.

If this is true, then North Korea perhaps has a more clearsighted understanding of its national interests than South Korea does. But is it true? Carlin and Lewis admit that their interpretation of the North's ulterior motives...

...is hard for Americans to understand, having read or heard nothing from North Korea except its propaganda, which for years seems to have called for weakening, not maintaining, the U.S. presence on the Korean Peninsula. But in fact an American departure is the last thing the North wants. Because of their pride and fear of appearing weak, however, explicitly requesting that the United States stay is one of the most difficult things for the North Koreans to do.

Let's assume, for the moment, that the North truly does desire a long-term, strategic relationship with the U.S. and that it really does want a U.S. presence to remain on the peninsula. Which countries, then, does North Korea really worry about? Carlin and Lewis point to the six-party talks on the North's nuclear policy to illustrate the North's thinking:

The fundamental problem for North Korea is that the six-party talks in which it has been engaged -- and which may reconvene soon -- are a microcosm of the strategic world it most fears. Three strategic foes -- China, Japan and Russia -- sit in judgment, apply pressure and (to Pyongyang's mind) insist on the North's permanent weakness.

Historically, the Korean peninsula has had to worry about these three regional powers, so the geopolitical logic is, in principle, persuasive. What, specifically, do the North Koreans have to offer the U.S. in return?

Quite simply, the North Koreans believe they could be useful to the United States in a longer, larger balance-of-power game against China and Japan.

This sounds rather odd to me. Surely, the North Koreans would realize that the U.S. has a strategic alliance with Japan and would thus have little interest in a balance-of-power game against Japan. Is this a typo for "balance-of-power game between China and Japan"? If Carlin and Lewis had argued that the North believes that having a strategic alliance with the U.S. could be useful in a balance-of-power game against China and Russia, then the North's putative, implicit offer would make a bit more geopolitical sense. This doesn't mean that Carlin and Lewis are wrong in their analysis, of course, for the North may really think in this way, but this would mean that the North doesn't understand American concerns in Northeast Asia.

But even if North Korea's peninsular concerns dovetailed with America's, would a strategic alliance be in America's interests? Well, maybe, if the alliance could be used to gradually transform the North's political and economic system in order to prepare the North for eventual reunification with the South.

But why would the North go along with this, since -- according to Carlin and Lewis -- what the North wants is an American...

...commitment to coexist with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, accept its system and leadership, and make room for the DPRK in an American vision of the future of Northeast Asia.
Any American acceptance of these things would have to remain merely provisional, certainly not long-term. The North's "system" is so contrary to the principles of the free market, political democracy, and human rights that no permanent American acceptance would be possible.

Surely, the North Koreans would realize this, so why would they imagine "a long-term, strategic relationship with the United States" to be possible?

Carlin and Lewis do not address this central conflict of interest, which rather weakens their analysis ... in my opinion.


At 8:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I’m short on time so I’ll not beat around the Bush; Carlin and Lewis are flat out wrong. The short answer is that North Korea wants to survive, and if a long-term relationship with the U.S. was in that plan, the long list of chances presented and pissed on seem rather odd. Wanting to survive isn't the same as wanting a "strategic" relationship. Carlin and Lewis would need to write a book to fully explain such questionable logic, and it would take a longish blog post (or a short paper) to demolish it, I’d bet.

At 9:21 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Your analysis seems about right to me. The strategic relationship would work only if the U.S. could accept the North's long-term survival, but I can't see the U.S. truly doing that, and the North surely recognizes that the U.S. cannot.

In the long run, though, I think that the North's choice is neatly summed up in the question "Who would you prefer to lose to?"

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:30 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Threatening our natural national allies with nuclear weapons, transferring nuclear technology and weapons to our worst enemies, transporting drugs and counterfeiting astounding amounts of US currency -- these do not sound like the kinds of things you do to attract an ally, though I can see where it might make us more likely to stay put in South Korea. Thinking that Japan and South Korea could be our enemies is mind-boggling to me. Maybe the deep thinkers of North Korea are sufficiently twisted by their Marxist extremism that they could believe this, but not likely.

I think they're merely thrashing around for any short-term solution that pops up. The Post is overthinking the issue.

At 10:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JJ, I don't think that the article mentioned South Korea (which is odd), but the North's supposed view on an alliance with the U.S. against Japan would certainly qualify as evidence that the North doesn't understand the geopolitical reality (which is why I wondered about a typo).

Perhaps everything is supposed to be negotiable ... but I can't see how.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:17 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

I think the article makes North Korea sound like a bad movie with the woman demanding that the man know what she is thinking, even when she says something else.

NK: I hate you. (Meaning, I love you.)
USA: OK. Whatever.
NK: You don't understand me! Let's talk about our relationship.
USA: Um, er, SK, China, Russia, and Japan are stopping by for a beer.
NK: I want to be alone! (A nuke will get your attention.)
USA: I'll never understand women.

At 4:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CIV, good analogy ... and funny! You should write up an entire article like that and publish.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:38 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

I'm flattered. But I think you did a fine job of it. Thanks.

At 3:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, CIV.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:15 PM, Blogger GI Korea said...

Dittos to Richardson, this sounds more like people writing what they want to believe contrary to all the overwhelming evidence saying otherwise.

At 10:00 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The only thing going for the analysis is that North Korea has far more to worry about in the rising power of China than in the stabilizing power of the USA.

Of course, either way, the NK regime is screwed. Nobody wants them ... aside from the SK leftists.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a special place in purgatory for those who would "coexist" with this. Had these fellows lived in the 1930's, they'd have defined coexistence as calling for the end of the rodent fumigant boycott on I.G. Farben.

Ironically, the only way to get many on the left to pay attention to the atrocities in North Korea would be to adopt the authors' suggestion. Nothing awakens the conscience of the Human Rights Industry like a "strategic relationship" with America.

At 10:16 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Joshua, I recall that report. Have there been any more reports like this one?

You're probably right about the irony.

Jeffery Hodges

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