Fiddling While It Burns

Playing chicken with the lives of others | 21/06/2009

From The Sydney Morning Herald:

No rush to placate North Korea

Hamish McDonald

June 20, 2009

There are several countdowns going on in North Korea, all of them related to the survivability of Kim Jong-il’s regime. One is to a deployable nuclear arsenal, with the markers being the test explosions of plutonium bombs (two so far) and firings of the three-stage missiles intended to carry the warheads.

Another is to the leadership succession, following Kim Jong-il’s reported stroke last year, his gaunt reappearance and the apparent nomination of his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as heir apparent.

A third is the largely overlooked rundown of North Korea’s food stocks. According to some analysis from Seoul, supplies of food staples for most of its 23 million people will run out by the end of next month, and for the regime’s nomenklatura a month or so later.

 This article nicely sums up a game that’s been going on for a long time. Basically, the West (here including South Korea and Japan) has all the leverage it should need over North Korea: the nation starves to death or grinds to a halt not long after they stop feeding it and supplying it with oil. The only cards North Korea holds are nuclear brinksmanship and a potential first strike on Seoul or Japan, and the lives of its peasantry. Between one and the other North Korea has managed to get what it needs to keep going for two decades after the end of the Cold War.

The combination of unwillingness to starve millions of North Koreans, and unwillingness to risk major regional destabilisation, such as a Korean peninsula at war (and the millions of lives a North Korean first-strike could easily cost), has meant that North Korea can offer to unload the gun when it’s in dire straits, as it did last year when it appeared to be accepting some extent of de-nuclearisation when harvests were low,  then never actually follow through, as this year when it refused access to agreed-upon observers and followed up with nuclear and missile testing

The Obama administration is playing hardball right now, refusing to concede to North Korea’s demands:

Neither Washington nor Seoul is rushing to placate the North Koreans. “I’m tired of buying the same horse twice,” the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, said. Meeting Lee Myong-bak this week, Obama said he would end a “cycle” in which North Korea created nuclear crises to win food, fuel and other concession, before inventing excuses to start again. “This is a pattern they’ve come to expect,” Obama said. “We are going to break that pattern.”

Calling North Korea’s bluff is a dangerous game. Obama is proposing to corner the regime; no one is yet sure how Pyongyang will react. They will certainly sacrifice millions of North Korean lives to starvation before yielding. We can assume that if Obama is still willing to sabre-rattle like this, he has reliable evidence that the North Koreans have yet to weaponise their nuclear capabilities, but conventional forces are more than enough to destroy Seoul.

The moment of reckoning may seem to be coming with North Korea, but it’s seemed to come every year or so for the last decade. We’ll have to watch and see whether it actually comes this time.

Iranian protests continue

The first genuine massacre of protestors has been reported from Iran. Barack Obama has issued his first statement firmly supporting protestors. Not sure which happened first.

The situation definitely needs a light touch – the Iranian regime would love nothing more than to have an outside agent interfering right now. If Obama had called for regime change two days ago, the conservatives would have ordered everyone mowed down in the streets, and still retained their legitimacy in the eyes of a significant proportion of the population. By couching this purely in the terms of human rights, and only then after a massacre, Obama is showing the support Iranians need without giving the regime the excuse it wants.

How far this ‘green movement’ goes really depends on the regime itself; the protests might die nonviolently if left to run for a few weeks. However, it’s become pretty clear that the hardline conservatives must now choose between an Islamic Republic slowly evolving toward a freer society, or spending the rest of their lives fighting the turning of the tides with the blood of innocents, before a final defeat. True men of religion would choose the first option; on the other hand, true men of religion would have dedicated themselves to pursuing religion within themselves, not using paramilitaries to beat it into others, so I suspect the latter option is more likely.

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