July 5, 2006
Yesterday's launch of several ballistic missiles by North Korea served only to show just how desperate the regime is for international attention. The apparent failure of the Taepodong-2 ICBM soon after launch has backfired in terms of regaining the international prestige that Kim Jong-Il craves. The motive of trying to steal the U.S. thunder on the day that the Space Shuttle Discovery was launched was obvious, but it remains to be seen why North Korea launched several missiles in rapid succession. Perhaps to overwhelm and confuse our missile detection systems. Why would they take such a risky move without having a greater chance of success? Most likely, the technicians and military underlings were afraid to voice their worries about whether their missile was ready for testing. That was one of the greatest weaknesses of the Nazi regime as the fortunes of war turned against Germany in World War II, and no one wanted to break the bad news to the Fuhrer.
North Korea's desperation is accentuated by the miserable state of the country's economy. [Strategy Page] has an updated status report, making clear that the ultra-Stalinist regime is teetering on the brink of collapse. With most of the country's resources being allocated to the military, most people are severely malnourished, and industries are cannibalizing spare parts to keep machines running. For example, North Korea has refused to let the railroad engines and cars bringing relief supplies from China return. That is an incredible snub of its patrons in Beijing. We may be stunned to witness a sudden insurrection along the lines of the overthrow of Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989. That was another example of a fanatical totalitarian regime that was committed to an all-or nothing grab for absolute power, sustained by a propaganda machine and cruelly repressive internal security apparatus.
So far, the U.S. reaction has been relatively restrained, just the expected pro forma condemnation. There is no reason for anything more at this point, since the threat is much less than some people had feared. Military experts seriously doubt that North Korea is anywhere close to building a nuclear warhead compact enough to be mounted as a missile warhead. The possibility that the United States may have deployed some kind of anti-missile device to cause the Taepodong-2 to abort prematurely cannot be discounted, but if so, the Pentagon certainly wouldn't announce it. We have deployed enhanced Patriot missile batteries to Japan for point defense of Japanese cities, which is most symbolic.
One positive consequence of this action is that the United Nations has been galvanized into action, and that the deep skepticism by the United States has been validated. Our ambassador to the U.N., the much-maligned John Bolton, has gained in stature, while China has been badly embarrassed by the irresponsibly defiant attitude of its quasi-client in Pyongyang. Likewise, this is also a wake-up call for South Korea, which has been more hostile to the United States than to its northern cousins for the last couple years. Now they know who their real enemies are. Japan has at least been closely cooperating with the United States in expressing flat-out rejection of any missile tests by North Korea. Another benefit is that the futility of the Clinton administration's policy of trying to induce North Korea into abandoning its aggressive WMD program via economic carrots has become clearer than ever. I look forward to hearing Madeleine Albright's spin on the latest developments.
All in all, the strategic situation has improved markedly since yesterday, but there are still big potential dangers ahead. Unless some of the North Korean military officers decide to take matters into their own hands, there is a very real chance that Kim Il-Sung will raise the stakes in this foolish gamble. The "soft" attitudes prevailing in South Korea may yet make it difficult for the United States and its democratic allies to resist some fiendish act of terrorist blackmail by North Korea. Seoul is very close to the DMZ, and the possibility that a squad of commandos might smuggle a nuclear bomb through a tunnel into the vicinity of the capital city cannot be dismissed. Smaller countries that strive to build power via a defiant foreign policy are prone to engage in irrational, daring maneuvers, as I emphasized in my dissertation. The United States and other established great powers need to exercise a combination of steady vigilance and creative diplomacy to offset the "tantrums" thrown by the adolescent "rogue regimes."
UPDATE: Austin Bay discusses how North Korea's missile adventures have solidified the U.S.-Japanese strategic alliance over the past few years. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi drew much media attention for his recent visit to Elvis Presley's Graceland estate in Memphis, but he had President Bush had more serious matters to discuss. Koizumi has pushed hard for economic reforms, with some success, at least by Japanese standards, doing much to repair the damage to U.S.-Japanese relations stemming from decades of stubborn mercantilistic policies. He will probably step down from his post in the next few months, after an unusually long tenure of nearly seven years as prime minister. (See the Foreign leaders chronology page.) The rise of China as a military threat has convinced most Japanese that their interests are best served by cooperating with the United States on economic and strategic matters.