Cha Predicts Real Ugliness

22 Aug

Victor D. Cha Victor D. Cha, a former Director of Asian Affairs in the George W. Bush administration National Security Council and now Director of Asian Studies program in the Department of Government at Georgetown University, is again seeing storm clouds across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with North Korea.

The North Korean regime will not change because Little Kim studied in Switzerland, likes Mickey Mouse, and has a hot wife. If anything, another crisis could be looming: The death of Kim Jong Il and the politics of an unstable leadership transition, a new “get-tough” attitude in Seoul, and U.S. and South Korean electoral cycles constitute a unique confluence of escalation that has not been seen on the peninsula since the 1990s. This could spell another nuclear crisis with North Korea, or even worse, military hostilities that could threaten the peace and prosperity of the region.

The Obama administration stopped trying to engage Pyongyang after its April 2012 missile launch, which North Korea announced just 16 days after a food-for-nuclear-and-missile-freeze deal with the United States. Stung by the launch, the Obama administration immediately called off the deal and gave up on its last chance to get IAEA inspectors into North Korea’s nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. The launch, which North Korea claimed was for a weather satellite but tested ballistic missile technology banned by the U.N. Security Council, exploded an embarrassing 81 seconds after liftoff.

The spectacular failure of Kim’s first major public act almost ensures that another provocation is in the offing. He lacks the revolutionary credentials his grandfather earned as a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese. Unlike his father, he does not have a decade of training and preparation for the job. Without serving a day of military service, in September 2010 the junior Kim was made a four-star general and foisted to the top of the power structure at the age of 26 or 27. Even for North Koreans, who expect their leaders to start young so that they can rule for decades, this is a stretch. So Kim must prove himself — be it through another missile launch, a nuclear test, or a military provocation against Seoul.

But South Koreans are fed up. Since North Korea torpedoed a South Korean navy ship in March 2010 and shelled an island a few months later in attacks that killed sailors and civilians, the government and public no longer preach patience and stability so as not to rattle the South Korean stock market. South Korean military leaders have re-written their military rules of engagement. They are now prepared to retaliate for the next military act, possibly even going after command structuresin North Korea, which could ignite a full-scale war on the peninsula.

The South Korean conservative political contender for the presidential election in December, moreover, is in no mood to look weak on North Korea. Even if the long-shot liberal candidates who preach engagement with the North were to win, Pyongyang has a history of provoking a newly elected leader in the South to show who is the alpha dog on the peninsula, in which case, public pressure for a strong response would be difficult to ignore.

Based on my research of U.S.-North Korea negotiations since 1984, within an average of five months after a provocation Washington is usually back at the bargaining table, often because it wants to de-escalate a crisis. The Obama administration, facing a tough election, is not interested in offering exit ramps to North Korea, for fearing of being denounced as weak by Republicans.

Optimists often cite China as the answer to avoiding another crisis. The mid-August meetings between the Chinese and Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, may be a prelude to more economic deals and even a visit by the new leader to Beijing. But China cannot restrain Pyongyang from belligerence; and it cannot reform North Korea’s family-run regime, no matter how many bureaucrats it offers to train. It can only bribe them to return temporarily to a negotiating table that is now empty of other willing partners.

The only thing missing right now is a spark. Perhaps North Korea’s new leader is busy amusing himself with Disney and his new lovely wife instead of dealing with problems like the flooding that has ravaged the countryside. NGOs report that the food shortage situation is worsening. And the rogue nuclear and missile programs continue to expand. Infighting within the regime is likely intensifying, manifested in the surprise sacking in July of the country’s top military general, Ri Yong-ho. Some interpret Ri’s departure as evidence of the young reform-minded Kim trying to usurp power from the hard-line military.

It appears, however, that Kim might be trying to redirect the money the military earns through lucrative business activities toward his own patronage networks. This means there are some very unhappy generals in North Korea today. This could be a gutsy move by Kim; it could also be a stupid one if it prompts challenges from the military.

Even if Kim successfully consolidates power, he needs a new ideology in order to demand the blind obedience that characterized his father and grandfather’s rule. He appears to be downgrading, not celebrating the military, so he cannot copy his father’s “military-first” ideology. (It probably doesn’t help that his father’s ideology bankrupted the country in every respect except for making nuclear weapons.)

Kim appears to be associating himself with a hard-core version of his grandfather’s juche or “self-reliance” ideology, honed in the 1950s and 1960s, an era of relative North Korean development and affluence. The young leader has made himself the physical reincarnation of his grandfather — down to the Mao suit, protruding stomach, high-cropped hairdo, and hearty laugh. But this was also a time of deep ideological indoctrination, mass mobilization, and rejection of foreign contaminating influences.

Cha’s rhetorical flourishes contrast starkly with the otherwise realist premises of his earlier work. When Kim Jong-il died in December, 2011, Cha also predicted tensions. Yet, if the last few months demonstrate anything, it’s that Northeast Asia exists in a emotional dimension where rhetorical provocation substitutes for action by an exponential factor. Elections in South Korea will provide politicians with ample opportunity for word inflation, but the last thing voters want to see is a president who makes a mistake. That leads to caution, not crises. Seoul can negotiate with China on trade at the same time as it participates in military exercises with Japan and the United States. Although enough heated rhetoric flows in the streets, to grill a live octopus to ashes, South Korean forces are mobilized against a North Korean attack in a pre-planned simulation exercise with the U.S., not racing toward Japan.

This is a region with a lot of bark, and very little bite, that brings out the worst in all of us.

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