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DC at Night

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Powder Keg in Pyongyang

Kim Jung-un surrounded by his military
For decades, North Korea has rattled its sabers with much noise but no resulting conflict. But now, with a young, untested Korean dictator/king in charge threatening nuclear attacks, just how serious are the words of war spewing from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang? Could a nuclear conflagration actually explode on the Korean peninsula? And what strategy should the United States employ in light of this potentially dangerous situation?

These were just a few of the key questions a panel of Korean experts discussed this week at an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) program entitled Powder Keg in Pyongyang: How Serious is the Korean Crisis?

"It's like looking though a glass darkly. We don't know how cohesive the North Korean dictatorship is at this point. But domestic politics are informing the threats that we've all been so thrilled by," said Nicholas Eberstadt, a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research. "Kim Jung-un has to consolidate the  throne and he has to consolidate the state."

A major problem is so little is known about North Korea's new 30-year-old  leader who inherited the mantle of leadership when his father died in late 2011. Under the rule of his father and grandfather, North Korea was recognized as one of the worst dictatorships in the world.

"Even the most brutal dictatorships in the Middle East pale alongside North Korea," said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia. Despite years of oppression and starvation, there is little chance for an internal uprising. First, the people are terrified and cowed. The government has complete control over the media and there is no social media to foment rebellion. "You don't have a (Nelson) Mandela for the people to rally around. You don't have the conditions that you did for an Arab Spring," Klingner explained.

As expected, the entire economy of North Korea is controlled by a select few. "North Korea is just one big criminal enterprise that happens to have state sovereignty," said Dan Blumenthal, the director of Asian studies at AEI. "The entire economy is a prime money laundering concern."

In its money laundering practices (Kim Jung-un for instance is believed to have more than $5 billion stashed away), North Korea's primary partner is China, which, of course, poses a particular problem for the United States. North Korea buys the bulk of its energy and military weapons from China, but its corrupt leaders also "buy their luxury items from their caviar to their iPhones to their Swedish pornography" from their giant, powerful neighbor to the north, Blumenthal said.

And while Chinese officials aren't always happy with North Korea's behavior, they are concerned with the possibility of losing its border neighbor to west-leaning nations. "China is reluctant to shut down North Korea," Blumenthal said. "It gives it stability on its border."  

Of course, the complexity of any American reaction is further complicated by its long, close ties to its ally South Korea. "North Korea is a really bad problem, but South Korea has been a huge success for the United States," said Abraham Denmark, vice president for political and security affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research.

Currently, the administration of President Barack Obama has been employing "strategic patience" with North Korea's posturing and threat escalations. "We've tried a variety of mixed carrots and sticks over the years, but the model of success for North Korea has yet to be found," Denmark said.

Meanwhile, there is a belief that South Korea may not be as tolerant of North Korean behavior as it has been. "Leaders there have been criticized for not hitting back, so they have changed the rules of engagement. South Korea is much more likely to respond militarily than in times past. And they will respond forcefully and exponentially," Klingner said.

And what about the powerful nuclear capabilities of the United States and China and the limited, but real, possibilities in North Korea? "No country on Earth has ever gone to war with a nuclear state, but it's difficult to form a North Korea strategy. You have such conflicting views on best interests. And if there is regime collapse, you still have a nuclear state with nuclear people all over the place," said Thomas Donnelly, a defense and security policy analyst.

So what exactly is the best way for the United States to proceed? Talks should be held. Military maneuvers should continue. Efforts to make China reign in its partner should be increased. But, above all, the process should be thoughtful and proceed slowly, unless unforeseen circumstances mandate quick action. "The United States must move step by step to reduce the menace to itself and its allies rather than a quick Nobel Peace Prize-like solution," Eberstadt said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
While the North Korea situation is serious, there is something absurd about a 3rd-rate dictatorship claiming that it will bomb Austin, Texas. For a lighter look at the situation click here to see what Stephen Colbert had to say on The Colbert Report. Click here to view Jon Stewart's report on The Daily Show.

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