Thursday, November 25, 2010

Andrei Lankov on the Yŏnpyŏng-do Island attack and North Korea's "blackmail diplomacy"

The ever-insightful Andrei Lankov, one of my favorite pundits on North Korea, has a piece in the International Herald-Tribune, by way of the NYT. As I mentioned in my post on the Victor Cha interview, the good professor paints an accurate picture of what's really going on, but in the end admits there is no real solution (more on that later).

He starts by reiterating a notion often discussed in both anglophone and coreophone Korean Studies circles but heard far less often among the hoi polloi:
The world is likely to say that the North Koreans are again acting “irrationally.” But this is not the case — they are a very rational regime, actually the world’s most Machiavellian.
Indeed, they are reacting rationally according to the world as they see it. And the goal for us may be to upend that world view by no longer playing our predictable part.

Dr Lankov goes on to discuss China's below-the-radar role in all this:
There has never been a chance that it would surrender its nuclear program, which alone makes it possible to extract sufficient aid from the outside world. Finally, after two nuclear tests and a number of broken agreements, Washington has realized that no amount of engagement is going to produce a nuclear-free North Korea.

So nowadays the major hope is sanctions. Many in Washington still entertain the idea that a tough sanctions regime would make North Korea surrender its nukes — or, perhaps, bring about regime collapse.

It might take a few years before it becomes clear that sanctions will not work either. The major — but by no means only — reason is that sanctions are quietly sabotaged by China. China believes that domestic instability in North Korea constitutes a greater threat to its interest than the North Korean nuclear program, so it does not want to see Pyongyang cornered.
Come to think of it, Dr Lankov is sounding like I did, when I threw up my hands in 2009 and announced that "nothing can be done about North Korea."

The trick, then, is for China to see consequences (economic, political) to allowing its rabid dog to run around without a leash. I shall cover that in a soon-to-be-released Kushibo's Other Plan™, a non-military response to the Yŏnpyŏng-do attack.

Unlike Dr Cha, Dr Lankov believes that getting attention may be playing a bigger role in the attack:
However, the stubborn refusal of the United States and South Korea to provide aid and concessions makes Pyongyang leaders uneasy — not because they are facing an immediate threat of collapse, but because sanctions make them increasingly dependent on China, their only sponsor.

And this goes against Pyongyang’s basic diplomatic principle: Since the times of the Sino-Soviet quarrel of the 1960s, it has always relied on two or three sponsors, preferably antagonistic and hence easier to manipulate.

So the North Korean leaders decided that this was the time to remind the world of their existence. They chose soft spots of their adversaries (and potential sponsors).
That may very well be the case. Though I have a sneaking suspicion that North Korea showed scientist Siegfried Hecker a potemkin uranium facility full of Ikea-esque parts, the fact that they presented it is an indication of what they're up to.

The question, then, is what to do? Should South Korea break the cycle by not giving in? Would that risk more "retaliation," even an escalation? Dr Lankov, refreshingly, admits he doesn't know what should be done:
So what can be done? The easiest reply is to hold steadfast, and do not bow to the pressure.

This may sound great, but this policy is actually quite dangerous. A few more years of doing nothing will mean not only more provocations, but also a considerable increase in North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, missile technology and, perhaps, proliferation. In other words, waiting is not a solution.

In the short term, the answer would seem to be negotiations aimed at freezing the North Korean nuclear program — for a price, of course.

It should be done with a clear understanding that negotiations, even if a deal is reached, will merely buy time and make the problems less acute.

So long as the Kim family stays in power — and it could be around for a long time — North Korea will remain a problem with no diplomatic solution. It survives by making trouble, since it has to make trouble just to stay afloat.
Conundrum. Time to pull our cojones out of the vice.

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