What does one do with North Korea?


DURING a United Nations session in the 1960s, Nikita Khrushchev pounded on a table with his shoe. The leader of the Soviet Union, the man responsible for thousands of nuclear warheads, was hammering his point with his shoe.  

People were shocked enough to say: “Let’s give him what he wants else he might be crazy enough to blow up the world!”  

A similar scene is being played out by North Korea today. Instead of banging shoes, North Korea has in the past decade alone, shot at naval ships, landed commandos via submarine in South Korea, kidnapped foreign nationals, and launched a missile over the airspace of Japan.  

Last year, the North Koreans were discovered to be secretly pursuing a uranium-enriching program that went against the 1994 Agreed Framework. A diplomatic brouhaha broke out.  

This time the Bush administration does not seem to intend to give North Korea what it wants. There lies the crux of the problem: what to do with North Korea?  

One school of thought advocated by hardliners in the Bush administration is that the crazies in North Korea are primarily responsible for the present nuclear crisis and thus a regime change is essential. What would do the trick is economic and diplomatic pressure, and if all else fails, pre-emptive military strikes.  

The second school holds that the root of the crisis lies in North Korea’s economic stagnation. North Korea is playing up the nuclear issue because it attracts world attention that can then be negotiated for cash. Improve the economy and the crisis dissipates.  

Michael O’Hanlon and Mike Mochizuki of the Brookings Institution – a policy and research think-tank - stand firmly in the second camp. Their book, Crisis on the Korean Peninsula: How to deal with a nuclear North Korea (McGraw-Hill), proposes that instead of making piecemeal carrot and stick deals, diplomats should go for a “Grand Bargain” that aims at solving the problem once and for all.  

The Grand Bargain can be described as follows. North Korea gives up its nuclear assets and aspirations and subjects itself to vigorous inspections. In return, the United States and its allies promise a non-aggression pledge, promise to end sanctions, and to provide economic aid (estimated at US$2bil a year for the next 10 years).  

The centrepiece of the Grand Bargain is the proposal to cut at least 50% in conventional armed forces on both sides of the Korean DMZ borders.  

According to O’Hanlon and Mochizuki, sustaining North Korea’s armed forces gobbled up 20% to 25% of its gross domestic product. Freeing the resources and channelling them for productive purposes would lift the North Korean economy. 

Questions abound with regards to the proposal but the authors deftly tackle them. For instance, would North Korea really cease its nuclear ambitions and reduce the size of its army? Yes it would, argue the authors.  

The regime has in the past shown a similar desire for reforms. Witness the 1994 Agreed Framework that, according to the authors, capped North Korea’s ability to add a dozen nuclear bombs annually to its arsenal. As for the North Korean army, it would still remain half a million strong even after the 50% reduction exercise.  

And what if the Grand Bargain fails? Well there’s Plan B: impose economic and diplomatic sanctions and, failing that, launch military strikes. By then however, the United States would be in a better standing with its allies and China as it would be seen as having explored all options.  

Military analysis is really the book’s forte. The authors provide a thorough look at the players’ military capabilities, even highlighting the merits of the United States' M-1 tanks against North Korea’s versions of the Soviet T-62 designs. In any Korean conflict, the reader is convinced that the United States and its South Korean allies will kick North Korea’s ass.  

No so convincing is the book’s economic analysis in Chapter 5 – Fixing a Failed Economy. The vague analysis is a letdown considering that economics is the foundation of the present crisis. The authors trotted out China and Vietnam as examples of command economies that have succeeded and blithely assumed that North Korea can make it too.  

The reader assumes that they remain throughout the implementation process. Yet as pointed out in a Sept 3, 2003 Asia Times online article: “History has repeatedly shown that economic reform in communist states has ultimately preceded revolutionary change. Attempting economic reform will open North Korean society to the world, revealing the depth of its sordid woes.”  

The threatened regime may lash out.  

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