While we were celebrating the 4th of July, Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s dictator, was enjoying his own fireworks as he launched, without provocation, seven missiles in the direction of Japan. Because its intercontinental Taepodong-2 missile failed miserably, within a minute or so after liftoff, some Western commentators dismissed the whole show as yet another example of North Korea’s incompetence. And observers interpreted Kim Jong Il’s willingness to risk worldwide ridicule if the missiles failed as additional evidence that he is driven by an abnormal need for attention, so intense and pathological that it leads him to deviant behavior. In short, they say he’s nuts. Is he?
North Korea is a poor country, one many have labeled an economic basket case. Its annual GDP is about $40 billion, or $1,700 per capita — by comparison, the U.S.’s is $42,000 — and shows little or no growth. Its population of 23 million provides a labor force of 9.6 million. Its people are starving, poorly educated, and health care is substandard or non-existent. With no natural gas or oil production, the North Koreans must import about 25,000 barrels a day to provide for electricity generation. The rest is provided by hydro power. The country is isolated from the world, a policy adopted by Kim’s father after his failed attempt to conquer the South in the early 1950s. Today, when you fly over South Korea en route to the United States at night, you see below the bright lights of commerce, and then a little further north, total darkness. That black hole is North Korea, and seeing it is an unsettling feeling. This is Kim Jong Il’s wholly-owned enterprise, bequeathed to him by his father, a brutal dictator in his own right.
As poor as the country is, by most reasonable standards Kim Jong Il is a very wealthy man. North Korea’s resources, however scant, are his alone. Few men alive, if any, control as many resources as he. The people, cowered by force, exist solely to serve him. They must be fed and clothed, of course, so to the extent that North Korea receives external aid, humanitarian or otherwise, this frees up resources to satisfy his other desires. We’ve been quite accommodating, having provided over $1 billion in foreign assistance since 1995. The impoverishment of Kim’s people is his personal economic asset. So, too, are his missiles, however inaccurate, and his nuclear capability, however inchoate.
When North Korea launched its missiles on July 4th, Kim Jong Il knew that the Taepodong-2 would fail, but he wanted to give notice that as his technological expertise advances, he could one day be able to deliver whatever he puts on the tip of missile. Until then, he’ll listen to all offers to stop the R&D. After an initial period of strong rhetoric denouncing his aggression, the offers will start. Kim will be bribed, if you will, to give up his efforts in exchange for greater economic assistance. Most bribes, he won’t accept. Some he will, but only those that meet his needs. He’ll be offered financial aid, and take it, while still keeping his missile program on track. This is his modus operandi, and it has served him well.
The Taepodong-2’s technological failure was his economic and strategic success. Had the missile succeeded in reaching, say, Seattle and landed on U.S. soil or been destroyed by our missile defenses just beforehand, the party would have been over for Kim. He understands that it is the prospect of hostility, rather than hostility itself, that allows him to exact concessions from his enemies.
Kim’s nuclear strategy has the same goal. If he had weapons of mass destruction and accurate missiles to deliver them, he would not deploy them unless he were attacked, again, because the moment he did, the party would be over. The value of his WMDs resides in their sale rather than their deployment.
From Kim’s point of view, the sale of WMDs is a risk worth taking. Although transporting WMDs on the open seas exposes them to being found, most likely not all will be found, and that prospect frightens us even if none actually escapes us. It only requires that we think one nuke could get loose.
And if some weapons were found, it wouldn’t expose North Korea to unbearable risk. The international community’s response likely would be isolating the country further and imposing economic sanctions. That wouldn’t accomplish anything, because the country is already isolated and desperately impoverished. Ratchet it up a bit and Kim Jong Il would still remain wealthy and in power.
An aggressive military response would likely require or involve international agreement. It is hard to imagine that such agreement would be forthcoming. But even if it were, or if we went in on our own, Kim Jong Il would have options. North Korea, with an army of about one million, has Seoul, South Korea — with a population of about 10 million — in its cross hairs. South Korea is extremely vulnerable to aggression from the North. That is in part why, even though bullied by the North, South Korea has provided about $3.5 billion in various forms of aid to Pyongyang since 1995. Although the South’s interests are similar to ours, its vulnerability to North Korean aggression is infinitely greater. Its rhetoric aside, South Korea will be passive and, within reason, continue to accommodate Kim’s needs.
China also plays a role in all of this, which could be to our advantage, but it has other interests as well. China is a rapidly growing country and one that some believe will be our chief rival in the future. If the Chinese see the U.S. in similar terms, then they will use their influence with North Korea to influence our behavior toward them. To paraphrase, “the adversary of my adversary is my friend.” Beyond their calculus with the U.S., should the North Korean border with China start leaking, the Chinese will have a significant people problem. So China is likely to attempt to keep the peace, even if that requires acquiescing to the continuation of North Korea’s weapons and missile programs. This is a delicate dance, however, because adversarial issues aside, the United States is also an important economic partner of China.
We seem to find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. We are the richest nation on earth, with the most powerful military, and we are the world’s only superpower. And yet we are taunted, even threatened, by one of the poorest, most backward and most isolated countries on earth. We have paid the extortionist for years, and apparently we’ll have to pay him some more. No, Kim Jong Il is not nuts.