At Large

Conventional Wisdom on North Korea

It doesn't begin to enlighten.

By 6.26.09

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Recent judgments about the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) have become instant dogma as far as media commentators and thus the public are concerned. Some may end up as truth, but others are on rather shaky ground. Conventional wisdom is not necessarily a good intelligence guide:

• "The Chinese do not want another war to start with North Korea because hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of North Koreans will flee across the border to China and Beijing doesn't want to be responsible for these refugees."

Beijing may not want another war to begin between the U.S. and the DPRK, but it's not for that reason. The last thing they want is the American dollar to be depreciated by new major war expenditures. The Chinese hold so much U.S. paper now that the lost value of these holdings would be immense. As for the N. Korean refugees: When did it occur that the People's Republic of China had such a soft heart as to be unwilling to use their own military and security forces to drive unwanted Korean refugees back from where they came?

• "Kim Jong-il is crazy and can't be expected to make logical decisions."

Kim Jong-il may have some exotic tastes -- lobster, cognac, women and westerns (actually he seems to prefer musicals) -- but that's not crazy. He's just your average, everyday, pampered potentate who is quite convinced (by his father, among others) that the United States wants to take over the DPRK in order to add it to its existing "puppet," South Korea. He also has an army of 1.5 million who will fight fanatically for any reason he evolves and can sell to his nearly equally loyal, if ambitious, generals. Kim is petulant, a bit paranoiac, puffed up, but not "crazy."

• "The U.S. can stop North Korea from shipping weapons and perhaps sensitive nuclear hardware to other countries by embargoing its ships."

Even if Washington eventually can get the United Nations to strengthen its sanctions, and granting it may be easier for Pyongyang to ship by sea, that is certainly not the only way N. Korea can export banned goods. As has been pointed out often, China is the DPRK's primary trading partner and it is from that country that Pyongyang now receives most of its food and energy supplies. In turn, much of the exports to China in the form of minerals and certain manufactured products also go by way of rail. The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) has considerable commercial interests in many economic areas. What would stop it or other Chinese entrepreneurs from accepting rail shipments from N. Korea with convenient bills of lading and then shipping them to third countries?

• "The North Korean army has antiquated artillery and tanks that would be no match for the American and South Korean weaponry, to say nothing of air assets."

One has to hope this is true, but the suspicion exists that the difference in quality of ground weaponry is at the very least equaled by the North's clear superiority in numbers. As far as ground-to-air missiles are concerned, the Chinese and Russians have for many years assisted in their development to defend key installations.

• "The DPRK currently has at least several nuclear devices that could be dropped by air on selected South Korean and Japanese targets. This does not include the in-progress development of nuclear-tipped missiles of medium to long range."

This is perhaps the least understood but the most problematic of issues accepted at the core of North Korea's war-making potential. As a "doomsday" scenario or simply an opening salvo in an offensive war declaration, the first use of N. Korean nuclear weapons just doesn't make military sense. To be fair, however, much that the regime of the Kims has done doesn't make sense in normal terms of logic. But there is the rub. North Korea under Kim Jong-il defies the classic sense of logic yet it fits perfectly with its own logic as an extraordinarily self-defensive nation. The question therefore exists as to why Pyongyang would go to so much trouble in defying the world by building a nuclear arsenal when it could gain so much by not taking that route. The answer may lay in lack of intent to use the weapon while enjoying the respect it offers -- respect that is more important than immediate national economic benefit. Of course, it is also the ultimate instrument of leverage.

It is clear that both the accepted claims and counters suggested are themselves open to challenge. The important thing is to remember all that passes as conventional wisdom should be challenged -- even the challenges to that wisdom.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.