Friday, November 26, 2010

Rules of Engagement

The key riff of the much-lauded B.R. Myers tract "The Cleanest Race", which should be familiar enough to anyone who has come this far down the wormhole of online North Korea analysis, is the one that states:
The Korean people are too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader.

..and continues...
The country has always been, at the very least, ideologically closer to America's adversaries in World War II than to communist China and Eastern Europe.

...which segues, eventually, into...
It is the regime's awareness of a pending legitimacy crisis, not a fear of attack from without, which makes it behave ever more provocatively on the world stage.

And that, in blitzkrieg fashion, leads us to the New York Times.

Wherein Myers, offering an op-ed to the cacophony of views post-Yeonpyeong, rehashes his driving idea, namely that North Korea can never change since it's raison d'etre is that it is more ideologically and morally pure than the South, and that because it is driven by the Military-first policy overlaying racist nationalism, it is doomed to remain a vicious Military-first regime that needs to repeatedly attack its perceived foes in order to legitimize itself.

Accordingly, to those who would negotiate with North Korea on the premise that it can be persuaded to become a stakeholder member of the international community, Myers states in absolute terms;
The provocation view of North Korean behavior also distorts our understanding of the domestic situation. Analysts tend to focus too much on the succession issue; they interpret the attack on the island as an effort to bolster the reputation of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s son and anointed successor. Their conclusion is that North Korea will play nice once the young man is firmly in power.

As both its adversaries and supporters should realize, the North can never play nice. Just as our own economy-first governments must ensure growth to stay in power, a military-first regime must deliver a steady stream of victories or lose all reason to exist.

There is no easy solution to the North Korea problem, but to begin to solve it, we must realize that its behavior is aggressive, not provocative, and that its aggression is ideologically built in. Pyongyang is thus virtually predestined to push Seoul and Washington too far, thereby bringing about its own ruin.

This analysis is tidy, pleasingly well-written and viable. It is also useful, for if we are to negotiate with Pyongyang, we ought to do so with our eyes open, which means doing so while well aware that we cannot bring them to actually change, denuclearize or feed their people.

That said, there are three caveats that need to be noted; one is a point of order, that North Korea's militaristic brutality did not come into being with the Military-first policy in the late 90s, which the above quote would appear to imply, the second is that Pyongyang is not completely "predestined" to bring about its own ruin through a spiral of attacks, though it may very well achieve exactly that, and the third is that there really is no difference between regime legitimization and the elevation of Kim Jong Eun.

What I am saying is that in the pursuit of a pleasant, nay perhaps even quotable, turn of phrase, Myers may have distorted things slightly.

On the first point, Google is your friend. The list of North Korean provocations is long and creatively varied.

On the second, I assert that if there is one thing more important to North Korea than state ideology, it is regime survival. As Myers himself points out, Kim Jong Il has no reason whatsoever to believe that South Korea will retaliate to his attacks, and he is probably also certain that in the unlikely event that retaliation does come it will not be of the regime-ending variety, so he is content to continue down the provocations/attacks path.

If, on the other hand, he were satisfactorily convinced that one step out of line would bring his villa crashing down around his very ears, he would be less likely to attack South Korea. Ergo, North Korea is only predestined to annoy to the outermost limits of what the leading Kim perceives as likely to be acceptable, and that is all. Therefore, if Seoul's words were actually believable, South Korea could in theory deter North Korean aggression. It wouldn't make North Korea play nice, but it might stop them killing innocent civilians (apart, unfortunately, from their own).

On the third, though I agree that Kim Jong Eun will change little, I disagree with those who claim that there is too much focus on his elevation. This is because I see no relevant difference between Kim Jong Eun and regime survival. While Yeonpyeong may indeed have been partly a display of the rationale behind the Military-first policy, it was also clearly an act to legitimize Kim Jong Eun's rise to power. Kim Jong Eun is being positioned to be the defender of the North Korean people, a people who are, to return to Myers' own writing, "too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader."

Don't believe me? How about this?
The more troubling the political time, the tenser the lives we must lead and the better we must serve the General and Youth Captain to guarantee ourselves victory!

No matter how viciously our enemies conduct their confrontational schemes, we, under the guidance of the Youth Captain’s revolutionary military power, will always be victorious.

Since Myers himself implored us to actually read what the North writes in order to discover the truth of the state, it is odd that he would reject his own advice at this stage.

Anyway, there we go. In conclusion, I turn to this analysis, for it is pleasingly concise;
As long as the North Korean government exists in its current form it cannot change its economy, and as long as it cannot change its economy it is bound to follow a foreign policy designed to solicit aid from the outside world using centrifuges, artillery or any other tools considered useful.

Now, if engagement advocates were prepared to state openly that their goal is to manage the North Korea problem in order to continue to live in relative peace and affluence, then that would be a huge improvement over the current situation. Let us speak frankly, as these two scholars have done: management is all negotiations can hope to achieve.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

China, China, What Do You Think?

Since Chinese foreign policy amounts to a fairly predictable brand of realism, we can say with some certainty that the only activities North Korea could engage in which would cause Pyongyang to lose the backing, diplomatic and/or economic, of their sole significant benefactor would be activities that undermined the Chinese national interest.

So a good question is this; what activities would cause China to feel that way?

Let’s start here. Broadly speaking, the quieter China is about an issue pertaining to the Korean Peninsula, the angrier, or more surprised, or both, it is.

Of course any nation can make a bland diplomatic statement of no value whatsoever; indeed my mornings at Daily NK are regularly blighted by the activities of chirpy spokesman Philip Crowley over at the U.S. State Department. And China certainly did make such a statement yesterday evening.

But that is not substance, actually, not where China (or the States, for that matter) is concerned. Instead, until an editorial or weighty comment not attributed to a scholar (in order to achieve deniability) appears in the Chinese state media, we can consider China to be silent on said issue.

Which means that not only has China yet to comment on the Yeonpyeong Island assault, but it also has yet, to my knowledge and with the exception of this, yes, bland diplomatic statement, to comment on North Korea's light-water reactor/uranium enrichment revelations of last week.

Which makes me think that Beijing is pretty unimpressed.

And that leads me to this thought; given the consequences, I'm not in favor of a military retaliation for the Yeonpyeong Island assault, but if there is one thing that could be said for it, it would be that it would make China think twice or thrice about its stance, since we can say with some certainty that a second Korean War would have a most unpalatable effect on the Chinese national interest.

Now if we could come up with some less unattractive ways to make North Korea issues affect the Chinese national interest...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Putting the Light in Light-Water Reactor

A minor issue arose last weekend that is busy pretending to need attention; the claim that North Korea is building a light-water reactor (LWR) at Yongbyon, as conveyed to the world by American nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker on November 13th.

Well let's put the cart before the horse and issue the conclusion first: this is a ham-fisted pressure tactic from a bygone era when what North Korea said was taken seriously by people in the international community. Or at least that is what I hope. Either way, it should be ignored.

Now that is out of the way, the facts. There are a number of reasons to mark the LWR claim down as unimportant even if true and a number more by which to dismiss it outright.

For a start, it takes at least five years to build an LWR. Given that satellite imagery showed zero construction on the site as of October, 2009, that means we have until 2015 to "watch this space".

Second, it is unlikely, though admittedly not impossible, that North Korea knows how to build one. In an October assessment of North Korea's rumored Highly Enriched Uranium project, ISIS scientists David Albright and Paul Brennan wrote, "North Korea has not demonstrated any capability to build a light water reactor, which requires a range of technological capabilities that are lacking in the country."

Therefore, if they do now know how to build one, that would be because somebody told them. It doesn't bear stating what size that particular can of worms would be.

Third, Siegfried Hecker was not shown the construction, only told about it by North Korean officials. As a former director of Los Alamos Laboratory, he is presumably a man who knows what a light-water nuclear reactor looks like, and as an annual visitor to Yongbyon I doubt he could be readily hoodwinked by the North Koreans. It seems to me, then, that he has been employed here as a useful idiot, a conveyor of hearsay lent a wholly unwarranted veneer of believability by the man himself.

Thus, I think it reasonably clear that whatever construction is going on at Yongbyon (and make no mistake, there is construction going on) it is probably not a light-water reactor, or if it is then it will take a long, long time to complete.

The best part of all this is that the international community seems to be playing it the right way. A good example came in a U.S. State Department daily briefing on Monday, in which spokesperson Philip Crowley, evidently well briefed, consummately dodged the question and stayed right on message. The message; stop bluffing, and do what we want.

QUESTION: Okay. Do you think – do you have any comment on the report North Korea is building light-water nuclear reactor?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, North Korea has obligations. It has stated in the 2005 joint statement that it is committed to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We expect North Korea to live up to its international obligations. As it does, we are prepared to have conversations with North Korea about its long-term requirements. But first and foremost, North Korea has to live up to its stated commitments.

When even the U.S. government seems to appreciate that you are bluffing to try and get attention, then you know you have a problem.

UPDATE: The Hecker report is available here for you to make up your own mind.

UPDATE 2: According to Chosun Ilbo;

"If Pyongyang had really succeeded in making highly enriched uranium and producing nuclear weapons, it would have hidden it rather than making it public," the defector said Monday. He interpreted the unveiling as a ploy to get the North out of dire straits caused by a botched currency reform late last year and an exhausted treasury due to the expensive power transfer to leader Kim Jong-il's son. The North is getting desperate and trying to win concessions from the international community by ratcheting up the nuclear threat, he said.

It doesn't make me right, but it is nice to have friends.

Meanwhile, as an obvious point of order I should point out that Siegfried Hecker was in fact shown what North Korea says is the LWR under construction, and the associated uranium enrichment facility. This does not alter my conclusion, however.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

How to Build a Juche-based Torpedo

On Tuesday, North Korea tried once again to present evidence contradicting the findings of the international investigation team into the Cheonan incident, this time by offering to give a sample of one of its torpedoes, which the National Defense Commission(NDC) says are made "with steel alloy materials by the working class in the Juche way", or, to put it in the much more entertaining Yonhap way, "Juche-based torpedoes," to the international community.

Since it will obviously act to neither confirm nor deny North Korea's guilt in and of itself, it is best to ignore the offer of a sample. Further to which, no-one, least of all me, wants to get into the question of what features a torpedo would have to include if it were to be considered a Juche-based torpedo.

However, what I do want to pause over is today's Daily NK report, which responds to the NDC refutation with a claim from an inside source that the "No. 129 Factory" in the north-eastern coastal city of Chongjin makes torpedoes with aluminium, and that this is so well-known that;

Even ten-year-old kids in Songpyong-district boast of the fact that our No. 129 Factory produces torpedoes,” adding that it is common knowledge in the area around the factory that aluminium is used for this purpose.

If true, the NDC claim is a bare-faced lie. I'm inclined to think this is probably the case, given the timing of the offer and North Korea's history of propaganda nonsense and disinformation half-truths, but The Daily NK story is not verifiable and that is a problem.

Furthermore, based on the prima facie evidence presented in the report, an objective thinker would rightly pause to question the claim about local people's knowledge of the factory's operations, since it is not logical to imagine that a child of ten in any country would know what a torpedo was made from, even if it were being made in his metaphorical backyard.

But it is possible in this case as a result of "83 Processes". This is the name given to the part of the "7.1 Measures" of 2002 whereby munitions factories and other state enterprises were given permission to use the leftover materials from the industrial processes they are designed to perform to produce other light industrial products for sale on the open market, and the profits used to prop up the, mostly loss-making, enterprise itself, and probably a number of venal Party hacks into the bargain.

In the case of the "No. 129 Factory" in Chongjin, this happens to mean kitchen implements. Aluminium kitchen implements.

As my colleague Park In Ho noted when I spoke to him about the article this afternoon, people think that North Korea's munitions industry is very secretive, but that is not true. They know what is being made, and that is due to "83 Processes".

So while I do not really believe that the average ten-year-old boy running the streets of Songpyong-dong in Chongjin necessarily does know what is being made, or more pertinently from what it is being produced, it is important to note that the route by which he could reasonably find out is there, and there is nothing unduly secret about it.

Did the Chongjin source who proffered this story exaggerate? Well maybe, but don't let that get in the way of the central claim, which is more reasonable than the article at first glance makes it appear.