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.

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