The real significance of Pyongyang's decision to proceed with a second nuclear test is not the explosion itself, but rather the transparency of North Korean intentions. While I agree the move signals an effort to further enhance North Korea's pitiable nuclear capabilities, and may serve to bolster domestic support for Kim Chong-il's abominable regime, the real objective at hand is preservation of a political system that South Korea should have terminated the day after Moscow abandoned Lenin and Marx. That, alas, did not happen...and we all now get to suffer the consequences.
Please understand I don't come to this conclusion lightly. Much of my career has been squandered babysitting North Korea. If the United States government had spent half as much time and effort on learning about China as we have on monitoring North Korea the American policy community would feel quite competent when dealing with Beijing. But that didn't happen. Trapped in a Cold War mindset that repeatedly warned of the communist threat, we fixated on a country the size of Indiana with a population of 23 million.
What did we get for this fetish? Not much of value. As many members of the United States military can tell you, we have been watching North Korea for 60 years -- one year at a time. This transient approach to understanding a long-term problem was caused by two related factors. First, because we have never signed a peace treaty with North Korea the United States government has continually studied Pyongyang as a probable adversary. This means we are quite good at accounting for all the troops, planes, and weapons of mass destruction the North may possess...but are very poor at understanding the political system Washington is tasked with engaging. The logic works like this, why learn about a political system one is preparing to destroy? Didn't work with the former Soviet Union, and sure isn't working when it comes to dealing with Pyongyang.
The second problem was the manner in which we staffed the North Korea desk. All but a handful of military assignments to South Korea are "remote" -- that is, a one year rotation accomplished absent family. The decision to proceed down this path was driven by the perceived threat -- no one wants military families in a potential combat zone -- and expense -- building the support infrastructure to duplicate our bases in Europe or Japan was deemed too costly for Washington and/or our South Korean allies. Ok, so this explains the U.S. military's myopic approach, but what about other government agencies? Well, it turns out the North Korean problem was largely deemed a training opportunity. Get your feet wet, and then move on.
And then there is the issue of ideological blinders. American conservatives use North Korea like they employ abortion -- an emotional hot button that serves to rally the faithful without having to engage in pesky intellectual conversations. I can hear the chants now, remember the Pueblo. And, of course, that Neocon favorite -- weapons of mass destruction. Who cares if Pyongyang can't actually get a nuke to function effectively or its vaunted missile force is little advanced over Hitler's V-2 rockets. As far as American conservatives are concerned, North Koreans are ten-feet tall and ready to invade the South tomorrow.
Where does this leave us? Poorly equipped to understand Pyongyang's intent. In hopes of helping with this problem allow me to offer a few insights. First, North Korea's leaders are the same as any other politician -- their ultimate objective is to remain in power, how ever defined. Second, like all politicians, North Korea's leadership has a constituency -- in this case approximately 17% of the population. That's right. The North Korean Workers' Party is the most inclusive communist organization in the world. Kim Chong-il's father understood that in order to survive he needed to garner the support of a broad coalition, and so ensured the North Korean communist party invited all the Kims, Parks, and Lees it could screen. Today these people have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, hence the lack of widespread rebellion in the North.
Third, North Korean leaders, like politicians everywhere, know they must react when the core constituency is being punished. Pyongyang's adamant response to our targeting banks that serviced the regime was driven by constituent pain. Kim Chong-il knew he would face significant problems at home if he didn't win back access to the elites' money. His reaction? Missile tests, and when that failed...North Korea's first nuclear explosion. (That worked -- the banking sanctions were lifted and haven't come back.) Finally, the North Korean leaders, like their political counterparts elsewhere, seek to create diversions when the pressure is on at home. Pyongyang is in the midst of a succession process -- never easy in a dictatorial regime with competing factions. What better way to divert domestic attention from one's own problems than by creating a foreign policy crisis? We've witnessed this strategy being employed more than once in Washington.
So what does North Korea hope to accomplish by testing a nuke. At the top of the list, a guarantee neither we nor the South Koreans will forcibly end the regime. Second, international respectability -- worked for India and Pakistan...and will likely do the same for Iran. Third, foreign aid...food stuffs, fuel, and material necessary to rebuild the North's shattered economy. Finally, resumption of a relationship with Washington and Seoul that is more favorable to Pyongyang's agenda.
Washington should have none of it. The time has come to end the average North Korean's suffering. Chinese and Russian diplomatic statements following the second nuclear test suggest Beijing and Moscow are ready to join Seoul in isolating and starving the North. We should abet that process in any way we can -- short of employing force. How can we do this? Pass the Chinese all data necessary to ensure they can interdict a possible North Korean refugee flow across the Sino-Korean border. Provide the Russians with funds necessary to revive their Sea of Japan maritime patrols. Assure the South Koreans we remain committed to their defense...regardless of how ridiculous the rhetoric from Pyongyang. And, most importantly, avoid discussions of theater missile defense. Reopening that debate will shatter the whole fragile coalition.
In short, I am recommending we starve Kim Chong-il out. Or at least cause his population to finally treat him as the Italians did Mussolini. Permanently fixing the North Korean problem requires shattering the regime. As Thomas Jefferson might have put it, it is time North Koreans refresh the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants.