Commentary Magazine


Topic: North Korea

Appeasing Nuclear Tyrannies Doesn’t Work

The news that North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-un has executed his uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek has provoked jokes about family spats run amok and further confirmed the conventional wisdom that the Communist nation is the craziest place on Earth. The purge of the uncle may be, as the New York Times says, a power struggle about the future of a country desperately in need of reform and rational leadership. In that scenario, Jang Song-thaek might have been an incipient Khrushchev or Gorbachev to his nephew’s Stalin. Or it may just be in the grip of the sort of bloody dynastic court politics that was a staple of monarchies in an earlier, less enlightened era in Western as well as Eastern civilizations. Think of Game of Thrones with nuclear weapons rather than dragons and zombies and maybe that makes some sense of North Korea.

Yet the mention of North Korea’s nuclear capability should remind us that the wacky goings-on in Pyongyang are not just the stuff of a cable thriller. What happens in the impoverished northern half of the land once known as the Hermit Kingdom may seem as remote to our existence as the mythical continent of Westeros in George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels, but the fact that Kim Jong-un has his stubby little fingers on a nuclear button ought to stand the hairs on the back of our heads on end. But the fact that he was largely handed control of a small, but growing nuclear arsenal through a bipartisan policy of appeasement carried out by both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations is more than an unfortunate aspect of a horror story. If, as seems likely, the United States is currently embarked on a similar effort to achieve détente with another maniacal tyranny bent on gaining nuclear capability, what is really shocking is that official Washington has learned so little from its mistakes with North Korea.

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The news that North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-un has executed his uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek has provoked jokes about family spats run amok and further confirmed the conventional wisdom that the Communist nation is the craziest place on Earth. The purge of the uncle may be, as the New York Times says, a power struggle about the future of a country desperately in need of reform and rational leadership. In that scenario, Jang Song-thaek might have been an incipient Khrushchev or Gorbachev to his nephew’s Stalin. Or it may just be in the grip of the sort of bloody dynastic court politics that was a staple of monarchies in an earlier, less enlightened era in Western as well as Eastern civilizations. Think of Game of Thrones with nuclear weapons rather than dragons and zombies and maybe that makes some sense of North Korea.

Yet the mention of North Korea’s nuclear capability should remind us that the wacky goings-on in Pyongyang are not just the stuff of a cable thriller. What happens in the impoverished northern half of the land once known as the Hermit Kingdom may seem as remote to our existence as the mythical continent of Westeros in George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels, but the fact that Kim Jong-un has his stubby little fingers on a nuclear button ought to stand the hairs on the back of our heads on end. But the fact that he was largely handed control of a small, but growing nuclear arsenal through a bipartisan policy of appeasement carried out by both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations is more than an unfortunate aspect of a horror story. If, as seems likely, the United States is currently embarked on a similar effort to achieve détente with another maniacal tyranny bent on gaining nuclear capability, what is really shocking is that official Washington has learned so little from its mistakes with North Korea.

The differences between North Korea, where a bizarre family dynasty misgoverns a nation by employing Stalinist-style Communism, and Iran are vast. Kim Jong-un almost makes Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose anti-Semitic and anti-Western rants are broadcast live on Iranian TV, look like a rational actor. Though it is governed by Islamist theocrats whose mystical beliefs are as scary as North Korean ruling family dynamics, Iran is a place with a sophisticated system of government and an advanced economy that was, at least until recently, fueled by oil exports.

But it should not be forgotten that while the Obama administration has bought into the myth that the selection of a supposed moderate, Hassan Rouhani, in Iran’s faux presidential election, meant that the Islamist tyranny had become a haven for moderation, the reality of Iran is very different. As much as Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seemed like a cartoon villain, that Holocaust denying demagogue was quite representative of the character and ethos of his nation’s government.

The point is, American diplomats, and in particular State Department staffer Wendy Sherman, who helped lead the talks with North Korea under Clinton, were convinced that the irrational nature of the dictatorship was no bar to a common sense deal. Why wouldn’t the current dictator’s father accept a huge bribe to foreswear nuclear weapons? The North Koreans took the money and the aid and then violated every agreement they had signed and got their bomb. Today, Sherman, who has been recycled and rewarded for failure by being given the task of leading negotiations with Iran, thinks what didn’t work with North Korea will succeed with Iran. The U.S. has discarded the impressive economic and military leverage it had over Tehran and signed a deal predicated on the notion that Iran is run by rational people who prefer the welfare of their people to the dream of nuclear weapons.

But just as the megalomania of the North Korean leadership always trumped any idea of their nation’s economic interests, the Iranian theocrats will always prioritize their vision of regional hegemony in which nukes will be complimented by their thriving side business funding international terrorism and their alliances with the Assad clan in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and perhaps a renewed friendship with Hamas in Gaza. And at the pinnacle of the Iranian system remains an autocratic cleric who dreams of destroying Israel and has no interest in détente with the West. Appeasing him and his minions is just as futile a task as Sherman’s previous efforts in North Korea.

Laugh all you want about the craziness in North Korea and pretend, if you can manage it, that their nuclear arsenal doesn’t pose a threat to the U.S. But the cost of playing the same game in Iran will be even higher. Appeasing or containing a nuclear tyranny run by hate-filled theocrats is as hopeless as was the attempt to do the same thing with one run by a Stalinist family gang. Though Obama, Kerry, and Sherman want the nuclear deals signed with North Korea to be thrown down the memory hole, they stand as an indictment against the administration’s current Iran policy.

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The Barbaric Cruelty of North Korea

It seems like only yesterday that gullible commentators were welcoming the ascension of Stalinist prince Kim Jong-un in North Korea and claiming he would inaugurate a new era of openness. There has since been scant evidence of change–and to the extent that there has been change, it has generally been for the worse. 

The latest sign of just how despicable this regime is? The detention of an 85-year-old American, a Korean War veteran named Merrill Newman, who was hauled off his airplane as he was about to leave the North at the end of a tour. His family has no idea why he was arrested. They don’t even know if he has received the drugs he needs to keep him alive, which they have sent via the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang. 

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It seems like only yesterday that gullible commentators were welcoming the ascension of Stalinist prince Kim Jong-un in North Korea and claiming he would inaugurate a new era of openness. There has since been scant evidence of change–and to the extent that there has been change, it has generally been for the worse. 

The latest sign of just how despicable this regime is? The detention of an 85-year-old American, a Korean War veteran named Merrill Newman, who was hauled off his airplane as he was about to leave the North at the end of a tour. His family has no idea why he was arrested. They don’t even know if he has received the drugs he needs to keep him alive, which they have sent via the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang. 

Even by North Korea’s barbaric standards, this is pretty cruel and shocking behavior. Moreover, it makes little sense from the standpoint of a regime that would like to encourage tourism to keep a small pittance of hard-currency earnings flowing. 

It’s impossible to say why the North Koreans detained Newman. But it’s obvious that this is yet another sign of a hard-line regime that will never voluntarily liberalize on its own, at least not under Kim Jong-un’s leadership.

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The Missing Pivot

So much for the vaunted “Pacific pivot.” When Barack Obama came into office, he vowed to reverse the Bush administration’s focus on the Middle East by “rebalancing” toward East Asia and the looming menace of China. The argument of the incoming administration was that the previous administration had lost sight of the bigger strategic realities as a result of the post-9/11 aftermath.

It turns out it’s not so easy to disengage from the Middle East–or to double down on the Far East. Look at what happened this weekend, or rather what didn’t happen.

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So much for the vaunted “Pacific pivot.” When Barack Obama came into office, he vowed to reverse the Bush administration’s focus on the Middle East by “rebalancing” toward East Asia and the looming menace of China. The argument of the incoming administration was that the previous administration had lost sight of the bigger strategic realities as a result of the post-9/11 aftermath.

It turns out it’s not so easy to disengage from the Middle East–or to double down on the Far East. Look at what happened this weekend, or rather what didn’t happen.

On the one hand, Obama ordered commando raids in Libya and Somalia. This comes after weeks, even months, of near-total focus in Washington on Syria and Iran–not on China or North Korea. On the other hand, Obama decided to not to go on a planned swing through East Asia. This included skipping an Asia Pacific Economic Summit meeting in Indonesia. Secretary of State John Kerry went instead, but he simply doesn’t carry the same diplomatic megawattage as the president. Obama’s absence left China’s leader, Xi Jinping, as the top dog.

Obama’s absence had more than symbolic import. It probably slowed the process of completing negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade zone that includes most of the major countries of East Asia but excludes China. More broadly, Obama’s absence no doubt causes wavering nations such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and many others, which fear China but live in its shadow, to doubt how much they can rely on a putative alliance with the United States.

The president’s absence suggests that dysfunction and deficits at home are preventing American engagement in the broader world. That impression is not necessarily true; if Delta Force and SEAL Team Six could travel abroad this weekend, even as the government is partially shuttered, so too President Obama could have traveled. He just didn’t want to, because he figured it would be bad politics to leave the country during a major budget crisis. It would certainly hamper, in a cynical interpretation, his efforts to lay all the blame on the Republican side, or, to adopt a more charitable explanation, to negotiate a way to end the crisis.

That’s an understandable political calculation, and one that most presidents no doubt would have made. But it comes at a strategic cost in the very region of the world that Obama claimed he would pay more attention to.

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Does North Korea Sense U.S. Weakness?

At first glance, the news coming out of North Korea would seem to have nothing to do with President Obama’s dispiriting retreat on Syria. Young dictator Kim Jong-un’s mad regime needs no foreign incentives or influences to impel it toward provocations or abuses. Thus, the news that–in violation of its six-year-old promise to the Bush administration to dismantle its nuclear reactor–steam is emerging from a reconstructed facility is hardly surprising. The North Koreans already have enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons and it will, according to the New York Times, take years for the reactor at the Yongbyon complex to produce more of the material. The conventional wisdom about this is that the cash-starved regime is hoping to entice the West to once again bribe it to desist from further nuclear work. Since such tactics have often worked in the past, it’s hard to blame Dennis Rodman’s buddy from seeing if he can squeeze more concessions out of the United States knowing his country’s status as a nuclear power gives him impunity.

But coming as this does just months after Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test, which was accompanied by bluster threatening nuclear attacks on South Korea and anyone else it can reach if more international sanctions are imposed on it, it might be a mistake to put this down as just business as usual in North Korea. Though most Americans ignore the country except when its goofy leader poses with Western nitwits who come to visit, the heavily armed North is always a hair trigger away from starting a shooting war along the 38th parallel that would immediately involve the U.S. in a conflict that would be the opposite of “incredibly small.” While predicting the actions of a country as crazy as North Korea is impossible, it would be a mistake to think that the basketball fan running it hasn’t been watching the dismaying spectacle of U.S. indecision and impotence on Syria and drawing his own conclusions. Most of us have been rightly worried about the impact of the president’s decisions on Iran’s conduct. But perhaps we should be just as worried about whether Kim Jong-un is thinking such a moment of American weakness is the perfect opportunity for him to stage another provocation along the border or even something more ambitious.

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At first glance, the news coming out of North Korea would seem to have nothing to do with President Obama’s dispiriting retreat on Syria. Young dictator Kim Jong-un’s mad regime needs no foreign incentives or influences to impel it toward provocations or abuses. Thus, the news that–in violation of its six-year-old promise to the Bush administration to dismantle its nuclear reactor–steam is emerging from a reconstructed facility is hardly surprising. The North Koreans already have enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons and it will, according to the New York Times, take years for the reactor at the Yongbyon complex to produce more of the material. The conventional wisdom about this is that the cash-starved regime is hoping to entice the West to once again bribe it to desist from further nuclear work. Since such tactics have often worked in the past, it’s hard to blame Dennis Rodman’s buddy from seeing if he can squeeze more concessions out of the United States knowing his country’s status as a nuclear power gives him impunity.

But coming as this does just months after Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test, which was accompanied by bluster threatening nuclear attacks on South Korea and anyone else it can reach if more international sanctions are imposed on it, it might be a mistake to put this down as just business as usual in North Korea. Though most Americans ignore the country except when its goofy leader poses with Western nitwits who come to visit, the heavily armed North is always a hair trigger away from starting a shooting war along the 38th parallel that would immediately involve the U.S. in a conflict that would be the opposite of “incredibly small.” While predicting the actions of a country as crazy as North Korea is impossible, it would be a mistake to think that the basketball fan running it hasn’t been watching the dismaying spectacle of U.S. indecision and impotence on Syria and drawing his own conclusions. Most of us have been rightly worried about the impact of the president’s decisions on Iran’s conduct. But perhaps we should be just as worried about whether Kim Jong-un is thinking such a moment of American weakness is the perfect opportunity for him to stage another provocation along the border or even something more ambitious.

The details about North Korea’s blatant violations of the nuclear agreements it made with the West are bad enough if viewed only in the context of a divided peninsula that the Communist regime shares with a prosperous and democratic republic in the south. Previous administrations have repeatedly fallen for what former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called Pyongyang’s tactic of selling the West “the same horse twice.” The spectacle of President Obama buying into Russia’s offers to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons may certainly encourage the North to think they should at least try to blackmail an American president who shows a clear aversion to confrontation.

But though this administration has so far refused to play along with that game, the assumption that the North Koreans are all talk when it comes to threats may be proved wrong if an insecure dictator thinks the U.S. is weak. Should he draw the conclusion that an Obama who is unable to get Congress or public opinion behind a limited strike on Syria would be similarly impotent should Korea blow up, the consequences could be catastrophic.

As much as the president and his supporters are trying to spin the Syria fiasco as a limited event that won’t impact his ability to govern, this sort of weakness can’t be contained to one country or even one region. We’ve already seen Russia moving to try to fill the vacuum Obama has created in the Middle East. Don’t be surprised if the maniacal North Korean regime thinks it can play the same game with potentially awful consequences for its neighbors and the world.

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Lessons From Korea

This past Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of the armistice which ended the Korean War. The day passed quietly in South Korea, where I am spending some time–marked by a few fly-bys of South Korean F-16K jets and a low-key ceremony at the War Memorial in Seoul where President Park Geun-hye expressed her hope for lasting peace on the peninsula. It was a different story in Pyongyang where the Communist regime marked “Victory Day,” its self-serving label for the armistice, with a grandiose parade of military hardware including what were, in all probability, phony ICBMs and suitcase nukes adorned with ostentatious radioactive warning symbols. 

It’s hard to more accurately symbolize the divide between South and North–between, respectively, a peaceful, prosperous and democratic government and one that is militaristic, impoverished, and repressive. If the years since the Korean War and in particular the years since the demise of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy (1998-2008) should have us taught anything, it is that outreach from Seoul and Washington does nothing to melt the icy hostility of the North, which must preserve a continuing state of tensions to justify the despotic rule of the Kim dynasty. Providing subsidies or diplomatic recognition to North Korea in response to its threats and provocations only brings more of the same. Yet somehow the urge to placate the North proves irresistible. 

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This past Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of the armistice which ended the Korean War. The day passed quietly in South Korea, where I am spending some time–marked by a few fly-bys of South Korean F-16K jets and a low-key ceremony at the War Memorial in Seoul where President Park Geun-hye expressed her hope for lasting peace on the peninsula. It was a different story in Pyongyang where the Communist regime marked “Victory Day,” its self-serving label for the armistice, with a grandiose parade of military hardware including what were, in all probability, phony ICBMs and suitcase nukes adorned with ostentatious radioactive warning symbols. 

It’s hard to more accurately symbolize the divide between South and North–between, respectively, a peaceful, prosperous and democratic government and one that is militaristic, impoverished, and repressive. If the years since the Korean War and in particular the years since the demise of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy (1998-2008) should have us taught anything, it is that outreach from Seoul and Washington does nothing to melt the icy hostility of the North, which must preserve a continuing state of tensions to justify the despotic rule of the Kim dynasty. Providing subsidies or diplomatic recognition to North Korea in response to its threats and provocations only brings more of the same. Yet somehow the urge to placate the North proves irresistible. 

President Park is now offering the North a $7.3 million bribe–excuse me, humanitarian aid–to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which the North closed in April during a round of saber rattling. The industrial complex consists of South Korean owned-and-operated factories in North Korea, just north of the DMZ (from where it is visible), which employs more than 50,000 North Korean workers and generates at least $90 million in hard currency for the North. The whole thing is a giant boondoggle, run by the South as a sop to the North. Why Seoul is trying to reopen it is a mystery: if Pyongyang wants to close it and lose the benefits it derives from Kaesong, why is the South standing in the way and, in essence, demanding the right to continue subsidizing the North Korean regime?

This is to, put it mildly, counterproductive. The same might be said about Jimmy Carter’s umpteenth trip to North Korea, now being planned to free Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour operator and missionary who was arrested in the North and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor. This is part of a long-standing pattern with the North, which likes to lock up Westerners to entice high-profile figures such as Bill Richardson, Bill Clinton, or Jimmy Carter to visit. Those visits, in turn, are presented to the North Korean population as if these leading Americans are paying obeisance to the Kims–which in some respects they are, albeit unintentionally. If Carter succeeds in freeing Bae it will be a good deed, but also one that will ensure more such kidnappings in the future.

It’s well past time for South Korea and the rest of the West to stop kidding themselves about the North Korean regime. It is not going to moderate itself. The only way the situation will improve is if the North Korean regime peacefully collapses–and providing any support or outreach to the unrepentant Stalinists of the North in the meantime is counterproductive.

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The Costs of Obama’s Miguided Nuke Policy

I wrote yesterday about President Obama’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate, in which he embraced Cold War symbolism on behalf of the West and acknowledged that Cold War tensions still exist and must be countered. Where once the president would knock Republicans for being stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” he now criticizes Vladimir Putin for the mindset.

This was a welcome rhetorical adjustment. But in seeking to harness the heroism of the past for the challenges of the present and future, the president did focus on one misguided policy goal: U.S.-Russia bilateral nuclear arms reductions. It isn’t that the president is wrong when he says we may not need quite as many nukes as we have, but that he underestimates the benefits of those weapons and risks diverting attention away from much more pressing, and genuinely dangerous, perils of nuclear proliferation.

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I wrote yesterday about President Obama’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate, in which he embraced Cold War symbolism on behalf of the West and acknowledged that Cold War tensions still exist and must be countered. Where once the president would knock Republicans for being stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” he now criticizes Vladimir Putin for the mindset.

This was a welcome rhetorical adjustment. But in seeking to harness the heroism of the past for the challenges of the present and future, the president did focus on one misguided policy goal: U.S.-Russia bilateral nuclear arms reductions. It isn’t that the president is wrong when he says we may not need quite as many nukes as we have, but that he underestimates the benefits of those weapons and risks diverting attention away from much more pressing, and genuinely dangerous, perils of nuclear proliferation.

As I wrote last year when this issue surfaced, the argument in favor of nuclear reduction rests on faulty logic. We have been told time and again that one benefit of arms reduction would be the display of American leadership: other countries would be encouraged to follow our lead, and we can’t be accused (at least to the same degree) of hypocrisy when we advocate for nuclear nonproliferation abroad. This is untrue, because the U.S. has reduced its nuclear stockpile over the years and offered additional cuts, and yet China has continued over the years to increase its own stockpile and other nations have crossed the nuclear weapons threshold.

Additionally, nuclear weapons are just that–weapons. Rogue states have no “right” to those weapons just because we have them, and the U.S. has long possessed strategic advantages on the battlefield. Those advantages do not make us hypocrites; we have no moral obligation to permit those who seek to harm us to level the playing field. If we legitimize the argument for strategic parity then we would lay the groundwork for the argument that just reducing our stockpile is insufficient: if we have a thousand nukes, so should Pakistan and North Korea.

Not only does the case for cutting our stockpile ignore history, it misrepresents the concept of strategic deterrence. Once we reach a large number of nukes, could it possibly make a difference if we scrapped some of them? Well yes, actually, it could. As Georgetown’s Matthew Kroenig explains:

In an analysis of 52 countries that participated in nuclear crises from 1945 to 2001 (think the Cuban Missile Crisis), I found that the state with the greater number of warheads is over 17 times more likely to achieve its goals. In addition, there is qualitative evidence from these crises that leaders in nuclear-armed states pay close attention to the nuclear balance of power, that they believe nuclear superiority enhances their position, and that a nuclear advantage often translates directly into a geopolitical advantage. For example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Secretary of State Dean Rusk argued, “One thing Mr. Khrushchev may have in mind is that… he knows that we have a substantial nuclear superiority…. He also knows that we don’t really live under fear of his nuclear weapons to the extent… that he has to live under ours.”

Even if Russia agrees to match the president’s proposed cuts, the nuclear reductions would attenuate our advantages vis-à-vis Russia and eat into our margin of superiority against other nuclear-armed states, such as China, possibly increasing the likelihood that the United States will be challenged militarily and reducing the probability that we achieve our goals in future crises.

Which brings us to the two other weaknesses of Obama’s push for arms reduction: opportunity cost and financial cost. Russia’s nukes are far less of a threat to American interests and security than those of North Korea or Pakistan (or even China), and the same is true for those states trying to obtain nuclear weapons, such as Iran and, until recently, Syria. If the Obama administration wants Russian cooperation on the issue of nukes, it should seek not mutual reductions but instead address Russia’s enabling of Iran’s nuclear drive and protection of regimes such as that of Bashar al-Assad. If it wants to make progress on the nuclear issue while being seen to help Russia as well, it should seek not American cuts but moderation on China’s militarization or China’s support for North Korea–two troublesome nuclear states on Russia’s increasingly vulnerable eastern flank.

As for the financial cost, there is only so much money to go around. It would be costly to reduce our nuclear arsenal, which also needs costly modernization. Such modernization is much more urgent than reduction. As the Washington Post reports, we’ve been kicking the can down the road on addressing “the decrepit, neglected state of the aging nuclear weapons complex,” but each delay only increases the expense of the project, which the arsenal needs “to keep it safe and reliable.” Keeping our existing nukes “safe and reliable” should take priority over dismantling part of the arsenal. The president isn’t wrong to address issues relating to our nuclear stockpile and global proliferation. He’s just focusing on the wrong ones.

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U.S. Folding on North Korea?

It was too good to last.

For the last few weeks, the Obama administration has been showing more fortitude in confronting a belligerent North Korea than either the Bush or Clinton administrations had done. But last week, as I previously noted, there was a worrisome leak in the New York Times which quoted administration officials as saying that any response to a North Korean attack would be strictly proportional—which can only encourage Kim Jong-un to act, safe in the knowledge that the U.S. and South Korea will not “over-react” and bring down his criminal regime in response. Now Secretary of State John Kerry, while visiting East Asia, has announced that the U.S. would be willing to reopen negotiations with the North—and cancel the deployment of U.S. ballistic-missile defenses to the region–as long as Kim Jong-un ratchets down the current crisis and takes some steps toward nuclear disarmament.

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It was too good to last.

For the last few weeks, the Obama administration has been showing more fortitude in confronting a belligerent North Korea than either the Bush or Clinton administrations had done. But last week, as I previously noted, there was a worrisome leak in the New York Times which quoted administration officials as saying that any response to a North Korean attack would be strictly proportional—which can only encourage Kim Jong-un to act, safe in the knowledge that the U.S. and South Korea will not “over-react” and bring down his criminal regime in response. Now Secretary of State John Kerry, while visiting East Asia, has announced that the U.S. would be willing to reopen negotiations with the North—and cancel the deployment of U.S. ballistic-missile defenses to the region–as long as Kim Jong-un ratchets down the current crisis and takes some steps toward nuclear disarmament.

This may seem like a reasonable step—what’s wrong with talking?—but in fact it is a sign of weakness and will be read as such in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un is probably undertaking his recent series of provocations precisely to bring the U.S. back to the negotiating table where he can extract more concessions from the West in return for phony promises to dismantle his nuclear program—just as his father Kim Jong-il did. Kerry’s remarks will no doubt suggest to Kim that his strategy is working, and all it will take is a little more pressure from the North (another missile launch, anyone?) for Washington to cave in completely. In other words, the Obama administration is in serious danger of repeating the mistakes of its predecessors, who offered the North concessions which only convinced Pyongyang that it could use its nuclear arsenal to blackmail the West.

Now is not the time for offers to talk or to make concessions. Now is the time to confront Kim Jong-un with determination, to convince him that his strategy of brinksmanship will not pay off.

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Overstating the North Korean Threat

Does Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s untested new dictator, want a war? He certainly sounds like it with his constant stream of threats against South Korea and the United States. His mouthpiece has even been warning foreign embassies to evacuate Seoul because a “thermonuclear war” is supposedly about to break out. But Kim is not crazy and he is certainly not suicidal. He must know that an all-out war would end in the destruction of his regime and his likely death. No more watching basketball with Dennis Rodman, if that were to happen.

So while he may launch some missiles toward open waters or undertake other provocative acts against South Korea, he is unlikely to restart an all-out Korean war. Following the playbook written by his father, Kim Jong-il, he simply wants to pressure South Korea and the U.S. into making concessions that will enhance his regime–and he believes the more blood-curdling his threats, the greater likelihood there is that the West will cave in.

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Does Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s untested new dictator, want a war? He certainly sounds like it with his constant stream of threats against South Korea and the United States. His mouthpiece has even been warning foreign embassies to evacuate Seoul because a “thermonuclear war” is supposedly about to break out. But Kim is not crazy and he is certainly not suicidal. He must know that an all-out war would end in the destruction of his regime and his likely death. No more watching basketball with Dennis Rodman, if that were to happen.

So while he may launch some missiles toward open waters or undertake other provocative acts against South Korea, he is unlikely to restart an all-out Korean war. Following the playbook written by his father, Kim Jong-il, he simply wants to pressure South Korea and the U.S. into making concessions that will enhance his regime–and he believes the more blood-curdling his threats, the greater likelihood there is that the West will cave in.

It is a mystery why a Republican congressman would want to help Kim to terrorize the West, but that is just what happened at a House Intelligence Committee hearing today. CNN noted in breathless style: “A study just completed by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency says North Korea may have nuclear weapons that could be delivered by ballistic missiles, a congressman said Thursday. The revelation came from Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado, during a House Intelligence Committee hearing.”

Actually, on closer examination there is lot less here than meets the eye. The very next paragraph quotes Lamborn as follows: “Quoting from the unclassified portion, which I believe has not yet been made public, they say, quote, ‘DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivering by ballistic missiles. However, the reliability will be low.’ “

Moderate confidence… low reliability…. Why is Lamborn publicizing such a tenuous finding issued by one intelligence agency and apparently not supported by the rest of the intelligence community?

In fact, while it’s possible that North Korea has made greater advances than hitherto realized, the general view of outside analysts is that it has not yet figured out how to produce atomic warheads for ballistic missiles. But with his threats to attack the U.S. and launch a “thermonuclear war,” Kim Jong-un would like us to believe his WMD program is more advanced than it actually is–a task that Lamborn is unwittingly helping the North Korean dictator to achieve.

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How to Deter North Korea?

So far the Obama administration has hung commendably tough in its response to North Korean saber rattling. Unlike his predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, President Obama has resisted the urge to make concessions to North Korea to stop their warmongering. Instead, he has deployed military assets to the region to make clear that any North Korean attack will be met with an overwhelming response.

But that hard-line stance may be starting to waver under the continuing pressure being applied by young dictator Kim Jong-un, who appears eager to prove that, like his old man (departed Dear Leader Kim Jong-il), he too can extract concessions from Washington and win a propaganda victory. His latest move is to close down the Kaesong industrial complex where some 50,000 North Koreans are employed by South Korean firms. This is a vital source of hard currency for the North, so this cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face maneuver indicates just how far Kim is willing to go.

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So far the Obama administration has hung commendably tough in its response to North Korean saber rattling. Unlike his predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, President Obama has resisted the urge to make concessions to North Korea to stop their warmongering. Instead, he has deployed military assets to the region to make clear that any North Korean attack will be met with an overwhelming response.

But that hard-line stance may be starting to waver under the continuing pressure being applied by young dictator Kim Jong-un, who appears eager to prove that, like his old man (departed Dear Leader Kim Jong-il), he too can extract concessions from Washington and win a propaganda victory. His latest move is to close down the Kaesong industrial complex where some 50,000 North Koreans are employed by South Korean firms. This is a vital source of hard currency for the North, so this cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face maneuver indicates just how far Kim is willing to go.

Now there are leaks emerging from Washington that some within the administration are worried that the hard line may be going too far–that our response, or South Korea’s, to North Korean aggression could actually provoke a war. Thus we saw yesterday the plugged-in Washington reporter David Sanger reporting in the New York Times that American officials are preparing exquisitely proportional responses to any North Korean attacks: “For example, if the North Koreans were to shell a South Korean island that had military installations, as has occurred in the past, the plan calls for the South to retaliate quickly with a barrage of artillery of similar intensity.”

As for the possibility of North Korea launching a ballistic missile, “Pentagon officials said they would be ready to calculate its trajectory within seconds and try to shoot it down if it appeared headed toward impact in South Korea, Japan or Guam, an American territory. But they planned to do nothing if it were headed toward open water, even if it went over Japan, as one previous North Korean test did.”

This is precisely the wrong signal to send to Pyongyang. The North Koreans may be isolated, but they read the New York Times too–and the message they will take away from Sanger’s story is that they don’t have much to fear from an attack–the worst that could happen is a few rounds of artillery falling on their soil. South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, has gone much further by threatening that North Korean attacks could be met with South Korean military action against Northern command and control centers–attacks which could presumably target Kim Jong-un and his coterie.

There are good arguments to be made on both sides of the debate about how far any counter-attack against the North should go–there are clear risks in Park Geun-hye’s threatened approach (the risk of provoking a wider war) just as there are in the milder approach telegraphed by Sanger (the risk of not deterring North Korean attacks). But of one thing I am certain: it is a mistake to dispel Pyongyang’s doubts about the nature of a unified South Korean-American response to any attacks on their part. Only if Kim Jong-un fears the worst will he refrain from attacking. But having read the New York Times, he is likely to be less restrained now.

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The One Book to Read on Korea

While writing my book chapter on the history of U.S. diplomacy with North Korea and while preparing for a trip to South Korea to conduct interviews a couple years back, I had to get smart on Korea quickly, and hit the books. There is no shortage of books out there: Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas; Narushige Michishita’s North Korea’s Military-Diplomatic Campaigns; Joel S. Wit, Daniel B. Poneman, and Robert L. Gallucci’s Going Critical; Leon Sigal’s Disarming Strangers, and Bradley Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, among others. One stood out, however: Chuck Downs’ Over the Line. Downs, a former Pentagon official, traces North Korean negotiating behavior from the Armistice through the 1990s. He emphasizes the importance of negotiating strategy:

How this small, relatively powerless nation uses negotiation to advance domestic oppression and foreign intimidation deserves careful scrutiny. Although North Korea brings very little to the negotiating table, it has consistently won benefits that strengthen the regime’s political control and improve its military capabilities… Were it not for the regime’s careful and clever management of the process of negotiation, few people outside the Korean peninsula would have had any real reason to concern themselves with North Korea.  The negotiating process, and North Korea’s manipulation of it, is what makes North Korea matter at all.

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While writing my book chapter on the history of U.S. diplomacy with North Korea and while preparing for a trip to South Korea to conduct interviews a couple years back, I had to get smart on Korea quickly, and hit the books. There is no shortage of books out there: Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas; Narushige Michishita’s North Korea’s Military-Diplomatic Campaigns; Joel S. Wit, Daniel B. Poneman, and Robert L. Gallucci’s Going Critical; Leon Sigal’s Disarming Strangers, and Bradley Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, among others. One stood out, however: Chuck Downs’ Over the Line. Downs, a former Pentagon official, traces North Korean negotiating behavior from the Armistice through the 1990s. He emphasizes the importance of negotiating strategy:

How this small, relatively powerless nation uses negotiation to advance domestic oppression and foreign intimidation deserves careful scrutiny. Although North Korea brings very little to the negotiating table, it has consistently won benefits that strengthen the regime’s political control and improve its military capabilities… Were it not for the regime’s careful and clever management of the process of negotiation, few people outside the Korean peninsula would have had any real reason to concern themselves with North Korea.  The negotiating process, and North Korea’s manipulation of it, is what makes North Korea matter at all.

During the George H.W. Bush administration, Kim Il Sung, for example, played both Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft for fools. North Korean officials would first reveal information to generate concern, and then the regime would suddenly cut access, watching as Western desperation grew, ending ultimately in concession. Making mincemeat out of Jimmy Carter, former Clinton-era ambassador (and Emory University president) James Laney, Bill Richardson, and Chris Hill was even easier.

Downs, who has also served as executive director of Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, highlights the importance of Korean culture, and explains how the North Koreans would often seek to score cultural points and humiliate American diplomats—with everything from rhetoric to seat height—with some American officials being none the wiser.

I read a lot and can often be cynical about books—especially nowadays when so many authors seek to promote their own narrative and worry more about legacy than truth. Over the Line stood out, however. It is far, and is the best example I have ever seen of an author explaining the nuances and importance of culture. When I have taught Iran, Afghanistan, or the other subjects in which I normally involve myself, this still goes on the reading list. And with the current crisis in Korea, it remains the best resource, be it for a policy maker, outside observer, or diplomat.

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Will Obama and Hagel Learn from the Korean Crisis?

From day one of his first term, President Obama has made outreach to Iran a central pillar of his foreign policy. He spoke of reconciliation in his first inaugural address and, a week later, he told Al-Arabiya in his first television interview, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” Both Obama’s supporters and the Iranian government embraced his willingness to talk: Diplomats and partisans sharply juxtaposed Obama’s posture with that of President George W. Bush, never mind that Bush won repeated unanimous UN Security Council resolutions and so achieved the same thing that Obama had—multilateral diplomatic blessing—only with greater frequency. What Bush did not do was stop Iran’s nuclear progress. But neither has Obama. The Iran failure has truly been bipartisan.

Obama has fumbled additional opportunities, however. When Iranians rose up in 2009, he remained aloof and indifferent until it was too late. At the very least, he might have used his bully pulpit to offer moral support to the Iranian people. Now, if reports are to be believed, Obama once again seeks to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by justifying silence on Syria—Iran’s most important client state—in order to keep the door to negotiations open. Chuck Hagel, too, has dedicated much of his Senate and post-Senate career to outreach to Iran’s ayatollahs.

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From day one of his first term, President Obama has made outreach to Iran a central pillar of his foreign policy. He spoke of reconciliation in his first inaugural address and, a week later, he told Al-Arabiya in his first television interview, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” Both Obama’s supporters and the Iranian government embraced his willingness to talk: Diplomats and partisans sharply juxtaposed Obama’s posture with that of President George W. Bush, never mind that Bush won repeated unanimous UN Security Council resolutions and so achieved the same thing that Obama had—multilateral diplomatic blessing—only with greater frequency. What Bush did not do was stop Iran’s nuclear progress. But neither has Obama. The Iran failure has truly been bipartisan.

Obama has fumbled additional opportunities, however. When Iranians rose up in 2009, he remained aloof and indifferent until it was too late. At the very least, he might have used his bully pulpit to offer moral support to the Iranian people. Now, if reports are to be believed, Obama once again seeks to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by justifying silence on Syria—Iran’s most important client state—in order to keep the door to negotiations open. Chuck Hagel, too, has dedicated much of his Senate and post-Senate career to outreach to Iran’s ayatollahs.

As North Korea continues its saber-rattling, it behooves American officials to consider the implications of maintaining such an ineffective policy toward Iran’s nuclear program. While conducting interviews for my forthcoming book about the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I had interviewed a former Clinton administration official who acknowledged that Clinton’s team understood the flaws in the 1994 Agreed Framework agreement but signed the agreement anyway in order to show progress and because they did not believe the regime would last long enough for the promised reactors to have to be delivered. The Clinton team was wrong, obviously, and nearly 20 years of bipartisan diplomatic failure later, North Korea may finally have a leader who could be crazy enough to unleash the worst violence not only on South Korea, but also on Japan, if not the United States.

With the North Korea crisis escalating, perhaps it is time for the Obama administration to ask if they really can afford to play footsie with the Islamic Republic and pursue a diplomatic strategy that has not only failed to deliver, but also has no promise for future delivery. Perhaps Obama and Hagel believe they can contain Iran today, but they should recognize the North Korea crisis today for what it is: a crystal ball into Iran’s future.

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The Untested Kim Jong-un

The latest crisis emanating from Pyongyang is almost enough to make you nostalgic for Kim Jong-il who died at the end of 2011. Sure, he may have been a murderous tyrant who lived the high life while his people literally starved—but at least he was predictable and conservative in his actions. Not so his callow son and successor Kim Jong-un, who appears bent on escalating tensions with South Korea, the United States, and Japan so as to consolidate his shaky legitimacy to rule the North.

Young Kim’s regime has already said it will no longer abide by the Korean War armistice and that a “state of war” now exists on the peninsula. He has tested nuclear and ballistic weapons. He has cut off the redline telephones that maintained communications with the U.S. and South Korea. He has threatened to attack not only South Korea but the U.S.—in fact displaying supposed war plans toward that end in a doctored photo. He is also widely suspected of launching a cyber attack on South Korea.

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The latest crisis emanating from Pyongyang is almost enough to make you nostalgic for Kim Jong-il who died at the end of 2011. Sure, he may have been a murderous tyrant who lived the high life while his people literally starved—but at least he was predictable and conservative in his actions. Not so his callow son and successor Kim Jong-un, who appears bent on escalating tensions with South Korea, the United States, and Japan so as to consolidate his shaky legitimacy to rule the North.

Young Kim’s regime has already said it will no longer abide by the Korean War armistice and that a “state of war” now exists on the peninsula. He has tested nuclear and ballistic weapons. He has cut off the redline telephones that maintained communications with the U.S. and South Korea. He has threatened to attack not only South Korea but the U.S.—in fact displaying supposed war plans toward that end in a doctored photo. He is also widely suspected of launching a cyber attack on South Korea.

Now he is even threatening to close the Kaesong complex where some 53,000 North Koreans are employed by South Korean companies—an important source of revenue for the cash-starved North. Kaesong has survived previous Korean crises and it is likely to survive this one, but it is a sign of how untested Kim Jong-un is that no one can be sure he won’t do something crazy and self-destructive. If Kaseong is closed, the odds of a North Korean attack on the South grow immeasurably—albeit, likely a limited attack, not an all-out offensive.

Faced with ample provocations, the Obama administration has adopted the right tone of firmness. The administration has certainly caught the world’s attention by sending B-2 and F-22 stealth aircraft to overfly South Korea—a clear signal of the kind of overwhelming military might that the U.S. and its allies can marshal if the North reignites active hostilities. The U.S. and South Korea must be wary of a spiral of reaction and counter-reaction that could spark a war that no one wants—but knuckling under now and giving Kim Jong-un further concessions, as the U.S. has done in the past, will only encourage more of this belligerent behavior in the future. Young Kim must learn that he is not going to be rewarded for his reckless militarism.  

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U.S. Intelligence, North Korea, and Iran

This week National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper delivered the 2013 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The document reflects the latest chapter in the cautionary tale about American intelligence and diplomatic failures on the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

In the 2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the intelligence community told Congress “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” In the 2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment was “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.” In the 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment now is that “North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a serious threat to the United States.” In other words, in the last two years North Korea has gone from (a) having only a nuclear weapons “capability,” to (b) having nuclear weapons, to (c) having nuclear weapons and missile programs that “pose a serious threat” to the United States.

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This week National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper delivered the 2013 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The document reflects the latest chapter in the cautionary tale about American intelligence and diplomatic failures on the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

In the 2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the intelligence community told Congress “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” In the 2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment was “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.” In the 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment now is that “North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a serious threat to the United States.” In other words, in the last two years North Korea has gone from (a) having only a nuclear weapons “capability,” to (b) having nuclear weapons, to (c) having nuclear weapons and missile programs that “pose a serious threat” to the United States.

It illustrates the fact that once nuclear capability is attained, the move to develop a weapon is a political decision, made in secret, detectable only after the fact. Waiting for intelligence about a decision to build a bomb, instead of focusing on nuclear weapons capability, sets the red line where the action can neither be timely detected nor effectively reversed. Earlier this month, the former IAEA deputy director stated that if Iran went the North Korea route, it could build a nuclear weapon in “a month or two.” He noted that “if you go back to the nuclear programs which have been revealed [elsewhere], they all came with a surprise,” and that Iran’s breakout would likely outpace the ability of the international community to respond.

Sanctions don’t get more crippling than the ones imposed on North Korea, but they continue to have no effect on its nuclear weapons program. Over the past year, North Korea conducted another nuclear test; displayed to the world a road-mobile ICBM; and placed a satellite in orbit using its own launch rocket. The 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment states that we “do not know [North Korea’s] nuclear doctrine,” or how it plans to employ its nuclear weapons, but the intelligence community assesses–“with low confidence”–that North Korea would only use them to preserve the regime.

As the Iranian centrifuges continue to spin, and the IAEA finds its demands for effective inspections repeatedly rejected, the P5+1 negotiates with itself, offering new flexibility while Iran engages in what Dennis Ross called last week a “rope-a-dope” strategy. Yesterday, President Obama said it would take “over a year or so” for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. In light of past U.S. intelligence failures regarding Pakistan, Iraq, and North Korea, one wonders what degree of confidence U.S. intelligence has in the one-year estimate: low, moderate, high, or slam dunk.

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American Military Retrenchment and Nuclear Proliferation

The New York Times had a fascinating article on the latest Korean crisis the other day which noted that two-thirds of South Koreans now support developing their own nuclear deterrent–a radical idea for a nation that has been such a close American ally for decades but one that is gaining strength among some foreign policy elites. Significantly, it is not just the increasingly shrill line from Pyongyang which is causing alarm in the South. There are also doubts about the reliability of the U.S. as a protector. The Times notes

Beyond the immediate fear of a military provocation, analysts say deeper anxieties are also at work in the South. One of the biggest is the creeping resurgence of old fears about the reliability of this nation’s longtime protector, the United States. Experts say the talk of South Korea’s acquiring nuclear weapons is an oblique way to voice the concerns of a small but growing number of South Koreans that the United States, either because of budget cuts or a lack of will, may one day no longer act as the South’s ultimate insurance policy.

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The New York Times had a fascinating article on the latest Korean crisis the other day which noted that two-thirds of South Koreans now support developing their own nuclear deterrent–a radical idea for a nation that has been such a close American ally for decades but one that is gaining strength among some foreign policy elites. Significantly, it is not just the increasingly shrill line from Pyongyang which is causing alarm in the South. There are also doubts about the reliability of the U.S. as a protector. The Times notes

Beyond the immediate fear of a military provocation, analysts say deeper anxieties are also at work in the South. One of the biggest is the creeping resurgence of old fears about the reliability of this nation’s longtime protector, the United States. Experts say the talk of South Korea’s acquiring nuclear weapons is an oblique way to voice the concerns of a small but growing number of South Koreans that the United States, either because of budget cuts or a lack of will, may one day no longer act as the South’s ultimate insurance policy.

That is a powerful testament to the growing doubts around the world about American power in the Age of Obama–even if the South Koreans and others would not put it that way. Surveys show widespread global admiration for Obama, but there is growing discomfort with the “lead from behind” doctrine that has come to be associated with his administration. Those doubts are only amplified by the sequester, which Obama dreamed up and has allowed to go into effect, thereby jeopardizing our military strength, because of his unwillingness to reach agreement with Republicans over any deficit deal that does not raise taxes.

It is not just South Koreans and other Asian allies who wonder if the U.S. will be there for them as they are threatened by North Korea–or by a China that is growing increasingly assertive in trying to expand it sovereignty over various islands claimed by Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and other nations with little pushback from Washington. So, too, Middle Eastern allies worry as they see Washington failing to stop the Iranian nuclear program or to do more to stop Iran’s allies in Syria from trying to defeat a popular uprising using horrific violence.

So far those doubts are muted, but if present trends continue they will get louder over time–and we will see the world becoming a more dangerous place. Not just because American power serves to restrain our enemies but also because it restrains our allies–especially countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, who could easily go nuclear if they choose. They have decided, thus far, to refrain from fielding their own nuclear arsenals because they have been sheltered under the American nuclear umbrella. But if that umbrella frays–because of nuclear cuts that Obama is trying to implement or because of a general weakening of our defense or simply a decline in our credibility–then they will do what they have to do to protect themselves and the world will become a much more dangerous place as nuclear arms races break out in the Middle East and East Asia.

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Obama’s Commendable Response to North Korea’s Threats

Give credit where it’s due: the Obama administration deserves praise for pursuing a hardline policy against North Korea–in fact a harder line than the Bush administration policy, at least in Bush’s second term.

In 2008, recall, the Bush administration–thanks to the misguided efforts of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and negotiator Chris Hill–announced an accord to lift some economic sanctions on North Korea and remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in return for unbelievable, and quickly abandoned, promises from Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. This was widely seen as a bid–similar to the ill-advised Annapolis conference she convened in an attempt to achieve a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations–by Rice to land herself a Nobel Prize, or at least rack up some notable achievement, before she left office.

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Give credit where it’s due: the Obama administration deserves praise for pursuing a hardline policy against North Korea–in fact a harder line than the Bush administration policy, at least in Bush’s second term.

In 2008, recall, the Bush administration–thanks to the misguided efforts of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and negotiator Chris Hill–announced an accord to lift some economic sanctions on North Korea and remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in return for unbelievable, and quickly abandoned, promises from Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. This was widely seen as a bid–similar to the ill-advised Annapolis conference she convened in an attempt to achieve a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations–by Rice to land herself a Nobel Prize, or at least rack up some notable achievement, before she left office.

Perhaps, then, it’s a good thing that Obama already got his Nobel because he doesn’t seem to feel compelled to engage in pointless outreach with North Korea. Instead, he continues to ratchet up sanctions and has even managed to get Chinese support at the United Nations for the latest round of sanctions. The fact that the North Korean regime is threatening in retaliation to erase the Korean War armistice and launch a preemptive nuclear attack on the U.S. is a sign that it is feeling the pressure.

The North Korean threats should not be taken lightly–as the sinking of a South Korean ship by a North Korean submarine in 2010 demonstrated, the North is capable of lashing out in unpredictable and deadly ways. But nor should the North’s threats deter its neighbors from continuing to increase the pressure on this criminal regime.

At the end of the day, third-generation dictator Kim Jong-un is not suicidal: He knows that launching an attack on the United States or a major assault on South Korea will result in the end of his regime. Nuclear weapons or not, North Korea’s antiquated military could not long survive a South Korean-American military offensive. Like his father and grandfather, Kim is only trying to gain concessions from the West by threatening us.

Obama deserves credit for hanging tough in the face of these continued North Korean provocations.

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Iran’s North Korean Example

The United Nations responded today to North Korea’s threats to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes on both the United States and South Korea with a new round of even harsher sanctions on Pyongyang. But it is not likely that these latest measures will have much impact on an already isolated communist regime that has no compunction about starving or imprisoning as many of its own people as it deems necessary. Their nuclear threats may turn out to be empty bluster, but whether they intend to further destabilize the region or not there is little the U.S. or the U.N. can do about it.

One shouldn’t minimize the danger that a nuclear North Korea poses to the shaky peace that has held for nearly 60 years along the 38th parallel as well as to the rest of the Far East. There is no telling what this maniacal government will do, and the expectation in some quarters that the accession of Kim Jong-un to power after the death of his father would calm things down has proven to be mistaken. Kim’s latest gambit seems aimed at testing South Korea’s new leader Park Geunhye, and there is always ground for concern that the North’s provocations could set in motion a train of events with unforeseen consequences.

But there is a lesson here that goes beyond our justified concerns about the Korean peninsula. North Korea can defy the world with impunity because it flouted every diplomatic agreement it signed about its nuclear program and wound up with a bomb that forever changed the strategic equation between it and the U.S. The progress of Pyongyang’s Iranian ally toward the same goal and the willingness of the West to engage in exactly the same sort of diplomatic minuet puts the world’s current dilemma in Korea in a sobering light.

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The United Nations responded today to North Korea’s threats to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes on both the United States and South Korea with a new round of even harsher sanctions on Pyongyang. But it is not likely that these latest measures will have much impact on an already isolated communist regime that has no compunction about starving or imprisoning as many of its own people as it deems necessary. Their nuclear threats may turn out to be empty bluster, but whether they intend to further destabilize the region or not there is little the U.S. or the U.N. can do about it.

One shouldn’t minimize the danger that a nuclear North Korea poses to the shaky peace that has held for nearly 60 years along the 38th parallel as well as to the rest of the Far East. There is no telling what this maniacal government will do, and the expectation in some quarters that the accession of Kim Jong-un to power after the death of his father would calm things down has proven to be mistaken. Kim’s latest gambit seems aimed at testing South Korea’s new leader Park Geunhye, and there is always ground for concern that the North’s provocations could set in motion a train of events with unforeseen consequences.

But there is a lesson here that goes beyond our justified concerns about the Korean peninsula. North Korea can defy the world with impunity because it flouted every diplomatic agreement it signed about its nuclear program and wound up with a bomb that forever changed the strategic equation between it and the U.S. The progress of Pyongyang’s Iranian ally toward the same goal and the willingness of the West to engage in exactly the same sort of diplomatic minuet puts the world’s current dilemma in Korea in a sobering light.

Like the Iranians are doing now, North Korea also engaged in a diplomatic process prior to their going nuclear. Several times they agreed to only use their nuclear plant for peaceful purposes and in exchange for those promises were rewarded by the West. But they reneged on every promise and were eventually able to announce the achievement of their nuclear goal, leaving the U.S. with no plausible method for rectifying the situation. All Washington can do about it now is to help pass U.N. resolutions that don’t impress the North Koreans. Meanwhile, South Koreans and others in the region are left to wonder whether Kim will ever make good on his threats.

The diplomatic situation with Iran is just as bleak as the one that was previously conducted with the North Koreans. The Iranians know they have time on their side, and though their economy is much larger and more dependant on foreign trade, they, too, have discovered that it can survive even a program of tough sanctions imposed from abroad. And if the Obama administration ever does make good on its promise to stop the ayatollahs from gaining nuclear capability, the Iranians also know theirs is a bigger country that would provide a difficult military challenge to any nation that sought to take out their nuclear facilities.

The North Koreans did have one advantage that the Iranians do not possess. The 1953 cease-fire that ended the Korean War and the heavily armed standoff along the borders between the two Koreas may have made any resort to force to stop the North from going nuclear difficult if not impossible. But there is no such predicament to stop the U.S. from a strike on Iran as a last resort to prevent it from going nuclear.

What President Obama needs to be thinking about today as he ponders the implication of Kim’s threats is just how much more dangerous the world would be if North Korea’s ally Iran also had the bomb. It may be that the help North Korea is selling the Iranians may render timetables about Tehran’s progress moot. But whether or not that is true, the West must understand that its current dilemma is a product of the feckless nuclear diplomacy it conducted with Pyongyang under the Clinton and Bush administrations.

More time wasted with dead end diplomacy that only serves Iran’s purposes only gets the world that much closer to the day when there will be two nuclear rogue regimes rather than just one. The longer a decision about using force against Iran is put off, the more likely it will be that North Korea won’t be the only nation making nuclear threats against the U.S. in the not so distant future.

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Vice Media’s Foolish North Korea Stunt

The New Criterion and PJ Media might have to retire their Walter Duranty Prize named after the infamous New York Times correspondent who whitewashed Joseph Stalin’s crimes during the 1930s. I think Dennis Rodman has earned a lifetime achievement award in this category, as Bethany’s post makes clear. It is hard, certainly, to top his fawning tribute to the current and past dictators of North Korea. As the AP reported:

Ending his unexpected round of basketball diplomacy in North Korea on Friday, ex-N.B.A. star Dennis Rodman called leader Kim Jong-un an “awesome guy” and said his father and grandfather were “great leaders.”….

“He’s proud, his country likes him — not like him, love him, love him,” Rodman said of Kim Jong-un. “Guess what, I love him. The guy’s really awesome.”

Those words are accompanied by pictures of Rodman yukking it up with Kim Jong-un at a basketball game involving North Koreans and some Harlem Globetrotters that ended in an improbable 110-110 tie.

I am guessing Rodman missed this Human Rights Watch report, which notes:

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The New Criterion and PJ Media might have to retire their Walter Duranty Prize named after the infamous New York Times correspondent who whitewashed Joseph Stalin’s crimes during the 1930s. I think Dennis Rodman has earned a lifetime achievement award in this category, as Bethany’s post makes clear. It is hard, certainly, to top his fawning tribute to the current and past dictators of North Korea. As the AP reported:

Ending his unexpected round of basketball diplomacy in North Korea on Friday, ex-N.B.A. star Dennis Rodman called leader Kim Jong-un an “awesome guy” and said his father and grandfather were “great leaders.”….

“He’s proud, his country likes him — not like him, love him, love him,” Rodman said of Kim Jong-un. “Guess what, I love him. The guy’s really awesome.”

Those words are accompanied by pictures of Rodman yukking it up with Kim Jong-un at a basketball game involving North Koreans and some Harlem Globetrotters that ended in an improbable 110-110 tie.

I am guessing Rodman missed this Human Rights Watch report, which notes:

Kim Jong-Un’s succession as North Korea’s supreme leader after the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il, has had no positive impact on the country’s dire human rights record. More than 200,000 North Koreans, including children, are imprisoned in camps where many perish from forced labor, inadequate food, and abuse by guards. Arbitrary arrest, lack of due process, and torture are pervasive problems. There is no independent media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom. Government policies have continually subjected North Koreans to food shortages and famine.

Admittedly, Rodman has no reputation to lose to here; this latest foray only reinforces the impression of an out-of-control wild man that basketball fans so vividly remember. But this trip was not just Rodman’s doing. It was underwritten by Vice Media, a documentary film production outfit that is under contract to HBO, a division of the giant Time Warner media empire.

One wonders what Time Warner Chairman and Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes thinks about the use of his shareholders’ money to fund a public-relations extravaganza on behalf of the worst regime on the planet? Did the filmmakers clear this little foray with Bewkes in advance, or was he as blindsided as the rest of the world?

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Rodman Inadvertantly Shines Light on North Korean Human Rights

For the first time in at least a decade, the world is talking about former basketball star Dennis Rodman. The former Chicago Bull, known for his “quirky” behavior while winning championships with the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, made news this week with a short trip to North Korea with members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.

The news out of North Korea, both this month and in general, often revolves around its nuclear program and bellicose threats of violence against its neighbors and the United States. Rodman’s visit has stirred outrage thanks to his outspoken support of the country and its dictator Kim Jong-un. Upon leaving the country, Rodman promised that Kim would have a “friend for life” and declared that Kim Jong-un was an “awesome guy” and that his father and grandfather, other homicidal leaders of the country, were “great leaders.”

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For the first time in at least a decade, the world is talking about former basketball star Dennis Rodman. The former Chicago Bull, known for his “quirky” behavior while winning championships with the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, made news this week with a short trip to North Korea with members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.

The news out of North Korea, both this month and in general, often revolves around its nuclear program and bellicose threats of violence against its neighbors and the United States. Rodman’s visit has stirred outrage thanks to his outspoken support of the country and its dictator Kim Jong-un. Upon leaving the country, Rodman promised that Kim would have a “friend for life” and declared that Kim Jong-un was an “awesome guy” and that his father and grandfather, other homicidal leaders of the country, were “great leaders.”

What could have prompted this effusiveness from Rodman? Despite the country’s total lack of infrastructure, freedom and food supply, enormous shows and basketball matches were put together for Rodman, the Harlem Globetrotters and their entourage. It’s not likely Rodman was aware of the dire situation for most North Koreans given that as he boarded his flight he tweeted about looking forward to meeting South Korean pop star Psy. Even as he was about to enter the country, Rodman couldn’t differentiate between the poverty-striken North and the affluent and capitalist South.

Many stories in the news media of the visit included reports of the human rights situation in the country. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer declared Rodman achieved a “diplomatic triumph,” however a report from his own network told a different story:

It was unclear whether Rodman, who is accompanied by Globetrotters Bull Bullard, Buckets Blakes and Moose Weekes, will be taken to North Korea’s countryside, where aid groups say malnutrition is rampant.

According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of thousands of people remain enslaved in prison camps, which are “notorious for horrific living conditions and abuse.”

It appears the North Koreans provided the group with “a feast” amidst a reported famine. Gawker, a site not exactly known for its moral compass, put together a fantastic “slideshow” of Rodman’s visit, with excited tweets from group members about their hosts interspersed with pictures of starving North Korean babies and children. TIME Magazine had an equally forceful post shedding light on the reality for the average North Koreans Rodman wasn’t allowed to meet. The human rights group Freedom House told BuzzFeed:

“History is cluttered with the examples of academics, philosophers, renowned writers, and eminent advocates of humane ideals who have aligned themselves with or apologized for the world’s most despicable tyrants,” said Arch Puddington, vice president of research. “Given this context, Dennis Rodman’s choice to pal around with a leader who oversees one massive, countrywide concentration camp is very much in the minor leagues of dictator worship.”

“At minimum, however, Rodman should ponder the fact that he is the product of a free society which allowed him to develop his athletic skills, earn millions of dollars, travel the world, and articulate his often very quirky opinions,” Puddington said. “Those freedoms, and especially the last one, are totally absent under the regime of the man he calls his ‘friend for life.'”

Thanks to Rodman’s visit, the world might actually be paying attention to human rights abuses in the country for the first time in a long time.

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Why New Iran Talks Are Doomed to Fail

Iran and the West are participating in a new round of talks this week in Kazakhstan over Iran’s nuclear program. The odds of a breakthrough? Close to zero, for reasons that Iranian-American scholar Hussein Banai ably explains in this Los Angeles Times op-ed. He writes of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that

he is increasingly paranoid about the implications of a “grand bargain” with the United States for his privileged position as the chief interpreter of the ideals of the Islamic Republic.

Simply put, normalization of relations between Iran and the United States would deprive Khamenei and the deeply invested cohort of radical ideologues around him of a powerful justification for their arbitrary rule.

Continued enmity with the United States has time and again proved to be a convenient excuse for silencing the reformist opposition (as in the case of the 2009 Iranian presidential election, which has simply become known as “the sedition”) and managing the increasingly fragmented conservative establishment.

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Iran and the West are participating in a new round of talks this week in Kazakhstan over Iran’s nuclear program. The odds of a breakthrough? Close to zero, for reasons that Iranian-American scholar Hussein Banai ably explains in this Los Angeles Times op-ed. He writes of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that

he is increasingly paranoid about the implications of a “grand bargain” with the United States for his privileged position as the chief interpreter of the ideals of the Islamic Republic.

Simply put, normalization of relations between Iran and the United States would deprive Khamenei and the deeply invested cohort of radical ideologues around him of a powerful justification for their arbitrary rule.

Continued enmity with the United States has time and again proved to be a convenient excuse for silencing the reformist opposition (as in the case of the 2009 Iranian presidential election, which has simply become known as “the sedition”) and managing the increasingly fragmented conservative establishment.

There it is in a nutshell: The current Iranian regime can’t afford to bargain away its nuclear program because it fears that if it does so it will not last long. Whereas if Iran does acquire a nuclear weapon, Khamenei expects that this will act as a guarantor of his survival–much in the way that North Korea’s rulers, Iran’s partner in missile and (probably) nuclear research, have managed to cling to power in no small part because of their possession of WMD. For Khamenei, this is quite literally an existential, life or death issue.

Under such circumstances, it is the height of naiveté to expect that more talks will produce any meaningful result beyond buying Iran more time to put more centrifuges online.

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Inspections? Iran May Already Have a Bomb

It didn’t take long for the optimistic story about Iran’s nuclear program in yesterday’s New York Times to turn sour. The paper reported on Wednesday that talks were resuming between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran about resuming inspections of the Islamist regime’s nuclear facilities had resumed. It also noted the report in an Iranian news agency about Tehran diverting its efforts from a bomb to research, a development that might cause the West to treat the issue with less urgency. But, less than 24 hours later, the IAEA announced the talks with Iran had failed and that the United Nations watchdog was still unable to inspect the Parchin site where it suspects military applications of the project including nuclear triggers are being constructed. That means the Iranians are free to go on pushing toward their goal without any annoying inspectors forcing them to hide their work.

This is the sort of development that should cause the Obama administration to drop the air of complacency about the other nuclear talks being held with Iran by the P5+1 group whose goal is to talk the regime out of its nuclear weapons dream. The Iranians have already used those talks to stall the West for over a year and there is nothing to indicate that they view the next round of discussions as anything but another opportunity to buy more time until their bomb is ready.

If that isn’t scary enough, as Lee Smith writes today in Tablet, there is yet another reason to believe that the belated sanctions imposed by the West won’t be enough to stop Iran: North Korea.

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It didn’t take long for the optimistic story about Iran’s nuclear program in yesterday’s New York Times to turn sour. The paper reported on Wednesday that talks were resuming between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran about resuming inspections of the Islamist regime’s nuclear facilities had resumed. It also noted the report in an Iranian news agency about Tehran diverting its efforts from a bomb to research, a development that might cause the West to treat the issue with less urgency. But, less than 24 hours later, the IAEA announced the talks with Iran had failed and that the United Nations watchdog was still unable to inspect the Parchin site where it suspects military applications of the project including nuclear triggers are being constructed. That means the Iranians are free to go on pushing toward their goal without any annoying inspectors forcing them to hide their work.

This is the sort of development that should cause the Obama administration to drop the air of complacency about the other nuclear talks being held with Iran by the P5+1 group whose goal is to talk the regime out of its nuclear weapons dream. The Iranians have already used those talks to stall the West for over a year and there is nothing to indicate that they view the next round of discussions as anything but another opportunity to buy more time until their bomb is ready.

If that isn’t scary enough, as Lee Smith writes today in Tablet, there is yet another reason to believe that the belated sanctions imposed by the West won’t be enough to stop Iran: North Korea.

As Smith notes, the nuclear test conducted by the North Koreans is more than a threat to South Korea, Japan and the rest of the Far East. Given the close ties between Pyongyang and Tehran, it could be, as one U.S. government told the Times earlier this week that “the North Koreans are testing for two countries.”

Smith makes a strong case for belief that Iran already has access to the North Korean nuclear program and that if they were able to pay for that, there’s no reason why they won’t be able to buy a bomb. Despite the problems the sanctions have imposed on Iran, they still have more than enough cash, oil and other commodities to pay a poverty-stricken and isolated North Korean regime anything they want in exchange for what they need. The fact that this is the third such North Korean test has conducted also raises suspicions that what they are doing is at Iran’s behest rather than for their own nuclear ambitions.

Given the secretive nature of both North Korean and Iranian society, there is much that we don’t know about what either country is up to. But informed speculation about the history of cooperation between the two regimes is pointing toward the North Koreans assisting the Iranian effort to match their success in creating a bomb despite the determination of the international community to prevent them from doing so.

The North Korean precedent by which a rogue regime gulled the United States into thinking they would abide by agreements to stop their nuclear program already was a strong argument against the sort of compromise that the European Union has been pushing for in the P5+1 talks.  But if the North Koreans are actively aiding the Iranian effort, the mindset in Washington that there is plenty of time to wait and negotiate before a red line is crossed by Tehran may turn out to be terribly wrong.

The notion that President Obama’s implied threat of the use of force against Iran would be enough to convince the ayatollahs to give up was always something of a fantasy. But when you combine Iran’s progress with the help the North Koreans may be providing them, the scenario starts looking very grim. If, as Smith rightly notes, the president owes the Israelis an apology for working so hard to restrain them from forestalling the Iranian threat, that will be cold comfort for a world that has become a lot more dangerous on his watch.

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