The Axis of Indifference

Since the end of the Second World War, American presidents, diplomats, and military planners have had to face off with a North Korean regime resistant to the charms of American culture and the force of U.S. might. This past week, North Korea (formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) fired a ballistic missile over Japan in spite of the manifest disapproval of virtually all the world community – with the exception of Iran. The test appeared to fail, with the Taepodong-2 missile unable to break into outer space.

This test caps decades of missile research and nuclear development in North Korea. In 1993, President Clinton had to face down the old anti-Japanese guerilla leader, Kim Il Song, over the nuclear program, a crisis diffused by the dispatch of former President Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang and the signing of an “Agreed Framework” in 1994 whereby the U.S. pledged to help North Korea meet its energy needs and build a light-water reactor. In 2000, North Korea lobbed a missile over Japan (the Taepodong-One), heightening Japanese paranoia. In 2002, after having been labeled as part of the “Axis of Evil” and targeted by the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld administration for “regime change” (backed by the scrambling of nuclear-armed bombers from Guam by the Joint Chiefs of Staff), North Korea accelerated its quest for a nuclear deterrent. In October 2006, the DPRK broke through and tested a nuclear weapon in a remote northwestern area of its own territory, sticking a figurative thumb in George W. Bush’s eye just two weeks prior to an important midterm election in the U.S. While the North Koreans have yet to develop workable warhead technology, they are actively seeking help from Iranian and Pakistani engineers in this task and devoting substantial portions of the country’s GDP to develop functional nuclear missiles. Across Democratic and Republican administrations, U.S. posture toward North Korea – one of military containment and diplomatic non-recognition – has remained constant, and pursuit of nuclear weapons has similarly remained an axiomatic element in North Korean policy.

For a new administration in Washington intent on opening channels of diplomatic dialogue, reducing burdens on the military, and engaging in demonstrations of American “soft power,” North Korea presents an intractable dilemma. From the U.S. perspective, this is not a good time to be putting little (but dangerous) North Korea on the front burner of foreign policy, even within the East Asian region. In spite of universal agreement to the bromide that the U.S.-China relationship is “the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century,” Obama has yet to appoint an ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. South Korean public opinion toward the U.S. is still raw over economic issues such as beef imports, and has longstanding reasons for not trusting any American administration to take South Korean interests to heart. Japan, the target of so many North Korean provocations, feels bullied and needs to have its voice heard in Washington. Meanwhile, Obama needs to prevent Nancy Pelosi from running off to India with Tibet’s Dalai Lama, maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait, and, oh yes, there is the slight matter of coordinating with China so that we can keep borrowing money from their prodigious foreign reserves and prevent the sequel to the Great Depression.

Prior to Kim Jong Il’s stroke last fall, it seemed that the table was being set for a grand reconciliation between North Korea and the United States. After years of internal struggle between hard-liners and engagement strategists, the U.S. chose engagement, and gave North Korea an opportunity to host the New York Philharmonic in Feburary 2008. (For a fully-footnoted mash-up of the orchestra’s visit to the DPRK, the relation of classical music to totalitarianism, and the possibilities of cultural change in the North, see my working paper “North Korean Hip Hop? Reflections on Musical Diplomacy with the DPRK.”)

North Korea seemed to be interested in using its nuclear program as a radioactive entry card into bilateral discussions with the United States which would result in North Korea reducing its dependence on Chinese oil and food aid, guarantees of political stability and DPRK sovereignty, diplomatic recognition, and the replacing of the armistice (the cease-fire which ended Korean War) with some sort of mutual non-aggression treaty. Above all, the foremost goal of any action taken under Kim Jong-Il seemed to be the enhancement of the wounded prestige of his regime and the prolongation of its life.

With Kim’s stroke, all of this seems to be again open to question. Who is in charge in North Korea, and who is the successor to the state? Is there anything resembling an internal opposition within the Korean Workers’ Party which is eager to reform North Korea, perhaps along Chinese lines? At what point do internal pressures – a roving and crime-prone internal population, the proliferation of black markets, corruption, severe human trafficking, sporadic famine, and the influx of Chinese and South Korean influence over the northern border – result in an immense and irreparable crack in the edifice of apparently abject worship of the Kim regime? It seems that one function of the recent missile launch was to quell internal doubts in North Korea about the health of the leader, the ability of the Workers’ Party and the Korean People’s Army to engage in vigorous action, and to remind the people who is in charge. (The March 17 arrest and forthcoming trial of two American journalists for treading illegally on North Korea’s northern frontier with China fulfills the same purpose externally.) In the meantime, the missile launch has put North Korea back on the President’s desk. Given the intensity of the current global whirlwind, one can only hope that Obama’s Korea portfolio remains manageable.

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