North Korea -- making threats of nuclear war a normal part of life
Once again, the best sense is coming from down under, the country of my childhood. Greg Sheridan has a brilliant analysis of the implications of the recent test, and the world's reaction, or non-reaction to it. Indeed, the meaningless penalties just passed by the UN only serve to underscore the continued uselessness of the UN and its irrelevance to the civilized world. He makes the serious point that North Korea has now established that threats of nuclear war are just another part of normal international relations. Defining deviancy down on an international and nuclear scale and making the unthinkable, thinkable.
How long before every two-bit country isn't longing for their very own little weapon of international blackmail? As Sheridan says, with this test Korea has finally won a new concession -- an ironclad guarantee that it will not be attacked militarily. Who said blackmail didn't pay?
These arguments also put the lie to this ridiculous whistling past the graveyard spin that is being pushed, that this test was just a "fizzle". That in itself is already trivializing the situation. Big deal -- so it's a little nuclear explosion -- no big deal, move along, nothing to see here, people. That kind of rhetoric is a symptom of a failed policy. When you feel powerless, pretend you're not worried. Ridiculous! It's long, but read the whole thing.
Greg Sheridan: 'Pathetic' penalties News The Australian
THE UN sanctions against North Korea are pathetically modest and highly unlikely to be effective.
Their feebleness is a sign of the lack of resolve of the international community and give a clue to the powerful underlying dynamics, almost all of them destructive, that the North Korean test has unleashed.
First, North Korea gets a security guarantee. After decades of grotesque behaviour, including starving its own people, Pyongyang tests a nuclear device and then the UN Security Council promises it that under no circumstances will there be any military action against it.
North Korea has never had this promise before, so its security has actually improved as a result of its nuclear test.
The financial and trade sanctions are all well and good. The ban on trade in luxury items and the ban on travel are essentially symbolic.
You cannot topple the hermit kingdom by limiting its European holidays.
And, most important, China will not enforce any cargo inspections regime.
It is China that has the huge land border with North Korea and which supplies more than half its aid and trade. If China does not enforce cargo inspections, they won't be effective.
The right, under the new UN regime, of nations to inspect North Korean cargo to make sure it does not contain weapons materials merely formalises the Proliferation Security Initiative, which has been in place against North Korea for years.
And the PSI, good as it was, did not stop Kim Jong-il's regime from going nuclear.
It is always possible that North Korea will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, but a hardheaded assessment must be that it will weather these sanctions and survive.
And history teaches us that sanctions regimes inevitably degrade and are seldom effective in fundamentally changing a nation's behaviour.
The net assessment must be that North Korea will develop its nuclear weapons and will continue on its path of murderous Stalinism. But it is important to understand the deeper dynamics North Korea has set in train.
First, in a profoundly destabilising manner, it is socialising the world into the acceptance of nuclear weapons, and nuclear threats, as a relatively normal part of international life.
In a sense, the socialisation process is analogous to the sexual revolution in the West in the 1960s and 70s.
Behaviour that had previously been unacceptable started on the fringes and extremes of society. When that behaviour didn't earn any real sanction, it migrated into the centre and the mainstream of life. This is often the way fundamental social change occurs within a social group.
North Korea had no sooner conducted its nuclear test than it threatened nuclear war, saying it would take physical action, and might have to use a nuclear weapon, if the US kept up its hostile talk and imposed sanctions.
At the moment, it's probable that such a threat is a bluff from North Korea. But the prospect of a nuclear strike by the North has moved from being impossible 10 years ago to merely extremely unlikely today. That is a profound change.
But the biggest change is that Pyongyang can conduct a nuclear test, then threaten nuclear war, and confront no very meaningful response from the international community, not even a blockade. If a state as weak as North Korea can get away with this, heads are thinking in Tehran, Cairo, Riyadh and perhaps again in Tripoli, so surely can other, stronger states.
In several important ways, North Korea provides a template for other nations to conduct their own nuclear breakout.
In the case of North Korea, trade sanctions don't matter to it much because it hardly trades internationally and it is happy to impose any amount of suffering on its people. The key lesson here is that if you don't fear trade sanctions, you have very little to fear from the international reaction to a nuclear test.
A country such as Iran simply produces so much of the world's oil that it would be impossible for the world to stop trading with it, should it test nuclear weapons. This would apply to several other Middle Eastern nations.
Similarly, North Korea's actions provide acute moral dilemmas for nations imposing sanctions. For sanctions will almost certainly mean more North Koreans will starve. How long would the world's desire for a tough sanctions regime last in a country that gave greater access to the international media and could dramatise the suffering of its people? This is what Saddam Hussein did in Iraq and it was one key reason sanctions against his regime were breaking down and had become unsustainable.
So, bad countries can endure or get round or even exploit sanctions - but so can good countries. India showed with its nuclear tests that if you're big enough, and the rest of your behaviour is otherwise laudable, and you don't present a threat of proliferating nuclear technology to other players, then the world will have little stomach for more than token actions for a relatively short time. These calculations must impress minds in Seoul and Tokyo and Taipei.
There are other very hard lessons from North Korea. One is that it is foolish to base any policy on the expectation that a regime will collapse.
For at least 15 years, I have been hearing about North Korea's imminent collapse. In South Korea's vibrant capital, Seoul, there are even divergent collapsist schools - sudden collapse, gradual collapse, catastrophic collapse, benign collapse, internal collapse, collapse from external pressures.
After the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing in 1989, many sophisticated Western analysts thought the rule of the Communist Party of China would collapse. While China is an infinitely better run and freer society than North Korea, the truth is that Stalinist regimes do not collapse while they remain willing to shoot 1000 or so of their citizens at any given time.
Previous candidates for regime collapse include not only North Korea and China but also Iran and Burma. None of them has collapsed as yet.
Dictatorial regimes collapse when they attempt to liberalise. The astonishingly quick fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe in the 1990s misled us. These were nationalist as well as democratic revolutions. They occurred in part because the societies were surrounded by successful, liberal, democratic neighbours - Western Europe - and because there was a relatively free flow of information inside them, and because in many cases their militaries refused to shoot their citizens.
Kim is deeply unpredictable and certainly something of a psychopath. But he is a rational actor - capable of dreadful miscalculation, but rational. He has absorbed all these lessons and it may be that his calculations are not only rational but also in some sense sound.
He wants nuclear weapons not to extort aid from the West but to ensure his personal security and the security of his regime. He understands that generous aid and trade, which the US and the rest of the West, including Australia, has offered him again and again, could kill his regime because it would open up his closed society.
The Vietnamese communists used to talk repeatedly of the danger of "peaceful evolution" away from their system of tight communist control. From Kim's narrow view, peaceful evolution may be a much greater threat than sanctions, brinkmanship and recurring episodes of confrontation.
In all this, the idea that the Bush administration's failure to hold bilateral talks with North Korea was of any consequence is absurd. Washington repeatedly negotiated with North Korea in the forum of the six-party talks. It was not an unwillingess to negotiate by George W. Bush, but a fundamental clash of aims between Kim and the rest, which was important. The only player that could have applied real pressure was Beijing, and it refused to do so.
The bottom line is that North Korea is changing the world. In the senses outlined above, it is moving the world's behavioural patterns closer to its own. It is moving us towards a world in which nuclear weapons play a much bigger and more constant role in all our lives. It is bringing the day of another use of a nuclear weapon inexorably nearer. As each threshold is reached, we pass a new point of no return.
Kim's North Korea has already changed our world - and the crisis of global governance is evident in our inability to resist this change.