(Here, in near-entirety, is a relatively-short post I wrote elsewhere on North Korea’s sinking last May of the South Korean corvette the Cheonan. I wrote and posted this exactly half a year ago; in light of North Korea’s surprise attack on South Korean military personnel and civilians and in anticipation of further comment by the Liberal Ironist on what is at stake in the the debate to follow between President Obama and President Lee on how to respond, I thought I’d include this for background.)
…I read a Washington Post article that quoted a North Korea policy expert to the effect that North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan (killing 46 of its crew of 104) may constitute a return to the old adversarial stance that the Kim Regime maintained through the 1970s and 1980s, when the North Korean army would carry out deadly skirmishes against South Korea that would accomplish nothing, seemingly trying to provoke a war. In the years between these violent military incidents there was only icy silence.
In the 1990s the Kim Regime shifted gears to (uh, relatively) conventional saber-rattling, firing a dual-stage cruise missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean here, testing nuclear weapons there, ultimately seeking to extract economic aid from the United States as a reward for not pushing ahead with further weapons tests and deployments while the people under its care starved. Both the Clinton and Bush Administrations credulously accepted the role of assistance-giver that the Kim Regime scripted for them, in part because South Korea’s sudden open-armed embrace of North Korea compelled them to go along to keep the alliance on an even keel, partly because both Administrations probably realized that North Korean state collapse could result in a torrent of mass murder by North Korea’s now-unfunded armed forces on South Korea’s borderlands.
While it may have been effective for pacifying North Korea during flash crises in the late-1990s and early-Oughts, this policy of rewarding the Kim Regime tit-for-tat for backing away from weapons development seems to have failed. If we see a return to violent provocation (they might claim tit-for-tat) of South Korea by the Kim Regime, prospects for peaceful reunification of North and South, let-alone the development of the North, go from unlikely to almost inconceivable. The only viable means of heading-off North Korean state collapse would require the President and Secretary of State prevailing upon the Chinese government to accept that their policy of uncritical material aid and diplomatic protection has inured the Kim Regime to the kind of compromise that could make it a normally-functioning state. At the MPSA Conference this year, I read a draft paper that argued that major powers that provide military and security aid to smaller non-democratic governments frequently push those governments to imprudent behavior that decreases their stability in the long-run, by making compromise with domestic opposition seem unnecessary. With North Korea this effect has manifested both in the way the government keeps its people on the brink of starvation and the way it periodically threatens its Capitalist other; if the Chinese government cannot do anything to draw down the North Korean military force in the long-run and to put those former soldiers into gainful employment in a developing economy, they won’t be able to stop the tide of millions of refugees they’re afraid of when North Korea finally collapses.
Here is Robert Kaplan’s eye-opening October 2006 Atlantic Monthly article on what is at stake in the event of North Korea’s collapse: