Wednesday, August 20, 2003

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Mounting multilateral pressure on Pyongyang

When the multilateral talks on North Korea were announced a few weeks ago, Russia's seat at the table raised a few eyebrows. Until that point, the U.S. insistence was on five-party talks -- the U.S., North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and China. Russia's inclusion -- and its historical ties to the DPRK -- caused some to wonder if this was some kind of effort to level the playing field for Pyongyang.

Well, as Fred Kaplan and the New York Times indicated yesterday, that speculation was way off. According to the Times:

Russia, traditionally an ally of North Korea, embarked today on a 10-day maritime exercise, partly in waters near North Korea, that will involve two traditional enemies of the North, Japan and South Korea. The exercise is the first time that warships from those three countries have conducted joint maneuvers.

Also today, China and Japan announced that for the first time they would conduct mutual visits by warships. In addition, on Sept. 1, Shigeru Ishiba, chief of Japan's Defense Agency, is to travel to Shanghai and Beijing, the first visit by a Japanese defense minister in five years....

North Korea, in response to this effort to isolate it ahead of the talks scheduled from Aug. 27 to 29 in Beijing, blasted the United States today, attacking Washington for leading 10 other nations in the Proliferation Security Initiative, an alliance devised to intercept North Korean ships suspected of carrying contraband....

This Saturday, in the thin strip of Russian territory that was a rear staging area for Soviet military support for North Korea in the Korean War, border troops and civil defense officials are to conduct drills based on the premise that huge North Korean refugee flows could start as a result of a new war on the Korean peninsula or by the collapse of the government of Kim Jong Il....

China, under the new leadership of Hu Jintao, asked North Korea earlier this year to renegotiate their half-century-old mutual defense treaty. North Korea reportedly replied that the timing was not good, with the United States pressuring North Korea over its nuclear program.

Japan, another maritime neighbor of North Korea, is also growing increasingly wary.

The Japanese Coast Guard has added two patrol cutters armed with 20- millimeter cannons on its west coast facing the Korean peninsula, and 26 officers have been added to customs offices in eight seaports frequented by North Korean freighters.

Surrounded by increasingly hostile neighbors, Mr. Kim, North Korea's leader, increasingly acts like a hunted man. In the last six months, he has kept a low profile, never appearing publicly at an event that was scheduled and publicized ahead of time.

Fred Kaplan explains the significance of Russia's actions in Slate. The key grafs:

In previous multilateral negotiations—for that matter, throughout its half-century history—North Korea has played other, larger powers off one another, often quite shrewdly. A "shrimp among whales," a nation founded on guerrilla tactics at the height of the Cold War, North Korea sees this sort of manipulation as essential to survival.

The importance of Russia's unprecedented involvement in this week's military exercises—the signal that it appears quite pointedly to be sending—is that Kim Jong-il will no longer, or at least not so easily, be able to play this game. At this negotiation, on this issue, Russia stands aligned with all the other foreign powers.

Actually, rereading the Times story, Kaplan is understating things. Russia's participation in naval exercises is a powerful signal, but just as significant is the bulking up of Japan's forces and the cooling down of China's friendship with Pyongyang.

Ironically, by the time the talks start, the countries in the multilateral coalition that will have the biggest policy differences will be the U.S. and South Korea. Jim Dunnigan manages, in a single paragraph, to neatly summarize why the U.S. and South Korea disagree so frequently on what to do with North Korea (link via InstaPundit):

Why is there disagreement between the United States and South Korea over how to deal with the North? The main problem is that Americans fear that the north will quietly sell nuclear or chemical weapons to terrorist groups, and these weapons will end up being used in the United States. The north has used terrorist attacks against South Korea for decades, so we know what they are capable of. Thus American are anxious to do something about North Korean nuclear and chemical weapons. South Koreans are more afraid of the North Attacking the south directly, which they did once before in 1950. To deal with the terrorist threat, it seems reasonable to threaten the north. But to deal with the war threat, you have to use more conciliatory moves. South Korea and America both fear the north, but for different reasons, and each wants to apply a different, and somewhat incompatible, solution.


posted by Dan on 08.20.03 at 01:06 AM


Brilliant. This is a brilliant stroke of diplomacy, one that counter balances nicely with the war on Iraq. Here's hoping that Kim Jung-il will be spending his retirement somewhere in China, and be spending it soon. Because, if they can force a non-violent regime change, that will be the victory that will infuriate all of the Bush-bashers.

posted by: Geoff Matthews on 08.20.03 at 01:06 AM [permalink]

Force a non-violent regime change in North Korea? Is this unattainable fantasy day? I suppose you believed that non-violent regime change was possible in Iraq as well? If you're not familiar with the term "juche," perhaps you should look into it. You can count on Kim Jong Il starving every single last one of the 25 million North Koreans before he goes into voluntary retirement.

North Korea is a fanatical cult and Kim is their David Koresh. You'll see the whole compound burn before you see Kim come out with his hands up. It's a fantasy of a dream, and anyone who knows the slightest bit about North Korea would never consider that a remote possibility. The fantasy may be a victory that would infuriate Bush-bashers, but it's never going to happen. Ever.

And exactly what are you referring to as brilliant diplomacy? Drezner (and Kaplan) are reading too much into the Russian naval exercises. They do not signify a fundamental shift in the Russian position. In fact, North Korea was invited to participate in these exercises, and had actually agreed to a few weeks ago, but pulled out at the last minute. Can it really be considered a strong signal to North Korea if they were in fact invited to participate?

How do joint naval exercises and some meaningless drills near the North Korean border change the dynamics of the upcoming talks? We're still in the same boat, still have little to no support from China and South Korea, and still have no viable non-military means to force an intrusive inspections process on North Korea.

What Kaplan (and Drezner) fail to see is that North Korea cares little about Russia, because they're not a major supplier of oil or food. China is. Russia is a bit player, and it's a waste of time to claim a diplomatic victory from insignificant military exercises.

posted by: Kevin on 08.20.03 at 01:06 AM [permalink]

Kevin: I question whether North Korea cares little about Russia, seeing that NK has been the beneficiary of a diplomatic contest between the Soviet Union/Russia and China for years. Nevertheless, whatever NK may care about Russia, Russia cares a lot about NK simply because of China. And Russia is not planning on standing by while the future of Eastern Asia is as precarious as it is just now.

posted by: Henry IX on 08.20.03 at 01:06 AM [permalink]

Joint Naval exersizes? I strongly suspect that the NoKos declined to join in due to the material reliability of their ships and simply do not want it demonstrated to the world. After the whole point of "joint exersizes" is to size up the other guy's capabilities.

posted by: stan on 08.20.03 at 01:06 AM [permalink]

Henry, Kaplan's main point seems to be that the Russian military maneuvers are a specific signal to NK. A signal that the old NK game of playing superpowers off against each other won't work this time.

If that is indeed the case, and Russia "stands aligned with all the other foreign powers," then why did Russia adamantly oppose (along with China) bringing the issue of North Korea's violation of the Nuclear Non-profileration Treaty to the UN Security Council?

The talks are doomed to failure if the Bush administration holds the line on demanding a "complete, verifiable, irreversible" dismantling of the North Korean nuclear program. The American demands are nowhere near what North Korea will accept, and the only reason for the United States to be a part of the talks is to see them fail, after which it should theoretically be easier to convince our allies in the region to help us exerting more pressure.

For more, see here:

posted by: Kevin on 08.20.03 at 01:06 AM [permalink]


Why do you assume that Kim will drink the Kool-Aid? Shouldn't the null-hypothesis be that he is rational, and will sell the people down the river to save his own butt?

posted by: Robert Schwartz on 08.20.03 at 01:06 AM [permalink]


In fact, North Korea was invited to participate in these exercises

Do you have a source?

posted by: dude on 08.20.03 at 01:06 AM [permalink]

Dude, here's your source:

Robert, there's no use saving his own butt if he's forced to live in exile somewhere in the Chinese desert. If you knew anything about Koreans (north and south), you'd know that their history is littered with invasions and subjugation to larger powers. They never had the military power to repel those invasions (or inflict serious damage on their invaders) until now. Kim Jong Il will go down in a suicidal flame before abandoning the ship.

posted by: Kevin on 08.20.03 at 01:06 AM [permalink]

There you have it the social science pas-des-deux.

On one hand the actions of men are determined by their context -- their history and "culture" -- which create the roles and script the lines that they play.

OTOH (and as HST said find me a one-handed economist), men are all children of one Adam and one Eve, endowed with the facility of reason and they will all act as rational creatures acording to mini-max critera.

Which will it be?

We need a market. I am long rational action.

Maybe not "somewhere in the Chinese desert," but I think that St. Petersburg or Odessa might seal the deal.

posted by: Robert Schwartz on 08.20.03 at 01:06 AM [permalink]

Kevin of IA is correct. The North Korean leaders don't care what the Russians think. Why should they? North Korea's big aid and trade partners are South Korea ($641 mil in trade in 2002 and rapidly growing and substantial aid as well) and China (big oil and food aid supplier and trading partner too).

Fred Kaplan keeps imagining diplomatic breakthrus with North Korea and the breakthrus keep on not happening. Only substantial reductions in sources of outside support have any chance of bringing the North Koreans to agree to a real and extremely well verified end of their WMD programs. The DPRK Illicit Activities Initiative is reducing some of their revenue. But without either China or South Korea cutting aid and trade it seems unlikely that all this much talked about diplomatic activity will amount to diddly squat.

Read Kevin at and Robert Koehler at for rather more skeptical and better informed commentary on North Korea. And, hey, when you read them and they tell you you ought to go read a post I make on North Korea, well, I can only say that they have excellent judgement. ;>

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