Making sense of North Korean "nuclear brinkmanship"

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Day by day, the “Dear Leader’s” North Korean regime ups the ante on the Korean peninsula, playing a local version of a game once globally familiar — nuclear brinkmanship (a phrase used yesterday by International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei). The North Koreans have now declared that they will expel the UN inspectors. They don’t, of course, have much else to barter (or blackmail) with, and in this age of preemption under the new Bush Doctrine, it turns out that nuclear weaponry remains a significant coin of the (global) realm.

At least four other countries are deeply entwined in North Korea’s moves: China, South Korea, Japan, and the United States. The single most thoughtful piece on the North Korean situation I’ve seen — for those with a little extra time before the New Year — is Gavan McCormack’s long essay, “North Korea in the Vise,” in the most recent New Left Review. It’s a model of how to piece together a crisis of the moment in the context of deep history and global pressures of every sort.

As it turns out, at the heart of the Korean crisis is the issue of what Japan, long a foreign policy satellite of the US, is to become — a more militarily expansive American subordinate on the new global battlefield (“the Britain of the Far East”) or a more independent entity, the “Japan of the Far East” (without having fully come to grips with the last round of Japanese dominance in the Pacific). In Japan, as McCormack indicates, the North Korean admission of having abducted Japanese citizens has created something of a right-wing, nationalist backlash in a country which itself once abducted tens of thousands of Koreans and almost sixty years later has yet to fully apologize for its acts.

McCormack reminds us of the context of terror — the Japanese one when they ruled Korea as colonial overlords and then, after 1945, the American one when, during the Korean War, we leveled the North (as well as American post-Korean War support for dictatorial regimes in the South). He then reminds us that there are unexpected dangers lurking in this situation, especially in the “robust,” no-negotiations Bush version of Korean, and more generally, Pacific policy which one day may indeed push Japan toward a nuclear-armed independence. After all, in a world in which nuclear weapons are currency even for small, dotty, desperate states, can the nuclear arming of Japan be so far away?

By the way, a recent Los Angeles Times piece, “S. Koreans Shrug Off Nuclear Threat” by Barbara Demick gives a vivid sense of South Korean attitudes toward the North and toward the US at the moment. It begins:

“When Lee Jin Ju pauses to think about the nuclear crisis brewing over the Korean peninsula, she knows exactly whom she fears. ‘George Bush,’ replies the 22-year-old accounting student without missing a beat. ‘He’s a war maniac.’

“Lee doesn’t like North Korea’s Kim Jong Il much, either. ‘But we’re not afraid of him. He’s a Korean like us. Even if he does get the bomb, he’s not going to use it against us.’

“Lee doesn’t like North Korea’s Kim Jong Il much, either. ‘But we’re not afraid of him. He’s a Korean like us. Even if he does get the bomb, he’s not going to use it against us.’

“This is a sentiment echoed by many Koreans — even some conservatives — and it is complicating U.S. efforts to forge a consensus on North Korea among its allies. There is a tendency, particularly among the young, to shrug off the current situation as the creation of a hysterical White House. Many South Koreans see their estranged brethren to the north more as objects of pity than of fear, and the Americans as potential troublemakers.”

To read more of this LA Times piece click here

And finally, let’s remember our own Dear Leader’s most recent immortal, and clarifying, words on the Korean crisis (from an end of the year US News and World Report interview entitled “plain speaking”):

“It goes to show that American foreign policy will be active in seeking the
peace, will be engaged in a variety of topics, and will deal with issues
differently, depending on the circumstances. And so, therefore, our foreign
policy has got to be bold, but it’s also got to be understanding in that the
nature of the new wars we face, in the nature of the problem we face,
understanding the sense that we’ve got to work with others to achieve common
objectives, and we’re doing that.”

Call in the CIA decoders for that one. Tom

North Korea in the Vise
By Gavan McCormack
New Left Review 18
November-December 2002

For its public enemy number two Washington has chosen the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the relic ‘guerrilla state’ whose founding myths and national identity were forged in the thirties, through armed resistance to a brutal Japanese colonialism-and hardened over half a century of Cold War since it fought the US to a standstill, in 1953. Permeated by monolithism, xenophobia and leader-worship, the DPRK has never demobilized. It still maintains a standing army, nearly a million strong, deployed along the Demilitarized Zone barely 30 miles north of Seoul; among its conventional weapons alone it numbers over 3,000 tanks, 11,000 artillery pieces, 850 combat aircraft and 430 combat ships. [1] Famously the most industrialized region of the peninsula prior to US carpet bombing during the Korean War, and surpassing the southern Republic of Korea in growth during the fifties and sixties

To read more McCormack click here