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North Korean Woes
War News
Friday, April 12, 2013
Alf Cengia

I wish I had a telephone hotline to Jack Kinsella. Wouldn't that be cool? I'd have loved his feedback. We could have gone through the past few weeks' news clippings and he'd clue me in by asking all the right questions. Jack might ask, for example, ''What do you think it really means when China conducts live-fire drills in a region near the North Korean border?''

How does the United States react to it?

Well, "officially", this drill was planned a long time ago and was never directly associated with North Korea to begin with." So, it's not like the bigger bullies are standing behind the little one - right? In fact, a U.S. official stated that another drill will be conducted soon. But he added the comforting statement that the United States “remains strongly committed to our nuclear deterrence capabilities.”

China may have planned these tests some time ago and North Korea, having been aware of it, took the opportunity to do some chest beating. Whatever the case, North Korea is a "loose cannon" in that region.

The North Korean regime reminds me of the unstable "Tommy" character portrayed by Joe Pesci in "Goodfellas". China has expressed concern over North Korea's rhetoric, but unlike Tommy - who became a liability and was ultimately disposed of - Pyongyang isn't going away any time soon.

It seems that, despite China's "concern", it is still standing right behind its little buddy.

In fact Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warns (the U.S.?) that any issues with North Korea must be solved through dialogue. Moreover, China is opposed to;

“any provocative words and actions from any party in the region and does not allow troublemaking at the doorsteps of China.” (Emphasis mine)

Accordingly, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has recommended that the two Koreas should sit down and have a nice chat about their differences. If it works, they could even try that idea with Assad and the Free Syrian Army; or maybe even Hamas, the P.A. and Israel. They could all get together in Gillard's back yard and put another shrimp on the barbie.

Is my cynicism showing again?

Gillard also noted that North Korea had practiced "a great deal of restraint"! Presumably, it's because they haven't actually followed through with their threats...yet. That may be comforting if you live Down Under - not so much if you're South Korean, Japanese or - given time and missile development - even an American citizen.

The North Korean scenario brings to mind the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. What would a Kennedy or even a Reagan do? Physicist Hui Zhang ponders this in an opinion piece for Asia Times. He surmises that Kim Jong-un and Pres. Obama might eventually face off in the same way as Kennedy and Khrushchev did. But the circumstances are somewhat more precarious in the current scenario:

"...the younger and less-experienced Kim of the smaller and isolated Kingdom might not behave as rationally as Khrushchev." (Emphasis mine)

Up until now, there hasn't been anything remotely rational coming from North Korea - quite the contrary. In fact Zhang even warns that: "No one wants to play a game of 'chicken' with Pyongyang."

One question is; how far are they prepared to go? Another one is; how far is the Obama administration prepared to go?

Zhang points out other issues which should worry. He leads "a research initiative on China's nuclear policies for Harvard University's Project on Managing the Atom", so he should have some idea. Noting that North Korea has a long list of "provocative actions", he adds that desperation may lead them to do the unthinkable:

"Elements within a desperate and collapsing North Korea could even sell highly enriched uranium (HEU) to the highest bidder. HEU is much more attractive than plutonium to terrorist groups in the market for nuclear weapons because it is easier to hide during transport and easier to make into a bomb.... After all, North Korea already appears to be selling missiles and missile technologies to Iran and others. North Korea reportedly helped Syria build a reactor that was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in 2007." (Emphases mine)

Trade sanctions won't really work on Pyongyang either. Zhang believes that the more these are imposed on North Korea the more desperate they become. Another reason they don't work is because people routinely violate them. In that wonderful wacky world of sanctions, we find that South Korea and Iran have long been keen business partners:

"South Korean president-elect Park Geun Hye has hailed her country’s longstanding relations with Iran, stressing that Seoul attaches great significance to the expansion of ties with Tehran in all fields."

So, Iran is happy to do business with both North and South Korea. Go figure!

The last North Korean test yielded an explosion of several kilotons. While that yield fell short of the 15 to 20-kiloton bombs which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki; it could potentially be far more destructive in today's higher density areas.

These tests and threats have also dashed all realistic hope for nuclear disarmament. If Ted Turner still wants Israel and the U.S. to disarm first (to prevent a nuclear Iran); then he should promptly ring Julia Gillard and invite himself to that barbie.

In 2011 Richard C. Bush wrote that North Korea doesn't really want to engage in dialogue - despite China's insistence on this protocol. Pyongyang uses provocation as a tool to stall talks until it gets what it really wants. And what it really wants could well be:

"...negotiations that don’t go anywhere, precisely because they [North Korea] are still in the middle of proving their nuclear deterrent and proving that their nuclear device can be used as a weapon—that it can be put on a missile and hit the United States. If they were able to do that, it would give them more security, but they aren’t there yet."

North Korea reminds me of the small school yard bully who has bigger friends to get his back. They kick and scream and generally get what they want in the process. Bullies also like to boast. They'll want to show the world that they have missiles which can reach the U.S....because they can!

One would sincerely hope that China has enough sway over Pyongyang to deter it from acting upon its threats. The U.S., after all, is one of China's export markets. But that remains to be seen.

More troublesome to me are the likely clandestine activities North Korea will engage in. Highly Enriched Uranium and Nuclear Technology are in high demand in certain specialist markets.

And North Korea is willing to trade.

About Alf Cengia

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