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March 23, 2012

The Younger Kim Makes Strategy … Or Not

by Mike M

Andrei Lankov, for my money the single most thoughtful observer of North Korea we’ve got, joins a chorus of others looking at Pyongyang’s decision to announce a “satellite test” (read: long-range rocket test) just after it reached an accord with the U.S. trading nuclear and missile concessions for food, and is perplexed.  He calls it an “unusually witless move,” but he also says it raises many questions.

Lankov’s piece—behind a paywall (when will these newspapers realize that the web era is about attracting communities through networks of information, not earning pennies by selling it?)—argues that there are many possibilities behind the North’s odd move.  Maybe there’s a real strategy here, he writes—dangle better relations with Washington and then smack them with a hard-line act, in the hope that they won’t react (though Lankov rightly notes this is a vain hope, and points out that even Russia and China have publicly condemned Pyongyang’s move).  Or maybe the rocket test just reflects bureaucratic confusion.  “Given the lead times involved,” Lankov suggests, “clearly the decision to launch the satellite was made before the death of Kim Jong Il in December.  Kim also initiated the talks with the U.S. that ultimately led to the aid deal.  When he died, it might be that nobody in the bureaucracy bothered to notice that launch preparations and negotiations essentially canceled one another out, and never changed plans.”

Perhaps—but these are all among the most profound and sensitive acts of state, and it’s difficult to believe that they passed by  the relevant in-boxes in those ill-heated Pyongyang offices unnoticed.  Either way, Lankov wonders about a regime whose decision-making apparatus is unraveling.  “Chances are that bureaucratic inefficiency, factional rivalry or at least a sense of domestic insecurity are beginning to influence strategic decision making in Pyongyang,” he concludes.  “That is unusual for a regime once capable of cold calculations.  It is a bad sign for the leadership whose survival depends on its ability to skillfully manipulate powerful partners and adversaries.  That means it’s a good sign for everyone else.”

I’m not so sure.  To be sure, the risk of an outright North Korean decision to come flooding across the DMZ in an intentional effort to reunify the Peninsula through an adventuristic war has long been minimal.  There are, admittedly, even today worrisome whispers of hyper-aggressive North Korean generals badly out of touch with the outside world, marinating in their own ideology and convinced of the propaganda they feed their leaders, Great and Dear:  Fabrications about the mythical capabilities of their badly decaying military, whose ranks brim with malnourished, poorly-motivated five-foot-tall teenagers probably wondering why in hell they are preparing for war with those highly attractive people whose family dramas they’ve been watching on smuggled soap operas.

Documents and interviews from post-war Iraq absolutely make clear the risk that a closed autocracy can, out of groupthink and a collective fear of being shot in the head if anyone challenges the leader’s line of thinking, wishful-think itself right into a self-destructive war.  But still, the general agreement is that the weight of deterrence is so heavy that no “sane” North Korean leadership group would choose to invade with the hope it could “win.”  And if this is true, perhaps we could endorse Lankov’s conclusion without worry:  A disintegrating North Korean leadership system would be a harbinger of change, and not ill-considered and erratic behavior.

What gives cause for worry, though, is that the real risk of war, greatly exacerbated by events of the last couple of years, comes through miscalculation, misperception, inadvertence—and the role of over-exuberant subordinates determined to prove their Loyalty and Nationalist Zeal to somebody or other.  In a context of repeated North Korean provocations-for-strategic-effect; in the wake of corvette sinkings and artillery duels ; with Seoul having declared We Won’t Take This Any More and announcing relaxed rules of engagement; with both sides, essentially, saying, next time the bullets start flying, the gloves are coming off, the chances of inadvertence escalation are arguably as great as they have been since the 1950s.

This is not to say such escalation is inevitable the next time a few artillery rounds land on South Korean territory.  Both sides also operate in a decades-old context of jabs and counter-jabs; neither has any interest, political or military, in things getting out of control.  There is every reason to expect—in that terribly portentous phrase from the Cuban Missile Crisis—“cooler heads to prevail” in such circumstances, even when the capricious North is concerned.

But to the degree that, as the wise Andrei Lankov has suggested, North Korean decision making has become fragmented, unable to keep pace with events, subject to letting major choices once made to slip by unnoticed (more echoes of the missile crisis, and rocket tests that were allowed to go forward that sent the wrong signals at the worst possible time)—this is not in the least a “good sign,” one might humbly suggest.  In the context if an already-rising danger of inadvertent escalation in which coherent management of crises will be essential, it’s a very worrying one.

The answer is to work diligently to open regular channels of dialogue with the North during this highly volatile time.  One has a sense that the Obama administration would like to do so.  One might guess, in fact, that the recent “nuclear negotiations” were an effort, in part, to lay the groundwork for relationships that could be useful in crisis management—though that is a pure guess, based on common sense and not any inside dope.  There would seem to be no reason why the effort couldn’t become more formalized, in partnership with South Korea:  Avoiding a war isn’t a matter of “engagement” or appeasement, and new proposals for expanded DMZ dialogues, regular tripartite discussions (about the weather, the latest South Korean boy band, whatever), new forms of hotline; all of this is regularly thrown at the North Koreans with little effect, but could be made the focus of a renewed and more high-level appeal.

Because the day it becomes really necessary—the day the crisis blows up—it will be too late.

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