The Trouble With North Korea

Copyright 2003 by John Carroll

Note: I always start with the supposition that the situation as outlined by my own tribal leaders is questionable. They've lied before, as have tribal leaders from everywhere else. It's part of the job. But it's hard to find a hint of truth coming from North Korea that would put the lie to what CNN and the New York Times might say. If you doubt that, check out what's apparently the official North Korean web site at Notice that I'm not sure it IS the official North Korean site because the world is full of hackers and liars who might have put it up on a lark.

If we want to analyze any international problem, we have to first find out which tribes are involved and how they interface with the nations involved. North Korea and South Korea were a single nation and home to a single tribe prior to the end of WWII. But they've been separated now for more than half a century. Separate nations, and perhaps separate tribes. It would be one thing if they were just separated by normal borders, but the border between North and South is extremely difficult to cross. And the cultures have grown in very different directions for nearly three generations. The result has been the development of different styles of behavior and different notions of how things should be. Neither population behaves as it did when the Japanese lost Korea at the end of WWII, but they've evolved in different ways, the North concentrating on obedience to the State, personified by a single leader, and the South on more or less open and fractious political and economic competition where fighting it out for status or resources isn't always a life or death game.

The history of this tribal split is also worth looking at. After WWII, the Americans took control of South Korea and the Russians took control of the North. The U.N. plan was for the whole nation to hold free elections and decide how to structure a single Korean government for all concerned. But the North, controlled by Russia and formed into a communist society, kept putting off elections, and the South, controlled by the U.S. and formed into a capitalist society, eventually got sick of waiting. It held its own elections and declared itself independent. Leaders in the North responded by launching a military invasion of the South in 1950, giving us the Korean War.

We have to know something about economics because despite all the talk of culture and religion, that's what wars are about -- access to resources. The most wildly different tribes with conflicting views of the world rarely go to war unless there are resources to be gained or defended. As I point out in Biology and Politics, Djibouti and Denmark are about as ideologically at odds as one can imagine, Djibouti stocked to the gills with Muslims and Denmark with evangelical Lutherans. But they don't fight because neither could gain resources by fighting.

North Korea is a mountainous country and only about twenty percent of it is very habitable for humans or suitable for agriculture. However, it does have mineral deposits, timber, and other resources which could support a strong economy if they were used for manufacturing of items which could be traded with the outside world. Because of its inherent agricultural limitations, it would be difficult to support the population without importing food under ideal conditions. But in recent years conditions have been less than ideal, plagued by bad weather and mismanagement, and apparently starvation has become a serious social problem, made worse by the fact that the North maintains an enormous military force that produces no food and generates no income, but gets fed first. The North's manufacturing and export are both more important than agriculture, but still not adequate to provide the funds necessary to support its population.

Like the North, the South is poorly endowed agriculturally and also has a fairly large deposits of ores as well as potential hydroelectric power, but its economy depends mainly on manufacturing consumer goods and trading throughout the world on a grand scale. Also, since it has long had American military protection, it hasn't found it necessary to support an army the size of North Korea's. So the South has an enormous economic advantage. In recent times it's been estimated that average annual income in the South is about twenty times that of the North -- the differences being communist control of the economy and the heavy military burden in the North and more open competition and a smaller military burden in the South.

Now we have to turn to the question of why the two Koreas took such different approaches to their economies and their militaries. The South could tolerate lower military expenditures because the powerful U.S. military was willing to defend it against attacks from the North. In addition, since it was essentially controlled by the Americans in the years just after WWII, it was all but forced to follow a capitalist economic system with the market usually deciding what gets produced and what sells at what price. The North, beginning under the tutelage of the Russians, and later strongly associated with Maoist China, necessarily followed a communist course, which time eventually showed didn't work well anywhere because humans are such competitive animals. The South, under U.S. tutelage, ended up with a representative democracy for its government, which has the advantage over other forms of government that if an idiot or crook gets control of the government and makes life too unpleasant for too many people, he gets thrown out in the next election in favor of a more palatable leader. The North had no such escape valve. Whoever got to be leader could stay leader for as long as he could control the country's military. In half a century the North has had two leaders, one the father, the other his son. The economy and general morale might go to hell in a handbasket. People might starve by the hundreds of thousands or millions, but so long as the military was kept happy, the top leader couldn't be removed. Presumably it was the recognition of that advantage which prevented the leader of North Korea from acceding to elections for the whole of Korea, as the U.N. had planned. Why risk losing power in an election when you could seize it by force? The leader Kim il-Sung already controlled a very large military force and had a strong alliance with China when it attacked South Korea. China, under Mao in those days, was out to spread its version of communism. Kicking the United States out of South Korea would certainly have improved China's standing in the area, along with its access to resources. So China sent its troops into battle to save North Korea and to get rid of the Americans. It didn't work. The fighting ended in a stalemate and has never been officially settled. Along the way, China became more capitalistic and began to depend heavily on trade with the United States.

After the war, the North eventually went down the tubes economically and the South prospered. Shortly after Kim Il Song died and was replaced three years later by his son, Kim Jong Il, the economy got so bad some North Koreans starved in place, while others fled to China to survive. It became more necessary than ever to get additional resources from outside. But free trade and widespread travel would have led to mass exodus of North Koreans, the introduction of Western ideas, and probably the eventual downfall of the government. That gave the North Korean leadership only one way to survive -- blackmailing the outside world into giving it resources it couldn't afford to buy. And that's the course it's followed. It threatens to invade South Korea. It claims to have built nuclear weapons and has proven it has the missiles to deliver them against the South, against Japan, even against China, if need be. And it's maintained its million man army at the ready to overrun South Korea at any moment. It's also hinted that it may sell nuclear technology to other third-world nations.

This is terrorism writ large, and it works. South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. have given it fuel and food and other assistance to prevent it from further developing nuclear weapons. The North has responded to this largesse by continuing its nuclear program and threatening to attack the South. Well, it wouldn't do to say, "Gee, thanks guys. You've done enough." The idea is to keep the pressure on to get the maximum in free resources. There's no point to keeping promises of peaceful intentions.

In the six-way negotiations that ended Friday, Aug. 29, 2003, the North hinted that it would drop its nuclear program if the United States continued to supply it with free fuel, signed a nonaggression treaty, and opened diplomatic relations with the North. On its face, that doesn't sound too unreasonable, but the United States, as expected, balked both on the treaty and on diplomatic relations. The U.S. does want to unify Korea, but not under the present government in the North. It wants all of Korea as a capitalist beachhead in China's back yard. There probably is some justification for the North Korean fear that the U.S. will attack it if it doesn't maintain its large military and its nuclear threat. Because of the current impasse in Iraq, that's unlikely, but if and when the U.S. escapes from Iraq, and if its leaders come to believe North Korea is both dangerous and subject to more or less painless defeat, then an attack becomes likely. So the North really has no alternative to continued blackmail, and if it can become a serious nuclear power, neither the West nor China would dare stop paying tribute to it.

And that's a major tribal function, extracting the most resources it can at the lowest price from its own territories and from the territories of other tribes. while gaining wealth is a tribal function, so is taking care of the tribal leaders, and leaders of the more kleptocratic kind keep what they can for their own personal use and for the personal use of their most loyal executives. The North Korean leadership seems to have done just that. The peasants are told of their duties, and of the wondrous, mystical nature of their leader, and they're told they are a strong and happy nation, even as they starve to death. They can't listen to foreign radio broadcasts, not even from South Korea, and they certainly don't have access to the Internet, so there's no way they can know how their lives compare to those of people in other places, and most probably believe they're fortunate to live under Kim Il Sung. He's the only power they know, and the only one to whom they can look for any help at all. There's no indication that I know of of a revolt inside North Korea.

That's the situation, but what can the rest of the world do about it? The important facts to remember are (a)That North Korea has a million-man army capable of overrunning Seoul despite the American troops stationed there, (b)That it has nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them in minutes to South Korea, Japan, and other places in the East -- and possibly in the West, (c) The West doesn't know with any reasonable certainty how many nuclear weapons North Korea has or where it keeps them.

It's clear that no matter what the rest of the world does, North Korea could cause the deaths of perhaps tens of millions with an all-out attack on South Korea and Japan. It's also clear that if it ever did that, it would be instantly destroyed by a rain of nuclear weapons from the United States and perhaps other western nations. A major attack on South Korea or anywhere else would terminate the government of North Korea, and the North Korean leadership knows that.

They have the weapons to terrorize and to cause enormous damage to the rest of the world, but to use those weapons would be suicide. There's a school of thought that says the North Korean leadership is mad as a March Hare, but the evidence for that is very slim. They've threatened suicidal behavior and have been paid off for those threats, but they've never actually carried them out. So far they've acted quite rationally from their own point of view -- that is from their leaders' point of view. They cannot open the country to the rest of the world and hope to maintain control once their people see how others live. That means that North Korea's economy can't succeed by trade. Because it has marginal agricultural land and variable weather, it certainly can't count on maintaining a viable economy by farming. It probably can't consistently feed its own population even with perfect farm management. So how else can it get along? Its only rational option, if the current leadership is to maintain its position, or even go on living, is to parasitize the developed world, and that's what it's done.

Now for the question of what would happen if the West were to prevent this parasitization, either by striking militarily at North Korea' nuclear sites or by simply refusing to give in to its demands for resources. Striking the North militarily is a bad idea because doing so would leave the North with no hope. It's bluff would have been called. It would either have to respond militarily or resign itself to a bleak economic future, probably with a complete economic collapse and loss of power, status, and life for the leaders. A hungry, heavily-armed military is a very dangerous thing if you happen to be the leader it expects to feed it -- and you can't. The leaders couldn't allow themselves to be stripped of the power to extract resources from the outside. If their nuclear leverage were attacked, they might very well decide to invade South Korea and/or to use their remaining nuclear weapons, if any, against whatever targets were convenient. Without a military response to a Western attack, the North would lose all credibility. So probably any serious attack on the North would be met with whatever force it could mount, leading to deaths in the hundreds of thousands or even millions -- and to the destruction of the leadership of North Korea, probably by U.S. nuclear attack.

Well, if the military strike would be a bad idea, how about simply cutting off aid and hoping the regime simply collapses? Whether that would be a good or a bad idea, it's not going to happen. For one thing, the people of South Korea think of North Koreans as fellow tribesmen. South Koreans by and large think of North Koreans as "us people," not as aliens. They're "us," so they have to be helped. That might not be how things worked out if by some magic the country were peacefully reunited, but that's how they feel now. So rather than let their tribespeople starve, they'd feed them. China wouldn't let the North starve, either. If that happened, the portion of China bordering North Korea would be overrun with Korean refugees who would threaten social order and drain the local economy. So it's a safe bet that short of military defeat, North Korea will be able to continue extracting resources from its neighbors, and almost certainly from the United States as well.

What if the United States simply refused to do business with North Korea? Stop trading with it in any way and stop subsidizing its electrical generation. That would probably cause the North to increase the rate at which it develops nuclear power plants capable of producing weapons-grade isotopes. Hydropower might be a cheaper, if less impressive way to generate power, but the North can be counted on to continue nuclear weapons development, if only to become a more threatening parasite. China and South Korea, and possibly Japan would keep the regime in Pyongyang afloat and would resent the U.S. for not helping.

What about the option North Korea proposes -- Denuclearization in exchange for a nonaggression pact and the exchange of diplomats, and, of course, continued free oil from the U.S. Why wouldn't the U.S. see this as the least odious choice? Do the Americans hope that once Kim Il Song is gone North and South Korea will be unified on American terms? Do they believe that the North will eventually collapse economically and that this will lead to an American-style reunification? Or do they believe that North Korea would accept the diplomats and the nonagression treaty and go right on building up its nuclear force? Probably all of the above, but the big catch is the nuclear option. Giving it up is not and cannot become a useful pathway for the present North Korean leadership. The nuclear threat is more than just an insurance policy against bad treatment by the outside world. It's a weapon for getting ever more resources from that world.

That pretty well covers the near-term options and their outcomes. The military option is incredibly dangerous. Cutting off the flow of resources into North Korea isn't an option. Just cutting off U.S. subsidies would only lose allies for America and possibly accelerate nuclear proliferation outside of Korea. There are no pleasant short term options. In the long term, decades of isolation and the deaths of the current batch of leaders, coupled with offers of cooperation from the West and from North Korea's neighbors, would perhaps lead to a Soviet- style economic collapse, along moderately orderly lines. How long that might take, or whether it could happen at all, is unknown because much of it depends on chance, and much of it depends on the structure of present-day leadership in the country, which isn't well known, and the structure of future leadership, which can't be known. So after all this, I'm forced not to a clever solution, but to the admission that the present approach is about as good as we can make it. Keep talking in diplomatic tones and keep paying tribute to North Korea -- no more than necessary, but enough to keep the government afloat. As a policy, it stinks, but it beats the alternatives.

Now let me float an idea. Suppose we could convince a lot of ordinary North Koreans and especially junior military staffers that they'd be a lot better off with a new government. This wouldn't be easy, and it wouldn't be quick, but the strongest hand we have to play is to convincingly show people in the North how much better the rest of the world lives. Convince them that South Koreans have relatively little to fear from their own government and that their income is twenty times that of people in the North. Show them how their own leadership lives while they starve. That's not a new idea. The CIA raised it to an unsuccessful art form in Guatemala almost half a century ago. The Guatemalan citizens didn't buy it, but there was a reason for that. The CIA was lying and the CIA expected citizens to take up arms against a government that had been very good to them. The same thing happened in Cuba before the Bay of Pigs invasion when the CIA tried to get Cuban peasants to turn against Castro and take back the people they'd kicked out in the revolution that brought Castro to power. Castro had been much better to the common Cuban people than the Batista regime Castro had thrown out. So when the old Batista elements tried to come back, the Cuban people united and wiped them out. But North Korea is critically different. The government there hasn't been good to its people. It hasn't provided the resources a good tribe provides. The economic gap between North and South is real and very large, and the gap between ordinary people and the ruling elite is astronomical. So it's possible that the approach that failed in Guatemala and Cuba might do better there.

All we have to do is convince the North Koreans of this. We could use pilotless aircraft to drop cheap radios that allow them to hear from the outside world, especially from the South. We could tell the people about the Internet and what they're missing as they sing the praises of their leader and starve. Don't expect too much from all this. It won't work quickly if it works at all, and it might sour relations with other countries, particularly China and South Korea. But it might also set the stage so that one day the North Korean nation might implode as the Soviet Union did, or change from Stalinism to a more successful semi-capitalism, as China did. Even that's probably pie in the sky, but at least worth a thought.

Biology and the War in Iraq   |   Non-human Critters Copying Genes

Ten Commandments in Court   |   The Shape of Iraq to Come

Tribes and International Politics   |   Dealing with North Korea

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