Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Do you think North Korea really wants nuclear weapons?


Its been a few years since you were on the Hill and had to read and prepare policy papers. For this post, I'll dive into an issue that is on the minds of some in foreign policy circles but seldom in the news because of the obvious interest in Iraq and other Middle Eastern hotspots.

Last month, I attended a lecture sponsored by the Los Angeles World Affairs Council where David Kang, professor of Government and Business at Dartmouth and Victor Cha, professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown spoke as part of their tour for their book, Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies.

This post is based on my quickly scribbled notes. I hope I accurately represent their views but without a transcript I have no way to fact check it.

David Kang spoke first. He mentioned that North Korea is not the top priority in foreign policy. At least not until there is a crisis. He and Victor Cha are long time friends who have studied North Korea but disagree on what the USA should do. They wrote differing op-ed pieces for the NY Times and decided it was time to put their thoughts together in a book.

Prof. Kang laid out the format for the night: he would make some brief remarks then Cha would make some and then the two of them would field questions.
Point #1 -- Does North Korea have security fears? Currently, the Korean war is NOT over. A truce was signed in 1953 which is not a true peace treaty. North Korea remains on the USA's nuclear warhead target list as of 2002. 30,000 US troops remain in South Korea. North Korea has lost their supporters in the USSR and China. They are a very small country afraid of its neighbors. The USA GDP is $10 trillion; Japan is $4 trillion; South Korea is $800 Billion; North Korea is $18B; New Hampshire is $47B. They are afraid.

Point #2 -- There are economic reforms taking place in North Korea. As of July 2002, they are beginning to abandon the centrally planned economy. This is a major shift and could be an indicator of future changes.

Point #3 -- US policy has been crisis driven. North Korea may not collapse tomorrow. What will the US do if it turns out the current system stays in power for decades? China began economic reforms in 1978 and has come a long way but politically it hasn't changed much. The US choose to deal with China rather than isolate it.

Thus, Kang's view is that the US must engage North Korea using more carrots than sticks.

Prof. Cha then spoke and made his three points.
Point #1 -- If North Korea intends to trade its nuclear weapons for food and security assurances then indeed, engagement makes a lot of sense. However, if they want to have nuclear weapons to have them then that strategy doesn't make sense. They would make the deals and still try to keep their weapons.

Point #2 -- The USA must get everybody around North Korea to say with one voice to them: you can't have your nuclear weapons and our assistance. The USA cannot be alone in making this demand on them.

Point #3 -- North Korea is indeed reforming their economy. However, that tells us nothing about their willingness to give up nuclear weapons.

Thus, Cha's view is that the US must engage North Korea using more sticks than carrots.

The audience then posed question.

Q: How much money does NK make in the drug trade?
Cha: It is estimated they make $250 million from drug trade and $250 million from missile technology sales.

Q: How far along are they with plutonium development?
Kang: There are indications they are working on both highly enriched uranium and plutonium. They know that the USA has them on nuclear attack plans. They are acting on their security fears.
Cha: The USA was giving them, for free, 155 million gallons of fuel oil per year. The USA and SK have tried to engage them to assure them; however, NK continues to work on the programs.

Q: Who actually runs the country?
Kang: Kim Jung Ill and the top military make the decisions.
Cha: The Korean Workers Party is in decline relative to the military. Kim Jung Ill and about 1000 top military run the country.

Q: How can China help?
Cha: China really didn't care all that much. But now they fear NK's nukes. At one time, they cut off food and energy for three days to send a strong message to NK. Recently, though they seem to have returned to not saying much.

Q: Is there a South Korean lobby in the USA that affects our foreign policy like the Israel and Cuba lobby?
Kang: No.

Q: Why do you think they want nukes?
Cha: They want to be like China. China got nukes and everybody had to respect them. They saw that Japan was defeated by nuclear weapons. They have a desire to be a rich and strong nation and in their minds that also means nuclear weapons. Why else would they sacrifice so much for the nukes? It cost lots of money to develop the technology and it is estimated that 2.2 million have died of starvation because they devote so much effort to getting them and in military spending.

Q: What is the military situation on the Korean Peninsula?
Kang: Seoul is 30 miles from the DMZ. 15 million live there. NK has a 1 million man army and 11,000 artillery pieces that can destroy Seoul. It is estimated that if war breaks out there would be 1 million casualties and would most likely draw in neighbors Russia, China and Japan (50 miles). The US would ultimately win but the cost would be high.
Cha: There are 100,000 US citizens who live and work in South Korea. Japan is just 10 minutes away by missile attack. North Korea already has a conventional weapons deterrence by holding Seoul essentially hostage.
Kang: True, but in their minds, more is better, so they want nuclear weapons.

Q: How did they get nuclear technology?
Cha: Pakistan transferred technology in 1997-1998 in exchange for missile technology.

Q: Would they really use the weapons if they got them?
Kang: Don't know. Unlike Usama Bin Laden, Kim Jong Ill has "an address." If they fire off a missile everyone knows. If they use the weapons they will got bombed.
Cha: We don't know if they would really use them. However, they may well sell them.

Q: How good is US intelligence in North Korea?
Cha: These items are easy to hide. If the country were to fall into anarchy, some military factions could steal the nukes and we would never be able to find them.
Kang: Intelligence is hard to get. Even China, a neighbor, has had very little success in getting agents in. Most of them wind up dead.

Q: What is your policy recommendation?
Kang: Clearly we need to deter but we should also engage with trade and various aid.
Cha: The 1994 agreement failed. We need to make it clear they must disarm. The cost of getting nuclear weapons is already high and we need to raise the cost further for them so they will finally give up those aspirations.

What do you think Kari? What do our readers think? More carrots or more sticks?



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