Monday, March 30, 2009

Understanding North Korea

I don't write much about foreign policy on this blog but I have to mention the subject of North Korea, which is again in the news. While North Korea is widely seen as a dark and mysterious place run by an insane midget it's actually remarkably simple to understand.

If you study the diplomatic history of engagements with North Korea (this book is particularly good) a clear pattern begins to emerge. North Korea creates a crisis, the U.S. and other countries promise to give Pyongyang something -- typically in the form of humanitarian aid or nuclear power plants -- and Kim promises to delay his plans for blowing up the world.

The reason Kim does this is because North Korea is a failed Stalinist state that would be incapable of even feeding itself if not for foreign aid. Indeed, it is barely capable of even achieving that even with the aid, thanks to its embrace of collectivism and the juche philosophy of autarky, which is similar to all of the vows by politicians to wean the U.S. off of foreign oil except on a grander scale.

With a new administration in place Kim has apparently decided that it's time for another payday and has once again begun stirring the pot. Most dramatically North Korea has vowed to launch a missile, a not so subtle reminder that it retains a ballistic missile capability that could strike U.S. ally Japan. Recent weeks have seen it close the border crossing with South Korea, holding a South Korean captive and announcement that it will place two American journalists on trial. Plainly Kim is annoyed that Obama is not paying him any attention and that Secretary of Defense Gates has largely dismissed any threat posed by the North's impending missile launch.

The reality is that Kim is not interested in a war, which would likely mean the end of his regime and with it the caviar, cognac, palaces and "pleasure groups". The best course, then, is just to ignore him. The fly in the ointment, however, is the journalists set to go on trial.

With the U.S. in the midst of bailout mania Kim plainly wants a piece of the action. He may like to cultivate the image of being crazy, but he certainly isn't stupid.

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