I would like to direct your attention to this Op-ed published in the New York Times yesterday. Its author is a Texas professor of history named Jeremi Suri, whose approach to North Korea follows the fad of “preemptive self-defense,” which might have gone out of style ten years ago. According to Suri, the “best of bad options” is to destroy a North Korean missile before it can be launched.
Forget for a moment that the United States boasts some of the most technologically sophisticated missile defense systems in the world. With imperfect information, Suri attempts to upstage the current crisis by summarizing the recent events. He asserts that “North declared the armistice that ended the Korean War invalid” as though it were not the seventh time North Korea has done so. It may be the first time Kim Jong-Un has played such a hand, but it only confirms what is rapidly becoming apparent: the apple has landed quite close to the tree.
While North Korea’s leaders have changed, its technology has not. Its missiles mimic those of Soviet Russia and probably lack reliability (Several papers have pointed out that in the shelling of the Yeonpyeongdo Island in 2010, a quarter of North Korean artillery shells were duds.) Suri ignores these points, presumably taking North Korea’s threats at face value. Perhaps we ought to see if a missile even clears the launch pad before rushing to blow it up.
Just in case, the United States has arranged its chess pieces in such a way as to counter any missile launch aimed at either Japan or Guam. North Korea may have been moving, fueling, aiming—posturing, in other words—its missiles, but a South Korean source at Yonhap declared that many of the missile movements have ceased. The source suggests that they were mere theatrics to confuse the gathering of intelligence.
In absence of an actual North Korea preemptive strike, look for Kim Jong-Un to launch a test missile, probably on Kim Il-Sung’s birthday, which will either fly out to open water or, more provocatively, over a US ally. Even if it is just a firework, (and even if it gets off the launch pad), North Korea’s threats make an interception of the missile likely and justified. North Korea says it would follow through with an opening attack against Japan should it shoot down the missile. The message, however juvenile, is like saying “Don’t duck if I shoot at you, or I will shoot at you.”
Suri cannot elaborate much on the missiles or defenses, probably out of ignorance. He then fails at the subject of the Kaesong Industrial complex, which was closed following elevated tensions in the region. I concede this is a first. Yet the complex, having opened in 2004, is new relative to the many acts and intermissions of North and South Korean relations. Still, North Korea is presently strapped with sanctions following its February nuclear test, which means closing the complex amounts to another sanction—this one self-imposed. According to Stephan Haggard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the Kaesong complex grossed $61.76million in the first half of 2012. For a country perpetually beset by economic hardship, it makes little sense to slaughter one of its only cash cows. Like disavowing the 1953 armistice, Kim seems to have found just another toy to throw in the midst of one of his tantrums.
Without explaining how, Suri avers that “The Korean crisis has now become a strategic threat to America’s core national interests.” Most articles that bother with the topic at all remind their readers that in South Korea and Japan, business continues as usual. In fact, it might even be said that Western media has emphasized the events more than anyone else in the world.
As much as part time pundits consider Kim Jong-Un or the late Kim Jong-Il psychotic, crazy, and/or irrational, the regime must remain tethered to reality in order to prolong Kim Il-Sung’s dynasty. An air attack on a stationary missile would define a very clear and overt act of war with the US as the chief aggressor. In response, Kim would have to either do nothing, and risk losing face before his generals (a terrible dishonor in Asian society), or launch a suicidal invasion of South Korea, taking a number of South Koreans with him (as well as hapless North Korean soldiers and civilians who simply don’t know any better.)
As tragic as the human rights abuses may be in North Korea—and I suspect we are only beginning to learn the full scope of them—they are preferable to the hundreds of thousands that would be lost were we to (re)ignite the Korean War. If political turmoil presently grips North Korean leadership, surely a slow and steady deflation beats a sudden pop.