Thought of the Day: Kim-Jong-un, a Tinderbox

Despite allegations by President Obama that Hilary Clinton ranks among the greatest Secretaries of State the country has known, it is difficult to see any part of the world as being safer today than it was four years ago. The Obama Administration began with hope and a promise – to change the way in which the world perceives us. Mr. Obama and his new Secretary of State were going to “re-set” the relationship with Russia and improve our dealings with China, as part of Mr. Obama’s “pivot” to the Pacific. 

In a speech at Cairo University in early June 2009, Mr. Obama spoke of a new era of respect between Muslims and the West. Terrorist attacks were referred to, euphemistically, as “man-caused” disasters. The prison at Guantanamo would be closed and torture would be forever prohibited.[1]  Iraq was the “bad” war; Afghanistan, the “good” war. Everything Bush related would be reversed and serve as a source of blame.

Four years later, with a resurgent Putin, relations with Russia have soured. China has launched its first aircraft carrier, and increased its presence in the region. Tensions between China and its neighbors have tightened. Despite the laudable act of killing Osama bin Laden, Islamic extremists, including al Qaeda, are active across 4500 miles, stretching from Morocco to the Pakistani-Afghanistan border. The "Arab Spring," which was ushered in two years ago with great fanfare and expectations, has denied liberalization to the people. The principal beneficiary has been the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that promotes Islamic states and Sharia laws. 

American embassies have been attacked throughout the region, with an ambassador killed (in Libya) for the first time since Jimmy Carter was President. While our homeland has been secure from attack, U.S. assets in other parts of the world have been destroyed. Instead of “torture,” the Obama Administration has utilized "antiseptic" Drones that have killed terrorists, but also innocent civilians, including American citizens. Theoretically, they have done so with less collateral damage and by more “hygienic” means. It may be significant that on her last day as Secretary of State, a Leftist terrorist group stormed our embassy in Turkey (an ally of the U.S. and a fellow member of NATO), killing a guard.

The world remains a dangerous place. With all the attention being paid to Islamic terrorism in the Middle East and Africa, Kim Jong-un and North Korea should not be forgotten. Fortunately we have “The Onion” to remind us, if not as to how dangerous he and his country might be, as to what fools they appear. A few weeks ago, a facetious article announced that the “baby dictator” was the “sexiest man in 2012.” According to CNN, China’s “People’s Daily Online” took the story seriously, as apparently did some in North Korea, including, I am sure, Mr. Kim. An article in the same satirical paper this past week announced that North Korea retaliated against South Korea’s launch of a civilian rocket with the announcement that Mr. Kim had “moon-walked”, the first man to do so since Eugene Cernan climbed aboard his lunar module on December 13, 1972. 

The British tabloid, “The Sun,” showed a  recent photo of the “Supreme Leader” sitting on a bed in a new, modern hospital, cigarette in hand, while declaring that he wanted to ensure that the new building was “thoroughly sterilized and dust-free.” Stupidity is not limited to the U.S. Congress.

However, the humor masks the reality of the evil that is North Korea and her leaders. It is remarkable how little attention has been paid to the deteriorating situation in Pyongyang. In 2010, President Obama reaffirmed the ill-advised decision by George W. Bush to remove North Korea from the State Department’s list of state sponsored terrorism in 2008, which Mr. Bush had done on the premise that they had begun to dismantle their nuclear complex at Yongbyon. Mr. Obama’s reaffirmation of that position in 2010 was made despite the country’s conducting its second nuclear weapons test in early 2009. North Korea is now warning that it plans another nuclear test, the third since 2006.

This third test is considered more worrisome, because it would be a highly-enriched uranium explosion, versus the first two tests, which used plutonium devices. While the manufacture of a plutonium bomb is difficult to hide, the centrifuges that produce enriched uranium can be operated in much smaller, more difficult to find places, like tunnels or caves. 

Also, North Korea, according to “India Today,” has large deposits of uranium, while plutonium must be imported. In an article dated January 31, “Russia Today” claimed that the North Korean leader issued a series of orders to conclude preparations for a new nuclear test. Additionally, they reported a source as claiming that Mr. Kim declared, “The country will be under martial law from midnight January 29th and all frontline and central units should be ready for war.” I suspect that most North Koreans already consider themselves under martial law, so not much in their lives will change.

The Far East has the makings of a tinder box, and Kim Jong-un could serve as a catalyst. China and Japan have been arguing over the Senkaku Islands, a topic I wrote about on September 24th last year (“Rising Risk in the East China Sea.”) China has generally been quick to excuse the extremism of North Korean leaders and their system of government, which has impoverished their people. So it was refreshing to note, as The Economist did in its current issue, that China had signed on to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2087, tightening sanctions on North Korea to punish it for a rocket launch in December, and its aggression toward South Korea. 

In the scheme of things, South Korea is a relatively young democracy. Should North Korea attack her, as she has threatened to do, and stage her next nuclear test, as she has vowed, it would place the United States and China in difficult positions. China has insisted that its main interest in the region is stability, as is ours–that and keeping sea-lanes open.

Persons without stakes in the status quo are always more dangerous than those with an investment. It is what makes terrorist groups like al Qaeda so frightening. The world can blow up and what do they care? They have nothing to lose and much to gain. North Korea is in somewhat the same situation. It is a rogue nation run by a dictatorship, which largely operates outside the community of nations. While they have developed nuclear weapons, their people are impoverished and live without hope. It is a combustible situation.

China, I am sure, wants stability, but I am equally certain their leaders also desire increased influence in the region. The question becomes: at what price stability? Will China be willing to sacrifice Kim Jong-un? Japan and South Korea have generally taken their political and economic systems from the West, principally the United States. However, as China flexes her muscle, we are likely to see a major shift in geo-political alignments in that part of the world. If North Korea is not part of China’s solution, does she become a loose cannon? If tensions increase, and China sides with North Korea, the United States would certainly come to the assistance of South Korea, but our influence and military might is not what it once was.  And the possibility of sequestration on our defense spending would cause us to become even more enfeebled. 

China may prefer a waiting game, and perhaps that makes the most sense. In 19th Century America, it was often the case that family fortunes were lost by the third generation – “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” was an old saying. We have no way of knowing whether Kim Jong-un, the son of Kim Jong-iI (1941-2011) and the grandson of Kim II-sung (1912-1994), has the discipline and brains of his father and grandfather, or the loyalty of his subjects, but I would doubt it. It is far more likely that reason and intelligence are missing. And among the most dangerous of tyrants are those that are stupid. Security in the region will largely depend on the role China chooses to play, but also on a continued robust American presence.

 





[1] Anybody who believes that water boarding is torture would be advised to read what the Germans and Japanese did during World War II to civilians and Allied soldiers.  If you want to understand what torture is really like, I suggest reading David Stafford’s book, Endgame, 1945.

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