31 March, 2013

North Korea: Risking the Nation to Preserve the Regime

Satellite picture displaying the Korean penins...
Satellite picture displaying the Korean peninsula at night. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It seems our friends from North Korea are at it again.  Only this time the threats are noticeably more shrill, the propaganda noticeably more clumsy, the moves noticeably more blatant, the insanity - if such a thing is possible - more insane.  What's going on here?

Let's start with McIntosh's three rules for understanding foreign policy.  They don't cover everything.  They are too vague, in and of themselves, to make strong predictions.  They are probabilistic.  Yet I'd argue that all of those "bugs" are in fact "features": they provide a structure for analysis without creating a false sense of certainty.  What are they, and how do they apply?

RULE ONE: WHAT PEOPLE DO IS DETERMINIMED BY WHAT THEY PERCEIVE TO BE REAL.

This includes not only perceptions of the physical conditions, but perceptions of how others see themselves and how they see the world and how will react, and even perceptions of one's own identity and reactions to hypothetical circumstances.  Is nuclear deterrence a bluff?  I don't know, and neither do you, and we won't know if it's a failure until it fails.

How does this apply here?  North Korea, under the new kid, is trying to create a perception of itself as more powerful and less frightened than most people (myself included) beleive it to be.  At the same time, there are indications that the regime of Kim Jong Un is not firmly entrenched in power.  There are rumors of attempted coups.  There are mobilizations of not only the military, but the people, that go beyond the norm for this time of year.  The regime is locking down the people, even more than usual, and locking the military to their posts, and justifying it by ratcheting up the Fear.  Many of the threats to the West and South sound like little more than propaganda in praise of the Great Leader, the Military Genius, the Only Man Who Can Bring Us Out of the Hell, that he, himself, has done so much to promote.

RULE TWO: WHAT IS REAL DETERMINES WHAT WORKS.

Unfortunately, we only approach reality by testing it.  As a first approximation, we coud say Reality is what surprises us - for good or for ill.  Kim Jong Un is testing the reality of the tense standoff on the Korean peninsula.  There's some indication that what he wants (beyond the usual foreign aid) is recognition and the long-postponed peace treaty that ends the War, preferably on terms favorable to the North.  I doubt he thinks the South will surrender (my perception, remember), but he might think that a formal recognition of the border and the end to the war will serve to consolidate his hold on power.  He would have taken a risky move that would have delivered what his father and grandfather were never able to achieve.  But the only way to know if he can get it is to push.  And now, having pushed, he has no clear way to draw back.

If his position is as precarious as some observers believe, pulling back now could, unless it was was coupled with concessions to military and political elites that he can't afford to make, bring about his fall, and the fall of his family.  Gods aren't allowed to fail - at least not in ways that can't be spun into "victory" by the propagandists.

Meanwhile, the threats - not just the public statements but the doctored photos and the blackboards with strike plans hitting Texas - clearly don't match the technical capabilities.  North Korea can, and may, launch a skirmishing strike to establish its resolve, but it just doesn't have what it takes to fight a war with the US, or a South Korea with US backing.  The people at the top know this.  Either they've convinced themselves the US wouldn't support the South, or it's about the domestic agenda.

RULE THREE: LEADERS ACT TO KEEP AND EXPAND POWER.

Again, there are some exceptions, on some dimensions.  But they are damn few.  And when leaders do seem to be leaving their formal position, they do everything they can to maintain their policies, put their hand-picked successors in the job, and maintain a secure "retirement."  One the great things about a republic is it formalizes the transition, regularizes it, and allows departing leaders the confidence they won't be prosecuted for their crimes.  (And yes, this includes the US, and it factors into how Obama refused to prosecute Bush officials and assumes he can get away with his own policies.  Obama is to Bush as Ford is to Nixon.)  North Korea has nothing like that.  Kim Jong Un can lose everything, and he knows it.  Thus the gamble, and thus the trap.  His weakness makes him belligerent.  His failure makes it worse.

And what if he does fail?  Best case, in the short run, might be a palace coup.  The Great Leader dies is a tragic accident, and another member of the family fills in as figurehead while the elites bargain over the spoils.  A middle case could be civil war, and a failed state.  A failed nuclear North Korea is something mobody wants to think about, and everyone has to.  A worst case could be war, triggered bu accident, or miscalulation, or madness.  Or maybe he'll find a way to back down without looking like he's backing down.  The the US and South Korea are scheduled to end their exercises soon.  A big party is scheduled for the departed Kim Il Sung in the middle next month. The Great Leader of today declares victory, telling everyone how he drove away the Americans.  Most don't know any better, and those who do get enough of a payoff from the status quo to be happy to return to it.  It looks like Kim Jong Un is risking his nation in order to consolidate his personal power.  The interests of the State are not the same as the interests of the people, and the interests of the Leader are not necessarily the interests of the State. As a result, the uncertainties are real, and dangerous.

Probabilities, anyone?

Other options?

North Korea: timeline of escalating threats - Telegraph
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