The Trouble with North Korea

With a country the size of California still smoldering in the Middle East, 1000 miles away, a much smaller and infinitely more formidable foe is sharpening the axe.

Recent reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the nuclear watch-dog for the United Nations (UN), have put North Korea’s nuclear warhead count at somewhere between 4 and 10, with the running assumption being that the North has about six functional warheads. Furthermore, satellite imagery seems to point to an upcoming nuclear test by the North, a dire situation indeed. Time is not up yet, however.

As it stands now, the United States is still the lone superpower at the top of the hill in world politics. People debate to the ends of the earth if this power is a stabilizing force in the world or a crippling one. The debate of the pros and cons of American power is moot in relation to the actual existence of that power. The problem the U.S. has now is how to balance regional interests with its national interests. The precedent sent with the Iraq invasion has put the U.S. in a precarious diplomatic position with the North.

By invading Iraq, the Bush administration has given the North far more leverage than Kim could have ever dreamed he would have. Although he may be tyrannical, Kim is not stupid. This is a man who plays the ultimate power politics game, and he knows the situation the U.S. is in. The Iraq war gave Kim the message that the U.S. was actually willing to invade, and, more importantly, willing to project its superior military power, power which, for 12 years, had been used as a deterrent.

Instead of running to the hills in fear, Kim Jong-Il built nuclear warheads. He knew that the U.S. had played its hand, in a sense, when it comes to regional interests. He also knew that, given the military and economic logistics of the situation, a military invasion of the North would not be any where near possible for the U.S. Japan would not approve, and China would certainly not approve. It should be noted that 33% of the North’s imports come from China, and 13% of its exports go to Japan. North Korea should not be considered an economic leviathan by any means, however. Per capita GDP is about $1400 USD, compared with about $18,000 USD per capita GDP of South Korea.

Economics aside, there are few who would advise an offensive military strike on the North. The result of an invasion would probably mean 1 million people would die, form American and South Korean troops, to the deaths of Japanese civilians, who would probably fall victim from large scale bombings from North Korea. Kim knows this. He knows, too, that the U.S. has to be more careful in its steps in the world community, especially with respect to diplomacy and military might. This “world community” is often debated along with the earlier question of the pros and cons of American power, but, for the sake of both time and length, this point will be mandated as fact.

The U.S. has championed six party talks including: North Korea, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan. These talks have failed, or stalled, largely because of the Iraq invasion. This is not to say that the Iraq war was a terrible misstep. On the contrary, the “big-picture” political ideas behind the invasion are quite sound, its practice has been a bit haphazard, but the theory was sound. The act of the invasion, whether virtuous or not, is the cause of America’s diplomatic struggles. The day that American troops crossed the Kuwait/Iraq border, the nature of the struggle with North Korea was defined, it would be diplomacy and rhetoric, not bombs and guns.

Again, we come full circle to the difficulties with America’s diplomacy with regards to the North. From these difficulties comes the promise of a resolution from another world power, China. China is the sole lifeline for the North. From energy to towels, China’s trade with North Korea is what sustains the dictatorship. Although there are few simple answers in dealing with nuclear talks and world politics, the China factor is of the simple nature in this situation.

China is missing a golden opportunity to show that it is a power broker in the Far East. To say that China would rather acquiesce power on the North Korea issue to the United States would have to be regarded as laughable. The Chinese may want the U.S. to run around and struggle with the North, but, at the end of the day, China wants to be the fulcrum of power in the Yellow Sea region, and it will be. Japan’s economic woes coupled with China’s economic gains has left little doubt as to who will be the regional power in the coming decades.

Many will argue that the U.S. has “made its own bed” with the its dealings in the international community, and this is true. That said, it is high time for China to wrangle in Kim Jong-Il and, at the very least, force him to put a moratorium on his nuclear armament. China has the ability, in a “Nixon goes to China” sort of way, to quell a very dangerous situation. By stepping in and taking the lead, China has the ability to bolster its standing in the international community, and, more importantly, it has the ability to prevent a nuclear war on its door step.

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