USS Clueless - What do we do about North Korea?

Stardate 20031023.1142

(Captain's log): Peggie sends a letter to Porphyrogenitus and to me:

So, I wanted to thank Porph for voicing both the concern and what do we do about it questions. I was facing that yesterday when I was scanning the 100 plus page report - if we have the knowledge (and, if the report is correct, we do), then what? I keep having this image of coming face to face with the people in those work camps and having to explain why I failed to do something, raise my voice, do something - Any suggestions? I would say this is exactly the moral situation we will face over and over again - a nightmare of humanity v. taking action and creating another nightmare, i.e., a use of nuclear/atomic/B-NICE material.

I am more familiar with Steve's site and he generally strikes a sound balance between self-interest and interfering with another government's internal affairs -- at one point there was discussion (I think it was USS Clueless) about possible nudging China to invade North Korea and take it with a roundabout backup through the UN smoothing over sovereignty problems.

Gentlemen: I feel bad enough about being blind in the past re other times and places - any ideas? I don't want those eyes in my dreams or to feel the shame of turning away - any ideas?

One of the things you learn as an engineer is some problems can't be solved in any acceptable way, no matter how much you might wish it were otherwise. As far as technical problems go, sometimes it's because the technology doesn't exist to do it well, or sometimes it's because all conceivable solutions would in turn create new problems which would be worse. Sometimes the solution would cost more than you're willing to pay. Sometimes implementation of a solution would take so long as to make the solution irrelevant.

Sometimes the situation changes and a solution becomes possible, but sometimes it doesn't. Some things like that last for decades.

It turns out that there's no important correlation I've ever noticed between how valuable a solution is and how difficult and expensive it would be to implement. Some solutions are immensely valuable and some have negligible value; some are easy and some are grossly difficult. All four combinations happen, and what you have to do is concentrate on the cases where the value of the solution exceeds the cost. As to the problems which you clearly recognize are really important, but for which no reasonable solution exists, you have to cultivate a philosophical attitude about your own limitations and about standards of performance. A long time ago I formulated this principle as an aphorism:

The fact that something is desirable doesn't mean it is feasible.

We can't solve the all world's problems, and we can't let ourselves take responsibility for all the world's woes. That way lies insanity. (And frustration, and depression, and self-recrimination.) I wish we could solve all the world's problems, but I know we can't. I wish there were something we could do to immediately relieve the terrible suffering of the people of North Korea, but I can't think of what it might be.

I'm not sure it's possible to relieve their suffering at all. I don't think there's any solution we can implement which any of us would consider "acceptable" on an absolute scale. All we have available to us is a list of horrible outcomes, and we're forced to choose the least bad of a bad lot.

And that means we also have to cultivate a philosophical attitude. As one LA cop put it on a documentary I saw (on an entirely different issue): "The standard is not perfection; the standard is the alternative." All we can really hope for in this case is to minimize our chance of complete catastrophe.

Every outcome I see involves pain and suffering and death for the people of North Korea. The only question is how many others in the region and around the world would join them.

I wrote a general analysis of the situation in North Korea last December. In it I said this:

Are we willing to sacrifice the lives of a million South Koreans, and probably between 50,000 and 100,000 Americans, as well as an unknown number of Japanese, in order to save the lives of several million North Koreans and to improve their situation in the long run?

Basically, we're not. That's what it comes down to. We have to be concerned more about our own people than those who live in our enemy's nation under a brutal government. The millions who have starved in North Korea were nearly all innocent, and so will be the millions more who will starve in future, but we're not ultimately being altruistic here and we aren't willing to make a sacrifice that large for their benefit.

I don't like that answer. I didn't like it then, and I don't like it now. But what I want has nothing to do with what's possible, and diplomacy is the art of the possible.

Right now, we in the US don't have any direct way to make the situation in NK better. We have the ability to force change, but the only way we could do so is by actively invading, or by taking other actions which would have a perilously high chance of causing NK to invade the South. (For instance, imposition of a naval blockade of North Korea, or massed Tomahawk strikes against political and nuclear-military targets.)

If NK attacked south, there's no chance they'd actually win. But they could force SK and the US to win a Pyrrhic Victory, and that's threat enough.

There's only one nation outside of NK which has the ability to force significant change in North Korea without resort to war or a drastic increase in the chance of war, and that's China. The only hope we have of trying to solve the problem without creating another which would be far more tragic is to try to convince the Chinese that they need to do this, and as far as I can tell that's been the focus of American foreign policy regarding North Korea for most of the last year.

The Chinese leadership is reticent. There's good reason to believe that they've been applying some degree of pressure, but they've been trying to find a way to finesse the situation. Our diplomacy seems to have been aimed at trying to convince them that there's no solution involving finesse.

There are a number of reasons for their reticence. One is that their relationship with us is complex. It's an example of what is sometimes called "coopetition"; simultaneous cooperation and competition. There's also a tradition of subtlety and finesse going back centuries, and there's a degree of fear by the Chinese leadership that their hold on power isn't as secure as they'd like it to be and that if they make too many mistakes and lose face they could also lose power. Simply supporting us too openly would involve losing face. They also don't want to take the risk that North Korea's foaming-at-the-mouth gibbering lunatic paranoid fixation on the US, Japan and South Korea might start including China as well. (It never helps in treating a raving paranoid if everyone actually is out to get him.)

What the Chinese have been trying to do until now was to finesse the situation so that we (the US) would solve it by giving in to NK's demands. If only the US would cave, placate NK, and more or less resume the terms of the 1994 agreement as implemented. Which is to say, we would ship grain and oil to NK and not insist that NK live up to any part of the bargain. Then tension would subside and everyone could heave a sigh of relief and stop worrying about it, for a few years anyway. That wouldn't actually solve anything, in the long run, but it would defer the problem, and that's good enough.

But after the utter failure of the 1994 agreement, and in light of the current international political situation, the Bush administration is not going to do any such thing. Bush is looking for a real resolution to the problem rather than a way of deferring it again.

I think we've been trying to convince the Chinese that the problem has to be solved soon and solved for real, but the Chinese have been hoping that we weren't serious, and have been hoping they could put us into a position where we felt forced to buy off NK. The Bush administration seems to understand that it had to be patient, and let the Chinese try subtleness and finesse in order to prove to itself that it won't work, either on us or on NK.

The constant harping about bilateral talks between NK and the US was the focus of this issue. If the US accepts the idea of bilateral talks, the US implicitly also accepts the idea that it's our problem and that we have exclusive responsibility for solving it. The reason Bush has utterly refused to consider bilateral talks is because he knows the only thing we could do would be to make another deal with the devil like the one in 1994, only when it fell apart the next time, NK would have a substantial nuclear arsenal and the problem would be all the worse.

Still, the Chinese hoped they could game us. So there were the 3-way talks in Beijing, where the Chinese invited us, and we accepted, and then they announced that actually it was going to be bilateral talks and that they were really only hosting it. Our delegation arrived and bluntly refused to meet NK's representatives alone; they said they'd talk to the Chinese alone, but would only meet with NK if China also participated. The Chinese ended up trying to use shuttle diplomacy as a means of implementing de facto bilateral talks but that accomplished nothing. Our delegation eventually announced that the entire proceeding had been a waste of time, and left a day early. It's one of the few times in memory where diplomats made no attempt whatever to try to pretend that the result was a success of some kind.

And even to arrange that, the Chinese are reported to have applied a degree of coercion on NK (by, among other things, temporarily cutting off oil shipments).

It's difficult to be sure, but there are indications that they've continued to apply pressure on NK to make certain concessions. There have been rumors about such things, and there have occasionally been rather abrupt softenings in NK's position which seemed uncharacteristic and inexplicable. But the Chinese don't want to be seen as doing this; they want it to look as if it was spontaneous. They're still looking for the smallest amount of interference they can manage which will reduce the tension, whether it actually results in a long term solution or not.

In the long run, the situation in NK isn't sustainable. Kim Il Sung had a highly-prominent son, Kim Jong Il, to take over when he died (and actually took over before that) and to maintain the dynasty, but Kim Jong Il has no equivalently high profile descendant in the public eye. When he dies, in ten years or thirty, the situation in NK will become more fluid and might be more amenable to change. Their physical situation, including things like infrastructure and the other technological, political and cultural mechanisms which keep a nation running, aren't. In virtually every way the nation is collapsing slowly, and there will come a time when that process will begin to accelerate. The result will be a period of horror in NK which will even make the current situation look bad, but afterwards it will be easier to try to induce change there and to try to retrieve it.

Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of waiting for those kinds of things to happen on their own, because before they do, North Korea will develop nuclear weapons and will have missiles to deliver them, and that will mean that the consequences of collapse could extend far outside their borders. If we want to resolve the problem without widespread tragedy, it's going to have to start happening sometime in the next year or so.

And that's why the Chinese are critical, because they're the only remaining significant source of fuel and food being imported into NK. As long as they maintain that flow, it could be years before something else causes the system there to collapse. But if they cut it off, it would all be over in months.

But that would require them to accept that we're not going to buy off NK again, and equally to accept that they're going to have to take the risk of joining us on NK's shitlist, and accept that they're going to have to roll the dice and see what happens. And perhaps most important, they would have to accept that we're not going to buy off the Chinese themselves, especially in regard to making concessions about Taiwan. It's taken a while, but I think they're coming around. They seem to have been waiting to see if Bush's nerve would collapse, but it hasn't. I think they have a better measure of the man now, and no longer think that he'll crack and start making big concessions. But I also don't think they've yet reached the point where they're willing to go all the way, and to cut off all shipments to NK so as to bring it down.

I did suggest the possibility that we might try to convince the Chinese to invade NK. I still think it would be a good idea, in many ways, but it's still a risky proposition for the Chinese (and everyone else, both short term and long term), and it's possible that they aren't capable of doing so. The true combat value of a nation's military can't be determined just by looking at its paper strength, and some of the world's largest armies are paper tigers who are better at looking fierce than they are at actually fighting. The People's Liberation Army is the largest in the world, but that doesn't mean as much as you might think.

In the immediate future we face a race. Here is an (incomplete list -- DWL!!) of high probability outcomes:

NK could detonate a nuke. In that case, the Bush administration would have to publicly and formally renew a basic tenet of Cold War deterrence policy: any nuclear blackmail will be treated as if a nuke had actually been used, and the response to any such threat will be maximal.

During the Cold War, nuclear blackmail was one of the dangers. What would we do if the Hotline phone rang and the voice in the handset said, "Pull your forces out of Germany or we'll nuke Pittsburgh"? The strategists wrestled with that, and ultimately concluded that only deterrence could prevent such a thing. Thus it became American doctrine that if we received such a phone call, then the President would "push the button" (or at least consider doing so). Understand that I don't mean that it would happen ten seconds after hearing such a thing; there'd be time for diplomacy, and an attempt to deal with the situation via lesser means. But in the final resort, if we really faced such a demand, then it was publicly stated that American doctrine was to launch every nuke we had. No "proportional response", no city-trading-duel, no waiting to see if Pittsburgh really did get vaporized before launching. It was important that this be public because like any deterrent its real purpose was to make sure that the situation didn't arise at all. Since the Soviet leadership knew that was American doctrine, they couldn't be at all sure that we wouldn't really do it if they made that phone call, and it never happened.

Deterrence is a real moral problem. In some cases it's the only way to bring about the best possible case, but the only way you can have a deterrent is by being willing to commit tremendously evil acts. Is it immoral to be prepared to do evil things if through your willingness and preparation you avoid the need to do so and also prevent someone else from doing the same evil thing? Regardless of whether it's moral or not, that's what we'd have to do.

We would have to make clear to NK and the world that this doctrine was still in place, and that if NK were to detonate a nuke and then threaten to fire a nuke at Seoul, or Tokyo, or to claim that they could and would hit Seattle or Anchorage (which is doubtful with a missile but not by other less sophisticated means), then we would respond with a saturation nuclear strike against North Korea. No "surgical bombing", no "warning shots", no "targeting military installations while trying to avoid civilians"; rather, a full scale attack intended to obliterate every city and every industrial complex and to kill as many of the people there as we could, with especial attention paid to trying to bag every leader. Total destruction, utter annihilation, the worst nightmare of everyone who grew up during the Cold War.

And then our diplomacy would have to proceed as if nothing had changed. We could not start making major concessions because it would send exactly the wrong message to other wannabe nuclear states. If NK tried to make subtle threats by talking about their nukes, without explicitly making the kind of threat that crossed the tripwire, we'd ignore them, just as we've been ignoring all the rest of their sabre-rattling over the years. The entire situation would become drastically more perilous overall, but that would be the only way we could deal with it.

We'd also have to establish a new doctrine, and this would be more controversial and politically risky. The doctrine would be that if anyone set off a nuke in our territory and no one claimed responsibility, or if a terrorist group claimed responsibility, in that case we'd also obliterate NK. No questions asked, no excuses listened to, no attempt to determine if the nuke had been sold by NK, no delays, no nothing. Under this doctrine put in place after an NK nuclear test, if any city of ours was destroyed, NK would be destroyed as soon thereafter as we could manage. That's the only way we can limit the danger that NK would surreptitiously sell one or more nukes to someone like al Qaeda.

Any doctrine which involved us saying that we would obliterate NK only if we could show that the bomb used against us had come from NK would tell them that they could get away with it as long as they were sufficiently careful to cover their tracks. As soon as it got into an "is the evidence good enough" game, we're fucked. (Consult the recent past in the US about that kind of debate.) The only way to truly prevent NK from selling nukes to terrorists is to make sure their leadership knows that they could not avoid disaster if they did, no matter how well they covered their tracks.

I think it's not necessary for me to belabor why this outcome, and the various ways it could play out, are ungood.

The second possibility is that the Chinese will turn the cranks on NK hard enough so that NK will accept a more reasonable solution. If that were to happen, there would be a lot to like about this outcome, and even more to despise.

The government of NK has made a lot of wild demands, but even under Chinese pressure they would insist that any settlement included a reasonable expectation that there be no "regime change" in NK. That's going to be their bottom-line position that they would never give up. The NK leadership doesn't give a damn about the people of NK; and won't accept any outcome which doesn't let them stay in power no matter what else it might involve.

Such an agreement probably would include a resumption of shipments of fuel and food to NK, but the best that can be said of this for the people of North Korea is that it would somewhat reduce their suffering. It would likely place the NK government in control of food distribution, permitting the government to continue to use food as a weapon against its own people. In the past, even in periods when there was enough food in NK to feed everyone, there was still mass starvation, because the government of NK deliberately created local food shortages as a means of political control and as a way of punishing perceived enemies.

In the negotiations for such a settlement, we'd do our best to make distribution of food aid transparent, but even if international agencies distribute food, that doesn't prevent the government of NK from sending its agents out to collect it again afterwards, and they've done exactly that in the past.

But even if that could be solved, it would still leave NK's police state in operation, and leave the gulags operating, and since the goal of the agreement would be to provide enough aid to stabilize the situation, it would mean the brutal police state would continue to oppress the people of NK for years or decades.

Shorn of the diplomatic niceties and details, the basic agreement would be that we would acknowledge the right of the government of NK to make life as miserable as they wanted to for the people of that nation in exchange for a reasonable assurance that they'd keep the hell they'd create within their own borders. We would provide them with sufficient aid to make sure they could keep making life miserable for their people for the foreseeable future. It's not just that we'd look the other direction; we'd be directly complicit in it.

That's not a happy outcome, either. It sure doesn't satisfy Peggie's conscience, but it may be the best we can hope for.

The third major possibility is that the Chinese could be convinced to cut NK off. Oil stops flowing through the pipeline, and food shipments stop too. Everyone goes on high military alert on NK's borders, and then waits until the situation inside NK completely collapses. Then someone goes in and picks up the pieces and tries to make things better. It's more likely that the "someone" would be China than South Korea. SK would be willing to, but I don't think that China would be willing to take this step if they knew it would lead to reunification of Korea under the government in Seoul. I think they'd only be willing to do it if there were a secret agreement ahead of time that the Chinese themselves would take over.

Of course, if NK has any nukes (and I think they probably do or could have very soon, albeit not publicly tested) then this course becomes far more perilous. If the leadership in Pyongyang decides that it's all over and blames it on a Chinese double-cross, there's a palpable risk that they'd fire one or two nuclear-armed missiles at Beijing or some other major Chinese target, and against that China has no defense. And since it would already be a doomsday scenario for NK's leadership, deterrence can't prevent this.

But NK might also decide to take one or more shots at SK or Japan while they were at it, so it would be scary for everyone involved. So one thing to watch for is more deployment of American anti-missile technology into the region, augmenting what's already there.

One particularly interesting thing to speculate about would be a supersecret deployment of American anti-missile capability in China itself. There's no way they would ever permit a US Army Patriot battery in, no matter what happens. So it would be interesting to discover that there was suddenly a lot of negotiations going on between China and some nation which we trust enough to have sold Patriots to but who right now is sufficiently estranged from us, or at least not publicly aligned with us, as to plausibly not seem as if they were our proxies. According to Raytheon, Japan and Taiwan are both customers, but they're out of the question. Israel is too controversial for about five reasons.

But any of Germany, the Netherlands, Kuwait or Greece might be politically possible. Each of them represents an interesting diplomatic problem in terms of how a deal might be made and how it would be publicly presented if it got out, but I don't want this to become preposterously long instead of just too damned long.

There are a lot of other risks associated with a true blockade in hopes of making NK collapse through strangulation, and it would require all of the five critical nations to agree that they had to take that chance. I don't think the Chinese have reached that point yet.

Which is why I think they're still trying to work for some sort of agreement, which would result in a reduction of tensions while maintaining the government of NK.

In the last couple of days at the APEC summit, Bush met with Hu, and afterwards glowingly described China as a "partner". Bush also floated a proposal for some sort of security assurance for NK, though continuing to reject an actual bilateral non-aggression treaty between the US and NK. And the Chinese are now sending a delegation to PyongYang headed by Wu Bangguo, described in the news reports as China's number 2 leader. The public announcement of that visit was diplomatic fluff about friendly neighbors exchanging views on issues of common concern, but the timing of the trip, and the person leading it, strongly suggest that this is no courtesy call.

I think Bush and Hu made a deal. I think they've agreed on a compromise, where the US would make concessions on some sort of security agreement as well as resuming aid, while China would do whatever was needed to make NK accept it. That would involve a combination of private arm-twisting and public assurances and support. I think that Bush has had both the SK's and Japanese on board for such a deal for a long time, and I think the Russians have little to gain by trying to screw it up. It was mostly a matter of working China around to the idea that it was going to have to be less subtle with NK.

If that's what emerges, it's probably the best we could reasonably hope for. It's a fucking long way from ideal. It would condemn the people of NK to continue to live in hell and place us in the moral position of actively working to keep them there. The only thing to recommend it is that all the other possibilities would either cause or seriously risk even worse outcomes.

It sucks. But I learned a long time ago that some problems don't have good solutions. Unfortunately, this is one of them.

Update: Porphyrogenitus has also written a response to Peggie's letter.

Update 20031025: Shortly after the Chinese delegation visited PyongYang, the government of North Korea announced that it would consider Bush's proposal for a security guarantee without a formal non-agression treaty.

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