Archive for August 2011

What Qaddafi’s Fall Means for North Korea

As I write this morning, the Libyan rebels are battling to seize Colonel Qaddafi’s surrounded Furhrerbunker, and the Untergang seems near.

Yes, the differences may be as great as the similarities, but the similarities are still significant. The fall of the Libyan government to a popular uprising would have been unthinkable a year ago. Libya was a totalitarian state with no opposition movement, in which subversive ideas could not circulate freely. Like Syria, where recent events have been just as unthinkable, it had been one of those places in this world where the state’s power was absolute and beyond challenge. But eventually in such places, the unthinkable always happens.

The lesson that some cynics will take from this is that states should not abandon their pursuit of nuclear weapons. They’re not entirely wrong when they say this. Had Qaddafi taken a different path, it’s possible that today, he might have been able to put a crude nuclear weapon aboard a commercial vessel and sail it to Europe. Would that capability have given NATO pause in supporting the rebels? Probably. Kim Jong Il is so cognizant of this today that he now feels he can launch a limited war against South Korea with impunity. Events have proven him right.

Many would say that because Kim Jong Il probably could deliver a crude nuclear weapon to South Korea that the United States does not dare to support his enemies when they also rise. But the United States has openly called for Bashad Assad to step down and has given diplomatic support to those who wish to overthrow him. Asad could easily have retaliated by attacking Israel with his substantial arsenal of North Korean-made missiles, and the chemical weapons they probably contain. Why doesn’t he? Because Assad knows that Israeli’s defenses are good, and he knows that its deterrent is real. He knows that an attack would invite a counter-strike that would decimate the security services, armor, and infrastructure of power he needs to resist the millions who despise him. In such a circumstance, it hardly matters what kind of warheads he has on his SCUD-C’s. He correctly calculates that using them poses a greater risk to his regime than not using them. One day, Kim Jong Il will have to make the same decision. Are you listening, South Korea?

Qaddafi’s abandonment of nuclear weapons did not resolve the West’s grievances with him, and Kim Jong Il’s abandonment of nuclear weapons would not resolve our differences with his regime, either. NATO was still unwilling to tolerate Qaddafi staging another Srebrenica in Benghazi and other Libyan cities, and it was right that it was not. For many, the grudges over Qaddafi’s past sponsorship of terrorism were never forgiven. Those who view our differences with North Korea as (almost) exclusively differences over its nuclear programs ought to be realistic enough to see that there will always be other differences that bring us to the point of crisis, but then, we’re speaking of people who are still unrealistic enough to believe that North Korea can be coaxed into nuclear disarmament at all. Thankfully, that view is increasingly confined to the fringes. But we’ve been slow to perceive alternatives — partially because they’re frightening and unconventional, partially because they’re offensive to China and its many agents of influence, and partially because the debate is dominated by people who think only in terms of talking.

Why is Libya falling while Bashar Assad hangs on? Because for all the courage of the Syrian people, who stand up to snipers and tanks, theirs is not a place where a revolution can succeed unless it eventually resorts to force. It’s impossible not to admire the tenacity of the Syrian people in fighting their tyrant and in maintaining their determination to keep their movement non-violent. It’s especially admirable in a part of the world we too often associate with an easy resort to violence. But no conceivable scenario for dislodging Bashar Assad from power omits the eventual necessity of force — a coup, a split in the security forces, an armed uprising on the Libyan model, or (most likely) the evolution of the Syrian revolution into an insurgency that imports its bomb-making and bomb-placing tactics from across the Iraqi border, beginning in places like Deir al-Zour. People in Syria — and elsewhere — will be watching events in Tripoli and wondering if it could happen there, too.

Finally, this is a vindication of President Obama’s Libya policy. Yes, we can argue that the halting application of force protracted the war, and that Libya was never the threat to U.S. interests that the Syrian regime represents, even as the State Department clung to the illusion that Assad was redeemable. But the administration has engineered the end of one of the world’s most odious regimes — and still one that potentially threatened our interests — without introducing U.S. ground forces or taking U.S. casualties. The Libyan people can rightly claim this victory as theirs, and NATO has hopefully learned that a reasonable level of defense spending can extend its relevance as a force for good. The next phase will be messy, but the very duration of the revolution may have given breathing space for liberal elements to organize and circulate their ideas. And it will not be our phase. For all of his supporters’ anti-neocon rhetoric, the president they helped elect has done our country a great service by reminding us of the best way to change a bad regime.

If only President Obama would see that variations of this strategy — variations that should not involve the direct application of American force — should also be applied to the unpopular and dangerous regimes in Syria and Iran.

And perhaps even other places.

Light Blogging for the Foreseeable Future

You’ve no doubt noticed the relative lack of postings in the last few months, and that trend is going to continue for the next few months. This is the collateral effect of good things happening in the family and work parts of my life. Unfortunately, as those responsibilities grow, they leave relatively less time for other things. So for the foreseeable future, my prime blogging time — my commute — will have to be spent reading and studying other things, and whatever time remains is taken up with Nerf duels with my kids. This isn’t the end of OFK, but it will mean that posting will be less frequent, and will be driven more by major events than minor ones. Thanks for continuing to stop by.

Who’s Borking Sung Kim?

So months after Chris Hill protege Sung Kim was nominated to be our Ambassador to South Korea, I’d assumed that he must have been confirmed in the dark of some night when I was too busy to read my news aggregators. Not so:

The official confirmation for the next U.S. ambassador to South Korea designate, Sung Kim, is unexpectedly being delayed although it seemed a mere formality. Apparently some senators are stalling because they worry about the direction of the Obama administration’s North Korea policy, but who they are is not known.

Kim’s nomination was supposed to be wrapped up before Congress adjourned for the summer early this month so he could be posted at the end of the month. A senate confirmation hearing late last month also went smoothly and took no more than half an hour. But in its last meeting before the adjournment, the Senate only confirmed the nomination of David Shear as ambassador to Vietnam, but not Kim. [Chosun Ilbo]

It seems that one Republican Senator is holding up the nomination to extract policy concessions from the Administration over North Korea policy, and specifically, food aid. As to who the Senator in question is, your guess is as good as mine, and possibly better.

One source said, “The Korean Embassy in Washington is asking around trying to find out the cause of the delay, but even the State Department apparently said it doesn’t know.” The prevailing theory is that Republicans who take a hardline view of North Korea are holding up the process to ensure that the Obama administration does not repeat the mistakes of former president George W. Bush, who drastically softened his stance toward the North during his later years in office but achieved nothing.

This is a tactic that the Republicans used with mixed success before. The nominations of Kathleen Stephens, Chris Hill, and Kurt Campbell were all held up for varying periods of time by former Senator Sam Brownback. Brownback eventually dropped his holds on the Stephens and Campbell nominations for policy concessions. In Stephen’s case, Chris Hill broke the promise after Stephens was confirmed. In Campbell’s case, lifting the hold may have been for the best. Campbell has generally been a voice of reason and an advocate of attaching negative consequences to Kim Jong Il’s aggressive behavior. Hill was confirmed over Brownback’s metaphorical dead body — meaning, a filibuster and a cloture vote — only to leave office as U.S. Ambassor to Iraq after just a year in office.

Anyway, one person they can’t pin this on is Sam Brownback.

Another person they can’t pin this on is me. I had nothing to do with any of this. Not directly, anyway. At least, not this time. But still, you can’t deny that getting profiled on OFK seems does have an inverse relationship to the speed of a Senate confirmation, no?

Open Sources: Agreed Framework III Watch

On asylum for North Korean refugees, America leads from behind:

Some 581 North Korean defectors have been given asylum in the United Kingdom, making them the largest group of all defectors in countries other than South Korea…. The U.K. was followed by Germany with 146, the Netherlands with 32, Australia and the U.S. with 25 each and Canada with 23.

I suppose the State Department is worried that if we provoke Kim Jong Il, he might boycott disarmament talks, pursue a uranium enrichment program, or even attack South Korea. Well, thank goodness someone is working tirelessly to those hard-won gains!

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The recent meetings between U.S. and North Korean diplomats have given me a sense of unease that this Administration is desperate for an opening that would eventually get us Agreed Framework III. And given the almost universal agreement about what talks and bribes can accomplish, we’re entitled to wonder why they bother:

No one expects North Korea is serious about denuclearization and Pyongyang has done nothing during Obama’s tenure to demonstrate otherwise. At the same time, however, no one wants another North Korean provocation. [Evan Ramstad, Korea Real Time]

In other words, we’re still trying to manage the problem out of the headlines, which not only puts us at the mercy of Kim Jong Il’s temper, it positively incentivizes provocative behavior. It means that no one in our government dares to make make difficult decisions to put the kind of pressure on Kim Jong Il that’s needed for diplomacy to really work, or to alter the North Korean regime enough to make effective diplomacy possible.

At the same time, South Korea shows more signs of dropping its demands for North Korea to apologize for sinking one of its warships and shelling one of its villages. I could only speculate as to whether the State Department applied pressure for South Korea to drop those demands, and you can speculate as well as I can.

It’s as if we invite them to play us. Writing in the L.A. Times, Sung Yoon Lee describes how this all runs on an endless loop.

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The Chosun Ilbo has a hit piece on Kim Yong Chol, who heads up the Reconnaissance Bureau, which handles foreign intelligence operations. Kim is called the mastermind of last year’s attacks on South Korea. If you wonder why I’m skeptical about reporting that falls into the kremlinology category, it’s because the very same Chosun Ilbo just reported that Kim Jong Eun was the mastermind of those attacks, and even printed a purported North Korean document to support that theory!

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Some good news, for a change: Joshua Pollock argues that North Korea’s missile trade has declined substantially since the 1990’s, in part because the customer nations have all gone into business manufacturing their SCUD-C’s and Nodongs. North Korea still sells parts and technical assistance, but the enforcement of UNSCR 1874 has hurt that trade.

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When the New York Times decided to reprint the extraordinarily gullible reporting of the AP’s Jean Lee from Pyongyang, I worried that the readers of the New York Times might be gullible enough to take Lee at her word. I need not have worried. The comment section there is as harsh as anything you can see here.

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Eventually, we’ll be rid of them all. For now, Kim Jong Il’s sister and rumored power-broker Kim Kyong Hui is getting medical treatment in Russia.

The Five Craziest Children’s Cartoons from North Korea.

Via Cracked.