Teaching about the Cold War in my American Foreign policy class has been interesting. Students have a hard time grasping the fact that people feared nuclear annihilation, or that so much effort, money and time was spent in what seems to them an abstract ideological conflict. Given that most students these days were born after the end of the Cold War, the dangers it entailed seem unreal and strange.
Yet the Cold War has one remnant, and that’s North Korea. Back in 1950 North Korea tried to take over South Korea, believing the US would not intervene to hold it, and then the US tried to take over North Korea, believing China would not intervene to protect it. Both beliefs were wrong, and in 1953 an uneasy truce was put in place along the 38th parallel, though no peace agreement was reached. The two sides stared each other down for the rest of the Cold War, and even after the USSR collapsed and China embraced markets, North Korea remains defiant and dangerous.
North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, is presiding over a country that cannot sustain itself economically, relying on help from China to continue to exist. The dilemma of the ruling Communist party is clear: if they were to reform and embrace even a Chinese still of market capitalism, their existence would be at risk. Like East Germany twenty years ago, North Korea exists only because it is the Communist Korean state. Any retreat from a hard core totalitarian ideology would create a wave towards unification with the South that would grow stronger each day. Yet if they do not reform, they remain weak, impoverished, and in danger of collapse.
Yet they have found their niche. They can be an arms merchant, purveyor of weapons of mass destruction, and a thorn in the side of the world community. Unlike Afghanistan’s Taliban, they have some protection. First, China doesn’t want North Korea to collapse and either unify with the South or send streams of refugees into China. Second and more importantly, they believe there is little the world can do to stop them. They border South Korea, an important US ally. Any effort to break up their game could lead to all out war on the Korean peninsula which easily could go nuclear and expand. Besides the Koreas themselves, the one place most imperiled by the threat of nuclear war in Korea is Japan — the one country which has already suffered nuclear attacks.
North Korea’s recent bombast threatening war as they test nuclear devices and missiles is designed to assure that the rest of the world takes seriously the possibility that any action against North Korea could escalate out of control. For Kim Jong Il it is helpful to be perceived as a meglomaniacal dictator — the crazier he is perceived to be, the less likely the world will act against him. It probably is a bluff, but it’s not one that the US can afford to call.
The threat that North Korea could sell missiles or nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations or small, radical states is real. That also means that the US can’t sit idly by as North Korea continues to play its racket. Yet Presidents Clinton and Bush each have ultimately done just that — there seems to be no other options. The same brinksmanship game gets played — crisis begets sanctions, which leads to negotiations; North Korea makes promises in exchange for assistance, and then the whole cycle starts over again.
I believe a fundamental error that gets made by those dealing with the North Koreans is to see North Korea as a Communist state, or a Cold War remnant. Bull. Kim Jong Il is a committed Communist as much as Pope Benedict XVI is a closet Muslim. North Korea is no more a true state than was the territory controlled by Al Capone in the 1920s. Kim is a leader of an organized criminal operation, and North Korea is his turf. Just as the mafia doesn’t care about the crack addicts its drug trade creates, the North Korean thugs don’t care about their people — it’s all about power and money.
The only way to deal with North Korea is to treat it like a criminal operation it is. Strip away its sovereignty. Declare Kim Jong Il to be a wanted criminal, a leader of an organized crime syndicate. Take away North Korean statehood. The UN would get de jure sovereignty over North Korean territory until such time as the mafia “boss” is brought down. The Korean Communist party is really just a mafia gang.
This won’t be enough to take Kim down, but without the veneer of sovereignty or the claim to be “head of State,” North Korea and its leaders would lack the protection international law gives sovereign entities. Its territory, air space, and waters would not be inviolate. Their diplomats would not get protection. Their embassies could not operate above the laws of the countries in which they are present. They would lose their voice and seat at the UN.
This kind of action would open up a new level of potential ways to pressure the regime, and to make its criminal operations harder to protect and engage in. It could in fact be a precedent for dealing with other rogue regimes whose leaders worry less about their people and state than their bank accounts and personal supporters. Statehood should not be a given, but something that requires certain minimum conditions be met. Anything else would revert to UN control, perhaps through regional agencies (e.g., the African Union in Africa) to avoid appearances of colonialism.
Sovereignty and statehood has always been given to any leader of a territory, with a host of international rights and privileges handed to whomever controls that land. The leaders in turn create political parties and other structures that can be made to appear ‘governmental’ to the West or other international agencies. In North Korea this involves maintaining a claim to Communist ideology and Cold War traditions.
To be sure, statehood and sovereignty are always just a step away from being an organized protection racket. The difference between organized criminal operations and governments is less practical than legal — governments are allowed to get away with what individuals cannot. Yet by the 21st century the system has evolved to a point where enough states should be able to create a distinction between legitimate government and clear criminal activity — gangs of leaders with no goal but personal enrichment at the expense of anyone, including their own citizens. North Korea clearly fits that category.
We don’t know what the full impact stripping North Korea of statehood and sovereignty would be. I suspect that lack of sovereignty would so hinder their operations as to undermine Kim’s rule and bring the regime down. However, even if we can’t be sure of that, isn’t it time to stop just allowing any thug or criminal capture the benefits, protections and rights of sovereignty just because he or she and a gang of co-conspirators happen to have taken control of a chunk of land? Maybe if we start calling criminals what they are, rather than getting lost in the rhetoric of sovereignty and state hood, we’d find new means for handling rogue regimes. Sanctions don’t work, and war seems to do more harm than good. Perhaps we need to change the rules of the game.