Archive for the ‘North Korea’ Category

Instability in North Korea

February 3, 2010

Efforts by the North Korean government to revaluate the country’s currency and undermine black market trading have led to runaway inflation.  In November of last year, North Koreans were compelled to exchange their old currency for the new one at a rate of 100 to 1.  State-owned stores in one of the few remaining communist nations failed to stock enough goods to compensate for the decrease in purchases from illicit sources, and as a result the price of food has skyrocketed, which in turn has exacerbated levels of malnourishment  and starvation.  There have been reports of protests and turmoil in the isolated communist nation, and government officials are reportedly taking measures to avert an uprising.  The extent of the unrest is difficult to determine because of the limited amount of information that leaks out of the totalitarian state.

Another potential source of instability in North Korea is the upcoming transfer of authority from dictator Kim Jong-il to his son Kim Jong-un, which is anticipated to take place in 2012.  Kim Jong-il has reportedly been in ill health for some time; a fact that may explain why he will soon stepdown.  It is unknown how competent Kim Jong-un will be as a leader, nor is it clear if other top officials in the Communist Party or the military will initiate a power struggle while the change in leadership is occurring.

The international community should have a well-developed contingency plan to deal with the collapse of the North Korean government, especially China, South Korea and the US, which are in the best position to handle the issue.  The odds of such a situation developing in the near-to-medium-term may be low (as noted above, the outside world has a dearth of information about the DPRK), but the event would be disastrous if other powers are unprepared because an immense humanitarian crisis would almost certainly erupt.  The problem could entail massive refugee flows, widespread starvation and illness, large-scale violence and unsecured nuclear weapons.

It is inherently difficult to predict when a revolution will occur.  Few anticipated that the communist regimes in Eastern Europe would disintegrate in the late 1980s, and history provides many other examples of sudden political upheaval.  North Korea’s neighbors and other regional powers may not have much warning before the North Korean government falls, so they must prepare for that eventuality even if it appears that the ruling elites in the DPRK  have firm control over the country; if other nations are caught unprepared, they, and the North Korean people, will suffer the consequences.

Walter Russell Mead Classifies Obama

January 27, 2010

In a cover article for Foreign Policy magazine, international affairs analyst Walter Russell Mead discusses President Obama’s strategic worldview and warns that the president may suffer the same fate as Jimmy Carter, whose presidency was brought down largely by foreign policy mishaps. 

Mr. Mead says that there are essentially four philosophical archetypes that US presidents can embody when it comes to determining America’s role in international affairs: Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, Wilsonian and Jacksonian.

1. Hamiltonians are foreign policy realists who believe the a strong US government should actively pursue its strategic and economic interests at home and abroad.

2.  Jeffersonians want to limit America’s foreign policy commitments and focus on improving living conditions in the US.

3. Wilsonians are idealists who believe America should actively promote democratic values and human rights at home and abroad even if it means acting against its narrower strategic interests.

4. Jacksonians are conservative populists who distrust political/economic/social elites but tend to strongly support confrontation and the use of force when it comes to security policy.

Mr. Mead argues that the president is a schizophrenic Jeffersonian-Wilsonian.  However, an examination of his polices indicates that he is more of a Hamiltonian.  It is difficult to see how someone who bailed out the banks, enacted a huge economic stimulus package, tripled the US troop commitment in Afghanistan, ramped up the drone airstrike campaign in Pakistan, increased the military budget, downplayed China’s human rights violations and tried to diplomatically engage hostile authoritatian states like Iran and North Korea can be considered a Jeffersonian-Wilsonian.  I am not suggesting that all of the aforementioned policies are misguided (some of them are wise); I am merely disagreeing with Mr. Mead’s categorization.

The State of the US-Japanese Alliance

January 21, 2010

This week, three similar articles about the state of the US-Japanese alliance were published in major newspapers (two in The Economist and one in the New York Times), and in each piece  the authors argue that the relationship between the two nations is on the brink of major deterioration.  They cite the dispute over the relocation of the American airbase on Okinawa and the strengthening ties between Japan and China as key reasons for the supposed breach.  They note the fact that Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has thus far sought more independence from Washington than his predecessors; last September, his Democratic Party took power from the Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled the country for 53 years.

These analysts exaggerate the threat of a permanent rift between the long time allies.  The US and Japan still have major strategic interests in common, and the benefits that Japan derive from the relationship mitigate against a political divorce.  America remains the primary guarantor of security and stability in East Asia because of its military, economic and diplomatic clout.  The Treaty of Mutual Co-operation and Security enables Japan to spend less on defense and more on social programs, and it removes the impetus for the country to develop a nuclear deterrent against other regional powers who have the Bomb, including China and North Korea (the US also assists Japan with missile defense systems).  On an economic level, a falling out between the close trading partners would encourage protectionist policies in the US which would further hurt Japan’s relatively stagnant economy.

Although America and Japan disagree on some issues and many Japanese would like to assert more independence from Washington, it is highly unlike that the government in Tokyo would allow the alliance to fall apart because doing so would not serve its interests.  Domestic politics complicate the Futenma airbase problem for Mr. Hatoyama and it is unclear how it will be resolved, but when it comes to the big picture his political fortunes, and those of his party, will be jeopardized if he repeatedly pursues policies that alienate the US and undermine his country’s security and economic position.  American policymakers certainly need to pay attention to Japan’s concerns and keep relations as amicable as possible because the US benefits greatly from the trans-Pacific partnership; but people should not fear the dissolution of one of the strongest alliances in the world anytime soon.

Nuclear Deterrence in the Post Cold War Era

December 14, 2009

In a recent article for Foreign Affairs magazine (November-December 2009 issue) titled “The Nukes We Need: Preserving the American Deterrent,” Keir Lieber and Daryl Press discuss nuclear deterrence in the 21st century.  Their piece is timely as the Obama administration is concluding a Nuclear Posture Review and the president has called for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. 

Mr. Lieber and Mr. Press say that policymakers and analysts must ask the following fundamental questions before they decide what America’s deterrent force should look in the future:

1. What enemy actions are to be deterred?

2. Under what circumstances might those actions be taken?

3. What threats might a US president wish to issue?

4. Does the proposed arsenal give the president the ability to carry out those threats?

Mr. Lieber and Mr. Press believe that the US should primarily focus on deterring nuclear escalation during a conventional war because the odds of a nuclear sneak attack by Russia (which defense planners feared most during the Cold War) are very low, and potential regional adversaries (such as China, North Korea and Iran) already possess or may soon possess atomic weapons.  They warn that hostile powers might use nuclear weapons against American military forces or US allies in a region of conflict if they fear regime change or want to stave off a major defeat and force a cease fire.  To counter this threat, they propose maintaining an arsenal of low-yield nuclear warheads and highly accurate conventional bombs that would be capable of taking out enemy launch platforms (this is often referred to as a “counterforce” strategy because it is designed to destroy military targets rather than cities) without inflicting massive civilian casualties.

The authors claim that high-yield nuclear warheads would not offer a credible deterrent during conventional crises because it is unlikely that an American president would be willing to destroy an enemy city or a large number of civilians unless a US city were attacked, and therefore foreign leaders would not consider American threats of nuclear retaliation in response to an in-theater nuclear strike to be credible.  They insist that a president must have better options than launching a horrific counterassault or letting enemies initiate nuclear war without paying a steep price for their actions, and they say that the ability to employ low-yield counterforce weapons would save lives and enable the US to carry out regime change if a conventional fight escalated into a nuclear one.

The arguments in favor of maintaining low-yield nuclear warheads for deterrence, and warfighting purposes if necessary, are compelling.  If American military forces or American allies were attacked with nuclear weapons the president would almost certainly be forced to retaliate with the Bomb or destroy the regime that launched the attack.  But overthrowing a government that possesses additional atomic weaponry with conventional forces would be very difficult and costly in terms of military fatalities, and killing large numbers of civilians with a high-yield device would pose major ethical dilemmas for policymakers and might be considered a disproportionate response.  Using less powerful nuclear weapons against enemy weapons platforms and troop concentrations would be a more acceptable form of punishment and more effective militarily.

There are a few issues related to deterrence that Mr. Lieber and Mr. Press fail to address.  One is the development of missile defense systems.  Proponents of missile defense claim that it will deter enemies from attacking the US, but opponents argue that missile defenses are unreliable given the technologies available and superflous because traditional deterrence strategies are still effective.  There are also differences of opinion among those who support spending large amounts of money on anti-ballistic missiles; some advocate building a system capable of defending the continental US from ICBMs, while others believe that theater missile defense is more appropriate for the nuclear threats that America is likely to face in the forseeable future.

A second unaddressed issue is the creation of new “bunkerbuster” Bombs that could destroy underground nuclear facilities where nuclear weapons are developed or stored.  Perhaps they would be included in the new generation of counterforce weapons that the authors propose developing, although they do not explicitly mention them.  Nuclear bunkerbusters are controversial because some policymakers and analysts are concerned that building them would undermine efforts at non-proliferation because they would make the US look hypocritical when it argues that other countries should eschew nuclear weapons.

An additional topic that is not discussed in the article is nuclear testing.  There is currently a self-imposed ban on testing nuclear devices in the US, but members of the scientific and analytic communities claim that the American nuclear arsenal is unreliable because the weapons in it have not been tested in decades.  They propose lifting the ban, but supporters of the ban want to keep it in place for the same reason that people do not want to develop bunkerbusters.  The effectiveness of the kind of low-yield warheads that Mr. Lieber and Mr. Press believe the US should use as a deterrent might be questionable without further testing, which could make a president wary of relying on them in a crisis.