US coercive diplomacy with Korea has reached its illogical endpoint

Oct 20, 2011 12:00 AM

by Yong Kwon

One purpose of studying history is to evaluate past errors and appropriately amend our conventional conceptions of certain situations.
Yet despite greater understanding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) since the collapse of the Soviet Union, United States policies towards Pyongyang have largely focused on coercive measures that have failed to elicit positive changes. Outstanding concerns emanating from North Korea such as nuclear proliferation and violent provocations cannot be ignored, but Washington must quickly come to terms with lessons from history to better deal with the ongoing tensions.

The pervasiveness of the tendency to forward coercive measures is evident in the recent report published by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Senior research associate Michael Mazza argues that the US should pursue the short-term goal of wiping out North Korea's power projection capacities and the long term goal of demolishing the regime. [1]
This contention has always been popular among Americans who believe that the United States should actively utilize its massive military and economic might to neutralize international threats.

The simple logic behind the coercive approach is attractive, but dangerous if not completely irresponsible. Mazza's report recommends bolstering the South Korean forces and reinstalling US nuclear vaults in East Asia to convince Kim Jong-il that North Korea's provocations and nuclear program weaken the security of his country.
Furthermore, the report lauds the freezing of DPRK accounts in Banco Delta Asia as precedence for how the US should be applying pressure on Chinese banks. [2] Along with economic sanctions, he recommends a disinformation program to convince the regime that there is internal dissent within the country as to further divert funds and attention from the regime's military programs.

Aside from the very fundamental problem of attempting to convince a leader that only denuclearization will enhance his personal security and then forwarding a policy to ensure the downfall of his entire country, there are numerous problems with the report's assessments.
In Mazza's view, South Korea needs to expand its armed forces to a size large enough to be able to demobilize 8.9 mm active and reserve Korean People's Army forces and secure all military and civilian facilities in North Korea. A lay person will recognize the daunting logistics of this task and a South Korea analyst would deem this plan unfeasible.

Because the logic of coercive deterrence requires a genuine commitment to escalate the conflict to an active war, South Korea will have to pursue massive militarization to achieve the report's desired condition. However, even if this plan was economically sound, it still runs the danger of both destabilizing the region and inviting more provocations.
The Korean People's Army supplements material deficiencies by displaying its readiness to engage in combat at any moment. The adoption of provocation-based defence appears to emerge with the conclusion of inter-Korean dialogues in the early 1970s when North Korean political elites recognized the economic superiority of South Korea and abandoned "Vietnamization" as a means of unification. [3]

Instead of infiltration, the North Korean armed forces began to focus on applying greater pressure on the border, in particular along the Northern Limitation Line (NLL; the maritime border in the Yellow Sea), to ensure military parity with the superior US-Republic of Korea forces.
Since the basic condition for this strategy, the economic disparity between South and North Korea, has not changed, one can assume that the military doctrine of forwarding aggressiveness to match the material superiority of the South still stands. Therefore, if the South Korean military moves to openly widen the disparity in existing firepower along the demilitarized zone, the North Korean forces will be compelled to assert their military fortitude through more provocations.

The placement of nuclear weapons in South Korea would cause even greater problems as both China and Russia would feel threatened by the excessive measure, inhibiting Washington's ability to cooperate with the key regional powers. Mazza leaves out the essential fact that the short-lived diplomatic breakthrough that followed the actions against Banco Delta Asia was only possible because Beijing was convinced by Washington that Pyongyang directly damaged Chinese economic interests.
The cost of isolating these vital partners clearly outweighs the benefit of potentially intimidating Kim Jong-il.

In addition, sanctions against North Korea have not been effective in completely demolishing its economy nor forcing Pyongyang to make substantive concessions.
With the international economy so conducive to cross-border transactions, tracking North Korea's foreign accounts has already become more or less impossible. Economic pressure has always been a diplomatic dead end.

A disinformation project that Mazza outlines in the report is potentially the most irresponsible of all.
Kim Jong-il appears paranoid enough about internal security without the added support from any outside false-flag operations -- any attempt to heighten the fears of domestic instability will lead to greater number of people ending up in infamous prison camps and greatly delaying the opening of North Korea to the rest of the world, reversing the great strides the restrictive country has taken in adopting modern communication technology.

Mazza represents an extreme right even among hawkish analysts who believe in the immediate threat posed by the DPRK, but other analysts also appear to miss the mark sometimes. Professor Victor Cha at Georgetown University rightly asks why North Korea pursues nuclear deterrence when they have not yet developed a capable ballistic missile system or accomplished warhead miniaturization. [4]
Professor Cha believes that the North falsely believes in invulnerability to retaliation because it has nuclear weapons, even without a means of delivery. However, why has this not elicited the basic question of where and how North Korea actually intends to use its nuclear arsenal?

With or without nuclear weapons, indigenous or Soviet ones, North Korea has consistently engaged in violent provocations against South Korea. According to archival evidence from former communist states, the DPRK actually braced for nuclear war during the USS Pueblo incident in 1968 that saw the US destroyer boarded and captured by North Korean forces.
During the crisis, there was no certainty that the Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China would actually come to its aid in a hot war, and Moscow had opted not to engage the US during the Cuban Missile Crisis six years prior.

Furthermore, Pyongyang stood diplomatically isolated in 1968 after supporting China in the Sino-Soviet Split and then subsequently breaking with Beijing over their differing positions on engaging the US in Indochina and the Korean Peninsula. [5] Nonetheless, Pyongyang appears to have been all too willing to accept war.
These historical indicators coupled with the fact that North Korea still engaged in maritime provocations following the collapse of the Soviet Union and prior to the first nuclear weapons test show that North Korean military doctrine has not changed drastically since obtaining nuclear weapons. The question of how North Korea intends to use nuclear arms, if not for conventional deterrence, is one of many important discussions that analysts and policymakers have not brought up.

What is evident is that North Korea has not yet yielded to coercive military, economic and diplomatic measures. Increasing the level of coercion is not the solution as raising current standards of military and economic pressures will pose serious material and political challenges to the enforcers.
Ultimately, Washington and Seoul must realize that coercion has reached its illogical endpoint -- neither the United States nor the Republic of Korea is prepared to commit to an all-out war to prevent North Korean provocations.

Yong Kwon is a Washington-based analyst of international affairs.

Notes:
1. Michael Mazza. Peace through Pressure: Toward a New Allied Strategy for Contending with North Korea. American Enterprise Institute Outlook Series, October 2011.
2. Banco Delta Asia was a Macao-based bank that was accused of laundering money for the DPRK. The United States, with the support of the PRC, used frozen assets as leverage to negotiate denuclearization with the DPRK.
3. The usage of the term "Vietnamization" in the context of North Korea differs from President Richard Nixon's policy of entrusting South Vietnam with greater combat responsibilities during the Vietnam War. Until the 1970s, North Korea sought to unify the Korean Peninsula by guerrilla infiltration and encouraging South Koreans to rebel against the government.
4. Victor Cha. How to disarm a nuclear North Korea. The Washington Post, October 9, 2011.
5. "Memorandum on Sino-Korean Relations in 1966." December 2, 1966. Foreign Policy Archives of the Russian Federation (AVPRF), f. 0102, op. 22, p. 109, d. 22, pp. 38-49. Obtained for NKIDP by Sergey Radchenko and translated for NKIDP by Gary Goldberg. Found in Person, James. (ed.) "Limits of the 'Lips and Teeth' Alliance: New Evidence on Sino-DPRK Relations, 1955-1984" NKIDP Document Reader, March 2009: Document #6.

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