Should We Feed the Malnourished North Koreans? – Take Two

April 16th, 2012

By Dan Miller

Lucy and the FootballNo again, for the same reasons and a few more.

On March 30th, I wrote an article asking that question. My answer was that we shouldn’t because the then impending but now failed long range missile launch, and probably still impending underground nuclear test (or faked nuclear test), were yet more examples of the Lucy and the football scenario: promise anything but do as you wish.  However, our ever hopeful diplomatic corpse corps is still confusing words with actions and the United Nations’ North Korea sanctions committee plans to consider additional “robust” sanctions the natures of which are presently under discussion.  It seems unlikely that “robust” will turn out to a good descriptor.

Negotiating with North Korea

Negotiations with North Korea have been, and for the foreseeable future will be, futile or worse. Negotiation requires both current information and the knowledge to assess it. We have little if any idea about what is going on in the North Korean inner circle and have quite limited information about what is happening in the rest of the country. What little information we do have cannot be assessed with any reasonable degree of confidence because we lack the cultural understandings needed for that purpose.

Diplomacy in the present circumstances necessarily involves negotiations involving offering something for something, not nothing, in return. North Korea has nothing to offer beyond relinquishment of what she considers her sovereign rights.

Boiled FrogsOur own states have often done that by relinquishing their regulatory powers in exchange for federal grants.  Sometimes they have come to regret it. North Korea is not one of the United States and does not behave as though she were. She is not at all likely to negotiate in good faith or, regardless of whatever she may promise, to give up something she considers her sovereign right regardless of whatever may be offered in exchange.  Yet

A U.S. envoy, traveling in Asia, is expressing hope diplomacy can still persuade North Korea to change its behavior.

Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell made stops Monday in Tokyo and Seoul for consultations with allies.

“There’s a very strong determination among all the international partners – including China, Russia, Japan, South Korea – all the countries of Asia, to discourage any further provocations from North Korea,” he said.

Testing “peaceful” ballistic missiles and nuclear devices is, in Pyongyang’s view, her sovereign right. It is also the sovereign right of the United States, South Korea and others not to like it and to act accordingly by declining to yield to the country’s begging.

The South Korean president added that the money which North Korea spent on Friday’s launch – which he claims totaled $850 million – could have bought enough corn to feed the impoverished country for six years.

It is also the sovereign right of South Korea, the United States and other countries to take such actions as may be necessary to minimize their own future endangerment.

AhmadinejadThe Iranian connection

It has long been thought that North Korea and Iran were cooperating in developing their missile and nuclear technologies. It has been reported that

The high-profile rocket launch, which took place to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s founder, was reportedly attended by 12 officials from the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHID).

The organisation, which is the subject of a number of international sanctions, attended in order to witness the launch at first hand, according to Yonhap news agency [South Korea] reports.

“The Iranians undoubtedly were there to observe the missile launch and receive test data from North Korea,” a diplomatic source as quoted as telling the news agency.

News of North Korea’s guests from Iran is likely to cast the spotlight onto the suspected relationship between the two nations in terms of the exchange of ballistic missile technology.

One such indication of their collaboration is the Shahab-3 ballistic missile developed by Iran’s SHID which is widely believed to be a replica of North Korea’s mid-range Nodong missile.

The reported presence of representatives at North Korea’s rocket launch will also cast an uncomfortable shadow over last week’s talks in Istanbul between Iran and world powers over the future of its nuclear programme.

It has been suggested that the United States caved in on its “tough line” on Iranian nuclear enrichment and, due to a lack of consensus among the six world powers in Istanbul on April 14, 2012, will yield more.  Might such concessions bode well for North Korea?

Most likely, North Korea considers technology and materials exchanges with Iran to be among her sovereign rights. She is hardly likely to promise to give up such rights or to honor any commitment to do so if made.

The Chinese situation

China has long been North Korea’s principal supporter and ally. However, as noted here, China now has substantial domestic and international problems and her influence on North Korea appears to be waning. Concurrently, the domestic problems faced by the current regime, during its period of transition, are getting worse. According to this article,

The minimum winning coalition in China has collapsed. In the wake of the forced resignation of Bo Xilai, and a suppressed coup d’etat in Beijing, a new coalition currently is under negotiation. Of course, democracy is not remotely on the horizon, but the significant expansion in coalition size, and major changes in its composition, auger well for the most repressed of China’s population – the 600 million peasants whose lifestyles have been worsened by the self-seeking autocrats who have enriched themselves through illegal land-grabs and corrupt real estate deals across China’s villages.

Internationally, opposition to China’s assertion of dominance in the South China Sea may be simmering down, but China needs to be wary that it could erupt again at any time.  The President of the Philippines announced today that

he won’t risk a war with China over a disputed South China Sea shoal where the countries have been locked in a tense naval standoff for a week.

Aquino said Manila will assert its sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines but has pulled out a warship and replaced it with a coast guard vessel to “de-escalate the situation.”

He told reporters the Philippines will continue talks with China to resolve the impasse, which began last Tuesday when two Chinese ships prevented a Philippine warship from arresting several Chinese fishermen who were accused of illegal entry and poaching.


Chinese and Philippine diplomats failed to end the dangerous impasse after resuming talks on Monday.

“No breakthrough,” Chinese Embassy political officer Bai Tian told reporters after the talks at Manila’s Department of Foreign Affairs.

Also, war games involving more than six thousand United States and Philippine forces commence today.

At an opening ceremony for the exercises in Manila, Philippines’ armed forces chief Jessie Dellosa did not specifically mention China but said the war games highlighted strong US support for its weaker ally at a crucial moment.

“Given the international situation we are in, I say that this exercise, in coordination with all those we had in the past, (is) timely and mutually beneficial,” Dellosa said in a speech.

The U.S. head of the exercise, Brigadier General Frederick Padilla, insisted that

the exercises were not meant as a warning to China amid its dispute with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal. “This exercise is, from our stand point, not linked to any particular situation….”

China’s domestic and international situations seem to be quite fluid and it is probably unwise to expect China to focus as much attention on North Korea as in the past. China tried recently to dissuade North Korea from the missile test but met with no success. Facing some degree of unity between the United States and other countries concerned about her South China Sea adventures, China may now be less willing to waste her energies, needed elsewhere, on persuading a recalcitrant North Korea to defuse the problems caused by her own intransigence.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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