Op-Ed: North Korea Gets Too Many Second Chances

Apr 16, 2012
Originally published on April 16, 2012 1:15 pm
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And now the opinion page. This morning, the U.N. Security Council condemned North Korea's failed rocket launch last week but added no new sanctions or any other punishment, and the harsh words are just the latest in a long string of condemnations. In a piece for Foreign Affairs, Jennifer Lind examines why North Korea gets so many chances. In it she argues that thanks to its nuclear weapons, its madman image and the potential for serious instability in the region, the U.S. and its allies' hands are effectively tied, and they, quote, "must confine their retaliation to a barrage of rhetoric."

So why does North Korea, a Cold War anachronism, continue to survive? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jennifer Lind, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College, joins us from a studio there in Hanover, New Hampshire. Nice to have you with us.

JENNIFER LIND: Hi. Great to be here.

CONAN: And the most recent example, of course, what's been called the leap-day extension of food aid from the United States to North Korea, specifically on North Korea's request in response to its improved behavior, and then North Korea turns around and slaps the Obama administration 16 days later.

LIND: Exactly. This is something that people were extremely optimistic about because we have this new leader in North Korea, Kim Jong-un, and people were wondering: Is this a government that's genuinely going to be interested in arms control? Is it generally going to be interested in conciliation with the United States, South Korea and others? And the announcement of this agreement, that leap-day agreement, was very heartening for this reason. As we said, maybe this - things are different under this new leader in North Korea. And then, as you say, a bare 16 days later, there was a reversal.

CONAN: That was the announcement of the plan to launch the rocket. North Korea said it was a satellite for scientific purposes. People have pointed out that a rocket to launch a satellite into space can also launch a weapon into space.

LIND: Yes, absolutely. So the North Koreans were trying to persuade everyone that this was a peaceful launch for scientific purposes, as you say. They talked about the meteorological purposes of the satellite. They even talked about the satellite playing songs to the glory of Kim Il-sung in outer space. And so again, they were really emphasizing that this is non-military purposes. But, you know, this didn't fool anyone because it's a rocket. A rocket, of course, could be equipped with a warhead. A warhead could be a conventional one. It could be a nuclear one. And so if North Korea did indeed successfully test an ICBM, then this would be a very worrisome situation indeed.

CONAN: And specifically in violation of Security Council resolutions prohibiting North Korea from doing just that. But North Korea, as you point out in the piece, has long history of thumbing its nose at the Security Council.

LIND: Yes, absolutely. There have been numerous sanctions. There have been numerous agreements. And, as the piece details, North Korea insists on these provocations time after time.


LIND: Well, why? So I'm not going to pretend to be inside the minds of the North Korean leadership, but one thing I can say is that we need to always remember that this is a very desperately imperiled country. And imperiled, let's make it clear, by us and by South Korea, by this alliance, that North Korea is afraid for its existence. And it's taking measures to protect itself in the form of the legendary million-man army and basically the extensive commitment it makes to its military in terms of 25 percent of its GDP goes to defense, which is just astonishing.

I mean, remember, most countries spend - the U.S. spends in the realm of four or five percent. U.S. allies, you know, in Europe spend about two percent. So just think of the chunk of North Korea's product and economy and wealth and energy that is going into the military. So it feels itself very imperiled. And an imperiled country is arming itself in a conventional sense. It's also trying to improve its nuclear weapons program. And so it does things like it needs to test rockets. It needs to conduct nuclear tests. And so, you know, there might be sometimes when there is some sort of a grandstanding element that's involved. I'm sure that's entered into the North Korean mindset at some point. But underlying all this, we have to remember that this is a country that, in essence, is really trying to protect itself.

CONAN: It's a regime trying to protect itself. The regime is one of the most despicable anywhere on the planet with terribly large numbers of re-education camps where political prisoners are held under appalling conditions. It can't feed its own population. That million-man army needs to be fed and all the food resources are diverted to them first.

LIND: Absolutely. The regime, as you say, is a despicable one. It starves the North Korean people. Because of its, you know, ridiculous economic policies it created a famine in the late 1990s in which upwards of a million North Koreans died. And as you say, there are people held in these terrible gulags. There's a terrible situation of North Korean refugees going across the Chinese border. For women in particular, this leads to all sorts of just reprehensible things that happened to them with sex trafficking and other violence, and so this is a terrible, terrible government that treats its people in this way.

CONAN: And continues to survive. Well, there's any number of questions about how it continues to keep it populace down and so intimidated and so ignorant of the outside world. In these modern times, you'd think people would go on the Internet and say, whoa, wait a minute. I just saw a picture of - the inside of a grocery store in Seoul. I think maybe our system is not as good as theirs.

LIND: Yeah, absolutely. If North Koreans could go on the Internet and do what you're saying, then they would really be in for a surprise, and which is exactly why the regime doesn't allow them to go on to the Internet. So Internet is - Internet access in North Korea is very restricted to only the most powerful people, the most trusted people within the regime, and then also those people are going to be very heavily monitored to make sure that they're not getting any outrageous and unacceptable ideas from their exposure to information. So Internet access is strongly regulated.

Any sort of travel overseas is going to be strongly regulated. Any sort of economic exchange such as - North Korea has this Kaesong economic project with South Korea that's sort of a glimpse into South Korea, but that is tightly controlled because the last thing that the North Korean government wants is, like you say, the people to get an inkling of just how bad they have it in North Korea and just how much better their lives could be without this regime.

CONAN: And if the outside world was willing to say, on - despite the humanitarian needs of the people in North Korea, let's just cut these people off and let it collapse of its own weight.

LIND: Well, I think that's been the strategy for decades, is the problem in one sense.

So nobody is excited to have North Korea around. I mean, don't - make no mistake about this because of all the episodes like we've just seen where there's a big increase in international tension because of the provocations and their nuclear weapons and missile development and all of this because of the human rights violations. Nobody is excited about having this country as a neighbor and as a citizen of the global community. Even the Chinese, who are allied with them, a lot of this behavior has been deeply troublesome for China, such as the border issue that I mentioned.

CONAN: And that's the subject of this email from Joe(ph) in Minneapolis: How much influence does China have in North Korea's ongoing existence? If China turns it back on the country, would it not be much longer for the world?

LIND: Well, it's a good question. I think that China's influence is a bit exaggerated because, basically, what China would be asking North Korea to do is say, please refrain from whatever action they're saying that they're going to do, such as a nuclear test or whatever it is or...

CONAN: That's the one that seems to be pending, maybe, we don't know.

LIND: Right, right. Or we will cut off the energy or the food that we are now sending you. So that's the question in terms of, would that sway the calculations of the regime? Or if it doesn't sway the calculations of the regime, would the denial of those - the food and energy actually imperil the regime so much that it would collapse? And remember, the country went through a famine where maybe perhaps millions of people - a million people died, and the country didn't collapse. The government did not collapse. So clearly, the regime is able to sustain fairly desperate conditions in North Korea. So all that is a way of saying, China may have some influence over North Korean behavior, but we shouldn't say that if China snapped its fingers, North Korea would just do its bidding.

CONAN: There are others who say also China does not want a collapsed North Korea spewing hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, desperately poor refugees across the border, nor does it want the outcome of a North Korean collapse, which would be a unified Korea under the South Korean current administration and its ally, the United States, right on its border.

LIND: Yeah, these are really important points. So back to what I was saying before about, well, what if the Chinese government were to deny these items to North Korea? Well, a lot of reasons why they haven't been willing to do that relate to what you just said, which is there's a short-term calculation of the instability that a North Korean collapse might cause if that did indeed occur. And then there's these longer-term calculations about how the gap, the absence of North Korea would affect China's strategic prospects, and the short term is very unsettling to think about it. We would have a situation most likely where if there was a government collapse, the public food distribution system in North Korea could well also collapse, meaning that there could be a humanitarian crisis in the country. And that could lead to a refugee problem, and China's already been dealing with the problem of North Korean refugees. And it's right on China's border, as I said, and there's - the province there for China is one where there is actually an ethnic Korean, a large ethnic Korean population. And so that China - the Chinese look at the situation of refugees streaming into a province of theirs already dominated by Korean ethnicity, and they see, basically kind of a Koreastan problem on their hands. So there's a big demographic component of this.

But even in the shorter term, like I said, there's all sorts of terrible instability that could happen, such as a loose nukes problem, where North Korean nuclear weapons go loose, or nobody's quite sure where they are. Perhaps to mitigate that, the Chinese drop down south to look for them. The South Koreans, the Americans head north to look for them. And now, you have a situation where everyone's searching for North Korean nukes, and their military forces are getting jostled together on this small peninsula. So this is a really terrifying scenario. The last thing China wants is something that would invite that in.

CONAN: Jennifer Lind, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Jennifer Lind's piece for Foreign Affairs is called "Why North Korea Gets Away With It." There's a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org. Let's go next to Ray(ph). Ray is with us from Tallahassee.

RAY: Yes, hi, Scott. Thank you talking my call.

CONAN: It's Neal, but go ahead.

RAY: Oh, yes. Good afternoon, Professor Lind.

LIND: Good afternoon.

RAY: It - correct me if I'm wrong or if I'm misinformed, but it seems to me that, to a certain extent, we are overstating the case of the threat of North Korea. I mean, it seems to me that a society that is as dysfunctional that society is, can't really pose a serious threat. It's not on the economic footing of, say, even the former Soviet Union, certainly not China or Japan or the United States. So even though I agree that it would be extremely bad for North Korea to develop a nuclear (unintelligible) and link it to rocket technology, it seems to me that it's unlikely that they have the economic infrastructure to make that happen and certainly make it happen in a sustainable way. And also, when we respond to their failed rocket launches, don't we sort of give their regime ammunition to say, oh, look, the rest of the world is afraid of us?

LIND: This is a great question. So Ray is reminding us about looking at the kind of overall balance of power in this situation and where North Korea lies within it, and this is a really good thing to always remind ourselves off. And North Korea is a very, very weak state, so its GDP is something like $20 billion a year, which is actually smaller than New Hampshire, where I live. And compare that to South Korea, compare that certainly to the United States, which have - which are far well wealthier, far more advanced military technology, thriving economies, part of this globalized world. And when you look at North Korea's position, it's very, very weak.

Now, militarily, if you look at the balance of power among, you know, so, say, Combined Forces Command, which is what we call the unified command between U.S. and South Korea. If you look at the balance between North Korea and Combined Forces Command, again, North Korea is desperately, desperately weak, desperately inferior relative to CFC. The problem though is that that's all very well and good, and it's important that we know that. But there's one - the reason why we still don't want to fight a war with this country, even though it's not going to win that war, but that could be a very nasty war, nonetheless. So...

CONAN: Now, the city of Seoul would be obliterated in the first 40 minutes. I'm not talking about nuclear. They've got 1,600 artillery tubes pointed at Seoul just a few miles away.

LIND: Yeah, I wouldn't go that far. So you're absolutely right to point out that Seoul is 35 miles away. There's North Korean artillery tubes pointed at it. Seoul is not going to be obliterated. Seoul is going to come under fire when those artillery start firing, and then we're going to find out where the artillery is, and then we're going to take them out. So, I mean, Seoul's not going to get obliterated. But...

CONAN: A lot of people would die.

LIND: ...it could have a lot damage. A lot of people, as you say, could die. So we don't want to fight this war, even though North Korea is going to lose it. We don't want to fight that war.

CONAN: Ray, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. And there's no reason to believe, is there, despite all its bluster, that North Korea wants to fight it either?

LIND: They certainly should not want to fight it. Like I was saying, they are very, very weak relative to their adversaries here, and this is an existential war for them because there's a Korea that's waiting to take their place, waiting to absorb them. So if there were a war, the most likely scenario would be that, as I said, that South Korea and the United States together would win that war and that there would be some sort of a republic of Korea absorbing the North that would follow on that. And so that's not going to end well for the Kim family. We just saw what happened in Libya, what it looks like when dictators go down, and the Kim family understands this.

CONAN: And the sad news that - at least early returns, the newest member of the Kim family seems to be following in the footsteps of his father and his grandfather pretty much nowhere. Jennifer Lind, thanks very much.

LIND: Thank you.

CONAN: Jennifer Lind, assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. Again, "Why Korea Gets Away With It: Pyongyang's Skillful Deterrence" is published in Foreign Affairs. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.