Last week North Korea conducted a test launch of what it claimed to be a satellite, now successfully orbiting the globe and beaming patriotic, revolutionary music to the masses. South Korea, Japan, the US, and many others assert this was no peaceful satellite launch but a provocative and threatening intercontinental ballistic missile test in violation of UN Resolution 1718, and have found no evidence of a singing revolutionary satellite in orbit. So either this test appears to have been, in actuality, a missile test or it was a failed attempt to put a North Korean satellite into orbit – both scenarios that contradict North Korea’s version of events.
President Obama, South Korea, and Japan quickly came out with withering condemnations of the launch, describing it as “provocative” and “reckless,” and calling for sharp, immediate action from the UN, possibly including further economic sanctions. China and Russia, the other two participants in the Six-Party Talks and closer to North Korea, cautioned against “an emotional knee-jerk reaction” to the test, reminding all parties to remain focused on the main goal of the Six-Party Talks – the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Regardless of what happens in response to this immediate crisis, one has to wonder: What is going on in North Korea? Often described as reclusive and one of the world’s most closed societies, North Korea is something of an enigma – especially to Americans. Of course there was the Korean War of the early 1950s, but fewer and fewer Americans remember it, know much about it, or care about it. And to be honest, it is hard to see how that conflict – over 50 years ago – has much relevance as a way of explaining what is going on today. However, it does frame the current situation, and for that reason I will provide a brief history of the Korean peninsula and the complex and usually vitriol US-North Korean relationship since 1945.
The Cold War
In August of 1945, World War II ended, and Korea was granted independence from its Japanese colonizers. This independence came with a price however. Korea, like Germany, would be split in two – one part, essentially, to be a US puppet state, and the other to be a Soviet one. Exiles Syngman Rhee (who had been living in the US) and Kim Il-Sung (who had been in the USSR) returned to Korea to rule the South and North, respectively. Within five years, North Korea invaded the South in an effort to unify the peninsula under its own rule. Much of South Korea, including its capital Seoul, was captured by the North, prompting a massive military response from the UN – led by the US and South Korea. By the end of the conflict, at least 3 million Koreans, almost 1 million Chinese, and over 50,000 Americans had died. After the conflict was over, Korea remained divided almost exactly as it had been before 1950. Relations between the North and South have remained uneasy ever since, and tens of thousands of US troops and (until 1991) thousands of nuclear warheads have been based in the South. Over the years, clashes along the 4 km wide Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two countries have not been uncommon. US spy ships and airplanes have been captured or shot down by the North, the North has often threateningly tunneled beneath the DMZ, and the North was responsible for the hijacking and downing of Korean Airlines flight 858 in 1987. At the same time, for 50 years after the Korean War, the US vigorously supported harsh economic sanctions against the North.
With the fall of the USSR in 1991, North Korea lost a significant supporter and has struggled with food shortages and a collapsing economy ever since. Since that time, there has been constant speculation about the North’s developing of a military nuclear program and its sharing of military knowledge and technology with nations such as Pakistan and Syria. In 1993 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was disallowed from inspecting North Korean nuclear sites, and the North withdrew from the IAEA the next year. In 1994 Kim Il-Sung died and was replaced as North Korea’s head of state by his son, Kim Jong-Il. While the US and North Korea signed the 1994 Agreed Framework to improve relations, its implementation has been rocky, with both sides failing to fully follow through on their commitments. In 1998 the South’s new president Kim Dae-Jung introduced his sweeping new “Sunshine Policy,” a policy of engagement aimed at spurring improved North-South relations and increased cross-border trade and cooperation. The North continued developing its missile program, but largely within the guidelines agreed upon with the US and the South. At the same time, the US played a role in militarily strengthening Japan and South Korea against the North.
Efforts continued to normalize North-South and North-US relations until 2001. At that time new US President George Bush took a much more hawkish position toward the North than President Clinton had, and famously included North Korea in his “Axis of Evil” along with Iran and Iraq. This stance worsened US-North Korean relations considerably, and over the next few years North Korea defiantly expanded its nuclear program and withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003. New governments in South Korea and Japan treated the North more coolly. Bogged down in Iraq, the Bush administration was compelled to try negotiation through the Six Party Talks – which involved the US, North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan. Further bellicose statements by President Bush and disagreements over the terms of the Agreed Framework gave the North excuses to withdraw from the talks, and in October of 2006 North Korea tested a nuclear weapon. Incredibly, talks continued after this test, and were successful enough that some foresaw a breakthrough in US-North Korean relations in 2007; yet by late 2008 talks broke down again. Complicating matters was the reported stroke of North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il in August of 2008, creating fears about the North’s immediate future – including the stability of its political system and the fate of its nuclear weapons. However, the US and the North worked cooperatively during this time to alleviate the effects of famines in the North and to find the remains of American servicemen killed since 1950 in the North, and war was in fact averted through diplomatic channels on many occasions.
Prelude to a Transition?
To the average American observer – myself included – North Korea’s actions are perplexing. Why exactly are they test firing rockets over Japan? Why now? What are their motivations? And more generally, why has North Korea spent so much money and risked so much global animosity on developing its nuclear weapons program? Why has it remained such a closed country? With the fall of the USSR and China’s transformation to free market heavyweight, why has it clung to its rigid form of communism? And this is just the beginning.
Here are a few thoughts, first concerning the immediate situation. Despite Kim Jong-Il’s very public appreciation for the launch, it was the first time since August that he has appeared in public, probably due to his questionable health. If he is in fact in poor health, the North may be facing a rocky transition of power and this launch may be a way of declaring North Korea’s continued military strength and its intention to proceed with a space and military program regardless of whether he continues to rule or not. Indeed, after considerable diplomatic progress in 2008, in recent months the North has been more hostile toward Japan and South Korea, has kicked out US humanitarian aid teams, and has detained two American journalists, indicating an unpredictable government possibly undergoing a significant change.
A Negotiation Tactic?
On the other hand, North Korea has used provocative military tests in the past to extract concessions from the US during the Six-Party Talks, such as having its name dropped from the US’s state sponsors of terrorism list or to procure humanitarian and development aid. So, this week’s action could be a signal that the North’s political regime is weak and in need of assistance, for which it would like to use this test as a bargaining chip.
That the North’s military activities are mainly a tactic to drive a harder bargain with the US is the accepted explanation for North Korean motives. While this is certainly part of the picture, it is hard to believe that this is North Korea’s sole purpose for developing such a large military program. Nearly a quarter of the North’s GNP is devoted to military spending, and it has 1.2 million active duty military personnel, nearly double the South’s standing military. This makes North Korea’s military one of the largest in the world, despite the fact that it is a nation of just 23 million people. So, long before the Six Party Talks, the North has been building a formidable military for its own sake, not just as a bargaining chip. The large and threatening US presence in northeast Asia since 1950 is surely a factor, as is the significant drop in military support from Russia and China in recent decades. It is not surprising that the North feels vulnerable, and its massive military is surely one reason that its government has endured and that it continues to exist at all as a nation.
Game Theory with Obama?
The US is experiencing a transition of power as well, and this launch was perhaps directed at a young, inexperienced President Obama. Before the launch, Obama’s administration indicated a willingness to pursue high-level bilateral talks with North Korea and received no answer from Pyongyang. Perhaps, the launch was an effort by North Korea to get the attention of the new administration, and to engage the US on its own terms. It could also have been, in part, a test just to see what reaction the launch would prompt from the US. Over the past few decades, the North has seemed interested in engaging with the US and the South when given the chance. Some also have argued that the recent launch does not explicitly violate UN Resolution 1718, indicating that the North wants attention, but not to actually break its obligations under 1718. This test may have been a way of gauging the sincerity of the Obama administration’s overtures to the North. If Obama can keep a cool head and avoid Bush’s war-mongering rhetoric even in a sticky situation, the North may take Obama’s offers to engage more seriously. Obama declined to use the US missile defense system to shoot down the North’s rocket, and instead sharply denounced the launch and steered the issue to the UN while working with other members of the Six-Party Talks to come up with a constructive response. Time will tell how much Obama’s strategy will differ from that of former Presidents Bush or Clinton.
As for North Korea’s more general isolation from the global community, there seem to be a few compelling explanations. The most obvious and simplistic reason is the desire of a small circle of political and military North Korean elites to retain power at any cost. Life in North Korea is hard, stifling, and unforgiving. The North’s particularly harsh interpretation of communism has propped up a family dynasty and benefited a small group at the expense of most for over 50 years. Yet today’s rulers are not as “beloved” as Kim Il-Sung and the North’s focus on military success seems to be a way of demonstrating its power and bestowing legitimacy on a regime that has few other successes to point to.
Demonizing the North Korean leadership is the easy way to explain its actions, but other factors are in play as well. As mentioned above, the North received substantial economic and military support from both the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 however, much of the North’s support gave way. In contrast to much of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics, North Korea’s leadership has adjusted poorly to a post-Cold War world, prioritizing its own survival over a more holistic concern for North Korea’s people and place in this new world. It has remained largely isolated economically and politically and has suffered devastating famines since the early 1990s. Legitimate and imagined fears have resulted in disproportionate military spending that certainly prevents the North from investing in economic development, improving government services and infrastructure, or providing humanitarian aid to the extent necessary. This inability to adjust effectively to a new world has led to economic and political weakness that military strength has attempted to compensate for.
Additionally, as mentioned above, between 1950 and 2000 the US enforced an economic embargo on the North that isolated it from the capitalist world. That was not much of a problem during the Cold War when the North could count on support from the USSR and China, but afterward the North suffered tremendously. Economic sanctions in various forms have often been the response to the North’s more recent military activities. Intended to punish North Korea’s defiant leaders, limiting trade and aid to the North since the 1950s has contributed to the small country’s international isolation and have been an obstacle to normalized relations with other nations.
What the future holds for North Korea is anybody’s guess, especially if Kim Jong-Il’s health deteriorates further. Will he remain in power, engaging with the international community in his characteristically bold and theatrical way? Will a smooth transition of power take place? Or does the country face a political upheaval with unpredictable and potentially frightening consequences in the near future? And what of denuclearizing and even reunifying the Korean peninsula? Both the North and the US show signs of wanting to increase engagement and economic cooperation, and this would certainly be preferable to the prickly and potentially disastrous path they are on now. Yet both must work hard to overcome their mutual distrust of one another while saving face and appearing not to give up too much to the other, long-feared side of the 38th parallel.
There is no shortage of foreign policy challenges for Barack Obama as he prepares to take office in a few short weeks. And over the next few months, you’re likely to read hundreds of thousands of words analyzing a small handful of them, namely those challenges that involve Middle Eastern countries that start with the letter “I.”
But what you will not read much about are the other foreign policy challenges that are equally as important, but not quite as familiar. So, in an effort to shed some light on the massive, worldwide foreign policy shadow cast by Iraq, Iran and Israel, this piece will be the first in a series of three highlighting the most important “other” foreign policy challenges. While all three of these scenarios will require great diplomatic skill, some are more difficult than others, and we’ll begin with the most manageable in Venezuela and work our way to the most challenging in Pakistan via Cuba.
The Challenge: Keep Venezuelan oil flowing in the short-term before the U.S. can eventually wean itself off of it in the long-term. At the same time, peace must be kept between Venezuela and its neighbor to the west, Colombia, despite increasing tensions between the two.
The Obstacles: Bad blood has been brewing for the past eight years between George W. Bush and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. President Chavez has accused the Bush Administration of being responsible for the coup that briefly ousted him from power in 2002 and of plotting another coup attempt in 2006. If Chavez maintains the perception within Venezuela that the leaders in Washington are still out to destroy both Venezuela and his presidency, he has the ability to wreck havoc with the U.S. economy by shutting off approximately 1.5 million barrels of oil a day that Venezuela currently exports to the United States.
With regards to Colombia, it is no surprise that the left-wing Hugo Chavez and the right-wing president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, do not get along. What is a surprise is that the two men managed to maintain a cordial and somewhat productive relationship as long as they did. For five years, from Uribe’s election in 2002 until 2007, the only major diplomatic dispute between the two nations was quickly resolved when Chavez and Uribe spoke to one another and agreed that they were both at fault for using the media rather than official diplomatic channels to air their grievances.
But then, in late 2007, the relationship between Venezuela and Colombia took an abrupt turn for the worse when negotiations between the Colombian government and its long-time enemy, FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), broke down. Chavez, who many view as sympathetic to FARC’s cause, was involved in the negotiations, and Uribe felt as though its failure to produce any positive results was partially the Venezuelan president’s fault. This led to a “freezing” of political relations between the two nations. Then, the situation was made much worse just a few months later, on March 1, 2008, when Colombian forces went after and killed a FARC commander inside Ecuadorian territory. Ecuador was not pleased with the Colombian invasion of its sovereignty and cut diplomatic ties with Colombia. Venezuela immediately followed suit.
To make matters worse, the following day, Chavez condemned Colombia’s actions by saying that if Uribe took similar actions in Venezuela, it would provoke war:
“Don’t even think about doing something like this over here (Colombian) President Uribe, because that would be extremely serious….A military incursion on Venezuelan soil would be a cause for war.”
Of course, this comment served only to fuel the perception that Hugo Chavez was and is more interested in harboring the leftist rebels and furthering their cause than he is in actually bringing about peace in the region. Conversely, Chavez accused both Uribe and the United States of not actually wanting the war to end. What began as an effort to bring about a greater dialogue ended in complete lack of trust in this strategically important region.
While the probability of all out war between Colombia and Venezuela is slim, if the situation is allowed to continue to deteriorate, the results could be catastrophic. Further, if such a string of events would occur, it would most likely occur with little or no warning. Colombia, whose military is partially supported by billions of dollars from Washington and who is already mobilized militarily from their internal war against the FARC, is prepared for an attack from Venezuela at any time. Recent history shows that the Colombian military has displayed very little qualms about invading another nation’s territory, and if a worthwhile target were to appear across the Orinoco River in Venezuela, Colombia may decide that such an incursion is worth the risk of retaliation. In Venezuela, President Chavez has aggressively been building up his military over the past decade. In fact, the buildup has been so quick that some U.S. officials have openly discussed concerns that the rapidly expanding Venezuelan military could trigger an arms race in Latin America. More than 80,000 Venezuelans serve in the country’s army, navy, air force and national guard, and many of them are eager to test out their new toys.
With as little trust as there is between the two neighbors at the moment, it wouldn’t take much to touch off this Amazonian powder keg. The Americas have been relatively peaceful since WWII, and it is in everyone’s best interest to keep it that way. President-elect Obama must find a way to rebuild the trust between not only Chavez and Uribe, but also between the peoples and militaries of Venezuela and Colombia.
The Solutions: If there is any hope for the Obama Administration to help rebuild the trust between Venezuela and its neighbor to the west, it must first work with Hugo Chavez to build a stable and more trusting relationship between the United States and Venezuela.
For his part, the Venezuelan President has already shown some signs that he may be willing to make this relationship work. Since the November 4 election of Barack Obama, President Chavez has made some initial efforts to ease tensions with the United States. In early November, when the Bush Administration made a slightly provocative move by “inviting” the Venezuelan consul in Houston to leave the country, Chavez, surprisingly, did not take the bait. Instead, he accepted Washington’s decision and admitted that the Venezuelans had been in the wrong. Additionally, days before the U.S. Election, the Venezuelan President acknowledged that relations between the U.S. and Venezuela were at an all time low, but an Obama victory could go a long way to change that. Further, Chavez has stated publically that he is willing to talk with the Obama Administration, something neither side has been willing to do during the Bush Administration.
While making a small concession and a non-binding promise to talk may not seem like much to work with for President-elect Obama, it is a move in the right direction and a far cry from the belligerent name-calling that has gone on between the two nations over the past eight years. The Bush Administration’s approach to Venezuela and Hugo Chavez has been to deem Chavez an evil dictator (not quite the axis of evil, but close) and to play off of the American public’s misperceptions about Chavez (which they helped create) in order to score cheap political points at home. This practice needs to come to an immediate end when Obama is sworn in. One step in this direction would be for President-elect Obama to ensure that no one in his new administration, especially his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, publically refers to Chavez as a dictator, tyrant, or anything other than the President of Venezuela.
This, however, may be easier said than done. Given the American public’s perception that Chavez is a dictator and enemy of the United States, it may be tempting for the Obama Administration to try to score some of the same political points that Bush did, particularly if some sort of diplomatic hitch arises. If and when Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez do sit down for a face-to-face talk, Obama should make it clear that his overarching philosophy of cooperation will be applied to everyone, not just to Americans, and despite the differences between Venezuela and the United States, he will sit down and figure out where there is common ground between the two countries.
Finding that common ground will be key to building a better, more trusting relationship with Chavez, and it will provide the U.S. with a slightly more secure source of oil, but more importantly, it will provide an opportunity to influence Colombian-Venezuelan relations. War may not be imminent between these two Latin American nations, but such a war would be a nightmare situation that U.S. must do everything to prevent. Such a war would most likely draw U.S. troops and lead to the loss of its fourth largest supplier of oil in Venezuela. As such, the incoming Obama Administration must work very hard to prevent such a worst-case scenario from developing.
The Bottom Line: In general, any solution regarding Venezuela is going to be tricky. President-elect Obama and Secretary of State Clinton will have to walk a diplomatic tightrope, mending a broken relationship with a recent adversary in Venezuela while being careful not to offend long-time ally Colombia. The good news is that because of recent statements by Hugo Chavez, there appears to be a small window of opportunity for the United States and Obama and Clinton to successfully walk such a tightrope. However, faced with many competing international priorities right out of the gate, especially in the Middle East, the Obama administration may be tempted to devote most of their attention elsewhere. They would be wise not to ignore Latin America for long. If they do, the current window of opportunity in Venezuela may be slammed shut. The geopolitical consequences of this could be dire.
Yes, our economy is teetering on the brink of collapse; yes, we have a presidential election, Congressional election, and local election looming; sure, prices are up, wages are down, and people are concerned about getting from paycheck to paycheck. We still have two wars occurring, billions being poured into the Middle East, and little progress to show for it. Americans as a whole—the media, the government, and the public—seem to have forgotten a key event, though.
Kim Jung Il stroked out.
This turn of events—and its being buried by domestic concerns—is a key concern for both the Bush administration and the soon-to-be President-elect. Not only is the face-man for a burgeoning nuclear power now incapacitated at best—the current best guess is that Mr. Kim is paralyzed—and dead at worst, but our own government, who decried North Korea as a member of the “Axis of Evil” and considers a non-nuclear North Korea a key part of its regional security strategy, has either overlooked or underestimated the gravity of the situation. As regional stability is concerned, Mr. Kim’s medical condition is a critical issue upon which diplomatic negotiations must be based; if he’s no longer in charge, our current policies may no longer be applicable.
Think of it this way: with Kim, the U.S. knew who it was dealing with. He was the Decider in a very literal sense; he was the brain and the heart of North Korean foreign policy. Without knowing the details of Mr. Kim’s condition, or even if the man’s still alive, the United States—and the world as a whole—needs to consider the possibility that the Dear Leader is no longer the leading man in North Korea; further, the State Department must devise a set of practical, easy-to-implement diplomatic contingencies for the likely political turmoil that Mr. Kim’s death would instigate. In the event of his death, the resulting power vacuum could ultimately lead to anything from reunification with the South to a civil war (possibly between Kim Yung Nan, the “number two” in North Korea, and other members of Mr. Kim’s inner circle) and a new, more brutal and more opaque regime. In any case, the United States should see this as both a political opportunity and as a key national security issue, and it should consider gathering intelligence on Mr. Kim’s condition a top priority.