The North Korea Problem
The intractable problem of North Korea remains the greatest obstacle to integration in Northeast Asia, one that has consistently defied efforts at diplomatic resolution. Without any doubt, serious engagement on the North Korean crisis is the fastest road to meaningful and sustainable integration (to be distinguished from economic interpenetration that can evaporate, or even inspire a xenophobic backlash).
But most discussion about North Korea is simply not that serious. Granted there are great dinners offered at the Six Party Talks, but the content of those discussion is so limited (whether North Korea will stop its nuclear power program) and most of the problems, from trade and integration to climate change and the role of the nation state in a rapidly changing era—not to mention the failure of the United States to comply with its obligations under the Non Proliferation Treaty—are simply off the table.
James Baldwin made a statement that summarizes the essential issue for diplomacy in East Asia:
“Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
It is critical for us to face the reality of the North Korean tragedy, and the manner in which that problem has evolved; then, on the basis of an entirely new conception of the issues, we can take meaningful steps to address it.
To start with, the risk of North Korea using its weapons to launch a major attack on a neighboring country is so small that it should not be taken seriously. There is some risk of small skirmishes going forward, of course, but North Korea, as opposed to some other nations, has no record of attacking other nations in the recent past.
We should focus directly on the threats posed by the existence of North Korea. North Korea remains a serious threat in two important respects:
First, North Korea is improving its military technology continuously and its launch technology has advanced to a new level of sophistication. The development of missile systems and other offensive weapons in North Korea in the absence of a general arms control agreement for Northeast Asia could easily spark a serious, and very dangerous, arms race between Japan, China and the two Koreas. That arms race could include the full range of conventional weapons and a large range of tactical missile systems. Moreover, it is no secret that North Korea’s arms build-up serves as a justification for the development of nuclear arms in Japan and the Republic of Korea. As the political influence of the United States wanes, this threat of a general arms race in the region will grow larger.
Moreover, such an arms race will quickly spill over to Vietnam, Mongolia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Russia and other nations. That arms race could include both conventional and nuclear weapons very quickly. Such a trend in East Asia will also encourage a broader global arms race that will eventually result in war at some place and time.
Once such an arms race takes off, and we can see traces that it is already starting, North Korea will be the least of our worries. We must recognize that ultimate risk is not North Korea itself, but rather its impact on the international community.
The second risk is related to the first. North Korea has oddly assumed the default role as the potential enemy of convenience for military planners throughout Asia (including the United States). Although North Korea has its roots in the socialist struggles of the 1930s and 1940s and it played a role in the ideological conflicts of Cold War, its ideological challenge to the free world has disappeared. North Korean leaders have no problem riding in limousines or carrying Christine Dior bags or wearing designer clothes. North Korea does not in any way offer the world even the illusion of social equality.
Rather North Korea has devolved into the strategic pivot around which a fragile geopolitical order is maintained. The United States, Japan and Korea (and even to some degree China) continue to increase their military spending with the justification that they are preparing to counter the North Korean threat. Even Australia and New Zealand refer to this argument. The argument is growing increasingly hollow.
The more likely reason for the increase in military spending in these nations is the use of defense spending as a means of stimulating the domestic economy. Defense spending is unique in its effectiveness at actually creating jobs out of government spending during the current economic crisis. Traditional attitudes towards security mean that most taxpayers will not oppose such defense spending. In a market-based ideological system, defense spending becomes the only manner for government spending to be used to create jobs effectively. As a result, defense spending has become essential to the political and economic needs of a large range of special interests.
As such spending increases, however, the risk of serious conflict will also increase—even if the originators of the policies had no such intentions. The current order in Northeast Asia is fragile, and the incentives of each of the powers involved works against any serious effort to resolve the division of the Korean peninsula. For example, most anyone in the United States military, or the Japanese military, would associate a move towards a peace regime, or reunification, with the possibility of a direct military confrontation with China. The reason simple: if North Korea disappears, the only remaining threat to justify the conventional military spending so important for the domestic economy will be China. In such a scenario, the efforts to maintain a good relationship with China for economic reasons would be trumped by the need to find a new conventional military adversary to prop up a major engine for economic growth.
Moreover, military buildup in East Asian nations (or the United States) is not merely about increasing domestic spending. It is also directly linked to bids for contracts in the global arms market. To the degree that countries increase domestic military spending, they are able to scale up their production and make themselves globally competitive as producers of arms in a variety of specialty fields. This incentive for maintaining a conflict with North Korea should not be underestimated.
Although you might expect that the stakeholders would be delighted at the prospect of a united Korean Peninsula, secretly many fear that a nightmare scenario would come into play in that case. This nightmare scenario, whether accurate or not, is much more salient to their security calculations than any particular military threat from North Korea. They fear that if the United States were to pull back from Northeast Asia after the establishment of a peace regime, Japan, China and Korea would be left to engage in a delicate geopolitical dance to determine who would become their new adversaries. In such a scenario, previous alliance relations with the United States would do little to limit possible hostilities, or for that matter who would clash with whom. To the degree that military spending is linked to the accumulation of wealth, it is possible for nations to take steps that are against their own long-term interests to achieve short term economic benefits. Europe of one hundred years ago is the perfect example of such a miscalculation.