The Logic and Lunacy of Kim Jong-il

kjiAfter weeks of duck houses, moats, fork handles and so on some people are actually rather excited that something has happened. However, while some posts have been rather interesting, I was rather taken aback on seeing this post on Socialist Unity which suggests Western Leaders should keep their noses out of the North Korean Government’s business.

I feel it is rather disingenuous to compare the statements of Gordon Brown and the actions of Kim Jong-il. Gordon Brown has done some terrible things, not the least of them renewing Trident and helping launch a dreadful war in Iraq. However, he is still more than adequately morally endowed to tell a monster running a giant prison to stop developing Nuclear Bombs.

Some blogs have concentrated on the fact that this is actually a big deal and not a debate on PR vs. STV; others have focused on the militarisation of the Korean Peninsula; others have seen fit to question the moral authority of Gordon Brown to criticise Kim Jong-il; I have decided to focus on just why such an impoverished nation is so interested in the Bomb, what it means for regional security and what is to be done.

The Logic of Nuclear Weapons

Kim Jong-Il is a well known lunatic[1] who now has the bomb, so everyone is fairly confident that the world is now a more dangerous place. However, before we jump to that conclusion we have to ask ourselves if Nuclear Weapons are guaranteed to provoke more aggression than they will deter.

Korean_peninsula_at_nightNorth Korea spends fully $5,500,000,000 of its $40,000,000,000 GDP on its Military. Around 10%, possibly closer to 15% of total spending, the figures are always imprecise. This is from a country which is regularly struck by famines and looks like this at night. North Korea has such a large military despite its impoverishment for three reasons.

Firstly, there is a healthy paranoia about the rest of the world. I say healthy because North Korea had good reason to fear the West. After the Korean War Northern Korea had been left a sort of barren moonscape, scarred by Napalm and a genuinely popular Socialist Government was forced to retreat into the North. So in a historical context a larger Military begins to look less of an abomination.

However, the army is still an abomination, and a plague on the Korean people. The second reason for the army’s prominence is to threaten neighbouring states and from this the Korean People gain nothing. The North Korean State has regularly blackmailed neighbouring states with the threat of belligerence into helping it. Its vile threats against South Korea are made credible by its large military, thus bringing more weight to the diplomatic table in the interest of the elite which run North Korea.

The third use of the army is the subjugation of its own citizenry. The citizens of North Korea are forced to work and are stopped from escaping. The repression of the Korean people allows for a larger surplus to be extracted to enrich the elite running Korea and their hostage status allows the same elite to extract the maximum aid from the rest of the world.

A Nuclear Peace?

As I have argued elsewhere, although Nuclear Weapons are expensive they are not extraordinarily expensive when compared to maintaining one of the largest armies in the world. Moreover, a Nuclear Weapon is better than an army because it offers a more total, threatening and terrifying deterrent than any conventional military.

By gaining Nuclear Weapons a state like North Korea can reduce the army required for the first and second purpose mentioned, threatening outsiders and paranoia, while both increasing its ability to fulfil these two purposes and increasing the ability of the Military to suppress the domestic population.

Gaining Nuclear Weapons is without doubt a terrible thing for the people of Korea. However, there may be a positive side to this: a Nuclear Peace. This refers to a situation formulated by Kenneth Waltz whereby the existence of Nuclear Weapons and the possibility of the damage they will do deter all actors from engaging in behaviour which could lead to war, similar to the Cold War though on a smaller scale. North Korea gaining a Nuclear Weapon may make North-East Asia more peaceful.

This may be what Kim Jong-il is hoping for. His aim may be to scare everyone enough to leave him alone to torture his own people. This may be the logic that is drawing Kim Jong-il down such an apparently dangerous path.

What if?

However, more worryingly, it may be more accurate to describe the situation on the Korean Peninsula as a Security Dilemma. In this situation Kim Jong-il’s lunacy may play the defining role. In a Security Dilemma two or more actors unintentionally provoke one another into a conflict by misinterpreting one another’s defensive security measures.

Each action designed to make the state more secure appears as an act preparing for an aggressive act. Any attempt by a state to increase its own security will cause the other to act in kind. Thus both are drawn towards war, despite neither really wanting it.

This can be avoided if one of the actors realises they are in a Security Dilemma and acts in a way which reduces the threat they pose to the other. If this were a Security Dilemma this action would then be reciprocated by the other actor, as they would no longer need as large a defensive capability. [2]

In the Korean Peninsula the North Korean state clearly views every American move as a possible precursor to an attack. The same is true of the South Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese Governments and their ally, the US. Given the history of the Korean War this is hardly surprising; a popular Socialist interim-Government was attacked by an American backed anti-Soviet force and much of the Peninsula was laid waste. After this a psychotic North Korean regime has intimidated and bullied its neighbours.

However, it is entirely possible that North Korea could be coaxed back from Nuclear Statehood if the US reduced its military presence and Nuclear stockpile. I am not calling for the demilitarisation of the area, I do not trust the North Korean Government. However, the US could maintain a deterrent to attack on its allies while reducing its forces and offering a way out to the North Koreans.

Capitulation or Civil War

I have not considered the option that the North Korean state genuinely expects to wage a suicidal war against any of its neighbours. It may be possible that Kim Jong-il is that insane, however, it is unlikely that all those around him wish to end in the same atomic dust cloud as him.

Ultimately, whether North Korea collapses in capitulation or Civil War I am certain that the Korean Peninsula will not continue in its present state indefinitely. However, neither will the collapse of the North Korean state be a blessing for those involved. The two states splitting the Korean nation have been isolated from one another for nearly 6 decades and it has been reported that the Korean Language spoken in each part are beginning to become less and less mutually intelligible.

The obvious example for comparison is East and West Germeny. However, on top of this linguistic difference Korean incomes are far more unequal than Germany’s ever were. Moreover the North Korean state’s population is far larger in proportion than East Germany was to West.

Despite the little optimism shown above I would like to echo Neil Robertson at the Bleeding Heart Show and conclude that things are going to get worse before they get better.

[1] I know Britain has dreadful libel laws, but I think I will get away with that one

[2] Of course, if this is not Security Dilemma, and one state is clearly wants to be the aggressor, they can strike while their opponent’s defences are weak. That’s why it’s a dilemma folks.