Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hell is other Democratic People's Republic of Korea

I attended an invigorating book launch at the Asan Institute yesterday: the Korean edition of "No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security", by Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution Jonathan D. Pollack. Much more people turned out than for the launch of the previous day, precisely from North Korea (an ICBM? a satellite? a bird? a plane? Superkim? a UFO?).

Jonathan D. Pollack with Asan Institute President Hahm Chaibong

Pollack titled his book - which I haven't read so far - after Jean-Paul Sartre's play, "No Exit" - which I read so far in the past my memory of it is as wall-eyed as the existentialist author. Note that Sartre's original title, "Huis Clos", literally means "in camera", an expression that generally refers to trials behind close doors, where neither the press nor the public are allowed.

To add to the resemblance to North Korea, the characters in the play are bracing for torture and mistreatments. Except they're already dead. Anyway, they realize that actual hell, and the worse torture that could ever be inflicted to them, was facing themselves through the prism of judgement from fellow human beings. "Hell is other people".

Of course, the North Korean regime is rather "survivalist" than "existentialist", more into "appearance" than into "being", and certainly more into "nail-pulling autocracy" than into "hair-splitting philosophy".

And of course, our expert in Asia-Pacific studies didn't write a play. But he tried to decypher the intriguing tragicomedy North Korea has been playing over the past decades by empathically browsing through the regime's own words and actions, cold war archives, propaganda material, testimonies...

Like most observers, Pollack is at the same time appalled and fascinated by this country that "defies the laws of economic and political gravity", convinced that it won't last, conscious of the fact that China's influence has considerably grown over the past few years, and sure that South Korea as well as the US could do much better than what they've been doing so far.

When the  says "our toolkit failed", Pollack naturally refers to failed policies, not just to the latest intel fiasco (the rocket launch occured just hours following Seoul declarations that reparations would delay it for at least a couple of days). He also denounces the risks of underestimating or overestimating, and the tendency to portray the North Korean regime as a simple caricature*.

Ideally, the US and China should sit down and sort things out together, but that sounds a bit optimistic considering the go game they're playing across the region. I'm not sure this latest missile launch is the potential game changer Professor Georgy D. Toloraya wished it could become, but I think Russia does have a very interesting card to play because it's not caught in that gridlock, and because it's got the best potential win-lose ratio among the six parties.

I won't state again my positions about North Korea, my base case "Hanschluss Scenario" et al, but as is the tradition following a conference on the issue**, I'll drop my two KRW into the pig bank, this time with a focus on this program that has never been about civil nukes, never quite fully been about military nukes, and could even be lampooned as being about dynastic / familial nukes.

1) Nukes remain the ultimate proof of concept for the Incredible Shrinking State of Kimland:

The Juche ideology failed, the propaganda failed, and the country's leaders have become laughingstocks even at home. The only story that somewhat keeps standing is the nuclear / space program. As if Sun-God KIM Il-sung had achieved His ultimate mutation, now radiating across the globe for the next hundred thousand years and beyond. As if nuclear deterrence were the perfection of Juche. As if the recurrent tales about nuclear and space progresses were the proof that propaganda is not just an empty shell.

The nuclear nation status is key to the regime's legitimacy and allows North Korea, as Pollack puts it, "to punch above its weight" at the international level. Nothing new under the sun, but South Koreans sure didn't like the way their brothers batted their gizmo into orbit at the very moment their own Naro rocket was sent back to disabled list.

2) Can you expect the NK regime to renounce this program without renouncing its very existence?

Unless the rules of the game are changed, the regime will keep posting every now and then nasty status updates on its Facebook wall.

But such statements are costly, and the country's limited resources have been stretched very far. And North Korea can only count on its friends up to a certain point. China puts thumbs down to anything involving nuclear tests, and Tehran is not much more than Pyongyang the picture of a sustainable regime.

Furthermore, managing such a program demands in itself an ever increasing level of organization, not very compatible with a leadership stripped bare to its smallest circles and alienating even within military ranks. Nukes actually give the perfect alibi to distance oneself from a leadership that choses a universal repellent over the country. Building the nation around the nuclear fortress is actually dismantling the nation, separating even more the regime from its propellers.

If the North Korean regime doesn't renounce the program, North Korean elites will eventually renounce the regime - unless one of the regime's last friends steps in and does it all by itself.

Maybe this nuclear program should be named after that other work of Sartre's, "Being and nothingness".

Seoul Village 2012
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* (UPDATE 20121215) I fully agree, but without caricature, where's the fun? Speaking of toolkit and North Korean watch, and on an even lighter note, here's my embarrassing take at the most strategic question raised by this "ICBM" launch: "how to wear binoculars properly?"

(for those who are not familiar by that other terrible blog of mine, "blogules" are self-proclaimed "Weapons of Mass Disinformation" - history proves politics and nukes are too important issues to be handled by or handed to serious people)

** see for instance:
. "Re-engaging North Korea - A Four Party Talk" (following the North Korea Policy Forum conference "Responding to the Consolidation of Economic Cooperation between North Korea and China", 2011/04/11)
. "NK and nukes: back to the (dolsot curling) stone age?" (following the Asia Institute Seminar "Revisiting Nuclear Safety and Nuclear Security in North Korea" 2012/03/22)

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