Is North Korea China’s Pakistan? Will It Become America’s Nightmare?

As we write this article, the world waits for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to test a missile, an event that will be a major miscalculation as U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, warned this week.  We will not worry about today’s crisis in this article. Because, this crisis will fade away unless Kim Jong Un does something utterly stupid.  

We are far more interested in the medium term and in the evolution of the Kim Jong Un regime over the next 5-10 years. What model will it follow? What will be the ramifications of that model on Japan, China and the American pivot to Asia?

It seems clear that America has no strategy to deal with North Korea except to simultaneously request and cajole the Chinese to rein in their client state. This approach is based on the thesis that North Korea is a failed state that will collapse economically unless it is continuously propped up by China. The simple corollary is this gives China real power to control the actions of North Korea. So China must be persuaded to exercise this power if it wants to be deemed as a responsible world power. The alternative approach is to meet North Korea’s immediate economic and food as a quid pro quo to North Korea accepting American positions.  Both these approaches were tried in the Clinton & Bush (43) administrations. They succeeded in the short term but did nothing to address the long term problem as this week’s crisis demonstrates.

When an approach fails in three successive crisis over a 20 year period, its creators have to question the assumptions underneath that approach. They have to examine whether their basic model is wrong and try to construct an alternate model that might be a better fit.

That is what we try to do in this article by examining whether a successful, durable model proven over the past 60 years is relevant to the North Korea of Kim Jong Un. This model may be the perfect template to managing American power and using it for the permanent interests of a military-political regime. The model is of course NonPakistan.

China’s North Korea & America’s NonPakistan

By any standard, NonPakistan is a far worse regime than North Korea. NonPakistan is an utterly failed state, economically, politically and socially. It is a country that is owned by its military, as the saying goes within NonPakistan. A true statement because it is a state by the military class, for the military class and often of the military class. That regime, that military class survives only because of continuous financial aid over the past 60 years from USA, its principal sponsor.

Every sentence of this previous paragraph rings true when you replace the words NonPakistan by North Korea & USA by China. So the model begins to fit at least as first glance. Frankly, North Korea has been a much better client state to China than NonPakistan has been to America.

NonPakistan has been such a ferocious opponent of America’s goals in its region that its is now commonly referred to as a “frenemy” in American media. Their military has provided safe havens to the Taleban, it has taken American funding and used it to fund the fight against American troops. The NonPakistani military has created, encouraged and trained terrorist groups that have made several attempts to commit mass murders in America’s homeland. Has North Korea done any of this to China?

Despite all of the above, America stands behind the NonPakistan military regime, tolerates the religious cleanings & killings in that regime and accepts America’s intensely negative image among the NonPakistani people. America does so because the survival of the NonPakistani regime has been accepted as a critical interest of America. A critical interest that is several thousand miles and two oceans away.

In contrast, North Korea is adjacent to China. The survival of the North Korean regime is of paramount interest to China. China went to war with America to prevent occupation of North Korea by American and South Korean troops. When America contemplated military action in 1994 to prevent North Korea from going nuclear, America seriously evaluated the possibility of Chinese troops crossing the Yalu river into North Korea. And that was a much much weaker China.

And North Korea helps China’s foreign policy goals in many ways. North Korea’s unrelenting hatred of Japan is a major positive for China in its struggle against Japan, its rants to destroy South Korea persuades South Korea to build deeper relations with China with the hope of controlling North Korea. The mere thought of a unified Korean peninsula under an American bloc member South Korea is a nightmare for China.

So why would any American strategist expect China to rein in North Korea, when America hasn’t taken any serious step to rein in NonPakistan despite warnings from the world.

Attractiveness of the NonPakistan model to North Korea

No regime likes to depend on just one sponsor. Despite its dependence on America for life support, NonPakistan has tried hard to develop a second sponsor in China. And China has provided nuclear technology, missile technology and some financial aid to NonPakistan.

Wouldn’t North Korea be equally interested in reducing its dependence on China? That is a view expressed by Selig Harrison, the veteran America journalist and an expert on Asia. But the American focus is on nonproliferation and just this week, the State Department made discussions with North Korea dependent on willingness of North Korea to denuke.

If you were Kim Jong Un, how would you react to such a demand? Wouldn’t you immediately think of Gaddafi who gave up Libya’s nuclear program and was treated warmly by the West only to be toppled in the Arab Spring with Western support and killed? Wouldn’t you think of Saddam Hussein whose regime was blown away by the American military? Don’t you realize that the only protection your regime has is to have nuclear weapons?

That is what the NonPakistani regime decided years ago. During the past several years, the world’s fastest growing nuclear weapons program is run by the NonPakistani military. Reportedly, they now possess 70-80 nuclear weapons with nuclear capable missiles that can destroy everything within a 1,000 mile radius. With this arsenal, the NonPakistan military has won complete and total immunity from attack from any country or any coalition.

And what has been the reaction of the international community? Have stringent sanctions been imposed on NonPakistan? Has financial aid been cut? Actually, just the opposite. The world is even more eager to ensure the survival of the NonPakistani regime because no one wants to even contemplate the aftermath
of a collapse in NonPakistan.

How can this model not be attractive to Kim Jong Un? Why wouldn’t North Korea start its nuclear reactor and attempt to build an arsenal of 10-20 nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them? Why wouldn’t North Korea try to become so dangerous a mess that its survival becomes a strategic priority for all of Far Eastern Asia and indeed of the World?

The NonPakistan strategy was once described simply as “we will blow ourselves up if you don’t help us”. It has worked very well for them. Why wouldn’t it work well for North Korea as well?

Kim Jong Un

The consensus seems to describe Kim Jong Un as an immature, impetuous 28-29 year old who doesn’t know what he is doing or as a young man controlled by senior military generals. But what if he is neither? What if he is more like his grandfather, the founder of the regime? After all, history is full of examples of grandson emperors fulfilling the dreams of  conquests of their grandfather founders of their regimes. And some articles do describe Kim Jong Un as more akin to his grandfather Kim Il Sung than his more careful father.

If Kim Jong Un is really his grandfather’s grandson, then we will see today’s
short term crisis fade away and we will see a determined effort by North Korea to become a bigger nuclear power with a medium sized arsenal of deliverable weapons. And eventually, the world will come to terms with a nuclear North Korea and try to help it with financial aid simply because the alternative would be too horrible to contemplate. And in a few years, we might be stunned to read that North Korea was helped in its nuclearization efforts by NonPakistan.

What would that mean for Japan? Will Japan use its impressive technological and financial strengths to become a first rate nuclear weapons power? Or will Japan be content to remain a passive economic power under America’s security guarantee? On this final question rests the success of America’s pivot to Asia, we think. 

And how this North Korean crisis and the fears of a nuclear-armed North Korea shape President Obama’s thinking about Iran’s nuclearization drive? That decision will come next year.

Editor’s PS:

  1. Every comment we read or hear about North Korea is based on a hub-spoke model of analysis with America at the hub and North Korea as one node on the circumference. Our article is based on a peer-to-peer networking architecture where each country is a node and different countries interact independently with others without going through a central hub. This is how we think of the NonPakistan-North Korea relationship.
  2. We admire the successes of the NonPakistan military regime. They have played a great game with a very poor hand. Their model has stood the test of 60 years and so it has value to similar regimes worldwide, we think.
  3. On a personal note, no Jewish writer ever uses the term Third Reich for Germany of the 1930s. No European or American will ever tolerate the name that symbolizes Master Race for any European country. But the term Land of the Pure, the concept of a religiously pure land seems acceptable to European-American writers or thinkers despite the 60-year old religious cleansing of Hindus & Ahmadiya Muslims and despite the weekly mass murders of Shia Muslims these days. It is beyond us to keep referring to that regime as Pak or religiously Pure. That is why we use the more sensible term NonPakistan, the not so much pure regime.  

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