Sunday, October 22, 2006

Nuclear Standoff in Northeast Asia. But Japan Needs a Guarantee, and the Five Should Prepare for a North Korean Collapse

We do not hear that China has cut its shipments of oil, food, or fertilizers to North Korea. We do not hear that China has stopped trucking iron ire from North Korea. To the contrary, the news is that cross-border trade is more or less business as usual.

We do not hear that South Korea is suspending its Kamgung and Kaesong payoffs any time soon. We do hear that the new UN Secretary-General wants to go to North Korea, which he has not been able to do as South Korean foreign minister.

At the other end, we do not hear that the US is willing to suspend its financial sanctions in order to bring North Korea back to the six-nations talks. We do not hear that the US is willing to conduct bilateral talks outside the six-nations framework..

So what are North Korea's plans for its nuclear program? We do not hear that North Korea is continuing its preparations for follow-up tests. We do not hear that North Korean calling US acts a "declaration of war". Instead, we are being treated to a Pyongyang spectacle celebrating a successful (my emphasis) test.

So, whatever Kim Jong-il said or did not say to Tang Jiaxuang, the Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister, and whatever he meant or did not mean on that occasion it looks like we have a standoff. Kim Jong-il may have to scrounge harder for hard cash for his cognac and salmon roe (it is less cost-effective to launder millions of dollars in the global financial network than the billions that the drug cartels can and do move), but otherwise life will go on in North Korea, and North Korea by most accounts does not have a supersonic delivery system that can reach Japan.

The Five can continue on quite comfortably with this situation. Can Kim Jong-il and the North Korean elite?

One scenario that can seriously disrupt this equilibrium seem to be North Korean progress in developing a usable nuclear warhead for a missile that can reach Japan. (Nobody assumes that North Korea plans to crap on South Korea.) Another is North Korea's economic collapse (which seems to be the only scenario in which an authoritarian regime would lose control over governance. Both seem unlikely in the immediate future, but Japan does need an ironclad assurance that any North Korean attempts to follow the first scenario will be nipped in the bud. And the Five should begin preparing, openly, for the second one.

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