A Xmas Card from Kim Jong Il

What's really behind North Korea's foray into WMD?

Following North Korea's detonation of a nuclear device on October 9, Japan's new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun agreed on a stern response to this "unacceptable act." The Chinese weren't silent either. In an unusually strong statement against its ally, the Chinese government said that the test "defied the universal opposition of international society." Ouch!

The result of all this hot air was that a number of token and ineffectual UN sanctions were quickly cobbled together against a country that has long existed in a state of siege with the rest of the World, including laughable bans on the "sale or export of nuclear and missile related items" and luxury goods. In other words, the UN has banned what has already been banned, or things for which there is practically no demand in North Korea, outside a small circle of Party insiders. But, don't worry, Kim Jong Il and his entourage will still be able to get as many Louis Vuitton handbags as they want.

None of the media frenzy created here in Japan or elsewhere in the World will make the slightest difference for two very good reasons. Firstly, the idea that, by exploding an A-bomb, North Korea has done something unprecedented or unforgivable in the eyes of the World, is complete hogwash, and, secondly, this act by North Korea is not the deed of some isolated madman with a James Bond fixation, but, instead, part of a greater geopolitical game that is developing to fill the gap left by the end of the Cold War.

Taking the first point, having a nuclear weapon today is hardly the horror story that shrill voices in the media like to pretend. Every permanent member of the UN Security Council has plenty of nuclear weapons – in fact you probably need them to get accepted (something the Japanese government should bear in mind if it is serious about its ambition to become a permanent member). In addition, at least three other countries have nukes, including the politically unstable state of Pakistan and the tiny state of Israel, which immediately highlights the unworkable 'nuclear morality' that the West and Japan is trying to use against North Korea.

When a country America doesn't like, such as Iran, merely talks about developing nuclear energy – whatever their long term intentions may be – there is immediately talk of war or "surgical air strikes." But, when a country America does like – i.e. Israel – makes up to 200 nuclear and 35 thermo-nuclear weapons, all they get is a telegram of congratulations from the White House. Campaigns to stop nuclear proliferation are hard enough without such glaring inconsistencies. But the shock and horror provoked by North Korea’s bomb test, has little do with the increasingly romantic fantasy of worldwide nuclear disarmament, and more to do with East Asian realpolitik.

Since the polarization of the Cold War ended, the World has started to develop along the lines of multi-polarity, with four main blocs of power emerging to replace the old Capitalist and Communist camps. These are the USA and its client states, the European Union and its hangers on, Russia and its allies, and China with its sole sidekick state North Korea. The trouble with this new system of international geopolitics is that it is based increasingly on ethnicity and culture rather than ideology, and, in many cases, the old spheres of influence don't align properly with the newly emerging factors of ethnicity and culture. This can be seen in both the American and the European blocs where attempts to expand – in the American case by incorporating Spanish-speaking Mexico into NAFTA and in Europe by the attempt to bring Muslim Turkey and Orthodox Ukraine into the EU – are generating increasing conflict and internal division.

But these problems of political power not coinciding with cultural power are particularly obvious here in East Asia. This is because the region is caught in a hairpin turn between the bipolarity of the Cold War and the multi-polar system that has succeeded it. This means that American Cold War allies, like Japan and South Korea, are still part of the American bloc and still have US military bases on their soil, while at the same time being much closer culturally and ethnically to China. This affinity is increasingly underscored by intensifying economic links between the three countries, so that to the leaders in Beijing, America's continuing involvement in East Asia looks increasingly like the act of an interloper. To Chinese eyes, South Korea and Japan are as much natural client states of China’s growing hegemony as North Korea.

Unlike America, which can't develop a consistent long-term foreign policy because of 'democratic fluctuations,' like the recent Congressional elections that threw out the Republicans, China, with its unified, one-party state is able to hatch plans and lay schemes over decades. The long-term goal of China's political elite is to gradually shake the hold of America from the region through a process of alternating threat and conciliation. If China attempted this directly, it would, of course, hurt its growing economic links with both Japan and South Korea, and risk alienating them. But by using North Korea as its 'attack dog' it can stand back and play a restraining and mediating role, gaining the gratitude of the states threatened. This, in fact, is the whole raison d'etre for the existence of the North Korean state, whose economic dependence on its giant neighbour is so great that China could almost instantly bring it to its knees if it wanted.

Seen in this light, the nuclear test in North Korea makes perfect sense. First of all, it underlines the fact of America's growing military impotence in the region, except as a purely defensive force. While the US is still free to send its troops barnstorming into other parts of the World it barely understands, China obviously has a veto on the offensive use of US forces in East Asia, so that an attack by the US on North Korea is as likely as an invasion of Russia by the Papal Swiss Guards.

Secondly, the A-bomb test, combined with the wacky image of Kim Jong Il's fleecy hair, overacting, stentorian North Korean newsreaders, and goose-stepping troops on amphetamines, produces the desired effect of scaring the bejaysus out of those countries in the 'wrong sphere of influence.' With Kim Jong Il playing the bogeyman role, China is all set to play the role of a suave mafioso sidling up to a couple of sweaty little businessmen to offer them better 'protection’ than a distant Uncle Sam can.

Because of these factors, it is unlikely that North Korea went against Beijing's orders in conducting this test. Indeed, the test is merely the latest development in a long line of arms testing by the North, including its Taepodong-2 missile test in July this year, suggesting this is a long-term strategy. In coming years we may even find out that it was China that provided the actual bomb.

The Chinese can say that Kim Jong Il has "defied the universal opposition of international society," but are they likely to add "because we told him to"? The sequel to this scare will be a demonstration of the effectiveness of Chinese diplomacy as Kim Jong Il is temporarily reined in and seen to behave himself for a while. This will boost China's prestige in the region and make America look increasingly irrelevant, as growing economic ties underline the existing cultural and ethnic affinities of China, Japan, and South Korea.

In the ghetto, you have to join a gang in order to survive, but things get really interesting when you end up in the wrong gang. In the eyes of Beijing, two nearby countries of Oriental race, culture, and history, with growing economic links to China, but which are still in the Cold War camp of a largely White Western nation thousands of miles over the horizon, are clearly in the wrong gang.

Text: C.B.Liddell
Image: Kim Young Shin
Tokyo Journal
December 2006

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