Kim Jong-Il: Right-Wing Mole?

Posted January 6, 2010

Categories: Articles, Korea

Kim Jong Il must work for the American Enterprise Institute. Or maybe it’s the Heritage Foundation. The North Korean dictator doesn’t talk much about his non-resident fellowship at a right-wing U.S. think tank. It might not go over well with the Politburo in Pyongyang.

But actions speak louder than words.

North Korea’s sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean ship that went down in March in the Yellow Sea near the maritime border between the two countries, is just what the right-wing doctors have ordered. Japan was looking a little squishy on the Okinawa base issue. China needed some reminders about just how rogue its erstwhile ally really is. And South Korea’s conservative President Lee Myung Bak wanted confirmation that his containment approach to the north was justified.

Right on cue, Kim Jong Il torpedoed a South Korean ship, killing 46 sailors. The incident plays so much into the hands of North Korea’s adversaries that some analysts have looked for other culprits, including friendly fire from either South Korea or the United States. While such speculation is interesting, it seems rather farfetched. In this age of WikiLeaks, it’s hard to imagine a successful cover-up of such friendly fire. And the evidence implicating other actors is circumstantial, to say the least.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang’s fingerprints are all over this one. The South Koreans have produced torpedo fragments from dredging the area where the ship sank. There’s Korean lettering on the propulsion shaft that matches the font used in another North Korean torpedo the South Koreans have. And the South Koreans also matched traces of propellant to an earlier North Korean torpedo. Skeptics have challenged some of these findings, but the rebuttals in both news outlets and blogs are rather convincing.

Perhaps the South Korean government fabricated the evidence? Maybe. But South Korea was reluctant to point the finger at the north in the first place. A successful North Korean strike embarrasses the South Korean military and casts a shadow over the South Korean economy.

So, it looks as though AEI’s overseas fellow is the most logical perp. As a result of his bold move, South Korea is suspending all contact with the North. Forget about trade (about a quarter of a billion dollars a year) and access to South Korean shipping lanes. Washington is backing its South Korean ally 100 percent. The hard right has been pushing for this kind of isolation policy against North Korea for some time.

Even more timely is the role the Cheonan sinking plays in U.S.-Japan relations. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was wavering on whether or not he should accede to U.S. pressure to build a new base in Okinawa to replace the aging Futenma Marine Corps facility. But, according to a senior U.S. official, the Cheonan incident reminded the Japanese government “that this is still a very dangerous neighborhood and that the U.S.-Japan alliance and the basing arrangements that are part of that are critical to Japan’s security.”

North Korea, in other words, has managed to torpedo all attempts to break the isolation of the country and reduce military tensions in the region. If the Dear Leader didn’t receive under-the-table payments from John Bolton and friends, what on earth motivated such a self-destructive act? Perhaps Kim wanted to rally nationalist sentiment in the country on the eve of his son’s succession to the top spot. Perhaps it was simple revenge for South Korea’s firing on a North Korean ship that passed into South Korean waters last November. The maritime boundary between the two countries has been long disputed, so trespass is truly in the eyes of the beholder.

Actually, the situation is even more complicated, as Mike Chinoy points out in Forbes. When South Korean president Lee Myung Bak took office, he backtracked on his predecessor’s pledge to work with North Korea to build confidence around the disputed maritime boundary. “The North was infuriated by what it saw as a deliberate belittling of accords signed by its all-powerful leader — what one western analyst described as ‘sticking a finger in Kim Jong Il’s eye,’” writes Chinoy. “So Pyongyang responded in a predictably belligerent fashion — by ratcheting up tensions in the disputed waters.”

So, like with the Maine and the Tonkin Gulf incident, are we going to war? Fortunately, no one is calling for military retaliation against North Korea. South Koreans oppose military action by two to one, and they even support the maintenance of the south-managed Kaesong Industrial Complex, which employs 40,000 North Koreans (and would likely cost the south half a billion dollars to close). Even the Heritage Foundation is going only so far as to recommend an economic cutoff, further isolation of North Korea, and a clear condemnation in the Security Council. China remains lukewarm about any major challenge to North Korea and will do its best to throw a wet blanket over the controversy.

Washington will still try as hard as it can to pressure China into taking as hard-line a stance as possible. Other than express legitimate outrage, what would these stepped-up containment efforts achieve? About as much as Lee Myung Bak’s initial hard-line posture. The North Korean government doesn’t apologize when pushed up against the wall — it’s content to fall back on its policy of self-reliance, or juche. And the North Korean people haven’t risen up against their rulers when pushed into starvation. As Joel Wit points out in The New York Times, diplomacy remains our most viable strategy: “In the aftermath of the Cheonan sinking, the United States and South Korea must recognize that a return to dialogue would serve our interests. It is the only realistic way to rein in North Korea’s objectionable activities.”

This isn’t a particularly palatable message right now in Seoul. And it probably won’t go down very well here in Washington. But after a couple months of denunciations and attempted arm-twisting, it would be best if the countries involved in the Six Party talks take this advice to heart. If we want to prevent any future Cheonans, we need to sit down with North Korea. The last thing we want is a regime with nothing to lose — and plenty of weapons — to go out in a blaze of juche and take as many with them as possible.

Uproar in Thailand

The Red Shirts have been battling the Yellow Shirts in Thailand for some time now. Last week, the Thai military cracked down on the anti-government Red Shirts by storming their urban encampment and arresting the leadership. The Red Shirts have continued their protests online and back in their home base of Chiang Mai.

“The entire protest movement, government sources insisted, has been bankrolled by Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister overthrown in a 2006 military coup,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Andre Vltchek in his Postcard from…Thailand. “This year, the current regime accused Thaksin of corruption and stripped him in absentia of almost all his assets. But the Red Shirts clearly outgrew their attachment to Thaksin Shinawatra. They were openly giving voice to grievances that the Thai state, still in many respects feudal, has open contempt for the poor who are still the majority of this nation.”

In his blog post for our Focal Points blog, FPIF columnist Walden Bello notes that “captured Red Shirt leaders and militants are treated like POWs and the lower-class Red Shirt mass-base like an occupied country. No doubt about it: A state of civil war exists in this country, and civil wars are never pretty.”

U.S. Missteps

Last week, Congress passed a resolution calling for the State Department to establish embassies in the Kurdish region of Iraq and other regions of the country. Seems innocuous. Better embassies than military bases, right?

Wrong. “The people of Iraq will see such a consulate as a U.S. attempt to undermine the authority of the central government in Baghdad and establish direct diplomatic relations with the regional Kurdish government,” writes FPIF contributor Raed Jarrar. “In addition, there is no such a thing as ‘other regions’ in Iraq. There was an attempt to dissolve the central government and create a ‘Sunnistan’ and a ‘Shiastan,’ but an overwhelming majority of Iraqis rejected such attempts to partition the country into thirds.”

In Pakistan, meanwhile, U.S. policy drones on. “For the time being, drones are super weapons,” writes FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan in Of Drone Wars and Buffalo Urine. “But they aren’t the first, and it’s instructive to consider a few examples from the past. At one point in European history the armored knight was pretty much invincible, until someone figured out that a peasant welding a crossbow could bring down a very expensive piece of military technology with a simple bolt. In Vietnam, the United States spent many hundreds of thousands of dollars developing a sniffing device to seek concentrations of urine indicating enemy campsites, which would then be bombed by B-52s. The Vietnamese finessed that piece of high tech with buckets of buffalo pee hung in trees.”

Finally, in the recent Sudanese elections, indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir retained control of the presidency with 68 percent of the vote. Increasingly, “the United States has turned to cultivating a budding alliance with oil-rich and increasingly oppressive south Sudan, which is poised to join the ranks of independent nations after the 2011 referendum,” write FPIF contributors Steven Fake and Kevin Funk in Allergic to Dissent: Khartoum and Washington. The United States is thus pouring money into the southern Sudanese guerrilla army, and paying more attention to the region’s oil than its human rights abuses.

Eyes on Africa

Next month, the first World Cup matches will take place in South Africa. All eyes will be on the country, and the gaze will take in more than just the soccer games.

“In the past 20 years, South Africa has been an apartheid state, a bastion of democracy and reconciliation, an oasis of economic opportunity, a country led by AIDS deniers, and, of late, a country that features a widening economic gap between rich and poor,” writes FPIF contributor Tope Folarin in The World Cup and I. “These narratives about South Africa are coming to the fore as South Africa takes its place at the center of the world stage. The Cup will shine a light on sociopolitical issues that have been percolating for a long while and perhaps force the leadership of the country to attend to the problems of the poor.”

(If you’re in DC and are further interested in World Cup discussions, come to our event at Busboys and Poets June 9.)

Attending to the problems of the poor won’t be easy with so much money draining out of Africa. “Illicit financial flows out of Africa are twice the amount of foreign aid into the region,” writes FPIF contributor Karly Curcio in Plugging Africa’s Leak. “Between 1970 and 2008, according to a study by Global Financial Integrity (GFI), illicit flows from Africa totaled at least $854 billion, and could reach as high as $1.8 trillion when taking into account missing data from certain countries and other conduits of illicit flows not captured in the study.”

FPIF, May 25, 2010

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