Sunday, October 15, 2006

North Korea vs. Iraq

Steve asked below about the difference between the government’s approach to foreign policy between North Korea and Iraq, and it’s a big enough question that I thought the response merited its own post. I’m by no means a policy expert, and smarter men than me have written about the subject. So, take this post in an “as I understand it” light.

First, let me say that if there were any country I would support military action against, North Korea would be the first. Kim Jong Il’s regime is horribly brutal. His policies have led to international isolation, starvation for his people, and government sponsored international crime. All aid, whether food or financial, only props up his regime. There is documented evidence of gulags in his country the likes of which we haven’t seen since Nazi Germany. If there are any people that need to be rescued from a sociopathic leader, it’s the North Koreans. For the curious, the Chosun Journal is a good resource on North Korean human rights.

That being said, the Bush administration chose a path of military action against Iraq and not North Korea. I’ve been asked to justify this. Here is how I understand it:

Iraq was a known financial backer of terrorism, both regionally and into parts beyond. There’s some evidence of a relationship with Al Qaeda, although there are disputes over how significant or developed that relationship was. Still, after 9/11, the issue of state (sponsored) terrorism, especially in the Middle East, was something the administration was not going to be ignoring anymore.

North Korea, on the other hand, has no ties that I’m aware of to any terrorist organizations. There have been some issues between Japan and North Korea on the issue of kidnapped citizens, but that is in a different ballpark.

North Korea had no economic sanctions on it that I’m aware of (until very recently). Most of their economic hardships relate to Kim Jong Il’s disastrous economic policies.

was still under sanctions from the first Gulf War . . . sort of. Oil for Food was a joke. So many parties to it were corrupt, using it to get rich, while too little food and medical supplies made it to the Iraqi people. The sanctions were not well enforced, and the way the winds were blowing, it seemed that the UN would be lifting those sanctions by now if Saddam had not been displaced.

This is especially significant because Iraq is an oil producing nation while North Korea is not. That oil gave Saddam a lot of economic and strategic leverage that made him dangerous, all the more so if those sanctions had fallen.

This is the specific point of contention amongst most people when it comes to arguments about military action in Iraq instead of North Korea. “They both had WMDs!” or so the argument goes. What is the difference, then?

Saddam’s program for weapons of mass destruction was probably more advanced than Kim Jong Il’s when the War in Iraq began. We have been slowly finding stockpiles of chemical weapons, though the evidence indicates that what was in Iraq may have been removed before the war for safekeeping. Some of the more dangerous programs were set to restart at full speed as soon as the sanctions were lifted.

Saddam’s weapons program was a big threat because of his relationship to the terrorist networks. It’s unlikely Saddam would ever have been allowed to build missiles that could target the US, but that was never the concern. The bigger concern was Saddam passing off a chemical or biological weapon to a terrorist group. If I remember correctly, Saddam was the main suspect for the mail-borne anthrax attacks in the months following 9/11.

North Korea
’s nuclear program is a great concern, no doubt about it. We’re still uncertain whether or not the recent test was a nuclear weapon. There is some radiation detected, but I’m not sure if they can link it to the underground explosion or not. The size of the explosion indicates that it was either a fake nuke (a trick North Korea has pulled before) or a mistimed implosion trigger. If it was a successful test, then the bomb was so small as to be comparable to only conventional explosives.

North Korea has been working on ICBMs, but there is no indication of success there. While not a direct threat to America (yet), regional allies and interests are within the threat range, so the North Korean weapons program is a concern.

However, the lack of any relationship to terrorist networks (so far) makes the threat level smaller. We can only hope that Kim Jong Il isn’t so suicidally crazy that he would drop a nuke on Japan or South Korea and expect to survive the retaliation.

Ultimately, I would call the North Korean weapons program an attempt to prop up the current regime. In the future, Kim Jong Il may try to sell any weapons to terrorists in order to make money for his destitute country. It is most likely also an attempt to dissuade military action against his country. South Korea would think twice before warring with the North if there were nuclear weapons pointing at Seoul. For the time being, however, Kim Jong Il will most likely continue to use the program as he has in the past: As a blackmail-like bargaining chip to get the world to offer him aid in the form of money and food. It’s only been the recent developments which make the reality of a North Korean nuclear weapon seem closer to reality.

Regional Issues
This is where I think the major difference lies in the Bush administration’s approach to policy between Iraq and North Korea.

The US had a lot to gain from Saddam’s fall from power. If Iraq manages to survive, the presence of a(nother) stable democracy in the Middle East will prove invaluable to American interests in the region. With the recent prominence of Islamic terror, the removal of someone with ties to the networks and access to deadly weapons was very fortuitous.

The involvement of Iraq’s neighbors is also a factor. Iran and Iraq have always had tension between them. Syria and Saudi Arabia are not what you would call “US allies.” Jordan, while a US ally, was probably not in a position to offer a lot of support to US policies in the region. Turkey, while also a US ally, was always more interested in the activities of the Iraqi Kurds than Saddam himself.

All of this makes for a major distinction with North Korea. The US already has some staunch, and militarily significant, allies in the region in Japan and South Korea. These two nations have great interest in North Korea’s actions, given their respective relationships. China, while only an ally in the sense of being an economic partner, also has a strong interest in North Korea’s actions. It is the main backer to Kim Jong Il’s regime, and is probably not content to give him free reign in the region. If Kim Jong Il were to provoke war, China would undoubtedly be affected, and may even be drug into it, something I’m sure China doesn’t desire. This is the main reason why the multi-party talks are much more important than bilateral negotiations; the other nations have high stakes in the outcome.

While I’m sure a unified Korea, led by Seoul, would be strategically important to the US, the presence of strong allies in the region decreases the significance of North Korea. Until North Korean threats become more tangible to the US, I suspect that military action won’t be on the agenda. Not unless other factors, such as strikes against allies or the development of terror relationships, come into play.

I’m open to alternative explanations and interpretations of US actions in this area, but this is my best understanding of the situation.


steve the troll said...

Iraq was a known financial backer of terrorism, both regionally and into parts beyond. There’s some evidence of a relationship with Al Qaeda, although there are disputes over how significant or developed that relationship was. Still, after 9/11, the issue of state (sponsored) terrorism, especially in the Middle East, was something the administration was not going to be ignoring anymore.

With this reasoning, it still doesn't make sense that we attacked Iraq, because Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia supported terrorism (Saddam wanted Osama dead), and in the cases of Iran and Pakistan (at least), they possessed (and still possess) nukes.

If we would've waited for a diplomatic response, or waited for weapons inspectors to find evidence (which they would've been able to do easily if they were close to possessing WMD's), or waited for Saddam to test a nuke (which he would do either for testing or statement purposes), our economy would be better off, patriotism would be higher, international relations wouldn't be strained, the military wouldn't be strung out, and the blood of half a million people wouldn't be on our hands.

Hal said...

That's not quite fair, Steve. You asked why Iraq and not North Korea. I answered that question to the best of my ability, and now you change the question to why Iraq and not Pakistan et al.