Why? And Why Didn’t It Work?

Hopefully this will be my last post about North Korea, but at the moment I just can’t resist.

The New York Times has an article exploring the reasons why Kim Jong-il would like to have a nuclear weapon. (Wouldn’t we all?)

The military in North Korea is by far the largest consumer of the country’s scarce resources. But even so, its combat jet pilots get only about two hours of flying time a month, its soldiers sometimes have to grow their own food, and much of its equipment is old and outclassed by that of its neighbors. According to South Korean and Western experts, if a conventional war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, the best the North Korean military could manage would be to fight to a bloody stalemate.

It is the deep insecurity born of these shortcomings, the experts say, and not any desire to grab attention or gain leverage, that drove President Kim Jong-il’s decision to defy international warnings and declare this week that his country had tested a nuclear weapon.

“I think North Korea wants an effective deterrent against the U.S. in case of war on the Korean peninsula,” said Park Yong Ok, a former lieutenant general in the South Korean army who served as vice minister for defense in the late 1990’s. “Kim Jong Il wants a nuclear weapon at hand. It’s not a bargaining chip.”

The gist of the article points to the fact that, despite it’s size, the North Korean army would be no match for modern military arsenals. The tanks (2000) and artillery pieces (8000) positioned close to the demilitarized zone and in range of Seoul, the South Korean capital, would have little or no chance against an onslaught by modern aircraft and precision guided munitions. This was shown during the two Gulf wars. Since Kim Jong-il knows he’s isolated, the only way he can feel safe is by possessing a weapon that makes attacking him unthinkable, a nuclear warhead. He really isn’t interested in talking, just surviving (and making movies).

So, if the goal is having a weapon, why test something that didn’t work. The Arms Control Wonk, Jeffery Lewis (see, I keep coming back to him) has an interesting analysis.

There may be a parable here about authoritarian societies and proliferation. Kim Jong Il probably believed the weapon would work because, as a colleague suggested, “doubts about a system don’t always go up easily in the command chain” of such countries.

Indeed, what David Kay called a “vortex of corruption” was a persistent drag on Iraqi WMD programs, particularly before 1991. The Iraq Survey Group suggested that Iraqi WMD efforts were “largely subsumed into corrupt money-raising schemes by scientists skilled in the arts of lying and surviving in a fevered police state.”

That would rather economically explain the both the Taepodong’s dismal record, as well as the nuclear dud.

This fascinating commentary connects the dots between what North Korea was supposed to be attempting, the amount of nuclear material they had and what was initially reported by the Russians. But the underlying thesis is that the North Korean leadership didn’t have a realistic idea of whether the weapon would work or not. Nay sayer’s have short lives in dictatorships.

Of course nay sayer’s have short terms in the Bush administration. But far be it from me to compare the current administration with a dictatorship; Or to compare George W. Bush and Kim Jong-il.

After all, Kim likes movies.

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