Monday, April 06, 2009

That North Korean missile

Monday - Learning from Pyongyang


There's a lesson to be learned about North Korea's launching over the weekend of a Taepodong II rocket - and it isn't just that the more treacherous the crisis, the less likely it is that multilateralism will provide a solution.

The launching was yet another step in North Korea's march toward building and perfecting a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile.

World leaders were as worried as they were impotent while North Korean technicians pumped fuel into the rocket, which can hit Japan and possibly Alaska and Hawaii as well.

In launching the missile, North Korea violated UN Security Council Resolution 1718, passed after the regime's October 9, 2006 test detonation of a nuclear device which violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The council demanded that "the DPRK not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile."

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea - which is neither democratic, nor run by its people, nor a republic - claimed it had launched a "communications satellite," and not a ballistic missile. That's a distinction without a difference. In any event, the North American Aerospace Defense Command said the satellite did not make it into orbit.

At Japan's behest, the Security Council was scheduled to hold an emergency session on Sunday evening. But little more than a strongly worded statement was expected to come out of it. China and Russia would use their veto should tougher sanctions be proposed - and, anyway, analysts argue that economic leverage has negligible impact. What matters is that China is opposed to regime change, even were it possible.

Though we live in a multi-polar world where Pax America is passé, the West, Japan and South Korea appear to take their lead from Washington. The Obama administration says that North Korea's behavior will be punished appropriately. Well, whatever that means, it does not include a frontal confrontation. Not with the US economy in a tailspin and America's volunteer army stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan.

Every despotic regime is despotic in its own way. B.R. Myers, who teaches North Korean studies in South Korea, says that the DPRK leadership, appealing to the emotions of a "systematically infantilized" population, exploits a fountainhead of xenophobia to rally its masses around the leader. Myers says the message is: "Foreigners bad, Koreans good, Leader best." Koreans have been brainwashed to feel unrestrained compassion, even pity, for the Leader's burden.

North Korea's behavior is of particular interest to Israel. Pyongyang has proliferated nuclear knowhow to Iran, Syria and Pakistan. Iranian experts attend all major North Korean launchings, and there is cross-pollination of Iranian money and DPRK technology.

NORTH KOREA is a unique case. But beyond Korea's benighted borders, the overarching lesson to Western leaders is: Don't threaten what you can't deliver.

This is because despotic regimes like North Korea - but also Iran and Hamas in Gaza - use Western failure to follow through to bolster their position. More than that: North Korea, Iran and Hamas relish crises because they invariably demonstrate (a) that their people are under siege by pitiless foreigners; and (b) that only their leadership and the people's willingness to sacrifice can ultimately protect them from the alien threat.

Another lesson from B.R. Myers: Do not presume to put yourself in the shoes of the leaders of alien societies. The rational-decision-making model has its limitations when dealing with tyrannical, dogmatic and ideologically mobilized polities. For example, preventing the suffering of ordinary people is, for these polities, largely irrelevant. They focus not on the punishments (airstrikes, sanctions, etc.) they have endured, but on the punishments they have withstood and, especially, on the bad behavior (terrorism, kidnapping) their respective regimes have gotten away with.

The people of North Korea, Gaza and, arguably, Iran, know they would be economically better off if their leaders played by civilized rules. And yet there is every reason to believe - certainly in the case of Gaza and North Korea - that given a genuinely free choice, the masses would still opt for the current leadership.

The lesson, therefore, is: North Korea, Hamas and Iran cannot exchange their belligerency for normalcy. Why? Because, paradoxically, they derive their legitimacy from a constant state of confrontation and threat.

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