Why North Korea's Nuclear Bullishness Is Good News for US Foreign Policy

North Korea tested a nuclear device this past Memorial Day weekend in attempt to call the US bluff. The Great Powers rushed to condemn the test, which was expected, and the UN's Security Council is expected to deliver a strong resolution against N. Korea. South Korea, frightened and frustrated, agreed to back the US plan to search N. Korea's boats for weapons. Pyongyang has warned that such a move would be considered an open declaration of war. Now South Korea must call the North's bluff.  But the real victims of the Dear Leader's power game will be Russia and China, along with his tacit supporters. Conversely, he US actually stands to benefit from this escalation. Here is why.Dear Leader Kim Jon Il

Before looking at the implications of this new situation, and the possible ways to respond, we must address: a) why the escalation happened and b) why it happened now. There are at least two possible scenarios as to why Pyongyang tested the nuclear devices, and launched the missiles. The first one is linked to domestic bickering for power. It is no secret that Kim Jon Il's health is ailing, and some conspiracy reports even suggest that he has died, but this is kept secret from ordinary citizens and the rest of the world. In either case, it is safe to guess that there is an ongoing struggle for power between different branches of the totalitarian regime. It is quite possible that the hardliners who control the military are attempting to hijack the agenda of foreign policy in order to strengthen and establish greater control of the domestic politics. If the world has bristled up with indignation from the recent provocation by North Korea, the military elites will be able to more effectively maintain and expand their power inside the regime.

The second scenario revolves around the attempts of Pyongyang to advertise its nuclear program for sale to potential rogue states and even non-state groups. Such a move would serve two purposes: a) if a deal is concluded, it will bring desperately needed revenue for the regime; or b) it will frighten the participants in the six party talks for greater concessions and financial support.  nk-missile North Korea has done both in the past. Among its 'customers' are states such as Syria and Iran, and concessions and appeasements have been delivered by the Clinton administration, and the latter Bush administration. In either scenario, North Korea could end up with more money and food relief, which most likely serve up the military before anyone else. It is also quite possible that the two scenarios and their respective options play out simultaneously, as they are not mutually exclusive.

The 'why now?' question is also speculative, but interesting. It is obvious that the general target of this sudden escalation is the US. North Korea openly defies warnings by the US and calls its bluffs. Arguably, there is no better time to do that: the new administration is torn between at least seven major crises and stretched between domestic and foreign challenges. On the foreign front Obama's administration is trying to deal simultaneously with the Middle East challenges, especially in the face of the new hard-line politics of Netanyahu's government, the explosive situation in Central Asia, especially Afghanistan and Pakistan, the diplomatic chase with Iran and Russia, the Iraq war and the Guantanamo closing. And all these problems are stacked on top of the domestic economic woes. There is also the second scenario, namely that whatever is happening inside North Korea, perhaps a change of guards, is acting as a catalyst for the nuclear escalation.

But all of this is arguably good news for the US. In essence, North Korea is doing the new administration a favor by forcing a multilateral approach to the crisis. An escalation of the conflict with Pyongyang does not pose a dire threat for the US. Instead, the danger is felt primarily by China, secondarily by South Korea and Japan, and finally by Russia. China, which is not only the greatest supporter of the North Korean totalitarian regime, but also its greatest sponsor, must be extremely frustrated with the behavior of its brethren. Further escalation of the confrontation could potentially flood China with North Korean emigrants who are trying to escape. North Korean Missile Sites This would cause further deterioration to the already strained relationships and make Beijing's (the host of the six party talks) ability to negotiate on behalf of North Korea with the US and the rest of the six party members extremely difficult. China has long been reluctant to take harsh steps against the regime in Pyongyang, and has been shirking its duties as a host and regional leader to take firmer stand against the incessant flips of policy by the North Koreans.

The situation could set China and Russia - both nuclear powers - against Japan and South Korea in another way. Both countries, rightfully fearing the North's nuclear gamble, could begin pursuing development of a nuclear capability on their own. They are both technologically advanced and could arguably develop the technology for enrichment of uranium and plutonium within a matter of months. The general rule is that possession of nuclear weapons, regardless of their inherent danger, is beneficial for a state. They are a source of immense power and influence. Nuclear South Korea and/or nuclear Japan could dramatically change the distribution of power in the Far East, and potentially make the region more volatile and prone to a devastating nuclear conflict. The US has to be very concerned with such a change, but China and Russia should be even more concerned because they are the regional power players.

How the Security Council responds to the latest provocation from North Korea will be indicative of the ability of the six party members to deal with the threat. If China and Russia find enough strength to oppose Pyongyang firmly by agreeing to impose harsh restrictions on imports and exports of goods and services, which predominantly serve the totalitarian elite, freezing bank accounts, and generally making Kim Jon Il and his regime pay a steep price for violating the terms of the current status quo, North Korea will find itself in a much weaker position than before. If they don't, the risk for escalation of the situation in the region will grow, which will have longer lasting consequences for China and Russia more than the US.

Thomas Schelling outlined the dangers of the 'manipulation of risk' and the sliding slope of bluffing in a classic work on the nuclear threat. It is true, nuclear escalation could end up tragically for everyone, even when none of the parties actually want it. The Cuban Missile crisis is a vivid example of how such 'manipulation of risk' can go terribly wrong. The hope is that Pyongyang's regime is rational enough to understand its losing position. Rationality, by the way, is something that has been present in past negotiations with Kim Jon Il. That is important, because rationality entails pragmatism. It also relies on self-preservation. If a rational person sees that s/he is sinking into an abyss, it may be rather rational to drag everyone else along for the journey. That is why it is important to part with the normative assessment and moral judgment of the monstrosity of the only surviving Stalinist regime in the world and deal with it on a more pragmatic way. The real test and the real challenge will come when the regime is unable to strengthen its positions for one more day. It is all a stolen time that will come to an end soon. The real challenge will present itself when the system cracks. Such an oppressive totalitarian regime will have to go one day. But there is no way it will go without a lot of blood and tragedy - domestic and international. Like all terrible totalitarian regimes, the motto of this one is, too, "After us, the deluge!"

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