Doug Bandow Contributing writer, policy analyst
North Korea’s Kim Jong-un continues his confrontational course. After conducting his nation’s fifth nuclear test, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter declared it to be a “direct challenge to the entire international community.”
But this is complete hooey, to use a technical term. It’s about time for the “international community” to stop acting as if there really is an international community. And especially that any of the many bad guys around the globe pay the slightest attention to that mythical body.
About 7.4 billion people live on the earth. Little other than their common humanity binds them together. They organize themselves differently politically, rely on varying economic systems, hold dramatically conflicting religious beliefs, and indulge in myriad cultural practices. They certainly don’t fall in behind the values and policies, largely Western, most often articulated in the name of the “international community.”
By the same token, there is no international community which either frightens or punishes errant nations. A global poll might find a majority of people don’t like North Korea’s Kim, though one suspects that more people wouldn’t know or care about him. And there’s certainly no consensus of the world’s seven-plus billion people behind whatever policy the U.S. government, let alone Secretary Carter, might advocate.
Even more, however, it’s fair to assume that Kim isn’t much concerned about what the “international community” thinks, let alone intends to “challenge” it. Kim, like his father and grandfather before him, has more specific foreign targets in mind.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea faces manifold threats and potential threats. The “international community” is not one of them. There is no global decision-maker to challenge the DPRK or multi-national army to fight the North Koreans. The United Nations Security Council might impose sanctions, but that body is only a tool of its members, and enforcement is possible only through them.
So Pyongyang adopts the perfectly sensible policy of targeting those countries, not the fantasy “international community.” Why nukes? It’s not hard to figure out.
First, and most important, there’s the South Korea-U.S. alliance. Notwithstanding the North’s always over-the-top rhetoric, Pyongyang recognizes America’s power. When I visited years ago, party officials told me how proud they were to have rebuilt the capital after the U.S. air force had leveled it during the Korean War. And American capabilities obviously are much greater today. Deterring the U.S. is no easy task, especially for the government of an impoverished, sometimes starving society; nuclear weapons are about the cheapest, most effective means of doing so.
After all, Washington’s proclivity for regime change does not run to nuclear powers. Indian army officials made this observation after the first Gulf war. The DPRK was brutally dismissive of Moammar Qaddafy’s decision to give up his nuclear and missile programs; Pyongyang made clear that it would not make a similar mistake. And it is hard to blame any adversary of America for coming to the same conclusion.
While the U.S. might be the main target—in a deterrent sense, not for a suicidal first strike—it is not the only one. Japan, though only slowly abandoning its pacifist heritage, remains distrusted, even hated, by Pyongyang (as well as the Republic of Korea). Also on the North’s naughty list, ironically, are its traditional allies, Russia and China.
The DPRK began its nuclear program during the Cold War, when it still could theoretically rely upon support from both the People’s Republic of China and Soviet Union. But North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung jealously guarded his regime’s independence. He preferred not to depend on anyone; despite being rescued by the PRC after his invasion of the Republic of Korea went awry, his regime little recognized Beijing’s critical role. However, only nuclear weapons would free the North of reliance on its supposed friends.
Moreover, these days it’s not so clear either qualifies as a friend. The Soviet-Pyongyang relationship essentially ruptured after the end of the Cold War, when Moscow established diplomatic relations with the ROK. Although bilateral relations recently rebounded, Russia remains a minor player in Korean affairs. Moscow does little to pressure or support the North.
In contrast, the PRC plays a much larger role in DPRK affairs, and therefore is resented much more in Pyongyang. Chinese enterprises heavily invest in and trade with the North; one reason offered for the execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle nearly three years ago was the “selling of precious resources of the country for cheap prices” to the PRC. Beijing pressured all three Kim regimes to reform the economy and abandon the nuclear program. Pyongyang consistently dismissed the PRC’s advice, sometimes in humiliating fashion. Given the barely suppressed hostility on both sides, the two might better be referred to as frenemies than allies.
Although it is difficult to imagine North Korea ever using nuclear weapons against China, once the former possesses a viable arsenal it will be largely independent of the PRC’s influence. Although Beijing still could cut off energy and food assistance, the collapse of North Korea if it possessed a sizeable arsenal could be truly catastrophic. China would be more hostage than master of its much smaller neighbor.
The DPRK also uses its nuclear program to extort benefits from its neighbors—most notably South Korea, China, and Japan—as well as America. Finally, nukes provide Pyongyang with prestige, perhaps the only sense in which the program is meant to challenge the “international community.”
Even then the U.S. might not succeed. Indeed, there is little reason to believe that Pyongyang is inclined to yield its existing nuclear weapons under any circumstances. But better to try without having any illusions about the role of the “international community.”