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January 16, 2003

Setting Up the Tar Baby

Setting Up the Tar Baby

North Korea Warns Sanctions Mean War

Let's take Donald Rumsfeld at his word and assume that the US has the ability to fight a two-front war. Just because we have the ability doesn't mean that the we're going to launch a preemptive invasion of North Korea. There's barely enough support for an attack on Iraq.

But let's take George Bush at his word, as well. There's no ranking of relative evil among the three states he named as part of the Axis of Evil, so shouldn't he be of the opinion that overthrowing Kim is at least as important as overthrowing Saddam? I'll leave Iran out of the argument for the moment, as right now its regime looks to be the most like to collapse due to internal pressure.

I'd argue that the administration is of the opinion that overthrowing Kim Jong-il is at least as important as overthrowing Saddam, but that its strategy is constrained by by three factors;

1.) An almost total lack of support for an attack on North Korea from the American public,
2.) The likelihood of very strong opposition from China and Russia to such an attack, and
3.) The presumed existence of North Korean nuclear weapons.

If one feels a fight is required, but you can't strike the first blow, or feel that you shouldn't for reasons of appearance, then you must force your opponent to attack, or at the very least, make it look like he's attacking you, as Germany did just before invading Poland in 1939.

The fact is that we're not going to attack North Korea first, but it would be extremely convenient from a policy viewpoint if North Korea suddenly attacked us. It would take care of the first two constraints on our ability to act immediately. Any attack on American troops is going to galvanize the American public, especially if it looks like we were attacked in spite of our peace overtures, and insulate us from any Russian or Chinese objections, because no country is going to question the right of a nation to defend itself.

So the question for the administration becomes not "How do we get support for an attack on North Korea?" but "How do we get North Korea to attack us?"

One of the pressures forcing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was the oil embargo the United States had imposed on Japan following her invasion of Indochina. Japan was faced with the problem that if nothing was done, in 18 months all of the Japanese oil reserves would be gone, at which point nothing could be done. Tojo had to use it or lose it.

North Korea faces the same choice, as of December of last year. The North Koreans do get some oil from China, so the pressure is not is intense as it otherwise would be, but not enough.

Pyongyang depends on the heavy oil supplies for about half of its national consumption.

So if North Korea had enough oil for 12 months before, they now have only enough for 6, or perhaps 9 if China can step up its rate of resupply. The needle is inexorably headed towards "E" on the North Korean gas tank, and the only thing China can do is slow the pace at which it travels.

If that pressure isn't intense enough, an army travels on its belly, and we've cut off food shipments. North Korea may not have been in a technical state of famine since 1998, but they've not been far from it either, and a reduction in oil supplies will further impact the regime's ability to harvest crops.

We've cut off the oil that the tanks need, and cut off the food that the soldiers need. The military will still get first choice at the oil and food, but the quality of the supplies available is going to start degrading rapidly. George Bush is betting that when faced with a choice of "Use it or Lose it", Kim Jog-il is going to use it.

The beauty of the bet is that if he's wrong, George still wins.

Once the pressure forcing North Korea towards war is in place, all the United States has to do is look like it is attempting to solve the crisis, while actually not doing anything to solve the crisis. Essentially, as USS Clueless has pointed out, this means engaging in European style diplomacy. It's a purposely slow process, and North Korea cannot afford the time. The process entails making what from that government's point of view is a worthless proposal. North Korea rejects it, we shake our heads in pretend regret, and say to the world "Gosh fellas, we're trying our best, but they're just not interested.". Then we offer another useless proposal, one that's been slightly tweaked to make it appear new, and the dance begins anew.

Now, it's possible that the above analysis is dead wrong, but South Korea is starting to act as if something like this is going on, and it may not matter. For the scenario to be true, the Bush Administration just has to appear as if it doesn't have a coherent policy on North Korea, and it is already doing an admirable job at that. Not having a coherent policy has the same effect over time as pretending not to have one does. Either approach takes more time than North Korea has available.

The danger here lies in constraint #3. North Korea still has nukes.

North Korea's problem is that they can't reach any target the U.S. is going to consider critical other than the 37,000 U.S. troops south of the DMZ, and there's not a lot of point in nuking the areas the regime needs to control, as that would render them economically and agriculturally useless. Empty, radioactive land is useless when it comes to propping up a regime. North Korea could throw a nuke towards Tokyo, but from a strict realpolitik point of view, Tokyo is not a critical military target, and nuking Japan will only bind them closer to us. The same logic holds for every other country in the region.

The best use for the North Korean nukes would be to launch a conventional attack, and hold them in reserve in case that attack goes bad. They are the last defense against an invasion of the northern half of the peninsula by U.S. and ROK troops. Such a use gives our forces time to either locate the nukes and capture or destroy them, or to destroy the command and control systems needed to launch them. Our last defense, and one that we hopefully wouldn't count on, is a combination of local missile defenses and the expectedly shoddy quality of the N.K. devices.

The N.K. nukes might even be so big that they can only be delivered by aircraft. In any war with the U.S., that option is going to disappear in a matter of hours.

Posted by Bigwig at January 16, 2003 05:31 PM | TrackBack
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