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Jul 12, 1999 | 04:59 GMT

Missile Tests and North Korea's Strategy of Survival

Missile Tests and North Korea's Strategy of Survival
CHOO YOUN-KONG/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
North Korea has sort of announced that they are about to test a new missile in August, a missile able to reach parts of Alaska. The U.S. has a carrier battle group in Pusan, South Korea. The Japanese are pleading with the Chinese, the Mongolians and anyone else who will listen to get the North Koreans to stop the test. A report is being prepared by a former U.S. Secretary of Defense on the whole North Korean problem. For a country that was supposed to starve to death during each of the past five winters, the North Koreans have done remarkably well in making themselves the focus of major powers. That achievement was not accidental. It was part of a skillful strategy we call the "Crazy Fearsome Cripple Gambit." In its own way, it is a work of art.
The North Korean government confirmed this weekend that it was preparing to test a new missile in late August. The confirmation came after South Korean intelligence sources were quoted by South Korean media as saying that preparations were underway for a new launch at North Korea's Musudan-Ri launch facility in the northeast. South Korean media reported that the height of the launch pad had been increased from 20 meters to about 60, leading to speculation that the new missile to be tested was substantially larger than the one launched last August, and therefore had a much longer range, perhaps as much as 3,750 miles - long enough to reach parts of Alaska. Agence France Presse reported that North Korea had leased a Thai communications satellite with Global Position System (GPS) that would be used to track the missile test. With evidence mounting that the test was likely, North Korea condemned efforts by Japan, South Korea and the U.S. to block the launch, which most observers felt confirmed an upcoming test. Amidst this speculation, the U.S. aircraft carrier Constellation and its battle group arrived in the Korean port of Pusan for a five-day port call. The carrier, scheduled to be deployed in the Gulf, could be held near Korea if tension intensified. At the same time, Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi, on a previously scheduled trip to China and Mongolia, made the impending launch a prime topic of conversation, seeking both Chinese and Mongolian help in persuading North Korea not to test the missile. In addition, Japan has made it clear that it would not be able to provide North Korea with cash, departing from a U.S.-negotiated program designed to supply energy to North Korea in exchange for North Korea not developing nuclear weapons. This departure would create a crisis between Japan and the U.S., which regards North Korea's nuclear weapons program as a separate and greater threat, and does not want the missile problem undermining control of the nuclear problem. Topping it all off, India has seized a North Korean ship that it says was smuggling missile parts to Pakistan. So, North Korea has done what it does best: getting everyone tied up in nervous knots. In point of fact, all that has happened is that South Korea has claimed to have detected the construction of a large, new test facility, while the North has simply defended its right to launch any missile it wants. This was enough to create an uproar involving all the regional powers and the U.S. as well. Whether the missile is ever launched, crashes or works, North Korea has succeeded in creating precisely the environment it thinks it needs in order to survive. The missile is in a way much less interesting than the use to which North Korea puts the very rumor of its existence. North Korea has one consistent goal: to survive as an independent country under the control of the present regime. For North Korea, this has not been an easy goal to achieve, and it became increasingly difficult and even seemingly impossible following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The foundation of North Korea's security was the fact that its survival was in the strategic interest of both the Soviet Union and China. This kept at least some resources flowing in and guaranteed the physical security of the country. Even after the Sino-Soviet split, North Korea's security was assured. Indeed, it was in many ways in a better position than before. It could play the Soviets off against the Chinese to increase their support, without being forced to develop openings to the West. The triumph of Deng's line in China was the first challenge to North Korea. As China opened to the West and focused on economic development, whatever strategic benefit North Korea might have provided evaporated into irrelevance. Investment in Shanghai was infinitely more important than the status of North Korea. Glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union further pushed North Korea into strategic irrelevance. By 1993, North Korea was on its own for the first time since its founding, without a patron prepared to underwrite the survival of its regime. With Soviet communism gone and Chinese communism appearing to deteriorate into little more than an irrelevant piety, insulation against the fabulously successful South seemed impossible to maintain. North Korea was expected to collapse, and scenarios for dealing with this prospect were developed by all concerned. South Korea drew up detailed plans for the administration of North Korea, worrying about such issues as whether or not they should pay the North's debt. North Korea's regime was not, however, prepared to go gently into that good night. They devised a strategy that we call the "Crazy Fearsome Cripple Gambit." North Korea understood its vulnerabilities very clearly. It also understood the fears of others. South Korea, with its capital and industrial heartland only a few miles from the DMZ, was interested in reunification, but much more motivated to avoid any conflict that would endanger its economic infrastructure. The U.S. was equally eager to avoid a situation in which its forces in Korea were engaged in high-intensity conflict. China and Russia did not want relations with the West disrupted. North Korea was also aware that it had a reputation for military formidability and unpredictability, although it had pursued an extremely cautious and rational foreign policy since 1953. It had few assets to play with, but two were of the essence. First, no one really, deeply cared what happened in North Korea. Second, no one wanted a war with North Korea. By 1994 North Korea had perfected a brilliant three-part strategy. The first part was to portray itself as a cripple. Since 1994, we have been hearing of massive food shortages that would likely wipe out huge swaths of North Korea's population. Every summer, reports begin to circulate about the likelihood of massive deaths in the coming winter. Now, there is little doubt that life in North Korea is miserable, that malnutrition is rampant, and that deaths from starvation have occurred. But if the reports that have circulated since 1994 were all true, everyone in North Korea should be dead by now. Most are not. What North Korea did was to take a real problem - its food situation - and make it appear to be so devastating that it might destroy not only the regime, but the whole country. That would seem a strange thing to do, but was in fact extremely rational, as part of the Crazy Fearsome Cripple Gambit. During the early 1990s, there was discussion of what actions might be taken to hasten the fall of the Pyongyang government. South Korea and the U.S. both had tools available that could have caused serious problems for the regime. By projecting a massive, insoluble food crisis, the North Korean government made it appear that outside actions were completely unnecessary. With a food crisis on the order of Ethiopia's, the regime was likely to collapse on its own. There was no reason to undertake risky strategies to hasten its fall. The expectation of collapse, in an interesting way, tied the hands of its enemies. As an added bonus, the perception of impending starvation actually motivated the international community to ship food to North Korea, alleviating what shortage there was. Having established itself as a cripple, unworthy of outside manipulation, the next step was to make itself fearsome. The North did everything it could to make the West aware that it was developing nuclear weapons and delivery systems. It conducted maneuvers of conventional forces that made it appear that their soldiers were massing along the DMZ ready for a strike. It carried out espionage missions that set alarms ringing in Washington, Tokyo and Seoul. The North did everything in its power to appear as fearsome as possible. When it recently prevented inspections of its nuclear facilities, it may have been stopping Western inspectors from finding out how far it had gotten. Alternatively, it may have stopped the U.S. from finding out they had not gotten nearly as far as anyone thought. We don't know. However, by preventing inspections, North Korea allowed everyone's imagination to run wild. Whenever things quieted down, they could count on South Korean intelligence to float another story about North Korea's new and extraordinary achievements in weapons development. The stories may well have been true; North Korea certainly devoted a huge amount of its resources to developing weapons. But the actual construction of weapons was less important than was convincing everyone that they were constructing weapons. North Korea may well have major nuclear capabilities and delivery systems, but that is less important than making sure the outside world believes that it has those systems. Having established that they were crippled and fearsome, the critical element was to establish their insanity. The appearance of being crippled helped enormously. Since the regime was in imminent danger of falling, since the government would do anything to stay in power, and since the government had all sorts of military options available to them, it followed that the threat of collapse might trigger some crazed military adventure. Because no one wanted that, it followed that not only would no one try to collapse the North Korean regime, but that they would take steps to stabilize it. The fear that desperation would make North Korea take extreme measures, coupled with a deep-seated belief that the North Korean government in general was hearing voices that no one else could hear, generated a general feeling that North Korea was like nitroglycerine. It was likely to go off at a single, careless touch. That view suited North Korea's needs perfectly. The Crazy Fearsome Cripple was born - a serious actor on the global stage. The North Koreans have created a situation in which every move they make is watched, reacted to and feared. No one discusses the collapse of North Korea any longer. Rather, everyone discusses what steps can be taken to stop the North Koreans from developing nuclear weapons, from developing long-range missiles, from suddenly and unpredictably invading the South. These are not things they are actually likely to do. The North Korean army, for example, is essential to internal security. True, Seoul's industrial treasures are within striking distance of the DMZ. But that would mean a miserable urban battle in which the defenders have a decided advantage. North Korea is not about to throw away the foundation of its regime in house-to-house fighting in Seoul. Similarly, North Korea is not about to nuke Anchorage. Much of North Korea would disappear shortly thereafter into a radioactive cloud. This would definitely disrupt the regime. Most of the threats that North Korea poses are credible only if we assume that they are nuts. Of course, nothing in their foreign policy indicates anything but strict self-control. Strange press releases aside, the North Koreans have been quite restrained since 1953. For North Korea, doing something is much less effective than appearing to be capable of doing something or appearing to be about to do something. For over five years, North Korea has conducted a holding action, designed to preserve their independence and their regime by appearing to be a Crazy Fearsome Cripple better left alone. The goal was to survive until the geopolitical climate shifted and it could, once again, find a patron to whom it could be useful. It appears to us that North Korea is indeed becoming useful to China once again. At a summit meeting in China between China's and Japan's prime ministers, Japan's prime minister came asking for a favor: Chinese pressure on North Korea to cancel its missile test. It came bearing gifts. Japan became the first G-7 nation to negotiate a bilateral agreement with China on World Trade Organization membership. It achieved this agreement by conceding to China a main point concerning participation in China's potentially enormous telecommunications industry. However, China made it clear that this wasn't enough. It wanted Japan's assurances that it would not include Taiwan in its trilateral relationship with South Korea and the U.S. This, plus the fact that Japan takes the missiles much more seriously than does the U.S., obsessed with North Korea's nuclear capability, promises to kick off a very satisfactory row between Tokyo and Washington - precisely what Beijing and Pyongyang want to see. Now, it really isn't clear how much influence China has in North Korea. That isn't nearly as important as the fact that the Japanese think China has influence. It is a marvelous reason for the Chinese to work to develop some influence, since they can obviously trade that influence for major Japanese economic and political concessions. If Japan and the U.S. are worried about North Korea, China can trade on that concern. That means that North Korea will be of value to China and can extract concessions and support from Beijing, which in turn means that Beijing will not want North Korea to collapse and will work to stabilize the regime. And that will mean that the Crazy Fearsome Cripple, simultaneously too weak to worry about and too dangerous to anger, will have pulled off what appeared impossible a few years ago: it will have survived.
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