Belmont Club

The Last Emperor

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says the administration won’t give “North Korea the attention it craves.” “Their actions are continuing to further deepen their own isolation, from the international community,” Gibbs told reporters. The BBC said, “the White House accused North Korea of seeking attention.”

“We’re certainly concerned and take any threat seriously, but my sense is they’re trying to get renewed attention through sabre-rattling and bluster and threats,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned North Korea in these terms. “North Korea has made a choice… There are consequences to such actions … There will be an opportunity for North Korea to come back into a framework of discussion within the six-party process and that we can begin once again to see results from working with the North Koreans toward denuclearization.”

Marc Ambinder in the Atlantic interviewed Asia expert Christopher Nelson, who says Obama is doing exactly the right thing by ignoring Kim. Nelson’s take:

Some experts argue that the “real message” of the aggressive words (so far not actions) is to say, “Just leave us alone for now.” …

Obama and his team have said all the right things in public (nuclear power status is not acceptable, we all need to consult and cooperate in containing the risks, etc.) In private, they are doing a good job of consulting, really consulting, with Japan, China and [South Korea], also the Russians to the extent that that’s useful. They are also doing a good job of reaching out to us and other experts to discuss all aspects of the situation… The renewed “UN Strategy” should be seen as part of this organic process of trying to meld an effective policy involving all the major players….

Obviously there is political theater involved in these statements … Personally, at this point, I would focus attention on accidental escalation risks. … That kind of thing…history is full of examples of disaster. So yes, you have to say that risk is increasing, and you have to trust that the US, Japan, [South Korea] and China are right now working on coordinated crisis response scenarios.

Nelson’s background suggests he may have good sources with Democratic politicians. If Nelson’s thinking reflects the inner logic of administration policy, then it suggests that they regard the North Korean belligerence as a conniption that will soon blow over, unless the US accidentally escalates it by actually doing something. Therefore the best and most sophisticated response to the North Koreans is to play golf and wait for them to come crawling back to the negotiating table. Which they will, won’t they?

The risk to this strategy is obvious: suppose North Korea isn’t trying to Washington’s attention but those of prospective customers? Customers for you-kn0w-what. Then the assumptions behind the whole “stand back” strategy falls apart. Everyone who has faced a dangerous man knows the problem. Ignoring him gives him a chance not only to surrender but to reload or center you in his sights. It would be nice if you could count on the international bad guy giving, awaiting only one more forceful condemnation from the international community to bring him to his knees. But can you count on it? Maybe the administration wants to. Maybe it is has to; making a virtue out of necessity.

My guess is that we have just witnessed the dreaded breakout. The nonproliferation regime is dead. It’s death throes began when the international sheriff was pilloried for sunsucessfully searching the arsenals of notorious malefactor known to be seeking nuclear weapons and publicly shamed for it. Whatever legitimacy the sheriff might have had to preempt tyrants like Kim vanished between 2005 and 2008; and Obama helped destroy it, a circumstance which he may or may not regret. But the nonproliferation regime was already in the process of dying. Technological proliferation and a weakening of Western will guaranteed that sooner or later more and more nations would get the bomb. Mohammed ElBaradei has already stated that the number of nuclear states will soon double. That’s the future. While North Korea itself may not be a proximate threat, the failure of the international community to stop even this impoverished and bizarre regime suggests that it is fundamentally toothless or has forgotten how to bite. What chance is there of blocking the stronger aspiring powers? None. It’s over. Ignoring North Korea isn’t a sign of confidence. It’s just whistling past the graveyard.

What happens next? I think there will be a gradual loss of confidence in the American nuclear umbrella. Even a Labor Prime Minister like Kevin Rudd has seen the handwriting on the wall.

Kevin Rudd is set to announce Australia’s biggest military build-up since World War II, led by a multi-billion-dollar investment in maritime defence, including 100 new F-35 fighters, a doubling of the submarine fleet, and powerful new surface warships. The new defence white paper will outline plans for a fundamental shake-up of Australia’s defence organisation to ensure that the nation can meet what the Prime Minister sees as a far more challenging and uncertain security outlook in Asia over the next two decades.

China’s steadily growing military might and the prospect of sharper strategic competition among Asia’s great powers are driving the maritime build-up, which will see new-generation submarines and warships equipped with cruise missiles, and a big new investment in anti-submarine warfare and electronic warfare platforms, including new naval helicopters.

The alternative to a nuclear monopoly by the great powers isn’t a “world without nuclear weapons”. It’s universal armament. The White House may wish to ignore North Korea, but they’ll be the only ones.  It is more likely that the time will come when they will eventually realize that they are no longer the center of the universe and that “ignoring” cuts both ways.


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