North Korea Brinksmanship And My Pyongyang Memories
In May 1999, I visited North Korea. I was based at the time in Beijing as a correspondent for a Slovenian newspaper, and it was impossible not to visit the country that had aroused so many questions and offered so few answers. One just needed to see the place. So I did. I joined a hypocritical game: I used my Chinese contacts to deal with the other side, added some money, and provided a letter that said I was researching revolutionary art, a cover to facilitate my contact as he would never be able to issue a visa to a journalist. As I said, it was a hypocritical game, my passport and a Chinese visa within it evidence that I was head of a Slovenian news organization in Beijing. They never noticed.
I remember the excitement preparing for the trip. It was similar to when I was a small kid and my father and older brother were making preparations to climb the highest mountain in Slovenia. That summer our house was full of expectations, of clothes and equipment I never saw before. Going to North Korea was the opposite. Before I got to the airport, I dropped my cell phone and address book; I took only a limited amount of money, no books, just empty notebooks, and pencils, while I went carefully through my clothes, respecting the instructions from my Chinese friend about what to wear and what to say.
Looking back, the impact of Pyongyang was similar to what I experienced many years later when I saw the first episode of the Game of Thrones. It was surreal, of unknown iconography, sounds, and smell. I did not know where I was and standing alone in front of the police control, the entrance to the kingdom of the darkness, I realized that I did not have anything on me. No contact name, no passport (I'd had to give it away on the airplane), no nothing. What if… the thought flashed before me when the two guys waved to the policemen, pointing at me. They were my security, my interpreter, and behind the little airport building the driver, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, was sleeping in an old Volvo. I got through.
We drove toward the city, stopped by many roadblocks where the military treated my three companions badly. We made it. We entered Pyongyang at the same arch where the young commander and later leader Kim Il-sung entered during the liberation war. We then went to offer flowers and bow to the statues of the two Kims and ended in the stadium to watch the acrobatics. It was me and about 15,000 young soldiers, all in their brown uniforms, undernourished and bold. They were kids. I had no interest in watching what was going on onstage, I was watching the audience. We only stayed about half an hour, long enough for the authorities to inspect my modest luggage and belongings.
I passed the test. I did not get scared or paranoid, I called on all my experience from the period I spent in totalitarian China, and all of a sudden, North Korea became a child's game. It actually was an art, the biggest and most thorough art installation I ever saw. It would have been impossible to take it seriously if not for the sadness and the silence of the place, with people constantly walking in one direction. Not strolling but walking, since North Korea in 1999 was still short of public transportation. Or even bicycles.
One gesture of tenderness
The impression was that all the people were walking towards an execution, a precipice, with their heads bowed down, in order to avoid any possible eye contact. In one week of traveling north and south of the country with all my guards, I only saw one little gesture of human tenderness. It was on the bridge near my hotel when a mother in the afternoon light caressed the head of her small son who was tagging along behind her. All the rest – beyond the general loneliness, lethargy, and silence – was a performance art installation, in the form of a regime.
In 1999, North Korea started to make its first steps out of a long period of famine that killed millions of people and left many more undernourished. It was the horrific period during which North Korea received a lot of international humanitarian aid, while its new leader, Kim Jong-il, was developing a taste for good French wines and even ordered an Italian "pizzaiolo" to his court. The Kim dynasty's passion for good food and wine seems to be rooted deeply –now in its third generation of power – paralleled only by the family's ever increasing appetite for nuclear weapons.
During his six years in power, Kim Jong-un has already managed to surpass his father in nuclear tests. The young Kim's regime also successfully developed the ICBM technology that turned many American cities into potential nuclear targets. The reaction to what seems to be the steady and linear North Korean strategy is a confused and incoherent response from Washington. As it is, the State Department says that the US does not seek a regime change in North Korea, but just a day later the CIA director comes along and drops heavy hints that taking out the country's leader is the goal. In addition, Business Insider writes, "when Donald Trump lopsidedly focuses on ‘fire and fury" toward North Korea, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis have laid out the US's comprehensive approach to dealing with the country."
So how will this dangerous game play out in today's world, a much more fragile one than during the Cuban missile crisis?
Despite the deep ideological divide between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the two sides had the code of knowledge to understanding each other. The Diplomat recently raised the question of whether the North Korean nuclear crisis erodes the so-called nuclear taboo: "Conversely, the threat of preventive military strikes against North Korea and the Trump administration's willingness to accept nuclear war as an outcome undermines both nuclear deterrence and the nuclear taboo simultaneously and independent of their relationship to one another. Implying that current U.S. nuclear posture cannot deter Kim Jong-un and that the nuclear taboo is not credible enough to contain irrational behavior weakens the credibility of both and makes them less effective in preventing nuclear conflict."
In other words, we have to realize that nuclear deterrence and the nuclear taboo are social constructs — a shared assumption about political and military realities — and as such can only contribute to strategic stability (i.e. peace) if there is a consensus that they are real. Trump's talk of preventive war is gradually undermining this shared assumption influencing the U.S.-North Korea nuclear relationship by denying the effectiveness of the two social constructs underpinning it. This is a very dangerous development indeed.
The absence of these two restraining influences will embolden North Korea to maintain its aggressive nuclear posture vis-à-vis the United States and its regional allies increasing the risk of accidental nuclear war. It could also force the United States to adopt more aggressive and unorthodox methods to try to influence North Korean behavior. This could leave the United States not only in the position of a less credible nuclear power in a face off with its chief nuclear competitors, China and Russia but also raises the prospects of nuclear war across the board.
The existence of an American plan for destroying North Korea goes in a similar direction and presents a serious nuclear threat, the potential destruction of our planet. As Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on the Korean peninsula, pointed out: "There are good reasons why military strikes have come to be seen as a prohibitively risky option. Most likely, the North Koreans will react to a sudden attack against their military facilities and/or centers of command with a counterstrike against Greater Seoul, a metropolis with a population of 24 million people. Such a strike is nearly certain to result in a second Korean War, a massive land war in Asia, which is currently seen by the U.S. military planners and political leaders as a true nightmare."
The secretive regime is not irrational.
What Lankov proposes is "managing" the North Korean nuclear program. "Instead of chasing an impossible and unachievable goal of a non-nuclear North Korea, the U.S. and other interested parties should quietly switch to a less pleasant, but realistically achievable goal: North Korea with a small and stable nuclear arsenal. "We are talking about an imperfect compromise. The North Koreans will likely cheat," he writes.
Can this be a realistic plan? Lankov, who is one of the most accurate observers of North Korea, a decade ago suggested not to follow the tactics of blackmail coming from Pyongyang. Instead, Lankov was advocating to let Kim's regime implode. The situation has changed since we now have a North Korea that is much different from what I saw in 1999. Lankov is the only observer who points out what the others have not yet seen: the North Korean economy is booming and with 3,8% growth in the year 2016.
This is happening regardless of the sanctions in place and, as the expert says, offers other possibilities of regime changes in Pyongyang. In other words, Washington should consider other options before it implements the dangerous preemptive strike tactic on the regime in Pyongyang. The secretive regime is not irrational, but its leader, if endangered, might go ballistic. In the same way, an American president might lose it, going further off the rails than ever anticipated. Perhaps someone should explain to him that a bomb is not a tweet, a tweet is not a bomb.