The Art of the Bluff

September 1, 2003 Topic: Nuclear Proliferation Regions: Asia Tags: SocialismCommunism

The Art of the Bluff

Mini Teaser: A note to U.S. policymakers: Saddam Hussein was a reckless risk-taker; Kim Jong-il is not.

by Author(s): Ian Bremmer

WITH MAJOR combat operations in Iraq consigned to the history books (we hope), the United States can now give greater focus to North Korea's rogue regime. Kim Jong-il has captured public attention as a dangerous lunatic in the Saddam Hussein mold, and therein lies an error. Kim is not the next Saddam. This has serious policy implications, for the U.S. strategy that removed Saddam is not the most advantageous way to deal with Kim.

There is no mistaking Kim's--ahem--eccentricities. He claims to have been born atop a sacred mountain, under a double rainbow. In the 1970s, Kim ordered thugs to kidnap his favorite South Korean director and forced him to make films celebrating the glory of his regime. Meeting with then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Kim propounded the Swedish model for his country's development. He traveled nearly a month by sealed railroad car to see President Putin in Moscow. He favors dark glasses and platform shoes. Clearly, Mr. Kim has issues.

The similarities between North Korea and Iraq are equally obvious: a despicable authoritarian regime, an impoverished and oppressed population, a history of flouting international obligations, and a penchant for weapons of mass destruction. But there is one critical difference. When it comes to the survival of his regime, Kim Jong-il is risk-averse.

This was not true of Hussein. When he thought the odds were right, Saddam was often ready to roll the dice on the future of his rule. The decision to tear up the Treaty of Algiers and invade Iran in 1980 was based on Hussein's assessment that the United States, its allies, Iraq's Warsaw Pact backers and the Arab Gulf states would, at least tacitly, support him. In this he was right. In his expectation that Iran would crumble militarily, he misjudged catastrophically. Such was also the case when Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990. This time, he misjudged American tolerance for Iraqi adventurism against an ally rather than an enemy. His tendency to run irrational risks was also at the center of his 1993 plot to assassinate the elder President Bush, which would certainly have initiated his regime's demise had he succeeded. Again and again, Saddam ran regime-threatening risks based on little more than his own flawed judgment.

Leaving aside Iraq's development of weapons of mass destruction and its dubious links to Al-Qaeda, this was President Bush's primary reason for ousting the Iraqi leader. In a region of critical strategic importance for the United States--marked by increasing political instability and a growing tendency for that instability to reverberate beyond the region--leaving a risk-taking Hussein in power was unquestionably dangerous. It was far more preferable to remove him earlier, when he was relatively weak, rather than later, because here was a leader who, given enough time, would take one reckless chance too many.

IN MARKED contrast, in his relations with the United States, Kim Jong-il has, in his assessment, been as cautious as Saddam was rash. Several examples make the point.

First, the most surprising aspect of the North Korean crisis is not how much trouble Kim has instigated but why he waited so long to do so. After all, upon taking office, President Bush said he did not trust Kim and would not deal directly with his regime. Bush further labeled North Korea part of an "axis of evil" way back in January 2002. In June of that year, the Bush Administration raised the bar for continued food aid, signaling that further aid should be conditioned on North Korea's good behavior on humanitarian and security matters. Without question, Pyongyang had been in breach of the 1994 Agreed Framework for years. But the North Koreans really only escalated the conflict last December, when they kicked international inspectors out of the country and announced plans to reactivate their nuclear facilities. So why the delay?

In part, the North Korean regime took a long time to acknowledge the reality that its relationship with the United States was deteriorating. Pyongyang is accustomed to hearing threats from Washington and responding in kind while business as usual continues beneath the surface. After all, North Korea has been on the State Department's list of "state sponsors of terrorism" for years, and this status had little effect on the longstanding Agreed Framework between the two countries. There was no obvious reason for Kim to believe that anything had changed.

The best explanation for the delay, however, was the fear that last December's elections in South Korea would result in a victory for Lee Hoi-chang of the Grand National Party. A victory for Lee would likely have spelled the end of the "sunshine" policy and, with it, a critical element of North Korean leverage against the United States (leaving China as Kim's sole remaining hope of maintaining power). Having just weathered a tense scrape over a gun battle with a South Korean naval vessel in June 2002,1 they needed to cool the diplomatic climate. North Korea's logical reaction was to try to initiate a new dialogue with the United States to avoid antagonizing the South Korean electorate before the election. Roh Moo-hyun's victory in Seoul meant that the specter of a more cynical South Korean government had receded for the time being, giving Pyongyang more room to react to the change in American policy.

There are other examples demonstrating his aversion to risk-taking. This spring, Kim threatened missile tests if Japan launched a spy satellite intended to monitor North Korea. On the basis of local intelligence, the U.S. Defense Department warned the Japanese government that a ballistic missile test was likely. Japan braced itself for another missile to sail through its airspace like the 1998 Taepo-Dong launch, but instead, Kim launched anti-ship missiles into international waters. The action garnered headlines, delivered an ominous threat and involved next to no risk on North Korea's part.

Kim has deplored the fact that Washington refused to respond to his "bold initiative" during the Beijing talks in April 2003. It is instructive, especially as a second round of talks nears, to look at precisely what he had requested. The first, immediate step in the Kim plan was for North Korea to freeze all present nuclear programs in return for unprecedented U.S. security guarantees, thus demonstrating that, through years of mounting crisis, Kim's highest priority has always been to ensure the survival of his regime. Economic aid and normalization of relations would only come later.

Kim was not above trying to bluff the United States to advance his agenda. Just prior to the same Beijing talks, North Korean officials announced that Pyongyang had already started reprocessing their spent nuclear fuel rods, a precursor to further nuclear weapons production. The statement was reiterated by a North Korean envoy during the Beijing talks. This was a red line for Washington and, if corroborated, might have precipitated a serious U.S. response based on the doctrine of pre-emption. But after assessing data from Japanese sniffer ships, U.S. satellite imagery and Russian intelligence, Washington later concluded that no such reprocessing had actually occurred.

This increasingly looks to be the case from the most recent debate over reprocessing in July. At that time, tensions broke out when North Korean diplomats told a visiting delegation of U.S. Congressmen they had indeed completed the reprocessing of their spent nuclear fuel rods. The Koreans compounded this by later adding they might test--or even sell--nuclear weapons if provoked. The United States then detected krypton-85, a gaseous byproduct of reprocessed nuclear fuel, in air samples above the North Korean border. Yet U.S. intelligence has been unable to confirm that the krypton-85 comes from reprocessing, or even from North Korea. (Given the uncertainty of the data, plants in China, Russia or Japan could easily be the culprit.2) Amidst the bluster, the North Koreans have likely waited yet again before stepping over the red line. More probably, the North Koreans have quietly continued developing their enriched uranium programs undetected by the United States. Undetected, and therefore unlikely to lead to retaliation.

KIM MAY well be a willing negotiating partner. But short of fully and verifiably disarming, he has nothing to offer. In setting the stage for talks, the Bush Administration has focused on North Korea ending its nuclear weapons programs, limiting its ballistic delivery systems and downsizing its massive conventional forces. For Kim Jong-il, a member of the "axis of evil" who has just witnessed regime change in Iraq, military strength guarantees his continued leadership. For a risk-averse leader focused on his own survival, nothing would be less likely than his casting aside the weapons that ensure the United States would bear unacceptable costs by removing him.

Kim's problem, therefore, is that his diplomatic tool-kit consists mostly of sledgehammers. With military activity in the peninsula effectively off the table, North Korea's bargaining chips are limited to WMD development and the threat of proliferation--neither of which represents a subtle approach. Kim's strategy is the same in every situation: calling repeated attention to the danger of his regime by means of (admittedly very talented) speech writers while avoiding concrete action that might result in regime-threatening retaliation. Leaving aside the rhetoric, we should not expect anything dramatic from North Korea.

Accordingly, America's worries should not focus on Pyongyang lobbing a nuclear bomb into Tokyo or sending a million troops across the border toward Seoul--either of which would mean the certain end of Kim's regime. Inflammatory rhetoric aside, North Korea is a threat because Kim will do whatever it takes to keep his coffers from running dry and thus stay in power over the long term. To this end, his country has become one of the world's most aggressive exporters of drugs and ballistic-missile technology and hardware. Should that export turn to nuclear technology and material, an extremely difficult commerce to detect, Kim will have fueled a crisis of global proportions. (And one cannot expect that he would export nuclear materials unless he had first built up a credible deterrent.)

Understanding these facts, the Bush Administration continues to demand a verifiable end to all nuclear weapons development in North Korea. They have been divided over how best to accomplish this: either through continued rounds of negotiation (Secretary Powell's preference), or by supplementing talks with a deadline and military escalation (Secretary Rumsfeld's approach). Both agree that the best course for progress is coordinated and sustained multilateral pressure, particularly from North Korea's primary source of funding, China. But short of that outcome--and thus far, Chinese helpfulness has not measured up to U.S. expectations--America's options are stark: escalate or retreat.

Multilateral talks have not yet produced results. The next round is not likely to, either. Kim has no reason to doubt the seriousness of the Bush Administration's doctrine of pre-emption or its desires to see another regime in Pyongyang. After the war in Iraq, it is difficult to believe that American security guarantees by themselves will convince Kim that a strong deterrent force is no longer necessary.

Kim Jong-il may offer to make good on nuclear disarmament in return for a non-aggression pact from Washington, attempting to pull the Chinese and South Koreans further away from the U.S. position. Without suitable verification measures, such a deal will be unacceptable to the United States. Alternately, Kim can grandstand and push the Americans to leave the talks a second time in a huff. Either way, Kim Jong-il, well aware of the Bush Administration's doctrine of pre-emption, is simply playing for time--conceding nothing while pursuing unmonitored enriched uranium programs that slowly but surely improve his bargaining position. As importantly for Kim, they will improve North Korea's deterrent.

Paradoxically, Kim's risk-averse behavior poses the real policy challenge and the greatest danger. The attractiveness of escalation is enhanced by Kim's survival instinct. U.S. military bluster and even a surgical strike are likely to force North Korea's hand because Kim is intent on keeping his regime. Brinksmanship may now be necessary to call North Korea's bluff and bring its behavior into line, for the risk-averse Kim seems likely to blink. Mr. Kim, after all, is not Saddam.

1It is difficult to assess whether this incident was deliberate or accidental. Small military scrapes are inevitable due to the high level of tension across the border, very much like the occasional firings across the Demilitarized Zone. The closed nature of North Korean society and the lack of comment makes it nearly impossible to determine the cause of the incident.

2An illuminating study analyzing declassified estimates by the U.S. intelligence community of North Korea's nuclear program has recently been published by Jonathan D. Pollack, a leading specialist in East Asian political-military affairs and director of the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College: "The United States, North Korea, and the End of the Agreed Framework", Naval War College Review (Summer 2003). For more on the origins of krypton-85, see Rob Edwards, "Krypton clue to North Korean nuclear progress", New Scientist, July 22, 2003.

Ian Bremmer is President of Eurasia Group (a research and consulting firm), senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and a columnist for the Financial Times. 

Essay Types: Essay