Once More Into the North Korean Breach

My advice to our government since November 2010, when I was shown the Yongbyon centrifuge facility, was to take immediate action so that the nuclear situation does not get worse. I advocated three no’s: no more bombs, no better bombs and no exports.

So says Stanford CISAC Co-Director Siegfried S. Hecker. He and Korea expert David Straub analyze the latest diplomatic effort around North Korea’s nuclear situation here.

Despite the new leadership in North Korea, the legacy of false starts in this area does not breed optimism. But this is definitely a case where we are forbidden not to try.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.

12 thoughts on “Once More Into the North Korean Breach”

  1. To me, at least, it would seem that a visible demonstration to Iran that foreswearing nuclear weapons in return for a better relationship with the rest of the world is a viable path might be another positive impact of this develpment. It might not make any difference, but it can’t hurt.

  2. Rational perspective would be helpful. Nuclear weapons are not the singular danger posed by North Korea.

    North Korea with a ridiculously authoritarian state, is one of the poorest countries in the world, surrounded on all all sides by some of the richest and/or most powerful states the world has ever known. It is so poor, that periodic famine is a reality, which is what makes the present deal to provide food aid, plausible.

    Rather than focus strategically, as Hecker foolishly does, on “verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”, a purely nominal goal (and one that is impossible, given that South Korea depends on nuclear power for more than 40% of its electric consumption), it might be useful to focus more broadly on how the Five Powers might singly and cooperatively address the problem of North Korean economic development and on preparing a contingency plan for the very real possibility of political destabilization and collapse.

    False starts and the dramatic breakdown of relations have indeed marked the relationship. It is commonplace to blame this all on the mercurial North Korean leadership, though the truth is our own nutcase, John McCain, played a prominent role is scuttling one of the most important deals, made during the Clinton Administration, and setting off the latest rounds in developing nuclear capability (in which the North Koreans were aided by our “allies” in Pakistan, the same “allies”, who hid Osama and who channel our financial and military assistance to the Taliban in our endless war in that other extremely poor country, Afganistan). It is tempting to treat North Korea like a bratty juvenile delinquent brandishing a terrible weapon in a desperate bid for attention, but it might be helpful to have a deeper and broader understanding of the very real desperation in North Korea, as well as a franker acknowledgment that the United States is definitely not, itself, a rational actor in foreign affairs.

    If the door to Korean re-unification opened, would we (or any of the Five Powers) know what to do in response? As fond as the U.S. military-industrial complex is, of perpetual war for no apparent purpose, are we confident in the ability of the U.S. to keep any commitment to even de minimis humanitarian aid? Given the abject ignorance about economic development demonstrated in the Occupation and Reconstruction of Iraq, is there anyone in the foreign policy establishment, who can speak sensibly about how to strategically aid North Korea development, to reduce its desperation? (Keep in mind this is the same establishment cheering on the on-going austerian rape of Greece.)

    I’m sorry to be so cynical, but I think reality justifies it. Foreign policy regarding nuclear proliferation issues has become progressively more deranged, in general, as Iran has been vilified, Pakistan (I don’t what verb to apply), and Korea treated as a curiosity at an insane asylum.

    1. “If the door to Korean re-unification opened, would we (or any of the Five Powers) know what to do in response?”

      Well, perhaps there is a downside I haven’t noticed, but my reponse would be “Do it, you doofuses, before the next full moon!”

      If we try to help N. Korea, we may be taking on another orphan to raise as our own. OTH, if that orphan has a rich big brother living just across town, let’s reunite the family.

  3. But this is definitely a case where we are forbidden not to try.

    Forbidden not to try?
    Are you kidding me?

    General Curtis Lemay (and he wasn’t joking): “…we burned down every town in North Korea…”

    Hell we can’t even get the Alabama and South Carolina to forget the Civil War 160 years after the fact.
    And that is with Reconstruction…
    Does anybody think the North Koreans aren’t forever stung?

    I don’t blame them for wanting the Bomb…
    Hell I’d want it too.

    1. Koreyel: “We are forbidden not to try” is from a Talmudic proverb about the lot and duties of all human beings (e.g., seeking peace on earth).

      1. I like that as a rejoinder to the council of despair. It may be a doomed endeavor, world peace, but it’s not forbidden to try.

  4. “The United States has termed this “nutritional assistance” to distinguish it from “food aid,” because officials are concerned that the provisions of bulk grain – especially rice – might be siphoned off by the North Korean elite. The U.S. government had said earlier that nutritional assistance would not involve bulk grain, and that it would be targeted toward especially vulnerable groups, such as lactating mothers, children, and the elderly.”

    I’m sorry, but this kind of “thinking” is insanely stupid. What purpose is served? Flood the country with food. Send the leadership a subscription to Omaha steaks. Jeez!

  5. What purpose is served?

    Making sure that the food aid goes to the people who need it, rather than being resold by the leaders to someone outside the country.

    1. All aid is fungible and targeting is a pipe dream. All you can do is hope the kleptocracy has already satisfied its own priority needs and will therefore be at least indifferent to improvements in the welfare of the peons. But you have to try.

    2. What Wimberley said, of course. Not giving them staple grains means basically not addressing the recurrent famine, which is a shortage of macro-nutrient calories. And, staple grains, even after the recent elevations of price, are cheap on the worldwide market. The U.S., and the EU produce vast, exportable surpluses. Even if they wanted to, the North Koreans do not have the shipping capacity to re-export bulk products, once you’ve delivered it, so paranoid fantasies about re-sale are pretty much unfounded, as long as the aid delivered is generously scaled to the need, and China blocks overland sale (China has a deep interest in avoiding not just North Korean nuclear capability, but also anything entailing refugees fleeing across the border). Besides which, regime change means that the new kleptocrat-in-charge may be more motivated than usual to curry popular favor by relieving widespread hunger. And, if he hasn’t read a history of the French Revolution, he may not know what a strategic trap, accepting large-scale food aid could become. If things get incrementally better in North Korea as a result of the new guy’s policies, that can start a cycle of rising popular expectation, and the dictator could not survive the outside world pulling the plug.

      We’ve tried the John McCain plan, which is to stupidly insist on dominating and “punishing” North Korea, while delivering nothing tangible, to relieve their internal distress, and what it got us is further North Korean nuclear development.

      My general advice would be: do not let the John Birch Society (aka Republican Party) anywhere near foreign policy. Ditto for Larry Summers and the neoliberals. Neither form of insanity makes for a better world.

  6. retr2327

    Iran has foresworn nuclear weapons – at least as far as repeated statements and fatwas (formal religious opinions) by Khamenei – go. All it gets them is more public musing by neo-cons about whether to invade or just bomb. Plus more sanctions. The Iranian sin – like the Cuban sin – is original. Not to be absolved just by good behaviour.

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