This week North Korea had a mental spasm. They decided to test anther long-range missile, and said it was aimed at the United States. Some Americans I know got very concerned. Could the North Koreans really attack the US?
How North Korea behaves
North Korea spends about 40 per cent of its GDP on military expenditure, while the common people are impoverished. It has enriched uranium, and conducted underground nuclear tests. Every time the North Koreans chuck a mental, a six-country conference meets to hammer out the problem: the US, China, Russia, North Korea, South Korea and Japan. Often they provide food aid and oil to North Korea, in exchange for them scaling back their nuclear programs. The US has frozen and unfrozen various assets of North Korea abroad, as North Korea has cooperated or not with international pressure to cease their nuclear program.
North Korea, China, and the US
I’m speaking now as an ex-economist of 25 years, who is now studying politics part-time. It’s a current belief among economist and people involved in political science that major trading partners don’t tend to go to war with each other, since the outcome is bad for both of them. It’s like cutting of you own nose to teach your face a lesson. Both parties lose. This was part of the principle between the integration of the French and German coal, iron and steel industries at the end of WWII, which ultimately lead to the free trade zone in Europe.
China is North Korea’s major financial benefactor. Although the US is concerned about China’s build-up of fleet, (e.g., a Chinese aircraft carrier on the way), China and the US are becoming more economically linked to each other and are developing a “Siamese twin” relationship. The US imports a lot from China, and the Chinese hold about one and a half trillion dollars’ worth of US government bonds (about 11 per cent of the total.) The Chinese don’t want the value of their US government bonds to be degraded, (which seemed possible during the debt ceiling debate of 2012,) and which would happen in a new US war, since any new war would lead to even bigger budget deficits than the US already has, and lower the value of their bonds. Strange as it may sound, the Chinese want the Americans to fix their budget problems, and said so during the debt-ceiling crisis. At the same time, the US needs to keep importing manufactured goods from China, since they would be more costly if made in the US. China doesn’t want an armed conflict with the US over Korea.
But what happens if the North Koreans really were to make a strike at the US? If the North Koreans provoked the US to the point where the US took some type of military action against them say— airstrikes on their military facilities—this might destabilize the regime, and the results could be anybody’s guess.
It’s not in China’s interest for there to be a major armed conflict between the US and North Korea. If there were major destruction in N. Korea, China would probably get a major influx of North Korean refugees, which they presumably wouldn’t want.
If the North Korean state collapsed, the re-unified Korea would probably be allied with the US, which China also wouldn’t want.
At the same time, South Korea wouldn’t want a disorderly disintegration of North Korea, since some sectors of the North Korean Military may not be under anyone’s direct control while that happens.
Some refugees may end up in South Korea, or Japan. The Japanese sure as hell don’t want North Korean refugees. In the 1980s and 90s, there was a major political tension between North Korea and Japan. The North Koreans had been kidnapping Japanese citizens off isolated beaches, and taking them to North Korea to teach Japanese language and customs to North Korean spies. North Korea denied it. The issue helped destroy the career of Takako Doi, the first female head of a Japanese political party, (the Socialists). Doi nailed her colors to mast in defending the North Koreans and supporting their denials of these accusations. When North Korea finally confessed it did have kidnapped Japanese in North Korea, Doi’s career was severely damaged. Japan doesn’t really like the Chinese and Korean minorities they already have, and they wouldn’t want any more.
Last I heard, Russia was building a railway line from Khasan in Siberia to the North Korean port of Rajin, to export more easily to counties around Korea. Therefore, the Russians wouldn’t want a conflict between the US and North Korea, or the disintegration of the North Korean state, since it would mess up their nice new trade corridor.
So what’s stopping a war?
The North Koreans know that if they behave provocatively every so often, then promise to be good, other countries give them oil and food for a while. Then they go back on their promises and do it all again. But there are powerful forces around them who are likely to hold them back from committing suicide by attacking the US. No one wants the chaos the refugees and the possible military realignment that would follow if North Korea collapsed. I suspect that North Korea knows this, which probably gives them some feeling of safety: while their government is reprehensible, too many people have a stake in it not collapsing. This kind of gives the North Korean leadership a licence to behave provocatively up to a point, without fear of consequences.
All up, I think North Korea may talk crazy from time to time, but there are powerful forces that would keep their behavior in check. I doubt they are really going to fire a missile at the US. It might be the end of their food and oil aid.
So, have any of you got any impressions of North Korea? Has anyone lived in South Korea or China and heard this topic discussed? Did you hear about their threat to fire a missile at the US? What do you think?