Five Basic Questions About The North Korean Crisis

As blogger-journalists, it's tempting to write about subjects of which we know nothing. Sometimes, we can fake it. At other times, we can't. That's why we turn to people who know and who can educate us about the basics. The North Korean nuclear crisis is captivating the world and most of the attention of our national security establishment. President Obama is receiving regular briefings. South Korea is on war footing. How did we get here? What's really going on? To learn, and to provide readers with a handy cheat sheet for their own cocktail party chatter, we asked Christopher Nelson, a long-time Asia policy expert and author of the Nelson Report, a must-read subscription-only communique, Five Basic Questions. His answers are unedited, save for the substitution of North Korea for "DPRK," South Korea for "ROK," China for "PRC," and minor proofreading changes.

1. What the heck is going on?  What's NK's interest in these military-theatrical gestures? A direct challenge to the Obama administration?

There is consensus, not unanimous, that the succession process is producing the escalating series of aggressive-sounding declarations about PSI intercepts and saying the 1953 armistice is lifted, to give the most recent examples.

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

There is consensus, not unanimous, that if ever the nuclear weapon capacity was on the negotiating table, it's not there any longer. Flat statements to visiting US friends, and public statements (See April 29) declare that the [North Korean] goal is international acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear power.

Clearly this is not politically or strategically acceptable to the US, Japan and [South Korea]. Clearly the Chinese and Russians are not comfortable, and basically oppose.

The question is, what the hell can be done about it! To date, and this may be changing, the [Chinese and South Korean] primary strategic risk assessment has been the catastrophic collapse of [North Korea].

The US and Japanese primary risk assessment is missiles and nuclear weapons, and the related proliferation concerns.

To date, no effective way has been found to serve both strategic assessments simultaneously, and serious sanctions because of nukes and missiles obviously risks regime collapse, if truly implemented by China, Russia and South Korea.

2. Assess the Obama administration's response to date. They seem to be publicly "ignoring" the escalating actions, as if NK was acting like a child who wanted attention.

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.

Real debate is rising, however, on whether it's a mistake to give China so much prominence and responsibility as the fulcrum essential to "changing [North Korean] behavior". Some folks deride this as "outsourcing US responsibility". Others say we have all along exaggerated or misunderstood China's leverage.

We'll learn more over the next few weeks as the UN process plays out.

I assume but do not know, given classification issues, that the Obama defense and intel folks are coordinating with Japan and [South Korea], and separately with [China], on crisis contingency planning in the event of a crisis, so that to the extent its possible, escalation risks don't get out of control. Despite years of colorful rhetoric, the [North Korean] leadership has not taken a truly suicidal military risk since 1953.

3. Has the threat of a military confrontation measurably increased over the past week?

On paper, rhetorically, yes. What does it mean that the 1953 armistice is no longer in effect? What does it mean that a [South Korean] ship intercepting a NK ship under PSI is an "act of war"? Taken literally, these things are truly ominous.

Obviously there is political theater involved in these statements, presumably including the succession politics in Pyongyang. But who can say for sure, so "risk factors" have to be said to have increased.

Personally, at this point, I would focus attention on accidental escalation risks. [North Korea] may think it is a "measured" response to shoot at [a South Korean] fishing boat venturing over the sea border, and Japan may (correctly) think it's appropriate to fire on a [North Korean] ship which has shot up or intercepted a Japanese fishing boat somewhere.

What happens next? You can't "guarantee" that things stay in proportion, or under control, or that having "satisfied honor with some blood" the other side needs a little bit more, before it can back-off and not suffer politically at home.

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.

4. Should the US be prepared to accept NK as a fully fledged nuclear state?

Not under current circumstances, defined as the current [North Korean] regime or a similar successor; not in the way [North Korea] is demanding (basically to be treated like India and Pakistan) in any event.

It's really hard to define any circumstances under which [North Korea] is acceptable as a nuclear power, given the strategic impact on Japan, and [South Korea], and US interests in the region.

China, too, clearly is not happy with the idea, since it necessarily implies the risk that Japan and [South Korea] may feel compelled to "go nuclear" as well. Most analysts feel this is a theoretical risk for now, but concede it really rests on continued [South Korean] and Japanese acceptance and reliance on the US alliance and its nuclear umbrella.

The US alliance structure is a benefit to China during its "rise," since it contributes to the stability China desperately needs to successfully develop. Presumably there will never come a point where China rationally decides the US alliance structure is a dagger aimed at them...given current US policy toward China.

But this still leaves unresolved, for now, the question of whether [North Korea] has irrevocably decided to "never give up" its nukes.

The question becomes central to deciding whether, and if so how, to keep trying for a diplomatic solution.

5. What role are Russia and China playing in the current conflict?  (Are they being helpful? Privately provocative? Publicly, they've been more critical of NK than in the past. Does that match their private intentions?)

Russia's main impact comes at the UN, and the sanctions debate. If Russia goes along with tougher sanctions, then that at least keeps the 6 party alliance viable. Whether it has any impact on [North Korean] decision-making no one can say at this point. So far, Russia has not been irresponsible.

China is seen by nearly everyone as the central player. The Bush strategy all along was based on persuading/forcing Beijing to use leverage we assume China still enjoys in Pyongyang. Some experts warn that leverage no longer exists, but who can say in the absence of evidence it is being applied?

What can China do? Announce no more fuel oil, food, goods etc. except on a cash-only basis. Cut off oil until [North Korea] returns to the table. Invade. I list them in descending order of reality. No one thinks China sees a "military solution" in terms of intervention

For now, watch to see how much China will buy into in terms of new UN sanctions, and then what China does to enforce them.