- (february 2013)
North Korea is ready to make a deal.
The reason why North Korea exploded a third atomic bomb against the will
of the international community, an action publicly condemned even by its
main protector (mainland China), could be quite simple: North Korea has only
one valuable export, nuclear technology, and only one major customer, Iran.
It is possible that North Korea simply needed to show its customer that the
technology is real and worth the price. Mainland China has been supporting
the North Korean regime more with words than facts. Iran may be willing to
pay a good price, including oil. For the North Korean regime this could be
an important deal. At the same time North Korea has learned that having nuclear
power makes a huge difference, the difference between dying like Qaddafi (who
voluntarily surrendered his weapons of mass destruction) and being treated
to six-party talks with all the powers of the world. North Korea knows that
after this deal with Iran it will need to obtain international aid, especially
from mainland China but also from the USA. Its economy is on the verge of
another collapse, at the same time that its people know of China's economic
boom. The number of North Koreans who still believe official propaganda
must be fading quickly as more and more of them realize that neo-capitalist
China is getting way richer than them. Having lived in the West,
the very leader of the country, Kim Jong-un, knows that the rest of the world
is a lot richer. And he doesn't enjoy the same cult status that his grandfather
Kim Il-sung enjoyed after the "war of liberation" against the USA: in this odd
communist monarchy each generation of "dear leaders" is inevitably less
legitimate than the previous one.
If Kim Jong-un (or whoever runs the country for him) does not quickly
deliver a good economy, he risks a revolution.
That's reason number three why the nuclear test was needed: when your
country is extremely poor but it belongs to an elite club, you are less
likely to rise up than when your country is extremely poor and it ranks last
in everything. Showing that North Korea matters in world affairs is almost
as good as putting food on the table. But only almost. Eventually the regime
will have to recognize that at this point there are only two viable options:
an all-out war to conquer South Korea with the pretext of an aggression of some
kind, or a deal with the USA and mainland China.
There is no question that both the USA and mainland China favor the latter.
Let North Korea adopt state capitalism of the Chinese sort in return
for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and a withdrawal of the USA
from the region. North Korea is actually standing in the way of its ally
China, as China would love to get rid of the USA but the USA has an excellent
excuse to stay put in South Korea because of the threat of North Korea.
Remove the nuclear-armed regime of North Korea and the USA would have no reason
to remain in South Korea or anywhere near China, and the very voters of the USA
would start questioning "why are we there".
It is actually surprising that mainland China has tolerated the North Korean
regime for so long. It is a liability, not an asset. It is an obstacle to
achieving a broader deal with the USA that would give China much more
freedom and power in the region. In fact, mainland China might look pretty
weak and pathetic to its other neighbors if it can't even control a state
that totally depends on trade with mainland China.
All in all, this time North Korea might be ready to negotiate for real.
There are no other customers for its nuclear technology, and there is nothing
else it can sell to anyone. It might be tempted to test a missile capable of
reaching California, therefore creating panic in the USA, but it must know
that this would de facto trigger a disproportionate reaction from the USA.
The USA has refrained from hitting North Korea because South Korea fears
retaliation from North Korea (Seoul is a short distance from the border),
but the moment North Korea becomes a real threat to the territory of the USA
any consideration for South Korean safety will become secondary.
The bad news is that Iran is probably learning a lot from North Korea. The
world listens to North Korea in a way that it does not with Iran. Having nuclear
weapons does make a (positive) difference.
All in all, the North Korean regime has been a lot less unpredictable than
advertised. It has acted very rationally, easily surviving while dictators in
Iraq, Libya and now Syria disappeared. We may not like it, but North Korea
simply outsmarted us, over and over again. Calling it "unpredictable",
"irrational" and so forth is calling ourselves blind and delusional.
Trying to outsmart North Korea is not easy for the simple reason that they
called our bluff. The West keeps enticing countries with the promise of
economic and political rewards if they DON'T go nuclear, but the truth is that
the nuclear countries have more say in international affairs (including trade)
than non-nuclear ones. Russia's GDP is lower than Italy's and barely higher
than Canada's, but Russia enjoys veto power at the United Nations: the difference
is 3000 nuclear bombs versus zero. Mainland China is a dictatorship, not much
better than North Korea, but China too enjoys veto power at the United Nations
(it even forced the United Nations to expel one of the most democratic countries
in the world, Taiwan) and it even enjoys privileged trading partner status
(not sanctions) with the USA: the difference is its nuclear arsenal.
It will be hard to outsmart North Korea, short of attacking it militarily,
something that the North Koreans know neither South Korea nor the USA wants
P.S. of March 2013: Far from engaging in talks with the USA, North Korea
launched into war rhetoric, threatening to start an all-out war with the
USA. This is probably a sign that Kim Jong Un is even weaker than anticipated
and may be in danger of being replaced by someone else. The regime may be
collapsing faster than anyone expected.
But this could also be a sign that the "customer" was not impressed, that
Iran, unimpressed by the third nuclear test, has decided that North Korea's
technology is not worth the money. In fact Iran suddenly returned to talks
with the USA about freezing its nuclear program. One possible explanation
is that Iran now fears it won't be able to get a nuclear bomb with North
Korean technology (in other words, it was duped). North Korea, in turn,
wants to prove to Iran that it wasn't bluffing and is staging a massive
theatrical show to prove that it can scare the USA with its nuclear weapons.
TM, ®, Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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