All right, I admit it was fun watching missile after missile plunge into the drink, with the inevitable if sophomoric references to Kim’s apparent inability to ‘get it up’. I also rather liked Japan and South Korea make clear statements that demonstrated a clear determination to address the matter with something more substantial than diplomatic protests. But I must pour cold water on some of the cheering going on, and not for the reasons some might expect. What I mean is, we need to look at the hidden danger from this exhibition, and prepare for the next act in this drama. There will be blood before this is over, I fear.
First, the obvious threat. Despite the fact that his missile tests were strange and apparently a complete failure, North Korea still possesses fissionable material. And despite the variances of different methods for detonating such weapons, it is still possible to create a chain reaction simply by smacking radioactive material against itself if it has critical mass. Even Kim’s boys can manage that much, and it hardly matters to our side whether he hits the intended target – any nuclear detonation and fallout is a bad thing.
But there is more. Two more, to be precise – Anyone with a knowledge of recent history understands that North Korea doesn’t do anything without the implicit approval or direct command of Communist China. China can take over North Korea anytime it wants to, and Kim knows that. So there is zero chance – none at all – that Kim Jong Il would have fired his missiles if he had any doubt about China’s reaction. After all, China is much closer to North Korea than any other major country, and would seem to have the most to fear from a nuclear-armed lunatic on its border.
One wonders, then, why Kim would have fired his missiles? He hardly needed to in order to pose a threat to the West, and the non-response from Beijing gave away a strong hint of their position on the matter. The answer lies in the course of those missiles: Japan.
Most westerners today do not think of Japan as a threat. This is hardly surprising, since Japan supplies the West with many desirable products, always speaks as though it loves and wants to advance Western values, and stands with us in times of crisis. For the most part, all this is true, excepting the facts that Japan still has an Emperor and is the most racist nation on earth. Japan was once thought to be a threat to achieve regional hegemony, however, and was thwarted not by humility, but actually by its opposite. Japan never got around to making a real effort to apologize to the Koreas, China, the Philippines, and other Pacific countries for World War 2, and that racist agenda they have shown in all affairs, government or business or social, since they discovered the rest of the world was not Japanese. But while Japan never ruled Asia, it always held a big chunk of it, through outright control and a lot of influence. All those nations I mentioned looked at Japan, and wondered what if things got out of control, like they did when the Prime Minister was named ‘Tojo’?
American Presidents have been remarkably deferential to Asian governments over the years, especially to China. Nixon radically changed doctrine, effective recognizing Beijing's regime and dis-recognizing Taiwan's, in order to gain Mao's support for a treaty which reined in the Soviet Union. Carter all but surrendered American interests in Southwest Asia, and did so completely in Southeast Asia. Even Reagan chose to be circumspect in confonting Beijing, pursuing a course of opening trade which is still the preferred method of international acquisition by China. And of course, the first President Bush was shamefully mild in his rebuke for atrocities like the slaughter in Tienamen Square. Finishing the string, and worst of all, was Clinton's pandering deals, which advanced China's missile technology and nuclear threat in such swindles as the LORAL deal. Things changed with George W. Bush, especially after 9/11.
Most people do not recall the early crisis caused when a PRC fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane. Several days of intense negotiation resulted in no additional loss of life, with both sides able to save face. Also, from the beginning of his Administration, President Bush has advocated multi-lateral talks regarding North Korea, a mature perspective which has only recently been discovered by other parties and the media. The Bush initiatives in Asia have been frankly far more masterful and subtle than most people in the United States understand.
China, however, is well aware of the strategic significance of Bush's moves, and has discovered that the United States has fenced in most of China's desired moves. China is growing as an industrial power, but is already facing a resource crisis, and needs to expand its territory, a dilemma Tom Clancy foresaw in his novel, "The Bear and The Dragon"*. What Clancy failed to perceive, however, is that China would prefer the softer appearance, having cultivated the image of a non-aggressive power in order to gain influence as a regional arbitrator and accepted interdictor in crisis situations. Consequently, rather than depend on its military, a dice roll at best which would cost China decades of diplomatic initiatives, Beijing would rather rely on treaties, contracts and commercial initiatives.
Don't laugh. While many Americans were up in arms about a company from the United Arab Emirates having a contract to manage paperwork at a few U.S ports, most people never realized that PRC front companies already managed a number of major U.S. seaports, and had negotiated to buy the Long Beach West Coast Container Port outright. Similar deals were made throughout the Pacific to acquire rights to facilities, tools and raw materials. Such a deal resolved the thorny question of drilling for oil in waters claimed by Vietnam. The sudden infusion of iron into the American spine, therefore, allows the Bush Administration to block Chinese advances and expansion, while maintaining a cordial appearance. This created a dilemma for Beijing, which it appears to be trying to resolve through the use of an especially stupid puppet.
Kim Jong Il finds himself in a very bad way. The nuclear weapons he had hoped would force other nations to give in to his demands, have instead led to a drop in aid offered to North Korea. Kim is discovering that he has, in fact, no standing at all - the Americans consider him a useless liar in talks, and China is using him as a pawn. And he has no choice but to play by the rules given to him. Which means that when China wanted to find out if the U.S. had already deployed the new generation of Patriot missiles to Japan, the best way was to launch then abort so that the missiles would light up interceptor radars, but not provoke an actual response. In addition, the unexpected destruction of the Korean missiles would be seen as confirmation of Pyongyang's crude technical limits, making diplomacy more attractive and pressing the Americans to make a deal. It also allowed Beijing to tweak Japan, while maintaining the appearance of an innocent, or better still, a sincere negotiator trying to rein in a madman.
This explains Koizumi's anger and insistence on sanctions. Aware of the game being played by Beijing, he cannot respond directly to Beijing, so instead he plays along but demands that North Korea be punished. The missiles flew over Japanese sea and land, after all. But the move was double-edged. On the one hand, provoking Japan makes China look more reasonable in the Pacific arena, and Japan more militaristic, but it also drives Japan further into the American camp. It remains to be seen whether setting itself across the table from the Americans, is a wise move or not on the larger measure by Beijing.
* Correction - I am advised by Harold Hutchison, that the correct title to Clancy's novel is "The Bear and The Dragon". I had it backwards.