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North Korea, and why no one really want to confront it?

There is an old saying:  If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

Corollary:  If no one wants to be part of the solution, the problem never goes away, and only gets bigger.

Apply to North Korea, it’s a 50 year old “problem” for US, and while China might be easily scapegoated for that, the real reason is always about resources and money.

First, North Korea is not Iraq.  We can definitively justify the WMD’s in North Korea, but we can’t justify that North Korea has any kind of valuable oil (as in Iraq) or valuable minerals (as in Afghanistan) which might allow a military confrontation to be paid for.

Second, in fact, North Korea is an economic sink hole for any one who get too close with a “solution”.  Why?  Because you can’t claim you solved the North Korea problem until North Korea becomes viable economically.

Enter some real cold hard estimates that will bring out the reason more clearly:  Several prominent US economists have estimated, based upon rebuilding of East Germany, that it would cost (whoever takes over North Korea), at minimum $US 5 TRILLION over 30 years to rebuild North Korea.  That’s MINIMUM.  The figure will likely approach $US 10 TRILLION within the next few years.

Additionally, there will be probably double the cost, to dispose any left over biological/chemical/nuclear weapons, and to rehabilitate the 1 million strong North Korean military troops.  (If one does not, look to the chaos that happened to Iraq when the Baathists army was disbanded without rehabilitation).

$5-10 TRILLION!!

Another cold hard estimate (not fact, but pretty close), NO ONE wants to pay for it.  Not China, not Japan, not South Korea, not Russia, not even the US.

To give you a comparison for idea.  It’s costing US ~$200 million per day in Afghanistan.  That’s ONLY $7.3 BILLION a year, and over 30 years, would be ONLY $220 BILLION in total!

North Korea would be 25-50 TIMES that amount.  Even if the estimate is off, it would still be SUBSTANTIAL.

For all the bluster and sabre rattling US, South Korea and Japan have been doing lately, NONE of these nations are prepared to flip the bill.  Which only means that the sabre-rattling was only attempts in the HOPE that they can get North Korea to back down (and hopefully die off on its own slowly quietly in an embargoed corner somewhere).

South Korea is even talking publicly of “preparing for reunification”, but frankly, I don’t see much preparation other than building more fortifications (which is more like preparing to seal off North Korea).

Similarly, while China talks of supporting North Korea, in fact, China has increased its troops along the border with North Korea (which IS exactly like preparing to seal off North Korea).


OTHER reasons

There are many selfish unspoken nationalistic reasons why NO ONE is supporting a confrontation to North Korea (ie. a hard solution to bring the conflict to end one way or another).

(1) South Korea may be talking tough love on their NK brethens, but South Korean identity has diverged from North Koreans quite a bit in the last 5 decades.  Among Korean immigrants in US, South Koreans often mock the North Korean refugees as more “Chinese” than Korean.

Hence, there is a significant divergence of South Korean Nationalism.

This is similar to the hesitation of some West Germans in anticipation of German unification.  That is, they were simply unsure that their long separated brethens will bring any value to the unification, OR more disastrously, might even corrupt the good things they already have.

(2) Japan (at least privately) does not wish to see an unified strong Korea for many reasons.  Most of all is the historical animosity between Koreans and Japanese, and still unsettled Korea Japan border issues.  If an unified Korea emerges viably, it might inherit the economic might of South Korea and the militant tendencies of North Korea.  And that would spell certainty that Japan will be in the bullseye.

While South Korea and Japan has significant economic ties, in recent years, South Korea has repeatedly demonstrated that it has no qualms about confronting Japan with force (it even sent its navy in a dispute over an island).

MORE significantly, for all US’s diplomacies, it could not pull South Korea and Japan together, NOT even on the NORTH Korea issue.  (Note, in the last few weeks of naval exercises, US could not pull together a Tri-lateral naval exercise with South Korea and Japan, and had to settle for 2 SEPARATE naval exercises.  Needless to say and obvious to many, the diplomatic cliff between South Korea and Japan is wider than the ocean that separates them).

(3) China, for similar reasons, has no wish to see a strong and unified Korea.

For one, while a unified Korea might not be a US client state, it will certainly be inclined to play the “US card”, whenever there is an issue with China.

So that prospect is not endearing China to the idea (though, China undoubtedly is more ambivalent about it than Japan is).

(4) US might want a unified Korea as a client state, but it might not see it.

A strong unified Korea will have fewer reasons to need US, and might hasten the departure of US troops and bases in Korea.

And indeed, if Korea does confront Japan head on, US will be forced to play neutral, and see its influence in these nations decline.

(5) Finally, BECAUSE all outside nations will feel uncertain about the ultimate shape of the unified Korea, all parties will attempt to influence and pull KOREA in multiple divergent directions.

Korea might fragment as Iraq into multiple local factions that are PRO-X and ANTI-Y.

Perhaps Koreans themselves feel the danger of that prospect, of an fragmentation under such huge outside influences.

(REMEMBER, Germany’s unification was relatively tame and easy, because USSR had very little influence left, and virtually all of Germany’s neighbors were close NATO partners who left Germany alone in peace to rebuild.  Korea will not have such luxury.)

Korea, in fact, will be surrounded by powerful and divergent players on all sides, who all have different ideas about what Korea should be in the future.

Let’s just say, I have no doubt, no one is looking forward to that messy game.


End Game?

I note that US is again very accusatory toward China regarding North Korea.

Blaming others is just attempts to shift responsibilities.  Blaming China won’t make North Korea go away.  It’s not even close to a real solution.

And naval exercises don’t really scare North Korea.  (especially now they have nukes).

Yes, North Korea is an old bomb.

But old bombs don’t disappear, they have a nasty habit of blowing you up when you least expect them to.

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  1. fancia
    December 11th, 2010 at 21:24 | #1

    maybe it’s time the president of North Korea start thinking how to rescue themself first like China.

  2. cc
    December 12th, 2010 at 04:27 | #2

    “To give you a comparison for idea. It’s costing US ~$200 million per day in Afghanistan. That’s ONLY $7.3 BILLION a year, and over 30 years, would be ONLY $220 BILLION in total!”

    Is there something wrong here?

  3. December 12th, 2010 at 10:20 | #3

    Insightful post. I personally think the U.S. perspective (in general, not just here) demands more thoughts.

    Yes, we often hear how a unified Korea would place a U.S. ally on the steps of the Chinese border. That may be true. But in the long term, unification poses an existential threat to the U.S. – Korean alliance. If North Korea were no more, why the alliance with the U.S.?

  4. Charles Liu
    December 12th, 2010 at 14:56 | #4

    On the subject of unification, if you compare Germany with Asia (N/S Vietnam, N/S Korea, Taiwan/China).

    One would almost say the politics is racist.

  5. December 12th, 2010 at 15:21 | #5

    The other angle is as the U.S. tries harder to reign in her budget deficit, the military will be forced to take part. That will then mean South Korea will be forced to pay more for the U.S. military presence there. It is more likely the South Koreans eventually becoming hostile to the U.S. presence. Then we will see the natural outlet for that tension diffused with the South Koreans arming itself more – as is with the case with Japan. Eventually the South Koreans will be “strong enough” on their own and can justify incremental withdraw of the U.S..

  6. silentvoice
    December 12th, 2010 at 17:25 | #6

    I’ve recently read a good analysis of the situation in Lianhe Zaobao, which posits that China’s position is due to a wish to give the upcoming North Korean leadership a chance to change their policy and open up like China did, as well as bureaucratic inertia and a ‘play it safe’ mentality. We have to remember we are talking about China here, a Confucius society with a government that’s still essentially an oligarchy. Innovation, risk-taking, and quick reaction to changing global affairs are not exactly their strengths.

    Fear of US turning North Korea into a client state plays a big part in it. Many in China still remember how Clinton broke the promise made by the first Bush administration to Russia when Clinton started to push for NATO expansion, building new bases all over the former Russian republics. This upped the distrust and killed the friendly atmosphere between Russia and the US in the early 90s. The Chinese have good reason to expect the same in its backyard.

    The other major question is how much influence do the Chinese actually have over the North Koreans and if China ganging up with everybody on North Korea will actually make the situation any better? I think not.

    You raised a good point about the cost of rebuilding. While I think it is an issue, it is unlikely to be the main concern. Like you said, the bill is going to be enormous and nobody is willing to pick up the tab alone. But they can expect to share and the biggest banker, in any case, is going to be South Korea, not the US. Additionally, there is no reason to expect the US will be doing any nation building. In such a case, the cost to the US would not be significant enough to deter its habit of regime change.

    I agree with your ‘other reasons’, and think those are more significant than the cost issue.

  7. SilentChinese
    December 13th, 2010 at 13:52 | #7

    The lowest cost option is probablly gradual reform by NK leadership.

    second to that is a bloodless palace coup followed by Gradual reform by the coup takers.

    third to that is probablly a low level violent coup.

    all the “cost” estimates are based on worst case scenario, which China is desperately trying to avoid.

    in any eventuality of a NK general collapse. CHina will get the bill and the scorn. No doubt about it. doesn’t matter how much China “Toes the line” as wished by US/SK/JP.

    just face it: there is nothing china can do, short of a miracle that can satisfy US/SK/JP.

    so why bother to toe the line.

    even NK/SK eventually is unified, next thing SK will ask is for a vast swath of NE Chinese territory, and US/JP/West would back SK in that claim, I have no doubt. any thing to pester those chinese.

  8. r v
    December 13th, 2010 at 15:17 | #8

    (1) As time passes, the cost goes up, and less likely that any of the neighbors will want to “share” the cost.

    (2) An unified Korea will be more likely torn apart like Iraq, by outside influences (especially if the cost was “shared”).

    (3) the cost estimates are actually based upon BEST case scenario (from studies of German reunification, which went probably as well as could be expected).

    (4) if North Korea collapses, China will likely seal off the border (at most let 30,000 refugees in), and perhaps supply humanitarian aid. South Korea can have the “reunification” they want, (and the mess that goes with it).

  9. r v
    December 13th, 2010 at 17:23 | #9

    The reality is that South Korea has enough military power to confront North Korea, but it chooses not to.

    WHY? Fear of the “cost”, including the possible damages to itself.

    So all these sabre-rattling is really pointless. North Korea knows that South Korea doesn’t have the political will to bite the bullet / take the bitter pill.

    Even more telling, South Korea decided to resume its military exercise, BUT no more firing into the disputed ocean near North Korea.

    Wow, way to send a message.

  10. Charles
    December 14th, 2010 at 08:19 | #10

    It would take a lot to push South Korea to war. Over 20% of the S.K. population lives in or around Seoul, and Seoul is within artillery distance of N.K.

    It’s not just a matter of rebuilding for N.K. if war breaks out. Add the cost of rebuilding both Koreas together, and the sum becomes even more frightening.

  11. December 14th, 2010 at 17:29 | #11

    Another fun factoid:

    Japan publicly condemned North Korea for the artillery shelling, and said it did not want to participate in the latest 6 party talk proposed by China.

    However, almost immediately and quietly, Japan said that it supported China’s position on status quo in Korea.

    (Meaning, Japan also does not want to see Korean reunification).


    2-3 days ago, Japan’s PM blunder publicly that he thought perhaps Japan can send troops to Korea to rescue Japanese citizens in event of conflict or kidnapping by North Korea, only to have South Korea bluntly replying in effect “don’t even think about it.”

    Of course, Japan’s PM was only fishing the idea, but that was pretty silly.

  12. cc
    December 14th, 2010 at 23:30 | #12

    People are only interested in “bigger” issues? Nobody is bothered with the simple mistake in the article?

  13. December 23rd, 2010 at 11:28 | #13

    With all my heart I love China

  14. December 30th, 2010 at 20:14 | #14

    With the initial refusal on the 6 party talks, now, South Korea has signaled a turn around.

    South Korean President indicated that SK must engage in the 6 Party Talks with North Korea to denuclearize NK.

    However, NOT willing to appear weak, or conceding a 180 policy, SK in the same breath announced that it must prepare unification.

    Equally forgiving to SK, are of course, the Western Media.

    AP’s article characterize this announce as anything but a concession, saying, it appears that South Korea is not using the military as its only option. (i.e. no, it’s not a retreat, but a fighting while marching backward).

    But, bottomline, SK is wising up to the fact that the 6 Party Talks, (which China and Russia were urging all along), is NOW the ONLY remaining option, because NK just gets crazier with more US/SK/Japan military exercises.

    (NK is a little quieter now, but let’s face it, a crazy man is creepier when he’s not making any sound.)

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