Archive for December, 2010

Deadly Kabuki in Korea

Posted in Diplomacy, North Korean Nuclear Weapons with tags , , , , , , , on December 20, 2010 by whatafteriraq

The current crisis between the Koreas is now over a month old, with the North and South Koreans gnashing their rhetorical teeth and one another and the world wondering if this could be the onset of a second Korean War. The current flap began last month over the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, a part of South Korea only seven miles off the North Korean coast, by the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea). Recriminations flew back and forth between the two sides and came to focus on South Korean atrillery exercises scheduled for this month off the island–an activity that the DPRK argued was provocative and could lead to renewed hostilities. These pronouncements were met in kind by the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea). Where will it all go? 

The whole episode has taken place in a familiar atmosphere in which common elements to other crises between the DPRK and ROK have worked themselves out. Three elements, two familiar from the past and one a recurring wraith that hangs over relations, stand out.

The first, and most obvious, source of tension and concern is the wraith of the DPRK nuclear arsenal. Without going into detail, North Korea is now generally acknowledged to be the world’s ninth nuclear power, with probably 6-8 nuclear weapons deliverable over moderate ranges that certainly include most of Soth Korea and probably Japan as well. The DPRK has alternately announced intself as a nuclear power, than backed away from the designation only to reassert it. The reasons the DPRK feels the need to keep a nuclear arsenal are numerous and include the prestige of having joined the nuclear club and thus the status it provides to a regime and country that would be highly inconsequential without them. The North Koreans were almost certainly motivated by the fact that they faced a nuclear-armed United States across the 38th Parallel (the de facto boundary between the Koreas) when they decided to launch a nuclear program in the 1950s, and the deterrence of attacks against them equally certainly underlays their commitment to being a nuclear power.

Regardless of why North Korea has gone nuclear, their possession has at least two important consequences. One is that it raises the deadly calculus of war on the peninsula. Almost all observers agree that the DPRK would lose such a war and that one of the consequences would be the overthrow of the regime and the probable reunification of the country under South Korean control. These outcomes are, hopefully, well enough known and unpalatable enough to keep the DPRK from starting a war in the first place, but should they launch such a war anyway, these dynamics might well lead to a decision to use their nuclear arsenal as a last-ditch, desperation way to avoid defeat. Such an action would equally likely result in a nuclear strike against them, and the Korean peninsula would be the sure loser. Second, the failure to convince the DPRK to back away from its nuclear program could lead other regional powers, notably the ROK and Japan, to conclude they must develop comensating capabilities, thereby initiating a nw nuclear arms race.

There are also two familiar dynamics at work here that have been present in past crises. One is a succession process in the DPRK. Thecurrent leader, Kim Jung-Il, is known to be in failing health, and following the lead of his father (Kim Il-Sung, the original DPRK leader), he has designated a son to take his place. Until his elevation, Kim Jong-Un was virtually unknown prior to his designation, and the twenty-six-year-old was quickly appointed as the world’s youngest four-star general this fall. Covering the succession process with a crisis was also done when the current leader was annointed. Third, North Korea is apparently undergoing one of its periodic, chronic food crises, and it has been the case before that the DPRK has precipitated crises as a way to extract needed aid from the outside world rather than having openly to beg for them.

Thus, the current crisis has a slightly familiar ring. The North Koreans provoke, the South Koreans rise to the bait and issue counter-threats, the world holds its breath and intervenes (currently through the “unofficial” Bill Richardson mission–with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer along for the ride). The news today suggests that the ritual kabuki is going according to script: the South Koreans have delayed their artillery exercise, with bad weatheras the excuse; and the North Koreans have suggested to Richardson they might let American forensic personnel into the DPRK to examine recently discovered remains of fallen Americans from the Korean War.

The current crisis could deviate from the past script and degenerate into warfare that no one wants and which would benefit no one, but there is a hint of a familiar kabuki in the air. Let’s hope the participants don’t forget their roles and their lines, paticularly since the failure to do so could have particularly devastating consequences in a nuclear-armed Korean peninsula.

“Resetting” the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process?

Posted in Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , , on December 12, 2010 by whatafteriraq

It comes as no revelation to report that the efforts of the Obama administration to move the on-again, but mostly off-again peace process between Israel and the Palestinians is currently going nowhere. Cynicism and pessimism has set in on both sides of the equation suggesting that neither the Israelis or Palestinians are willing or able (or both) to make the kinds of concessions necessary to vitalize the talks (people like to talk about revitalizing them, but when were did they ever have real life?). Over sixty years after the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab sectors (as they were originally designated, not as Israel and Palestine), both sides are deeply suspicious of the motives and sincerity of the other regarding meaningful and acceptable bargains. These perceptions are probably largely correct on both sides.

The Obama administration, with George Mitchell as the not very sharp tip of the spear, has been trying to move the situation toward the two-state solution in some form, with a cessation of additional building and the willingness to abandon some or all Israeli “settlements” on the West Bank as its centerpiece.

The problem is, and has been, that although majorities (smaller in Israel, except among Israeli Arabs) on both sides support a “two state for two peoples” solution, neither can agree on exactly what the parameters of such a deal would entail. The devil is decidedly in the details. Moreover, the political winds regarding solutions are shifting as well. In an article in the current edition (December 2010) of Current History, for instance, Tamar Hermann details these changes, which include a vast weakening of Israeli political parties and a movement to the political right generally among Israelis. The right, of course, has formed the basic opposition to movement toward a permanent agreement with the Palestinians, at least on terms the Palestinians are likely to accept. Within that has become an almost institutionalized atmosphere of distrust and cynicism on both sides, the result has been an enormous inertial force that the Obama administration has proven unable to start moving.

Inertia, of course, serves the purposes of those on the political right in Israel, at least in the short run. The electoral base of Igvador Lieberman’s Beit Yisreal is based on settler (especially immigrant settler) support, which opposes a Palestinian state and backs expanded settlements. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shares opposition to negotiating away the West Bank because, as Hermann puts it, “Israel’s control of the occupied territories is in Netanyahu’s view justified by two equally important arguments: the Jews’ historical claim to the promised landand the constant existential threats that faces them.” The validity of these arguments is almost beside the point; the point is that these positions are now the Israeli positions and ones from which the leadership is not likely to budge. The Americans (and certainly the Palestinians) may not like this,but there is little they can do short of threatening a breach of relations with Israel, a position that is politically untenable in the United States.

It is within this setting that a confident Netanyahu has suggested a “reset” of the terms of negotiation between the parties. This position starts from the premise that fundamental territorial adjustments (e.g. abandonment of all or most West Bank settlements) is no longer a viable basis for an agreement, and that some other basis (a “reset”) must form that basis. Neither the Obama administration or the Palestinians are exactly ecstatic about this position, but there it is.

Among the more innovative proponents of a reset has been Lieberman, the controversial Israeli foreign minister. He has suggested, for instance, the cessation of a small amount of occupied territory to the Palsetinians that would leave the larger and more prominent settlements intact. In particular, he suggests ceding an area near the old pre-1967 border within Palestine known as the Triangle and the Arab neighborhoods of East Jeruslaem into the Palestinian state. According to Sergio DellaPergola (also writing in the December 2010 Current History), the Triangle contains an Arab population of 300,000 and 275,000 Arabs live in East Jerusalem, thus adding nearly 600,000 Arabs to the Palestinian state.

Lieberman’s proposal has not gained great traction. Other Israelis consider the ceding of any part of Jerusalem unacceptable, and Palestinians counter that it still leaves much too much of the West Bank under Israeli occupation and control. It is probably as great a concession as the current Israeli government might be willing to make, and it looks like it is not enough.

There seem to be two realities at work here, neither of which bode well for progress toward peace. One is that the current framework for negotiations is not working, mostly because neither of the main proponents truly wants the framework to succeed (or is unwilling to take the steps to make it work, which in effect is the same thing). The other is that some alternative base–a “reset”–appears to be needed to get the talks moving, and nobody has found an acceptable reset button. The simplest and, applying the principle of Occam’s Razor, most likely reason is because neither side wants a permanent settlement worse than the present situation. Until that changes, pushing reset buttons will continue to be an exercise in futility.