Columns, Opinion

SMITH: North Korea: Vice or Vaccine?

The world of international diplomacy is seldom clear cut. There are two-faced intentions, back-room deals and many, many complex, nuanced relationships.

And then, sometimes, there aren’t.

North Korea’s role as the world’s go-to source of ire is hardly new. Ever since it broke the bonds of Japanese imperialism following WWII, the nation has overcompensated for its small size by taking hyper-aggressive stances on virtually all international diplomatic issues. First came the invasion of its southern neighbor in the 1950s. Following this, and its near-conquest by a U.S.-led United Nations force, it’s been North Korea’s close relationship with its fellow communist neighbor China that has kept the country safe and relevant in the international community. China stuck by North Korea through its development of Nuclear weapons during the 1990s, a regime change from founder Kim Il-Sung to his less-than-imposing son Kim Jong-il and the subsequent regime change last year to Jong-il’s 28-year-old son Kim Jong-un.

Recently, though, China has abandoned its unabashed support of the North in a rather sudden way. It joined the rest of the UN Security Council earlier this month in condemning North Korea’s most recent nuclear test, offering its support for UN sanctions in order to further financially cripple its neighboring country. It appears North Korea has all at once lost its closest, most powerful and only ally.

To precipitate such a dramatic turn of events, one would expect the instigating actions on the part of North Korea to have been severe, even dire. At the end of the day, though, the flurry of North Korean activity over the last couple of weeks amounts to nothing more than mere posturing to gain attention from an international community that’s turned its back. It’s easy to forget that no lives were lost in the recent nuclear test or the long-range missile test a few months prior. The same cannot be said of the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean naval ship, carried out under the orders of the late Jong-il. Forty-six lives were lost in that incident.

What, then, makes the North’s recent, non-lethal actions under Kim Jong-un so reprehensible in China’s eyes? A part of it might be the rapidly fleeting notion that a power shift to a young, western-educated 20-something would result in liberalization and openness for the North, something China has likely been hoping for for a decade, as it rapidly marches toward its own blend of political and economic liberalization. If the North were to take the path of China, and embrace the West to a degree, China would no longer have to embarrass itself by posturing for an unpopular North.

The North’s recent conservative backslide suggests to me that it’s really the all-powerful military calling the shots in North Korea, utilizing young Kim Jong-un as a figurehead to present a unified front and capitalize on his popular family legacy in the country. To some, this represents a disaster scenario ­— an all-powerful military oligarchy not held accountable to the people of its nation, with a chip on its shoulder and ready access to a nuclear arsenal.

I, uncharacteristically enough, say bring it on.

Like I said, the world of IR is unpredictable. Those who you think are your friends may turn around and stab you in the back, those who you think you are your exclusive customers may very well be dealing on the side. In this day and age of uncertainty, North Korea provides a shiningly clear, little-black-curly-mustache-twisting example of an old fashioned villain. And that, believe it or not, can sometimes be worth its weight in gold.

If we’re being entirely honest, things have gone a bit south for us both militarily and diplomatically since the end of the Cold War. The ‘90s were a decade of boy bands and false security, of flaccid military stagnation. 9/11 was a wakeup call that would not have been as severely felt — might not have happened at all — had we still been geared up in Cold War survival mode. For the last 12 years we’ve worked painfully back into practice fighting an enemy, in the form of terrorism, that’s loosely defined, globally dispersed and easily blended with the local population. Certainly today’s War on Terror is necessary, is just and may even turn out to be worth it. For now, though, the United States military, and the United States people, whether they like it or not, are looking for a definite enemy.

U.S. President Barack Obama announced yesterday that he is stepping up production of missile defense systems — that is, weapons designed to knock missiles out of the sky should the U.S. ever come under nuclear attack. He’s taking them out of Eastern Europe, where they were planned to block a distant and unlikely Russian threat, and moving them to the West Coast and to Alaska, in order to counter North Korea, our sudden real and present danger. It’s unlikely the North’s clunky and underpowered nukes are small enough to be mounted on missiles, or that they will be for another decade. But Obama isn’t taking any chances, and the American people are relieved a little, just as they are a little fearful of this strange little country across the ocean.

I’m not saying we are in a new Cold War. I’m not saying I want to be. What I’m saying is that sometimes a little finite hatred can go a long way.


Colin Smith is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences, and a weekly columnist for the Daily Free Press. He can be reached at [email protected]

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