Guns boomed on Saturday on the iron clad boundary on the 38th Parallel between The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or simply North Korea and its southern neighbour, South Korea. This is said to be the second most heavily defended border in the World, after India and Pakistan. While all sane people hoped that this could be more of an accident than a design, it happened at the most inopportune time, when the World awaits with bated breath at what the enigmatic and elusive leader, Kim Jong Il of the only communist pariah in modern times does on Sunday and the days ahead.
The wheel in the Korean peninsula appears to have turned full circle as in the early 1950’s, American general, Douglas MacArthur, the charismatic leader who led the allied forces to victory had proposed use of nuclear weapons against the North Koreans to ensure total subjugation. The wily General had to relinquish his command and fade away into history after a most brilliant military-diplomatic career spanning over four decades. The time was perhaps not opportune then, with Communist giants former Soviet Union and China supporting North Korea, Macarthur’s prescription may have been an invitation to disaster.
Yet today the World faces a much more piquant strategic situation than in the 1950’s. Seeing its economy in the doldrums as its Southern twin prospers each day, the North’s only trump to keep the regime going has been the nuclear weapon, especially when the missile tests held a few months back were a miserable failure.
Every despot needs a symbol to prop up his image amongst his captive constituency of supporters at home and Kim Jong Il is no exception. The community of sycophants on whom he is dependent is most vulnerable to subversion as their survival is dependent on a shrewd analysis of the rising stars in the hierarchy.
They constantly monitor the risk of supporting the man in the chair and could withdraw at the slightest sign of any weakening. The first weapon used by autocrats is suppression of dissent including information from abroad. Providing proof of infallibility of the regime through demonstration of military might such as missiles and nuclear weapons is another stratagem useful in retaining power.
At one stroke it will enable Kim to undermine the economic and political advantages made by South Korea over the years by projecting that it remains vulnerable to the North’s nuclear strikes coming as it is after the missile tests. Kim Jong Il is assured of survival in the years ahead and the global leaders particularly in the most prosperous nations of the World, America, Japan and South Korea will continue to remain in a tizzy, providing further proof to Kim’s display of power to the domestic audience.
Some analysts predict that North Korea already has a nuclear arsenal worth 10 to 15 weapons, a clandestine acquisition through a series of international networks, the most famous being A Q Khan’s Pakistan based Khan Laboratories which has also contributed to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Then what is the significance of the tests. Let there be no doubts, the first target is the US congressional elections. The North Korean regime has not been comfortable with the Bush administration which has classified it openly amongst its enemies. A confrontation with America may work both ways for Kim Jong Il, it would bolster the opposition to the Republicans or provide them support due to their firm stand in an increasingly dangerous World.
North Korea has perhaps based its calculations of confrontation on edging out support to the Republicans, thereby resulting in a Democratic led Congress taking up office in January, which would be seen as severely curtailing the powers of the US President. Let there be no mistake, Iran too is basing its calculus on just such an asymmetry in equation emerging in American polity. With leadership change in Japan, testing the new Prime Minister would also be another fringe benefit and then it is also a signal to South Korea, with its foreign minister Moon set to take over the secretary general’s post at the UN.
So the timing is opportune for Kim. But it is equally so for the coagulating forces to seduce North Korea to cap its nuclear genie. The United Nations Security Council statement warning North Korea to avoid a nuclear test on Saturday was a clear indication that even the staid body is sufficiently concerned by the threat.
This was followed up by Japan and diplomacy by South Korea and the United States. Undoubtedly China is the key player; it has sufficient clout with North Korea to stave off the immediate crisis which spans the US Congressional elections. There after which concerted negotiations to provide Kim Jong Il a viable option of abdicating the nuclear choice without being seen as being coerced into the same needs to be evolved for which the diplomatic and political machinery has to work over time.
For a North Korean nuclear test would imply that even Iran is not too far behind and open declaration of nuclear capability by a pariah state will cause tectonic convulsions to the global system.