WASHINGTON – North Korea is at it again. Apparently dictator Kim Jong Un ordered another atomic test, claiming that this time it was a hydrogen device, and not a simple atomic bomb. On the basis of seismic data, Western observers dispute the claim, but everybody is worried.
A dictator with atomic bombs and missiles
An unpredictable dictatorship armed with atomic (or nuclear) weapons is obviously a source of concern. US military planners concede that soon enough North Korea may be able to launch ballistic missiles that can reach Alaska, Hawaii, and possibly the West Coast of the United States.
The world does nothing
What is most extraordinary in all this is that the entire world, while complaining, does absolutely nothing. Look, I do realize that it is not easy to fix this North Korean problem. This is after all a sizable country of about 25 million people, run by a despot with absolute powers.
The China angle
And there is an additional problem. In some fashion, China still supports the North Koreans. In fact many argue that without Chinese help the regime would probably collapse. Analysts believe that the semi-reformed Chinese would rather have North Korea run by crazy Jim Jong Un as a neighbor than a reunified, pro-Western Korea allied with the United States. For this reason, until China keeps supporting or at least tolerating North Korea, not much that the rest of the world can do.
Still, while allowing that Chinese political concerns have to be taken into account, I find this explanation for inaction close to absurd. Assuming Western unity and determination to get rid of the Kim dynasty in North Korea, there has to be a way to come to an agreement with China on a mutually acceptable future for a reunified, peaceful Korean Peninsula that will not threaten Chinese interests and security.
How strong is North Korea?
That said, how strong is North Korea? How big of a challenge is it? Yes, we do know that they are spending a great deal of resources on their nuclear program and on their military. But what about everything else? Well, here is how the CIA World Fact Book describes the North Korean economy:
“North Korea, one of the world’s most centrally directed and least open economies, faces chronic economic problems. Industrial capital stock is nearly beyond repair as a result of years of underinvestment, shortages of spare parts, and poor maintenance.
Large-scale military spending draws off resources needed for investment and civilian consumption. Industrial and power outputs have stagnated for years at a fraction of pre-1990 levels.
Frequent weather-related crop failures aggravated chronic food shortages caused by on-going systemic problems, including a lack of arable land, collective farming practices, poor soil quality, insufficient fertilization, and persistent shortages of tractors and fuel. The mid 1990s were marked by severe famine and widespread starvation. Significant food aid was provided by the international community through 2009. Since that time, food assistance has declined significantly. In the last few years, domestic corn and rice production has been somewhat better, although domestic production does not fully satisfy demand.
A large portion of the population continues to suffer from prolonged malnutrition and poor living conditions.”
A poor country
There you have it: “Industrial capital stock nearly beyond repair”, “chronic food shortages”, “severe famine”, “malnutrition”. Yes, this is mighty North Korea, the menacing foe that’s keeping the entire civilized world on edge. A poor country that cannot feed its people, relying on a decrepit industrial base.
Want more data? North Korea’s per capita GDP is US $ 1,800, one notch below super impoverished Haiti, a true basket case.
All in all, I would not call North Korea a formidable foe. This is not exactly Hitler’s Germany on the eve of WWII; nor does it look like the mighty Soviet Union of the 1970s.
This is an impoverished, horribly backward country, with no competitive economic sectors.
Powerless international community
And yet, the entire civilized world –The US, Canada, Japan, the European Union, South Korea, Australia, India and other developed countries– cannot come together to deal with this North Korea problem. They seem to be totally powerless when confronted with the threatening behavior of a third-rate dictatorship.
It is clear that North Korea is not deterred by anybody. For years it has been doing exactly what it pleases with its ongoing nuclear program. The country is obviously in violation, (multiple times), of international UN obligations regarding non proliferation. But, beyond routine protests and condemnations, neither Washington nor anybody else has done anything serious to make North Korea stop this.
Sadly, this timidity tells us a lot more about the fundamental weakness of the West than about North Korea’s strength. We are talking about the combined resources of the largest and most advanced industrial democracies of the world versus puny North Korea; and North Korea essentially wins –every time. It keeps violating major international obligations about non proliferation, and it pays no price.
How others see us
If this passivity regarding the illegal actions of a dictatorship with a decrepit economy, plagued by chronic malnutrition is the measure of Western resolve against rogue states exhibiting menacing behavior, then no wonder that Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the Chinese and the Iranians feel rather relaxed when dealing with Washington or Berlin.