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North Korea is taking on the world, and we have no choice but to respond.

Nuclear Showdown (2005) is journalist Gordon G. Chang’s conclusion to his contribution to the study of North Korea as a East Asian and global crisis.

It was Chang’s chapter on Japan and the abduction issue that first caught my eye. I found the book as I flicked around the shelves of my local store and immediately I knew I had to buy it. I picked up the 2007 Arrow edition, which includes a new foreword addressing the October 2006 nuclear test.

Chang eases you into the book and takes you along a wandering argument that climaxes with an acknowledgement of the dangerous times in which we live. He is even-handed and incisive throughout, even if his somewhat flowery prose may grate at times. He writes well, although whoever decided to forego conventional footnoting for the bizarre system employed might need rounding up and shooting: finding the relevant comments and references is a pain in the ass.

Chang’s conception of North Korea is of a regime fighting to stay alive as capitalism wells up at the grassroots-level. Chang criticises the US for being to soft on North Korea’s past transgressions, such as the capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968, and for not negotiating and controlling North Korea’s nuclear rise in a consistent and firm manner. He also criticises America’s over-generosity to China who should now look to become a responsible world citizen by reining in its client state, or preferably abandoning it altogether. He criticises South Korea, particularly former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, for sustaining a fragile regime that relying on foreign aid for its survival while snubbing market reform as a result of the brewing bottom-up revolution.

On the issue of Japan, Chang is sympathetic to the country’s more immediate concern of attack: the pressing threat posed by North Korea acts more strongly on Japan than the US. He also notes the overwhelmingly political nature of the abduction issue and its emotional underpinnings. Japan is most at risk from a North Korean nuke, and as a result it is struggling to stay confined to the bounds of the constitution imposed upon it by the American post-War authorities. Despite that, it must: a Japanese bomb would create a whole new arms race and set of global tensions.

It is to this tension that Chang so skilfully leads the reader. For him, the North Korean problem highlights the challenge posed to the global hegemon, the US. Chang finds WWII to be apogee of US power, and from then on it has been relatively weakened as the destroyed nations around it have rebuilt. He is not implying that the US is by any means facing the end of its history, but rather that it has a chance to solidify its position.

Chang believes that the US should reinvigorate the non-proliferation norms and regime by carrying out what it committed to in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: the destruction of its nuclear stockpile. Chang suggests that even a wholesale, yet incomplete, dismantling of the US arsenal would show the state’s good intentions to the currently less-than-impressed non-nuclear powers. “The American president can give the order to eliminate all life on this planet several times over. If he decides to reduce his arsenal so that he can kill everybody only once, are his constituents any less safe?”

Chang is encouraging the US to take the bold step to make an example of North Korea. By unilaterally reducing its nuclear stockpile it will show its commitment to a non-nuclear future. He also encourages the US to be tough on North Korea in the Six-Party Talks and place all the issues on the table: from human rights to counterfeiting. By doing so, the Chinese and South Koreans will be forced to take sides (all the while under pressure from the international community to take the most reasonable side, that of the US). Ultimately, however, Chang believes that the US should be prepared to make an example of North Korea by committing itself to a possible use of force. “But if there ever were a reason to go to war, it is to save the nonproliferation treat and the global arms control regime. No other justification for conflict comes close.”

Chang’s argument is bold in and of itself. He is pessimistic for our future, and quite rightly so. At the moment, his work is still relevant. In the three years since Nuclear Showdown was first published, little progress has been made. Whether one accepts his conclusions is down to the individual, but the claims presented are well-linked and researched and show a broad understanding of the North Korean crisis in the context of global security.

Maybe our struggle with [Kim] is not the clash of good and evil, as some would have it, but it is at the very least a fight to preserve the liberal international system that has been responsible for so much global progress.

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3 Comments

  1. So whats you comment about the escalating tension and the current hostile rethoric between the two Korean governments?

  2. Hey, good to see you back :)

    Any rising tensions are down to two things.

    Firstly, the more conservative government in the South (at last!) As Chang writes in the book (and something I agree with, particularly in relation to former President Roh) South Korea has been a crucial force in keeping the North afloat.

    While we still cannot expect the South to fully follow the US-line, we can at least be content that they are actually willing to be critical of the North. In this regard, President Lee Myung-bak might be the most important force in the nuclear crisis for the past decade. The South has to pressure the North or else there is no point to any of the diplomacy that has gone on before.

    Secondly, rhetoric comes easy to the North Koreans. When they don’t get their way, they attempt to blackmail their way to aid and recognition. They are failing to act in the Six-Party Talks (and the US appears to have lost interest) and it appears that the regime is being threatened by the South’s tougher stance on aid. The increased rhetoric is a sign that they are being frustrated in their other efforts and thus we might welcome fraying ties between the Koreas. We are not about to see a war over this – and I hope those aren’t my famous last words.

  3. Just exactly as I thought.

    I think the North thinks that South Koreans are generally risk-averse and would rather pour aid to Pyongyang than risk hostile rethoric. That’s probably the reason behind their hostile rethorics: to generate fear among South Koreans so they can somehow force the new president to adopt softer policies towards Pyongyang. I understand that there would be legislative elections in the South this April (?).

    It’s about time the South adopt a less soft approach towards the North. Lee should stay the course. Years of Sunshine have failed to make Kim Jong Il behave better.

    I have written a post on this, btw: http://thenutbox.i.ph/blogs/thenutbox/2008/04/03/empty-threats-from-north-korea/


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