Shadow Government

Death in the DPRK

2011 seems to be the year that the world has said goodbye to ruthless dictators and terrorists.  We have witnessed the deaths of Osama Bin Laden, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and now Kim Jong Il. They were all oppressive leaders who had no regard for their people or the sanctity of life, and all promoted international terrorist movements.

Granted two of the deaths came from military action and in areas where there exists a struggle for freedom and democracy. The death of the "Dear Leader" had nothing to do with North Korea's quest for freedom and democracy.  He died of a heart attack - apparently of "fatigue." 

Fatigue from what?  From over indulgence, love of fine wine and cognac, extravagant dinners, a decadent lifestyle, and a corrupt ruling class that has enriched itself at the expense of its own people. This man's lifestyle was grotesquely at odds with the suffering of his people.

We don't see North Koreans flooding to the streets to express a desire for freedom, democracy and self determination.  We see instead the thousands of crying and wailing citizens expressing great sadness that Kim Jong Il was taken too soon. Having been to North Korea several times I am not surprised to see this public response. Keep in mind that from birth, North Koreans are taught to worship "The Great Leader," "The Dear Leader," and now "The Great Successor."  

Those who live in the capitol, Pyongyang, are among the most privileged and benefit from a life far better than those in the countryside. Ordinary North Koreans have no access to outside information, something which is almost unthinkable in today's world but remains a chilling reality inside this secretive, paranoid and ruthless system. 

World leaders yesterday expressed concern and hope that the passing of Kim Jong Il may provide an opportunity for change. 

Would that it be true. Dan Blumenthal wrote yesterday that we should take no comfort in Kim Jong Un's succession, and I couldn't agree more.  Western leaders should send clear messages to the new regime that it will not tolerate aggression, the need to resume serious de-nuclearization talks, and push for North Korea's opening up to the region and the outside world.

Nor is this the time to rush and offer humanitarian assistance to try and use food aid as leverage with the new regime. Yesterday the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, expressed his sympathy to the North Korean people and pledged continued assistance to the people of North Korea. Similarly the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern for the well-being of the North Korean population, saying that the United States stands ready to help the people of North Korea, urging Kim Jong Un to usher in a new era of peace.  

Just last week the Obama administration had a team negotiating the possible resumption of food assistance. It is still just as important today to reiterate that the U.S. will only resume these activities if it can ensure that the intended nutritional supplements will reach those most in need. This is not a new scenario for North Korea. The regime has continually struggled to feed its people since the famine of the mid 1990s, when over one million people died from starvation. Every time the DPRK lurches back into the international headlines, inevitable questions arise over who is in control and just what messages are being sent to the outside world. It is no different today with the death of Kim Jong Il, and we can be sure that the North Korean military and power elite are setting up a proxy battle within their system.

Will relative pragmatists interested in working with the international community gain strength? Or will hard-line ideologues focused on maintaining power though Kim Jong Un win out, and thus continue isolation and oppression at all costs? If 2011 was the year that raised these and similar questions, then let us hope that 2012 is the year in which we can find some answers.

Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

Shadow Government

How Dangerous is the World? Part IV

In my previous three posts, I argued that the world today is more dangerous than it was during the Cold War because the threat from Russia and China is still present, on top of which we face new threats from new nuclear autocracies hostile to the United States, including North Korea, soon Iran, and possibly Pakistan.

In addition to the old-fashioned state-centric threats of hostile nuclear powers, the United States now faces a whole new category of threats that simply did not exist during the Cold War:  the threats that come when state failure meets globalization, when non-state actors can operate with impunity outside the write of any law but act with global reach because of new technology.  These are the threats that are the current fads of IR and security studies:  pirates, organized crime, drug cartels, human traffickers, WikiLeaks, hackers, the global Islamist "pansurgency," and, yes, terrorists.  (Throw in pandemic disease and ecological disaster and you get all the research funding you want.)

There is nothing new about the existence of many of these actors, of course.  Pirates and terrorists have existed for centuries.  However, their ability to present an immediate and large-scale threat to the United States is new, or at least greater than during the Cold War.  Travel and communication is easier and weapons technology is more lethal, state failure is more widespread (giving them more space to operate with impunity), while U.S. and allied border, port, and infrastructure security has not kept up.

I earlier argued that the faddish, new-fangled theories about non-state actors were overstated.  They are, but that doesn't mean they're completely wrong.  Osama bin Laden and Julian Assange clearly did massive and irrevocable harm to the United States in ways literally inconceivable for a non-state actor during the Cold War; the same may be true of the drug gangs in Mexico today.  Coupled with the United States' almost complete lack of homeland security, and there is a very real possibility of large-scale, massive, direct harm to the U.S. homeland from a globalized non-state actor.

The preeminent threat of this type is, of course, the global campaign by violent Islamist militants and terrorists to eject the "west" from "Muslim lands," overthrow secular governments and replace them with Islamic regimes, and establish the supremacy of their brand of Islam across the world.  (I agree here with David Kilcullen's characterization of the conflict as a global insurgency).  Violent Islamist movements have done most of their direct damage to people and states across the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.  But those attacks certainly don't make the world safer for the United States, nor would their victory in, for example, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.  And the movement has, of course, directly attacked the United States and our European allies.  Note that violent Islamist groups-whether al Qaida or Hamas or Hezbollah or al Shabaab or Lashkar-e Taiba-typically flourish in and around weak and failing states.

The only thing comparable to the global proliferation of Islamist insurgencies and terrorist movements over the last two decades was the Soviet Union's sponsorship of communist insurgencies around the world during the Cold War.  But the Islamist insurgencies are likely to be more resilient, harder to defeat, and more dangerous because they are decentralized, because their ideology is not linked to the fate of one particular regime, because globalization has made it easier for them to operate on a global scale, and because of the higher risk that Islamists will acquire and use weapons of mass destruction since they are not accountable to a deterable sponsoring power.

Even setting the threat from violent Islamism aside, a host of other non-state actors threaten the world order and make American leadership more costly.  In fact, the aggregate effect of state failure multiplied across scores of states across the world is so great that "failed states may eventually present a systemic risk to the liberal world order, of which the United States is the principal architect and beneficiary," as I argue in the current issue of PRISM.  State failure and the rise of non-state actors-a problem non-existent during the cold war-is a threat to American national security.


Essentially, the United States thus faces two great families of threats today:  first, the nuclear-armed authoritarian powers, of which there are at least twice as many as there were during the Cold War; second, the aggregate consequences of state failure and the rise of non-state actors in much of the world, which is a wholly new development since the Cold War.  On both counts, the world is more dangerous than it was before 1989.  Essentially take the Cold War, add in several more players with nukes, and then throw in radicalized Islam, rampant state failure, and the global economic recession, and you have today.

I recognize that the world doesn't feel as dangerous as it did during the Cold War.  During the Cold War we all knew about the threat and lived with a constant awareness-usually shoved to the back of ours minds to preserve our sanity-that we might die an instantaneous firey death at any moment.  We no longer feel that way. 

Our feelings are wrong.  The Cold War engaged our emotions more because it was simple, easily understood, and, as an ideological contest, demanded we take sides and laid claim to our loyalties.  Today's environment is more complex and many-sided and so it is harder to feel the threat the same way we used to.  Nonetheless, the danger is real. 

The next question is, if this is true, what implications should this have for our grand strategy and force posture?

Denise Truscello/WireImage