Monthly Archives: April 2012

North Korean Nuke Test Less than It Appears

North Korea is reportedly preparing for its third nuclear test. Here’s why I’m not worried about it.

My reaction is not dictated by complacence about nuclear proliferation, which I consider about the most serious problem there is in the field of war and peace. North Korea’s ability to master nuclear weapons technology and share it with others for a price is a serious danger. Also, I worry about the North Korean regime in general since it is unpredictable, bellicose, and prone to acts of aggression — like sinking a South Korean warship two years ago, killing 46.

But let’s put a third nuclear test in perspective. First of all, it’s anomalous and just marks North Korea as a rogue, outlier state (as if we needed further evidence). That’s because the north’s two (about to be three?) nuclear tests are the only nuclear explosions set off in the current century, 11+ years. Even though the USA hasn’t ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the treaty might as well be in effect in terms of behavior. Nobody is testing anymore. Except North Korea.

The first nuclear test in 2006 did not surprise me. North Korea had operated a nuclear reactor and extracted plutonium, reportedly enough for something like 8-10 bombs. But would the bomb design work? One thing about dictators is that they’re somewhat paranoid about the people who work for them, so I can imagine Kim Jong Il wanting to know if the thing worked. They tested one and it fizzled. So the second test in 2009 was also not a surprise. They had to see if they’d corrected whatever was wrong. They had, and the explosion had a force about equivalent to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

Since then, since North Korea had destroyed its reactor during one of the peace deals, it’s plutonium supply has been quite limited, and western governments would be happy to see it used up in tests, leaving a smaller arsenal each time.

Then it turned out North Korea had a separate program to enrich uranium for a bomb. They showed it off to a U.S. scientist in 2010, and he was impressed. But here’s the thing: Getting plutonium is easy but making a plutonium bomb is quite difficult, whereas getting enriched uranium is hard but making it into a bomb is easy. So having mastered a plutonium bomb, the North Koreans hardly need to test a uranium bomb to know it will work, if they have the uranium. As a matter of fact, when the United States invented atomic bombs in 1945, it tested the first plutonium bomb in New Mexico and dropped the second one on Nagasaki. U.S. leaders dropped the first uranium bomb on Hiroshima  without testing it. They knew it would work.

And North Korea knows their uranium bomb will work. So either they test it just for show, or they test another plutonium bomb while reducing their plutonium stockpile (albeit developing a smaller weapon more ready to mount on missiles). Either way, who cares?  It’s sabre-rattling.

As for long-range missiles, North Korea definitely broke agreements including UN Security Council resolutions when it test-fired one recently. But the test failed, as have previous ones. It still moves their program forward to test a missile and have it crash (lessons learned), but it’s not exactly a clear and present danger to the USA.

North Korea’s real threat is not its nuclear or missile programs but its artillery massed within range of Seoul. In the first hours of a new Korean War, the south’s capital would be flattened. However, in the next few days the north would be overwhelmed, invaded, and its regime overthrown. The new young leader Kim Jong Un would probably be dead. Dictators don’t like that. So it just seems very improbable that the north would go beyond smallish provocations and slip into a real war.

The international community should not freak out about the north’s behavior, especially if there is a nuclear test soon. Nobody will die in that test, it won’t lead to a war, and it’s irrelevant to the real problem of proliferation. Six-party talks on resolving the North Korean nuclear problem are still the best hope, and we should be probing whether, beneath the bluster, the new leader may want to play Let’s Make a Deal.

Sudan at the Brink of War

The situation on the border of Sudan and South Sudan continues to worsen [Latest articles from NY Times and BBC], now teetering on the brink of an all-out war between two regular state armies, something that hasn’t happened in years and would be quite bloody (also probably indecisive).

In recent days South Sudanese forces have either withdrawn, or been forced out of, the Heglig oil fields just north of the border. That is good, as the UN Security Council had demanded such a pullout. Despite South Sudan’s claims to the territory, the Permanent Court of Arbitration has ruled it on Sudan’s side and the international community supports that border. The international community also wants the south to halt military aid to rebels allied to the south but living north of the border. It wants the north to stop air and ground attacks against the south. The north has also waged a brutal campaign against those rebels, reminiscent at times of the genocide in Darfur in western Sudan, for which Sudan’s president remains under indictment by the International Criminal Court.

Last week I speculated that South Sudan might just want to destroy the Heglig fields so that Sudan couldn’t enjoy the oil revenue that South Sudan can’t have (the pipeline from the South through Sudan being shut down in a dispute about pricing). Now, satellite photos show significant damage to the Heglig fields following the South’s visit.

The north meanwhile has bombed a market in a border town in the South, the latest of a string of northern air attacks on the south.  One can only assume the South will get its hands on some of the thousands and thousands of portable anti-air missiles looted from Colonel Gaddafi’s stockpiles in Libya last year. That could somewhat restrain the north’s air dominance.

Most worrisome is the massing of ground forces against each other along the border. The tit-for-tat raids and skirmishes — at heart a bloody dispute over oil transit fees — could at any moment tip over into all-out war fueled by religious divisions (north Muslim, south Christian and animist) and by the fresh wounds of decades of civil war before last year’s independence.

The rhetoric out of the Sudanese government in recent days has gone red-hot, with the president calling the southerners “insects” and vowing regime change there by force, while a spokeperson said that it was a mistake to allow the south to become independent. This rhetoric aside, the fact is that the north did not manage to suppress the south by force over several decades of civil war, and will be even less able to do so now that the south is an independent member of the UN. (No member of the UN since its founding has ever been overrun and annexed by a neighbor.)

Folks, this is a terrible war that does not need to happen. The international community needs all hands on deck — the Chinese leaning on the north and the Americans on the south — to get both sides to comply with the recent UN Security Council mandate for a pullback 5 km from the border on each side. There is already a UN mission in South Sudan, but it is relatively small and weak in the circumstances. We should be rushing in more peacekeepers, equipment, and money to get stability back along the border. We should also be setting up a process including arbitration and financial monitoring to support the two sides in reopening the oil pipelines and sharing the revenue. The shared oil infrastructure gives the two countries a strong interest in cooperation, and we can only hope that with international support cooler heads will prevail and both countries can address their desperate poverty and not their threatening neighbor.

Two Places to Worry About

Right now two places in the world could get slowly better or rapidly worse. In Syria, the Kofi Annan peace plan brought together all the great powers in the first binding UN Security Council resolution on the year-old Syria crisis (Resolution 2042). The resolution endorses the Annan Plan and authorizes an unarmed UN monitoring force to be the world’s eyes on the ground and represent physically the international community and the Annan Plan. The first six people (of 30)  arrived Sunday night, with the plan to expand to 250 monitors if Syria allows it.

The need right now is to get the UN observers in as strongly and quickly as possible. Cease-fires are extremely fragile around the world, and in the past the UN has acted too slowly and war has reignited. That happened in Sierra Leone in 1997 when a cease-fire agreement ended a very brutal civil war. The UN was slow getting to the scene, months dragged on, and the agreement broke down as rebels attacked and army officers staged a coup. It was four years later before a stable peace arrived in Sierra Leone, backed up by a very successful peacekeeping mission.

In 1960, Ralph Bunche was able to assemble 3,500 peacekeepers and have them on the ground in the Congo in four days after a Security Council decision. He felt that speed of arrival was more important than quality or size of the force. The UN’s presence in Syria signals all Syrians that the Annan Plan is the legitimate blueprint for what should happen. The odds are stacked in some ways against the plan’s success, given the Assad regime’s past behavior, but the United States needs to throw its weight fully into using the UN in Syria and thus working with, not against, Russia in solving the Syria problem. A cease-fire is the most important first step, so maintaining and improving it is the top priority. Russia must press Syria hard to stop its use of violence.

The second place to worry about right now is South Sudan. Here the Americans, UN, and international community have been very involved for years in trying to bring about a peaceful separation of South Sudan from Sudan. The effort came to fruition with South Sudan’s indepence last year, but then relations between the two countries took a turn for the worse and have gone further downhill this year.

The first big conflict was about armed opponents of the Sudanese government, who sided with the south in the long civil war but whose communities ended up on the north side of the border in the peace agreement. Sudan harshly suppressed these rebellious areas and the UN was not large or strong enough to do anything. Some cross-border skirmishing resulted. Next South Sudan said that Sudan hadn’t paid for oil from the south that transits the north to get to an export port. The south shut off its oil production, depriving both itself and the north of desperately needed revenue. Meanwhile there is a border town whose status was not quite nailed down in the peace agreement, and where Ethiopian UN peacekeepers are now trying to keep a calm. And on top of that, the area is prone to large-scale cattle raiding among rival tribes, now involving automatic rifles and occasional massacres of hundreds of civilians.

Recently the two regular armies, north and south, have begun fighting directly. The south occupied an oil field just over the border, perhaps just to complete the shutdown of oil through Sudan. The north bombed a strategic bridge in the south. So while the level of fighting is still restricted to skirmishing, it is in imminent danger of escalating to all-out fighting.

On Friday the UN Security Council issued a statement demanding that South Sudan withdraw from the oil town it occupies in the north, and that both sides pull back military forces 5 km from the border. The president of South Sudan says he refused the “order” of the UN secretary-general to withdraw, responding that “I’m not under your command. … I’m head of a state, an independent state…”

Precedent is a cause for worry. After Eritrea split off peacefully from Ethiopia in 1993 (after 32 years of fighting), the two fell into conflict again and ended up fighting a years-long war that killed 50,000. It was artillery-duelling trench warfare over an insignificant disputed piece of territory in the middle of nowhere.

It was also the last time two regular state armies fought a sustained war in that way. In 2003 the U.S. and Iraqi armies fought for a few weeks, and in 2008 the Russian and Georgian armies fought for five days. Since then, the only fighting between regular state armies has consisted of short skirmishes that do not escalate. North Korea sank a South Korean ship, and later shelled civilians on an island. Thailand shelled Cambodian troops near a disputed spot on the border, with sporadic fighting between the two sides lasting for months (now abated after an unusual intervention by the World Court). Israel and the Lebanese army exchanged lethal fire on a very small scale not long ago. But on the great majority of days in recent years, no fighting took place anywhere in the world between the regular armies of the world’s states — a remarkable change from most of history.

Currently the fighting between the north and south in Sudan is ongoing, though still sporadic. Will it deescalate like Thailand and Cambodia, or escalate like Ethiopia and Eritrea? The UN is in South Sudan trying to support the peace agreement, but could use a lot more support. The United States should work to mobilize that support from the international community.


Note: Kofi Annan’s brilliant career at the UN is described in a chapter of my book Winning the War on War. And remember, pronounce it Annan to rhyme with cannon.

In Praise of Cease-Fires

The most important step in ending the world’s civil wars (there are no interstate wars these days) is to move from low-level fighting to a cease-fire agreement. Lately the world is making some progress in that regard, though with some movement backward as well.

Start with the progress.

In Burma (Myanmar), the government, as part of a general move toward (some) democracy and liberalization, has vowed to reach cease-fires in its ethnic wars, which have dragged on for decades along the borders. The most important, the Karen (Karin) ethnic group, signed a cease-fire with the government in January and, after some further fighting, a stronger cease-fire agreement last Friday (photo above). However, another ethnic group, the Kachin, has been fighting the government since a 17-year cease-fire broke down last June. China has backed the Burmese government and bought a lot of wood, minerals, and other natural resources there. China’s interests are in secure trade through quiet border regions, which cease-fires promote. (China does worry that Burma’s reforms are drawing it toward the west; Britain’s prime minister will visit Burma this week.)

In India, some similar little armed conflicts have also dragged on for decades. India’s government periodically battles several secessionists in the northeast, several Maoist groups in the southeast, and Islamist militants in Kashmir in the west. A few weeks ago the government and one Maoist group began observing a cease-fire and the Maoists named three negotiators to talk with the government. The Kashmir conflict used to cause skirmishing between India and Pakistan’s regular armies, but that has become rare. Today Pakistan’s president even visited India for brief talks, the first such visit in seven years.

In both Colombia and Peru recently, the government side has killed the rebel leader and greatly reduced the potency of the insurgency. What remains in each country is a drug trafficking gang with a thin veneer of political ideology. Peru’s war essentially ended many years ago, with unimportant remnants left, but Colombia suffered for decades with serious armed conflict until the recent years of lower violence. A cease-fire in Colombia could be within sight this year.

Less hopefully, there is a cease-fire at the moment in Mali. Ethnic Tuareg rebels have come home heavily armed from Libya, where they fought for Gaddafi, and seized the northern part of Mali, which they have declared independent. The government, trying to recovered from what seems likely to be a short-lived coup, has not mobilized to take back the territory with the help of the armies of ECOWAS countries (the West African regional organization). When it does, the war presumably will resume. The Tuareg rebels, with their Gaddafi connection and some al Qaeda fighters in their midst, are trying to violate the top principle of African countries since independence — no secessions by force. If the rebels are smart, they will try immediately for negotiations to retract their independence idea and work for autonomy, with local authorities and the central government sharing revenue. Since I’m not sure the rebels are that smart, the war will probably resume as ECOWAS takes back northern Mali for the restored civilian government of Mali.

In Somalia, there is definitely not a cease-fire, but the capital has enjoyed a resurgence since the government pushed out al Shabab rebels (fundamentalist Islamists affiliated with al Qaeda) last August with military force provided by the African Union. The government/AU offensive intensified in January. Ethiopian forces pushed back Somalia’s rebels on their side of the country, while Kenya pushed into Somalia on their side. The war continues, but the progress is welcome after so many years. The famine in southern Somalia has ended, although famine risk remains.

In Syria, there was supposed to be a cease-fire tomorrow, but the Assad regime is worming out of it as many expected. Now they say they won’t stop the killing until the opposition signs a pledge to stop violence and foreign countries promise not to send arms and support to the Syrian rebels. The opposition Free Syrian Army should have called the government’s bluff and signed off to stop violence when the government does, but instead they refused to sign.  So that conflict grinds on, as do the diplomatic efforts of the UN/Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to solve it.

In Gaza, the militant group Islamic Jihad, which had been fighting with Israel recently, declared a cease-fire on Friday. The larger group Hamas, which controls Gaza, was already in a cease-fire with Israel and did not participate in the recent fighting (airstrikes on Gaza and rocket attacks on Israel).

In Libya, last week a cease-fire ended ethnic fighting that had killed about 150 people in a southern city. The war in Libya is over but violence still breaks out as militias from different towns jockey for control.

In Afghanistan, as far as is publicly known, peace talks never really got off the ground, and there is no prospect for a cease-fire in sight. Pakistan is similarly far from a cease-fire. Other, lower-scale conflicts grind along, as in southern Sudan, northern Nigeria, and (still) Iraq. But the world continues to inch toward peace as the 21st century unfolds.

Democracy — Three Steps Forward

Democracy is a great force sweeping the world in slow motion. Today Burma (Myanmar) took an important step toward democracy with minor parliamentary elections that elected the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to a seat after 20 years of harsh military rule. She may run for president in  three years. The last elections, in 1990, were swept by her party and then ignored by a military government that kept her under house arrest for years at a time. The country has been isolated and under stiff international sanctions for decades. In 2007 the regime used massive lethal force to put down demonstrations led by Buddhist monks, just as it had shot protesting students in the streets in 1988. There is still a long way to go for Burma to reach real democracy — and end several long-running ethnic wars — but under its new reform-minded president it is moving vigorously forward.

In Senegal, meanwhile, a long drama of democracy ended six days ago when the incumbent president Abdoulaye Wade picked up the phone to call his challenger on election night and conceded defeat. This simple act, taken for granted in mature democracies, was anything but certain until the end. Wade had been in power for two terms, twelve years, and was running for a controversial third term. (The constitution limited him to two, but since that provision was passed after he first took office he said it did not apply, and the Constitutional Council led by his appointee agreed.)

Wade is officially 85 years old — many believe he is actually older — and seemed to be grooming his son to succeed him. All of this rubbed Senegalese the wrong way, and young people took to the streets in violent clashes with security forces before the election. In the end, Senegal’s traditions of democracy and non-dynastic succession carried the day. Wade has received great praise for accepting defeat graciously, and everyone hopes this will be a model for other long-term leaders who might prefer to cling to power.

Another long-standing African democracy, Mali, suffered a setback recently when young soldiers staged a coup — oddly, just before a presidential election was scheduled anyway. They claimed the government was not doing enough to combat a secessionist insurgency in the remote north of the country, where Tuareg ethnic rebels who had worked for Libya’s Gaddafi returned to Mali with their weapons after Gaddafi’s overthrow.

The results of the coup show democracy’s resilience these days. First, it was widely condemned by everyone from Mali’s neighbors to the great powers. Sanctions were to begin shortly if the coup leaders persisted. The presidents of nearby African countries tried to fly into the country to talk to the young coupsters, but couldn’t land after coup supporters blocked the runway. Meanwhile the coup had the opposite of the desired effect on the war in the north, since the Tuareg rebels took advantage of the chaos to go on the offensive and capture more territory and towns than ever. Currently they are attacking the ancient city of Timbuktu.

And today, under these pressures, the coup leaders backed down and declared that they would restore the constitution and return power to civilians. This process could still go astray, but what choice to they have really? The coup d’etat is so 20th century, and seems out of place in today’s world. Democracy will likely return soon to Mali. Dealing with the rebellion in the north will be much harder though — a reminder that wars that end in one country can pop up in another one, like Rwanda’s genocide triggering fighting in Democratic Congo, or Uganda’s “Lord’s Resistance Army” of Joseph Kony bringing murder and mayhem to Central African Republic and South Sudan.

So, although wars have not died out yet, democracy continues to strengthen worldwide. Three steps forward should be celebrated, even as we keep working to oppose murderous dictatorships in Syria and elsewere. Let’s give our moral and practical support to today’s democracy proponents, who have their work cut out for them — Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, Senegal’s new president Macky Sall, and the civilians who will take back power in Mali.