On October 18, I attended a CIS Lecture given by Dr. Jeffrey Lewis on North Korea’s developing nuclear program and what it means for the US and China.
The event opened with an introduction by an OU Professor. It was ominous– he described how triangular relationships in International Relations are never stable. However, despite this, the intro had me anticipating Dr. Lewis’s presentation and curious as to how he would forecast the “North Korea problem.”
Dr. Lewis, from the start, spoke about some potentially terrifying themes with a refreshing sense of humor and realism. And as an expert in the politics of nuclear proliferation, he possesses an accurate sense of what the U.S. has, or does not have, in store in regards to Kim Jong Un. He understands that history tends to repeat itself, and that in order to make some sense of a nuclear future, we must first look to the past.
I know little about China’s nuclear program, when it developed, and how the U.S. responded to it on its advent. However, Dr. Lewis brought us through these things, and I learned that the U.S. was equally paranoid of China’s nuclear potential in the 1960s and 70s as it is today with North Korea. The U.S. refused to believe that China was capable of or would be willing to successfully create a nuclear weapon; so, China responded not-so-subtly by flying a live warhead on a missile over their country.
In the age of smartphones and social media, security experts, TV pundits, and politicians alike have access to the multiple pieces of propaganda released by North Korea, boasting of their latest achievements both in the lab and on the testing ground. Despite these desperate cries to be believed, many in the U.S. are clinging to the hope that North Korea will fail to develop a long-rage weapon. Yes, the thought is terrifying. But what Dr. Lewis finds even more terrifying is the U.S. refusing to accept the fact, thereby preventing any efforts on our part to prevent them from using these weapons. North Korea could easily concoct some attention-grabbing feat like China did– which would only raise tensions.
Dr. Lewis argues that we, as a nation, should not gaze upon these (slightly humorous) photos of Kim Jong Un and his h-bombs with fear or reject them all together, but instead, we should learn from them. Dr Lewis possesses the super-human ability to recognize their parts and how they function– something that I realize most people do not.
However, even the slightest, seemingly insignificant details of these photos have something to tell. For example, Dr. Lewis pointed out what looked to be a Rolex watch on the wrist of one of the men facilitating a test. For a nation plagued by poverty and food shortages, a Rolex watch on anyone outside of the Royal Family would probably mean that this man did something to please his leader. I cannot remember the results of the particular test in this photo, but it is safe to say that anything less than satisfactory would mean bye-bye Rolex. Basically, for a society so shrouded in mystery, ANYTHING we can glean on its internal workings will help us in our dealings with them.
As for how these issues affect US-China relations, Dr. Lewis was unsure. He emphasized, though, how we cannot understand China’s relationship with North Korea to be supportive or rosy. It may be the opposite, in fact. China had nothing to do with North Korea’s nuclear developments, nor does it encourage them. Just because China has preserved business relations with North Korea and refused to sanction them, does not mean they approve. It is simply an alternate model of working with the country, in which less is in the dark and communication is possible. I do not disagree with this model, but I think that the U.S. would have a long way to go before such a method is taken.