Sunday, April 14, 2013

What about North Korea?

As I write this it's just a little before midnight on the Korean Peninusula, 14 April 2013.  April 15 is the 101st birthday (Western count) of one of the most brutal dictators in history, Kim Il Sung of North Korea (DPRK).  Since DPRK is figuring prominently in the news of late, we at Unforeseen Contingencies think it reasonable to devote a few posts to the subject.

One of the difficult things about making any pronouncement about the DPRK is that no one really seems to know what is happening within the leadership.  Certainly there's no way for an outsider, with access only to the news, to tell.  Heck, you can't even tell what is happening outside the DPRK.  China is massing its military forces on the border, only actually it isn't, except that it is, although no it isn't, and, well, maybe they are just prepping for NBC war.  (Notice that China's own Global Times is the source of many of these conflicting reports.)

Trying to figure out what is going on inside North Korea is much harder. Kim Jong Un might be seriously considering an attack.  He might be bluffing.  His strange pronouncements might be aimed at winning support of the military leadership, or maybe of the people, or maybe it's entirely designed to scare the West into negotiations.  Maybe the Chinese are putting him up to it.  Maybe not.  Some interpretations seem more reasonable than others to me, but I've read pundits and seen news stories that support every one of these interpretations, and others as well.

Here's my own interpretation of what's happening.  I think it's sensible, and it's in keeping with what some North Korean defectors, military analysts, and news reports suggest.  But like all the rest it's armchair analysis.  The cost to me if I'm wrong is zero, and it's worth every penny the reader must pay for it.

I think Kim Jong Un has no intention of starting an all-out war.  His "declaration" referred to responding to any attack, not initiating one.  There are three purposes for his wild and belligerent rhetoric. 1) He's responding to the increased sanctions placed by the U.N. after DPRK's most recent nuclear test.  He has to respond vigorously; the rest of the world must appear as an existential threat to a regime like his.  He also needs foreign support to keep the country from starving.  2) This response is particularly aimed at strengthening his support within the military.  North Korea's policy of Songun puts the military above all else -- indeed there's not much else to the DPRK economy and power structure.  Either Kim is a strong man among dangerous thugs, or he goes.  They devour him.  3) The country is starving.  The way to make people continue to accept this is to keep them thinking that no matter how bad it is, things could be much worse.  That, and continue the deification of the Kim dynasty.  Hence tell people that World War III is coming, that the imperialist devils of the United States and their South Korean puppets are about to attack... and then, when nothing happens, glorify the courageous and resolute response of Kim III for making the enemy back down and saving the world.

In my interpretation, Kim isn't crazy or stupid.  He likely has some ways of understanding the world that we'd find very odd -- he might believe to some extent in Juche and his own deity status, for example.  And he's certainly very dangerous.  Analyses that begin "he should realize that such a move [war] would signal the end of the DPRK " or that assert the DPRK leaders "are not suicidal" make no sense to me.  They assume as fact the very thing that needs to be established in figuring out what to do about North Korea.  Why should we think Kim III understands that he'd lose a war?  Or why assume he's not suicidal?  Without knowing what is happening within the leadership, how do we know there isn't some high level internal struggle occurring within the leadership, and the losers understand they'll be fatally purged and thus are willing to play a very high stakes game of chicken?  (One South Korean report that I can't find now claimed this, and named names; Kim Jong Il's sister and her husband are among the alleged warring parties.)  Or consider this: I read one analysis by a man who defected from North Korea some years ago claiming that the 1976 ax murder incident and accompanying hostilities had actually been instigated by Kim Jong Il to establish himself as a strong figure, and that he had to be reigned in by father before the confrontations got out of hand.  The defector suggested that Kim Jong Un is now engaged in the same sort of thing, establishing his reputation as a strong leader.  He also lamented that the chances of miscalculation and war are extremely high.

It makes sense to me that the U.S. not respond verbally and publicly to bellicose language but be ready to smash North Korean military targets in the event of any attack.  At present, North Korea probably cannot put a nuclear weapon on a missile and get either it or the missile to work.  Why wait until then can?  If they start something, it ought to be suicide for the regime.

In that light, the best single thing I've seen on how to respond to North Korea is this, from our Virtual President's recent new conference:

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