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Korean Rhetoric and Reality

Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said that North Korea was the “neighbourhod outlaw” after Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear weapons test on Friday. Barack Obama said that “The United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state.” Even China voiced its “firm opposition to the test.” And South Korea’s president, Park Gyeung-hye, accused North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim Jong-un of “maniacal recklessness”.

So far, so restrained – in stark contrast to the berserk threats and fulminations that are the usual fare in North Korea. (Promising to obliterate Seoul, the South Korean capital, in a “sea of fire” is a familiar favourite.)

But then a military spokesman of the South Korean government promised that Pyongyang “will be completely destroyed by ballistic missiles and high-explosive shells” if North Korea even thinks of launching a nuclear attack on the South. The city will be “reduced to ashes and removed from the map,” said the official – and districts of Pyongyang thought to be hiding the North’s leadership will be particularly targeted in the attack.

So much for restraint. Sixty-six years of intense hostility have bred an extreme brand of rhetoric on both sides of the border that sounds quite demented to the ears of outsiders. Germany was divided for 44 years, and hundreds were killed on the heavily fortified border between them, but you never heard this kind of invective coming out of the mouths of East or West German officials.

Maybe it’s just a stylistic thing, but it does suggest that the possibility of a real war between the two Koreas is higher than it ever was between the two Germanies. But why does North Korea need nuclear weapons to carry out its threats? It’s perfectly capable of destroying Seoul with “ballistic missiles and high-explosive shells” too.

The centre of Seoul, a city of 11 million people, is only 50 km from the North Korean border. Ordinary artillery could take out the northern half of the city, while short-range missiles dealt with the southern half. (North Korea has 21,000 artillery pieces and thousands of Scud missiles.) Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons must be for something else.

North Korea’s strategic problem is that it has no allies, while South Korea is allied to the world’s leading nuclear power, the United States – which has never promised not to use its nuclear weapons first. Pyongyang needs some means of deterring the use of American nuclear weapons in the Korean peninsula if there is a war.

This does not justify what North Korea is doing – United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon denounced the latest nuclear test as a “brazen breach” of UN resolutions – but it does explain it.

So Kim Jong-un, like his father and his grandfather before him, wants the ability to make nuclear attacks on America’s main Asian ally, Japan, for a start, and later on the United States itself. Regrettably, that’s how deterrence works.

The North Korean regime is almost uniquely awful, but the strategic logic would be exactly the same if it were run by much nicer people. And although the regime is completely paranoid, it is not crazy. It has not started a war in the past six decades, and there is no reason to think that it is planning one now.

North Korea’s paranoia is also misplaced, because nobody in the South dreams of reunifying the peninsula by war either. In fact, most people in South Korea would not welcome reunification now even if it happened non-violently.

I happened to be in Seoul interviewing somebody in the Korean Central Intelligence Agency building on the day in 1996 when the death of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, was announced. The scene that followed reminded me of the old naval adage: “When in danger or in doubt, Run in circles, Scream and shout.” But the dominant emotion was certainly not joy.

It was fear that the North Korean regime would collapse, and that newly prosperous South Korea, having dragged itself out of poverty by two generations of sacrifice, would inherit 25 million impoverished North Koreans with few skills relevant to a modern economy, and have to start all over again. Twenty years on, it’s almost certain that a majority of South Koreans still feel like that about it.

So there really is little risk of war – which is just as well, because there is also little chance of diverting Pyongyang from its course. Another round of sanctions will not do the trick – on Sunday Pyongyang said that the threat of “meaningless sanctions” was “highly laughable” – because the country is almost completely cut off from the global economy already.

Putting a Thaad anti-ballistic-missile unit in South Korea, as Washington has promised to do, will make the South Koreans and the Japanese feel a bit safer, but everybody is just going to have to live with the problem. They probably won’t die from it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“The centre…else”; and “This…it”)