15 December 2013
The North Korean Purge
By Gwynne Dyer
Purges in Communist states have rarely stopped with the execution of one senior Party member, especially when he has been tortured into “confessing” at his show trial that he was planning to stage a coup using “high-ranking military officers” and other close allies.
“I didn’t fix the definite time for the coup,” Chang Song-thaek, the former number two in the hierarchy of the world’s last totalitarian state, said at his trial. “But it was my intention to concentrate (my allies in) my department and in all the economic organs in the cabinet and become premier when the economy goes totally bankrupt and the state is on the verge of collapse.”
It’s most unlikely that Chang was really planning a coup, but all of his suspected allies and associates in his own department and other parts of the government, plus any senior military officers suspected of less than total loyalty to Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, are in grave danger. Only two of Chang’s aides have been killed so far, but hundreds or thousands of other people thought to be linked to him may suffer the same fate.
This is unquestionably the biggest internal crisis in North Korea since the early years of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the regime and grandfather of the current dictator. Challengers to the Kim family’s monopoly of power have often been killed, but this is the first public show trial in North Korea since 1958.
It’s also the first time that the regime has publicly admitted that there are rival factions in the senior ranks of the Workers’ (Communist) Party. It’s hard to believe that this will not be followed by a wider bloodbath among the leading cadres along the lines of Stalin’s purges in the former Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s in China. It’s harder to understand what is driving the current upheaval, but some plausible guesses are possible.
When Kim Jong-il, the father of the current ruler, was dying, he chose Chang as the man who would ensure a smooth transfer of power to his son. (Chang was married to the elder Kim’s sister, and was therefore presumably loyal to the family.) Chang acted as chief adviser to Kim Jong-un, who was only 28 and quite inexperienced when he inherited the leadership in 2011, and his manner sometimes seemed quite overbearing.
At the same time, Chang was the principal advocate within the regime for an economic opening on the Chinese model to rescue North Korea from its crushing poverty. To achieve that goal, he first had to wrest control of the country’s leading industries from the military, whose enterprises account for a third of the entire economy. This naturally made him an enemy in the eyes of the military establishment.
So we can speculate that Kim Jong-un, as he gained confidence in his own abilities, grew increasingly hostile to the dominating influence of Chang, who was more than twice his age. He would need allies before he moved against Chang, and many military officers were glad to oblige.
On this reading of events Kim wants to get rid not only of Chang but of the entire generation of older military and civilian leaders who secretly regard him as an upstart. His objective would be to replace them wholesale with younger men who owe their positions directly to him. Or maybe something else is at the root of all this turmoil: we simply don’t know.
What we do know is that there is great turmoil in North Korea, a nuclear-armed country with the fifth-biggest army in the world. Most people assume that at some point in the future the regime will collapse, and some well-informed people worry that the collapse could come quite suddenly and quite soon. Interestingly, almost nobody wants that to happen.
Most North Koreans don’t want it to happen despite the dreadful conditions they live in, because a lifetime of propaganda has convinced them that South Koreans (and everybody else) lives in even worse conditions than the citizens of the Workers’ Paradise.
Most South Koreans don’t want it to happen because they would then have the duty of rescuing 24 million North Koreans from dire poverty. In theory they want unification, but there are only 50 million South Koreans to bear the burden, and it would take a generation of sacrifice to accomplish that task.
Neither North Korea’s Chinese neighbours nor South Korea’s American allies want it to happen, because the collapse of the Pyongyang regime could bring them into direct conflict. As a recent study by the Rand Corporation pointed out, it would cause a race between Chinese troops and South Korean and American troops to take control of North Korea’s territory.
The Chinese would be determined to keep American troops away from their own border with North Korea. The South Koreans and their American allies would feel compelled to go to the aid of a North Korean population that was probably facing starvation by then. And both sides would be racing to gain control of North Korea’s nuclear weapons before something terrible happened.
In such circumstances, a collision between Chinese and South Korean/American forces is all too easy to imagine. Kim Jong-un is a very nasty piece of work, but a lot of people are praying for his survival.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 11 and 12. (“At the same…establishment”; and “Most North…task”)
15 April 2013
Parkinson’s Law Expanded
By Gwynne Dyer
“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion,” wrote Cyril Northcote Parkinson in 1955, and instantly created a whole new domain in the study of human affairs. “Parkinson’s Law” was one of the most profound insights of the past century, but he didn’t go far enough. There is a media corollary that doesn’t get nearly enough attention.
It is this: “International confrontations expand to fill the media space available.” There is a lot of media space available nowadays, and a striking shortage of truly terrifying international threats, so the few modest ones that do exist are magnified to fill the scary news quota.
That’s why you hear so much about the North Korean nuclear threat, the Iranian nuclear threat, and the international terrorist threat. Unless you live in South Korea, or Israel, or lower Manhattan, none of these “threats” will ever disturb the even tenor of your life – and even if you do live in one of those places, it is still very unlikely.
The very unlikely did happen in lower Manhattan once, twelve years ago, but it is very, very unlikely to happen there again. Nevertheless, 9/11 is used to justify an ongoing “war on terror” that has provided long-term employment for several million people and justified well over a trillion dollars in “defence” spending over the past decade.
Which brings us to another law, the Shirky Principle: “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” In other words, armed forces, intelligence services and those parts of the foreign policy establishment that have prospered from “fighting terror” will instinctively preserve that threat. They hunt down and kill individual terrorists, of course, but they also keep coming up with new terrorist threats.
Moreover, fighting terrorists does not justify aircraft carriers, armoured divisions, and planes like the F-35. Those branches of the armed forces need the threat of wars in which weapons like those might be at least marginally relevant.
Credible threats of high-intensity warfare are scarce these days, so you have to be creative. There is, for example, a remote possibility that the inexperienced young man who now leads North Korea might be paranoid enough, and the generals who supervise him stupid enough, to attack South Korean forces somewhere. That might lead to a major war in the peninsula.
The probability that this would lead to the use of nuclear weapons in the Korean peninsula is vanishingly small. The likelihood that it could lead to the use of nuclear weapons elsewhere is zero. Yet this confrontation is getting as much coverage in the Western mass media as the Berlin crisis did in 1961 – and the Asian media generally follow suit.
The same is true for the alleged Iranian nuclear threat. Iran is probably not planning to build nuclear weapons, and there is no chance that it would launch a nuclear attack on Israel even if it did build a few. Israel has hundreds of the things, and its response would destroy Iran. Yet the Israelis insist that it might happen anyway because Iranians are crazy – and both Western and Arab media swallow this nonsense.
Fifty years ago, during the Berlin crisis, a single misstep could have led to ten thousand nuclear weapons falling on the world’s cities. Bad things can still happen when politicians miscalculate, but the scale of the potential damage is minuscule by comparison. Yet our credulous media give these mini-crises the same coverage that they gave to the apocalyptic crises of the Cold War.
Hence Dyer’s Corollary to Parkinson’s Law: International confrontations expand to fill the media space available. Little ones will be inflated to fill the hole left by the disappearance of big ones. The 24-hour news cycle will be fed, and military budgets will stay big. You just have to keep the general public permanently frightened.
That’s easy to do, because people in most countries know very little about the world beyond their immediate neighbours. They’ll believe almost anything the media tell them – and most of the media go along with the official sources because scare stories sell a lot better than headlines about the remarkably peaceful state of the world.
How ignorant is the general public? Well, Hollywood recently remade a paranoid film of the 1980s called “Red Dawn”, in which Russian troops occupy the United States and gallant American high school students launch a guerilla war to expel them. Now the Russians aren’t the enemy any more, so this time the invaders are North Korean paratroopers.
The film doesn’t explain where a country like North Korea, with 25 million people, is going to find the troops to occupy the United States, which has 330 million. It doesn’t go into awkward details like how could huge North Korean transport planes, if they existed, make a 20,000-km. (13,000-mi.) round trip to drop those paratroopers on American cities. Why bother? Few Americans know how big North Korea is, or how far away it is.
Okay, that’s Hollywood, not CNN. But the difference between them is smaller that most journalists would like to believe.
Humbert Wolfe’s judgement almost a century ago still applies everywhere:
You cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank God!) the British journalist
But given what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 13, 14 and 15. (“How…believe”)
1 April 2013
A War in Korea?
By Gwynne Dyer
The US-South Korean military exercises will continue until the end of this month, and the North Korean threats to do something terrible if they do not stop grow more hysterical by the day. Last week the Great Successor, Kim Jong-un, was shown signing a decree that ordered North Korea’s long-range missile forces to be ready to launch against the United States, while senior military officers looked on approvingly.
On the wall behind Kim was a map, helpfully labelled “US Mainland Strike Plan”, that showed the missile trajectories from North Korea to Hawaii, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Austin, Texas. (Why Austin? Doesn’t he like indie rock?) It was a scene straight out of the villain’s lair in an early James Bond movie, except that they’d forgotten to set it in a cave.
These threats are so palpably empty that the instinct of both the Pentagon and the US State Department is just to ignore them. North Korea has no operational missile that can reach even western Alaska, no miniaturised nuclear warhead to put on such a missile, and no long-range targeting capability. But the politics of the situation demands that the US government respond seriously to every threat, however foolish.
So next year the US government will spend another billion dollars or so to place fourteen more anti-ballistic missile sites in Alaska, presumably to protect the Alaskan west coast and the Aleutian Islands from a North Korean nuclear strike. And last Friday it sent two B-2 bombers all the way from Missouri non-stop to drop bombs on some uninhabited islands near North Korea, just to remind Pyongyang that it can.
It’s all still just a charade, a spring display of military capacities by two rival armed forces that could as well be rutting deer. The United States would not even play this game if the logic of both international and domestic politics did not oblige it to respond to the increasingly rabid North Korean threats. But it is playing nevertheless, and the risk of miscalculation is quite serious.
Anybody who tells you he KNOWS what is going on inside the North Korean regime is a liar, but there are a few safe assumptions. Real decision-making power on war and peace almost certainly lies with the senior ranks of the North Korean army, not with young Mr Kim or the Communist Party. It’s also clear that Kim, new to power and insecure, feels the need to look tough, just as his father did when he inherited the leadership from Kim’s grandfather.
And nobody in the North Korean regime knows how things work in the rest of the world. They may even be genuinely afraid that the US-South Korean military exercises, although they have been held annually for decades, are this time only a cover for a plan to attack North Korea. After all, the regime’s founder, Kim Il-sung, concentrated his forces under cover of military exercises in just that way when he invaded South Korea in 1950.
The North Korean military doubtless understand that they must not get into a nuclear war with the United States, but they may believe that their dozen or so nuclear weapons make it safe for them to use conventional force without facing American nuclear retaliation. And they do have rather a lot of conventional military force at their disposal.
Kim Jong-un’s threats are being exposed as bluffs almost daily – the US-South Korean military exercises go on as though he had said nothing – and he may ultimately feel obliged to DO something to restore his credibility. It would probably be just a limited local attack somewhere, but in the current atmosphere, with both Seoul and Washington determined not to submit to psychological blackmail, that could escalate rapidly to full-scale conventional war.
It would be a major war, for although North Korea’s weapons are mostly last-generation, that is not such a big handicap in ground warfare as it is in the air or at sea. North Korean troops are well-trained, and there are over a million of them. Moreover, South Korea is compelled to defend well forward because holding on to Seoul, only 50 km (30 miles) from the frontier, is a political imperative. That makes it quite vulnerable to breakthroughs.
The North Koreans would attack south in a three-pronged thrust, accompanied by Special Forces operations deep in South Korean territory, just as they did in 1950. The geography gives them few alternatives.
US-South Korean strategy would also echo 1950-51: contain the North Korean attack as close to the border as possible, and then counter-attack up the west coast on an axis heading north through Kaesong to Pyongyang. That would once again be accompanied by a big amphibious landing well behind the North Korean front, this time probably at Wonsan on North Korea’s east coast.
Even if the North Korean air force were effectively destroyed in the first couple of days, as it probably would be, this would be a highly mobile, hard-fought land war in densely populated territory involving high casualties and massive destruction. The world has not seen such a war for more than fifty years now.
We really don’t need to see it again.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Anybody…1950”)
14 March 2013
The Koreas: The Risk of Miscalculation
By Gwynne Dyer
The joint US-South Korean military exercises known as “Key Resolve” and “Foal Eagle” have got underway, and so far the heavens have not fallen.
The American forces have not launched an unprovoked assault on North Korea, despite the strident claims of Pyongyang’s media that the exercises are a cover for exactly such a plan. In fact, joint exercises on this scale – they only involve 13,000 American and South Korean troops – have been held every year of the past forty, and pose no threat whatever to North Korea.
Neither has North Korea chosen to “defend its sovereignty”, as it recently threatened to do, by launching pre-emptive nuclear strikes against both the United States and South Korea. It could certainly do huge damage to South Korea, bur despite its successful nuclear and missile tests in the past three months it still lacks all but the most rudimentary capability to hit the United States.
Pyongyang’s nuclear test in February had twice the explosive power of the last one in 2009, but nobody believes North Korea’s claim that it has also made its bomb small enough to fit on the tip of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Nor does the Unha-3 missile, which Pyongyang used to launch a satellite in December, have the guidance systems and re-entry technology necessary to deliver such a nuclear weapon onto an American target – which would have to be in western Alaska, since that is the limit of the rocket’s range.
There is no doubt that Kim Jong-un’s regime is feeling extremely peeved about the international response to its weapon and missile tests, which has included tighter United Nations trade sanctions that got unanimous support in the Security Council. Even North Korea’s only ally, China, voted for them.
In a particularly peevish gesture, he has even cut the military hotline between the two sides at Panmunjom. (If you think there’s going to be a crisis, the last thing you want is a secure and rapid means of talking to the other side.) But it’s really just an empty gesture: an alternative military communications line, used to monitor cross-border workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, remains open.
But it’s a long way from feeling peeved to feeling suicidal. Any North Korean nuclear attack on an American target would be answered by immediate US strikes that would annihilate the military and civilian leadership in Pyongyang, obliterate its nuclear facilities, and probably destroy much else besides. So North Korea’s threat to launch a “pre-emptive” nuclear strike against the United States, or even against South Korea, is totally implausible.
However, the young and inexperienced North Korean leader may feel the need to prove his mettle to his own military commanders by taking some more limited action against the US-South Korean exercises. That sort of thing can easily go wrong.
There is a widespread perception in South Korea that Seoul was caught off-guard by North Korea’s sinking of the warship Cheonan and its artillery attacks on Yeonpyeong island in 2010. North Korea paid no military price for either action, and South Korea’s newly elected president, Park Geun-hye, who took office only two weeks ago, needs to show South Koreans that she is not going to let that happen again.
She probably also hopes that a promise of prompt and severe retaliation will deter North Korea from any future attacks of that sort. So she has engaged in some rhetorical escalation of her own.
She has warned North Korea that any further attacks will be met by instant retaliation that targets not only the units involved in the attack, but also North Korea’s high command.
No doubt this is only intended to deter any such North Korean attack, but in practice it means that there will be much more rapid and uncontrollable escalation if Pyongyang makes a token attack anyway.
Even a conventional war in the Korean peninsula would be hugely destructive. Just north of the “Demilitarised Zone” between the two countries is the largest concentration of artillery in the entire world, and the mega-city of Seoul is within long artillery range of the border.
North Korea’s population is considerably smaller than South Korea’s, but the North maintains the fourth largest army in the world. Its armed forces operate mostly last-generation weaponry, but the equipment is well maintained and the soldiers appear to be well trained. The last war between the two countries killed over a million people and left all the peninsula’s cities in ruins – and that was over sixty years ago.
If North Korea ignored Park’s warning and made some local attack to demonstrate its displeasure, and Park then felt obliged to act on her threat to go after the North Korean leadership in Pyongyang in retaliation, things could get very ugly very fast.
So far the US-South Korean exercises have gone off smoothly, but the risk of a serious miscalculation first in Pyongyang and then in Seoul is real, and the exercises still have more than a week (until 25 March) to run.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 14. (“In a particularly…open”; and “North…ago”)