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”)
21 January 2013
Kim the Reformer?
By Gwynne Dyer
If North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, wanted to end the brutal and destructive tyranny that his father and grandfather imposed on the country, he would need support from abroad. The military and Communist Party elites who control and benefit from that system would have to be brought round or bought off, and that would require lots of foreign aid and a global amnesty for their crimes. So how would he get the foreigners to help?
Well, he’d have to show them that he was willing to reform – but he couldn’t be too obvious about it at first, or those elites would just get rid of him. He’d drop a hint here, make a gesture there, and hope that the foreigners would trust him and help him to change the country. Rather like the rest of the world responded when the Burmese generals started hinting that they were ready to dismantle their half-century-old dictatorship two years ago.
Unfortunately, Kim Jong-un would drop the same hints and make the same gestures if his only wish was to sucker the outside world into propping up the bankrupt system in North Korea with more big shipments of free food and fuel. There’s no way to read his mind, so how should the foreigners respond?
This is not a theoretical question, for he is sending out those signals. Never mind the cosmetic stuff like being seen in public with a new wife who dresses in fashionable Western clothes. In his televised New Year’s message to the Korean people, he spoke of the need to “remove confrontation between the North and the South,” and called for dramatic improvements in the national economy.
It’s the first time the regime has ever celebrated the Western New Year (including fireworks in Pyongyang). It’s nineteen years since the country’s leader last spoke to the people directly. He may be trying to tell them and the rest of the world that he is starting down the road of reform, or he may be bluffing. What to do?
Unfortunately, since he’s not making any political or economic reforms at home at the moment – that’s what he MIGHT do if he had foreign help – we can’t conclude anything about his intentions from his domestic policies. And his foreign policy is hardly encouraging either.
North Korea doesn’t have much by way of a foreign policy. The only consistent thread is its obsession with military power (it has one of the world’s biggest armies, though it has about the population of Australia), and latterly with ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.
Both of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons tests, in 2006 and 2012, were conducted when Kim Jong-il was still alive and in power, but Kim Jong-un has not repudiated them. Moreover, he has continued to test ballistic missiles, including the launch last month of a rocket that his regime says could hit the United States. (It was ostensibly used to launch a satellite, which it did, but the technology for satellite launchers and ICBMs is almost identical.)
On the other hand, here is a man whose only claim to power is heredity, in a country that does not have a formally recognised monarchy. To consolidate his power, he must persuade the military and Party elites that he is a reliable successor who will perpetuate the system that keeps them fat and happy, so his current aggressive posture in foreign policy is really no guide to his real intentions either.
In fact, at this point there is really no way of telling what he means to do. The rest of the world, and in particular the United States and North Korea’s neighbours, South Korea, China and Japan, are going to have to make their decisions blind. What can they do that would help Kim Jong-un to bring the country out of its cave and start loosening the domestic tyranny, without actually making matters worse if he is not a secret reformer?
The safest course would be to encourage dialogue between North and South Korea (which has just elected a new president, Park Geun-hye, who has declared her presidency ready to initiate unconditional talks with the North). It would also be sensible to ease back on the embargoes and other restrictions on North Korean imports for a while, since they are obviously achieving nothing in terms of stopping its weapons projects anyway.
And what if Kim-Jong-un dares not or simply does not want to respond to these gestures with more promising moves himself? Then you just give up and go back to the policy of containment that has had so little success over the years. North Korea is really a very small threat (except for its own people, of course), and it’s safe to take a little risk in the hope that the new ruler will respond.
It’s the country’s only hope. There is not going to be a North Korean spring in the Arab style.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“It’s…do”; and “Both…identical”)
18 July 2012
Varieties of Nepotism: Korea
By Gwynne Dyer
What has been happening in North Korea recently is straight out of the “Hereditary Dictatorship for Dummies” handbook. Kim Jong-un, the pudgy young heir to the leadership of one of the world’s last Communist states, is removing powerful people who were loyal to his father and replacing them with men (it’s always men) who owe their advancement only to him.
Vice-Marshal Ri Yong-ho, the chief of the North Korean army until late last week, was not disloyal to the new boss. On the contrary, Ri’s support was vital in ensuring a smooth transition after the death of Kim Jong-Il, the old boss, and he gave it unstintingly. But in the end the vice-marshal didn’t owe everything to Kim Jong-un, so he had to go.
In his place, Kim Jong-un has promoted a man nobody had ever heard of before. His name is Hyon Yong-chol, but you don’t have to remember it unless you really want to. The point is that Hyon will have annoyed a lot of other generals in the army because he has been promoted over their heads, and so he is absolutely dependent on the good will of the young master.
Meanwhile, the propaganda that is intended to promote Kim Jong-un to the rank of god-king pours forth. When he visited an air force training unit, the North Korean news agency reported, he “guided the flight training of pilots.” At a concert, he “gave precious teachings for the performing activities of the Korean People’s Army Military Band.” It turns out that he is an expert in pretty well everything.
And just to be sure, Kim Jong-un had himself promoted to Marshal this week, so now he outranks everybody else in the armed forces. At least he hasn’t had all his brothers and half-brothers killed in order to rule out any challenges from within the family, like the Ottoman sultans used to do after they ascended the throne. So there IS progress, you see.
Things are done very differently in South Korea. There the presidents are chosen by the free vote of all the people (or at least all the ones who bother to vote). But the candidate most likely to win the presidential elections this December is the daughter of the dictator who ruled the country with an iron hand for two decades, until he was finally assassinated in 1979.
There are, to be sure, some striking differences between Ms Park Geun-hye, who will probably be South Korea’s first female president, and the callow youth who is scrambling to put his stamp on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea up north.
Park has earned her candidacy by a lifetime of public service, including a decade at the head of Yeungnam University and fourteen years in politics, during which she earned the nickname “Queen of Elections” for her skill in delivering the vote to her party even in the most adverse circumstances. At 60, she is more than twice Kim Jong-un’s age, and she has seen and done a lot.
On the other hand, it is very unlikely that she would have had this stellar career if she had grown up as the daughter of an army sergeant on a succession of bleak army posts. Growing up in the presidential palace, and serving as South Korea’s first lady for five years while still in her early 20s, after her mother was assassinated in 1974, was bound to produce a different outcome. It also helps with the name recognition that every politician needs.
If elected, Park Geun-hye may be a very successful president. She may have the determination and the clout to take on the big industries that dominate South Korean society and deliver more security and social justice to those at the bottom. She may even manage to create an opening with North Korea if she finds a willing partner in Pyongyang.
Kim Jong-un is a completely closed book. Nobody beyond his own family has the slightest idea what he thinks and intends, and maybe even they don’t. Maybe he doesn’t even know himself yet. But unlike his father and grandfather, he has seen something of the world (he was educated partly in Switzerland), and it may have given him ideas.
The point is not that either of these people is necessarily a bad choice as president. It’s that both countries (but especially the North) are fishing in a very shallow pool. There are probably thousands of people in each country who would make better leaders, but they lack the connections and they will never be considered for the job. In fact, the same thing is true everywhere.
Would Hillary Clinton be the US Secretary of State if her husband had not been the president? Would George W Bush ever have been considered as a possible president if his dad had not been a moderately successful one? For that matter, would Aung San Suu Kyi, runner-up to Nelson Mandela in the Global Sainthood Stakes, ever have become the voice of Burmese democracy if her father had not been the (autocratic) hero of the independence movement?
Can anything be done about this? Probably not, but it is a pity.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“Meanwhile…everything”; and “If elected…Pyongyang”)
UPDATE: The US biosecurity people have just ordered some details of the H5N1 research to be omitted in the papers that will be published in scientific journals. Rejoice!
The article has been modified accordingly. Use this version.
20 December 2011
North Korea and H5N1: A Sense of Proportion
By Gwynne Dyer
Western intelligence agencies have been warning for years about the terrible consequences that would ensue if Iran were to get nuclear weapons. Better bomb the place before they do.
But North Korea already has nuclear weapons, and now they are falling into the hands of a young man whose main qualification for office is that he is less weird than his half-brother, who was caught trying to sneak into Japan on a false passport to visit Disneyland Tokyo.
The North Korean story has got a lot of play in the international media in the last few days, partly because Kim Jong-un is such an obvious misfit for the job of “Great Successor.” What gives the story legs, however, is North Korea’s nuclear weapons (both of them), its huge army (fifth-biggest in the world), and its insanely belligerent rhetoric.
A mere two nuclear weapons, so primitive and clumsy that they are probably only deliverable by truck, are not useable for attack. Their only sensible purpose is to deter an attack, and North Korea’s are not very credible even in that role. All very well, the intelligence analysts say, but what if the people who control the weapons are crazy?
Well, Kim Il-sung’s understanding of the rest of the world was severely limited, and so was Kim Yong-il’s. Kim Jong-un may be no better. But for sixty years now North Korea has not attacked anybody. They can’t be all that crazy.
So we have, on the one hand, these not very convincing official claims, loyally repeated by Western media, that the latest dynastic succession in North Korea might “destabilise” north-eastern Asia, even lead to a local nuclear war. And on the other hand, we have this modest bio-lab in the Netherlands that has fabricated an ultra-lethal variant of the “bird flu” virus and plans to publish its results.
The Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam is a long way from the secret underground lairs where James Bond-style villains hatched their evil plans, and Dr Ron Fouchier, the lead researcher in the H5N1 experiment, does not look a bit like Dr. No. In fact, Fouchier is a decent man who means well. Yet what he has made is far more dangerous than North Korea’s bombs.
When the H5N1 virus first appeared in 1996, there was a global panic, for it killed about 60 percent of the people it infected. The panic subsided when it turned out that the virus could only be spread by very close physical contact between people; you were most unlikely to catch it by sitting next to someone on a bus.
It would have been very different if the virus had been as infectious as the common cold, which is usually spread by tiny water droplets coughed out by the infected person. Since H5N1 was not a “airborne” virus, it killed only a few hundred people, not a few hundred million – but viruses can mutate. How easy would it be for H5N1 to mutate into an “airborne” global killer?
That’s the question that Dr Fouchier set out to answer. He caused deliberate mutations in the virus and then repeatedly passed it manually from one lab animal to another – and quite soon, he had what he was looking for.
“In the laboratory, it was possible to change H5N1 into an aerosol-transmissible virus that can easily be rapidly spread through the air,” Fouchier said in a statement on the university’s website. “This process can also take place in a natural setting. We know which mutation to look for in the case of an outbreak, and we can then stop the outbreak before it is too late.”
That was the point of the experiment, of course. The research, funded by the US National Institutes of Health, was intended to discover just how likely such a mutation of the virus was. Nobody seemed to mind the fact that this involved creating exactly that virus – and, if normal scientific practise is followed, publishing the full genetic sequence of the mutated virus in a scientific journal.
Fouchier’s scientific paper has already been submitted to the scientific journal “Nature”, and the results of a parallel experiment carried out by Dr Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the Universities of Wisconsin and Tokyo, also funded by the National Institutes of Health, were submitted to “Science”.
The US government’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has just ordered key details of the research to be omitted before publication, so that terrorists cannot use the information to create their own global quick-killer virus. The exact gene sequences and the exact details of the experiments will therefore be known only to the few hundred people who have already seen them. No doubt they can all be trusted.
But this is a classic case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. There are probably several terrorist organisations, and dozens of governments, that can duplicate Fouchier’s research now that they know how he did it. As former arms control researcher Mark Wheelis of the University of California, Davis, said: “Blocking publication may provide some small increment of safety, but it will be very modest compared to the benefits of not doing the work in the first place.”
There are more frightening things in the world than wonky North Korean dictators.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 12 and 13. (“Well…crazy”; and “That…Science”)