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North Korea

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A War in Korea

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.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Anybody…1950”)

 

 

The Koreas: The Risk of Miscalculation

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.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 14. (“In a particularly…open”; and “North…ago”)

 

Kim the Reformer

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.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“It’s…do”; and “Both…identical”)

 

 

Varieties of Nepotism: Korea

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.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“Meanwhile…everything”; and “If elected…Pyongyang”)