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“Solving” North Korea

Never mind the legalities of the situation. Never mind morality either. Just answer the pragmatic question: Is it ever a good idea to start a nuclear war? Because that’s the notion that Donald Trump is actually playing with.

He didn’t say exactly that, of course. He said that “If China is not going to solve (the nuclear threat from) North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.” But in the context of that interview with the Financial Times, it was clear what he meant.

Trump was saying that if China did not use the tools at its disposal (political influence, trade sanctions, withholding financial aid) to make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons and long-range rockets, then the United States would use the tools at its disposal (the world’s most powerful armed forces) to accomplish the same goal.

This does not necessarily mean that the United States would launch a large nuclear attack against North Korea. If you are really serious about carrying out a “disarming strike” that destroys all of North Korea’s nukes, you probably should do exactly that. (You never get a second chance to go first.) But maybe the US Air Force would promise that “precision” non-nuclear weapons could accomplish that goal, and maybe some gullible people would believe it.

It would still turn into a nuclear war in the end, unless American “surgical strikes” miraculously eliminated every last one of North Korea’s nukes at the same time. Kim Jong-un’s regime would find itself in the position known in nuclear strategy as “use them or lose them”, and it is hard to believe that it would not launch whatever it had left.

The targets would be in South Korea, of course, but probably also American bases in Japan. Maybe even Japanese cities, if North Korea had enough weapons left. The regime would know it was going under – the United States would not take this huge risk and then leave it in power – so it would take as many of its enemies as possible down with it.

North America would probably not be hit, because Western intelligence services do not believe that Pyongyang has ballistic missiles that can reach that far yet. (But “intelligence” is not the same as knowing for sure, and they could be wrong.) At worst, the victims would be one or two cities in the Pacific north-west of the United States.

This would be a very bad outcome for people living in Seattle or Portland, but it would not actually be a “nuclear holocaust”. The kind of war that the super-powers would have fought at the height of the Cold War, with thousands of nuclear weapons used by each side, would have killed hundreds of millions, and might even have triggered a “nuclear winter”.

A nuclear war over Korea would be a much smaller catastrophe, perhaps involving a few million deaths – unless China got drawn in. Unfortunately, that is not inconceivable, because China, much as it dislikes and mistrusts the North Korean regime, is determined not to see it destroyed.

Many people are uncomfortable with this kind of analysis, especially when it draws comparisons between “bad” and “less bad” nuclear wars. Herman Kahn, the dean of nuclear strategists in the 1960s and 70s, was frequently the target of this kind of criticism: how could he talk about potential mass death in such a cold-blooded way?

His response was always the same: “Would you prefer a nice, warm mistake?” “Thinking About the Unthinkable”, as he put it in one of his books, is absolutely necessary if the Unthinkable is not happen. In this case, that means taking the possibility that China might be drawn into the conflict seriously.

The destruction of the North Korean regime would bring American military power right to China’s own border. You might reasonably ask: So what? This is the 21st century, and what matters strategically is the big, lethal long-range weapons (like nukes), not the whereabouts of a few American infantry battalions. Quite right in theory. Not necessarily right in practice.

During the Korean War, when American troops were operating very close to the Chinese frontier in late 1950, the Chinese regime sent troops in to save the North Korean regime – and succeeded. The scenario this time, with nuclear weapons already being used on both sides of the North Korea-South Korea frontier, would be different, but it could be even more dangerous. China has lots of nuclear weapons, and delivery vehicles too.

Donald Trump is the fourth American president to be faced with the challenge of North Korean nuclear weapons, and none of them has found a safe and effective way of dealing with it. But all the others avoided making open threats of violence, because that would probably just make matters worse.

Of course, Trump may just be bluffing. In fact, he almost certainly is. But if your bluff is called, you have to go through with your threat or accept being humiliated. The Donald doesn’t do humiliation.
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To shrten to 725 words, omit paragraphs10 and 11. (“Many…seriously”)

Korean Crisis Control

Having just been on holiday with two very strong-willed little boys aged 8 and 9, I feel particularly well qualified to explain why the two Koreas went to the brink of war over some loudspeakers, but didn’t go over the edge. George and James could explain the process even better themselves, but child labour laws prevent them from writing for newspapers, so I’ll do it for them.

It began with a land-mine explosion in the Demilitarised Zone between the two countries that severely wounded two South Korean army sergeants. The mine was of an old Soviet design, so Seoul said it must have been put there by North Korea and demanded an apology from Pyongyang.

The North Korean denied it, of course, but Pyongyang gets very upset every year around this time, when South Korea and the United States hold their annual joint military exercises.

So to punish North Korea, South Korea re-activated the loudspeakers that used to broadcast anti-North Korean propaganda across the DMZ until they were turned off eleven years ago. Nobody could hear the propaganda except North Korean soldiers on the other side of the DMZ, so it’s hard to see what actual harm it was doing, but North Korea rose to the bait with alacrity.

Last Thursday afternoon, North Korean troops fired a rocket and several artillery shells at the loudspeakers, though none seem to have hit them. South Korea responded with a barrage of dozens of 155mm artillery rounds, which led North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (the pudgy one with the very bad haircut) to declare a “semi-state of war” and set a 48-hour deadline for the loudspeakers to be turned off.

Otherwise, Kim said, his troops would carry out “indiscriminate strikes” against the South. This would have been a grave threat if he actually meant it, since most of Seoul, a city of 25 million people, is within artillery range of the DMZ, but the Saturday deadline passed without further shooting.

Instead, urgent talks began on Saturday in the “truce” village of Panmunjom, in the middle of the DMZ, between Hwang Pyong-so, the political director of the North Korean armed forces, and Kim Kwan-jin, national security adviser to the South Korean president.

The talks lasted more than three days, with the South Korean loudspeakers still blaring out and North Korean artillery, landing craft and submarines moving towards the frontiers. “If nothing is agreed, we have to continue the broadcasting,” said the South Korean representative at the talks. “We are tired of speaking the language of escalation.”

That last sentence didn’t even make sense. Were Kim Kwan-jin and his North Korean counterpart really flirting with the idea of a war that would certainly kill hundreds of thousands of people, and might even turn nuclear, over some loudspeakers? Maybe, but there was a distinct lack of panic in other capitals, and in the end they made a deal.

That brings us back to the two litle boys. Siblings who are close in age, even if they are friends, are also rivals, and they generally squabble a lot. They often get locked into quarrels over matters of little or no importance and seem unable to walk away from them.

What keeps these struggles from ending in real violence, and usually restores order in the end, is adult intervention. Even if they resent it, the kids also secretly welcome it, because it frees them from the trap of their own emotions.

The adults, in this case, are the great-power allies of the two Koreas: China for the North, and the United States for the South. It’s not that Americans and Chinese are really more grown-up than Koreans, but being farther away, they could see how petty the confrontation really is, and they had no intention of being dragged into a war over it.

So in the end North Korea expressed “regret” about the land-mine, and South Korea turned off the loudspeakers, and everybody lived grumpily ever after. Or something like that.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Parkinson’s Law Expanded

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.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 13, 14 and 15. (“How…believe”)

 

 

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”)