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The Korean Crisis: Why Now?

Apart from Donald Trump’s need for a dramatic foreign policy initiative, is there any good reason why we are having a crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons testing now?

If the Pyongyang regime is really planning an underground nuclear test soon, as Washington alleges, it will be the sixth bomb test it has carried out, not the first. That hardly qualifies as a new development that requires urgent action. The same goes for its ballistic missile tests, which have been ongoing for many years. Nothing new is going on in North Korea.

In South Korea, on the other hand, things are about to change a lot.

The winner of Tuesday’s election and South Korea’s next president, Moon Jae-in, favours a much softer policy towards North Korea. He has even promised to re-open industrial and tourist projects in North that were financed by South Korea under the last Democratic (centre-left) government.

A decade ago, when Moon’s Democratic Party was still in power in Seoul, he was chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun and the so-called Sunshine Policy of reconciliation with North Korea was the order of the day. The goal was to create commercial, financial and personal ties between the two Koreas, and to that end South Korea sent aid and investment to the North.

It’s impossible to say whether that would eventually have led to a less tense and militarised situation in the Korean peninsula, because in the 2008 election the conservatives won and scrapped the Sunshine Policy. The past nine years under right-wing governments have seen North-South relations re-frozen and the investments in North Korea closed down by Seoul.

Now Moon Jae-in will be in charge, however, and he has promised to reopen economic ties with North Korea in a policy his advisers call Sunshine 2.0.

This runs directly contrary to Trump’s policy of tightening economic sanctions against the North and even threatening military action to force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons programme. Indeed, the Trump administration may have pushed a military confrontation with North Korea to the top of its foreign policy agenda recisely in order to pre-empt Moon Jae-in’s new Sunshine policy.

Given the chaos that reigns in the Trump White House, this may not be the case. It could just be that Trump is making policy on the fly, and that he neither knows nor cares about the domestic politics of South Korea. But some recent US actions point to a deliberate attempt to get the confrontation going before Moon took office.

One clue could be the sudden rush to deploy the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system in South Korea before the election. It’s a system designed to intercept short- and medium-range ballistic missiles of the sort that North Korea might use to deliver nuclear weapons on South Korea (and maybe Japan) if it ever managed to make its nuclear weapons small enough to fit on them.

A reasonable precaution, perhaps – but THAAD was originally scheduled to be installed in South Korea between August and October of this year. Then suddenly it arrived in the country in March, and was “operational” (at least in theory) by last month. Moon will now have great difficulty in reversing that decision, and the North Koreans are predictably waxing hysterical about it.

On the other hand, Trump shocked the South Koreans by announcing at the end of April that South Korea would have to pay $1 billion for the THAAD system, despite an existing agreement that the US would bear the cost. He also declared that he was going to renegotiate the existing free trade agreement between the two countries. Which suggests that there is no clever plan, just the usual stumbling around in the dark.

Whether the US is deliberately manipulating events or not, Moon Jae-in is in a difficult situation. He quite rightly believes that there is no need for a crisis this year to resolve a problem that has been simmering away (but never boiling over) for at least fifteen years, but unless he goes along with it he will find himself in a confrontation with Donald Trump.

Could he win it? He could if he has strong support at home. South Koreans are divided more or less evenly between a hard and a soft approach to North Korea, but they all agree that they don’t want a war in which they would be the primary victims. Trump will find the new South Korean government very reluctant to pursue his campaign – only diplomatic for the moment, but who knows? – against the North.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“Given…office”)

The Maniac in Pyongyang

“This guy, he’s like a maniac, OK? He wiped out the uncle. He wiped out this one, that one. I mean, this guy doesn’t play games. And we can’t play games with him. Because he really does have missiles. And he really does have nukes.”

So spoke President Donald Trump in Iowa in January. North Korea flight-tested a ballistic missile on Saturday night that landed off Japan’s west coast, so what will he do now? What can he do? And is North Korea’s 33-year-old dictator, Kim Jong-un, really a maniac?

South Korea’s foreign ministry certainly thinks so: “North Korea’s repeated provocations show the Kim Jong-un regime’s nature of irrationality, maniacally obsessed in its nuclear and missile development.” The same word was used a great deal after North Korea tested nuclear weapons in January and September of last year.

But why would it be maniacal, or even irrational, for the North Korean leader to want nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States? After all, the United States not only has nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach North Korea; it has enough of them to eradicate the country twenty times over.

If it is not maniacal for the United States to have them, why is it maniacal for the North Koreans? Because American leaders are responsible, they explain, whereas Kim Jong-un is a maniac. Begging your pardon, but isn’t that argument rather circular?

The United States is the only country that ever developed nuclear weapons with the deliberate intention of using them. It was at the end of the Second World War, when tens of millions had already been killed, and moral restraints had largely been cast aside.

But the United States never used its nukes again, even when it still had a monopoly on them – and all the other known nuclear powers got them in the name of deterrence: stopping somebody else from using nuclear weapons on them.

The Soviet Union developed them to deter the United States from launching a nuclear strike. Britain and France got them to deter the Soviet Union. China got them to deter all of the above. And Pakistan and India each developed them because they suspected the other country was working on them.

Only Israel developed nuclear weapons for use against enemies who did not already have them (and it still refuses to confirm their existence, although it is common knowledge in the strategic community). But Israel got them out of fear that its people would be “driven into the sea” if it lost a conventional war, back in the 1960s when it was conceivable that it could lose such a war. The intention was still defensive.

So why can’t the rest of the world believe that North Korea is doing this in order to deter an American nuclear attack? North Koreans have lived sixty-five years with the knowledge that the United States could do that whenever it wanted, and it is not maniacal to take out a little insurance against it.

The North Korean regime is brutally repressive and given to foaming at the mouth over minor slights. But since it has actually kept the peace for 64 years (while the United States has fought three large wars and many small ones), it is hard to maintain that it is maniacally aggressive.

So why say it? Because if you don’t characterise North Korea as insanely dangerous, then you cannot justify forbidding it to have ballistic missiles (which several dozen other countries have) and nuclear warheads (which nine countries have, and another four had briefly before giving them up).

Since none of the great powers want North Korea to have them, and they control the United Nations Security Council, they have managed to get special UN bans on both ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons for North Korea. Maintaining that the Pyongyang regime are maniacs is part of the programme, but it does frighten those who are not in on the joke.

It would be better if the ban worked, since the world has more than enough nuclear powers already. However, the ban is essentially unenforceable, and the heavens will not fall if North Korea does get a few nuclear-tipped ICBMs one of these days.

It will never have very many, and they will not be used for some lunatic “first strike” on countries that are tens of times more powerful. They will be for deterrence, only to be launched as an act of revenge from the grave. Just like everybody else’s.

What can President Trump do about this? He could try bribing North Korea into suspending its work on missiles and bombs. That worked once before, but not for very long. There is really nothing useful to be done.

And what will he say about it? Nobody knows, probably including him.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“Only…defensive”)

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.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“The centre…else”; and “This…it”)

North Korea’s Deterrent

Here we go again. North Korea launched a ballistic missile of intercontinental range on Sunday (saying it was just putting up a satellite) only weeks after it carried out its fourth nuclear weapons test (which it claimed was a hydrogen bomb).The United Nations Security Council strongly condemned it, and even the People’s Republic of China, North Korea’s only ally, expressed its “regret” at what the country had done.

There will certainly now be more UN sanctions against Kim Jong-un’s isolated regime. But there have already been four rounds of UN military and economic sanctions since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, and Pyongyang just ignores them.

Clearly, this is something that the North Korean regime wants so badly that it is willing to endure considerable punishment in order to get it. But why is this very poor country spending vast sums in order to be able to strike its neighbours – and even the United States, for that is what the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are about – with nuclear weapons?

Well, here’s a clue. What the North Korean government said after last month’s hydrogen bomb test was this: “The DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a genuine peace-loving state which has made every effort to protect peace on the Korean Peninsula and security in the region from the vicious US nuclear war scenario.”

“The US is a gang of cruel robbers that has worked hard to bring even a nuclear disaster to the DPRK….By succeeding in the H-bomb test…the DPRK proudly joined the advanced ranks of nuclear weapons states…and the Korean people demonstrated the spirit of a dignified nation equipped with the most powerful nuclear deterrent.”

Never mind the stilted rhetoric and gutter abuse; North Korean propagandists always talk like that. Listen to the key words that are almost buried under the surrounding invective. North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, they say, is meant to “protect…the region from…the US …nuclear war scenario” by creating a “most powerful nuclear deterrent.”

Really? Do they actually fear that the United States might use nuclear weapons on them, and that they can only be safe if they have their own hydrogen bombs and ICBMs? Are they doing all this purely as a defensive measure?

Of course they are. However bad-tempered and impulsive they sounded, the men of the Kim family, father, son and grandson, who have ruled North Korea in dynastic succession for the past 68 years, were not crazy. They never started a war, because they knew they would lose it, and the current incumbent is certainly not going to start a nuclear war.

He would have to be crazy to do that. North Korea lacks the resources to build more than a few bombs a year, and it does not have the technologies to ensure that the missiles it may one day have won’t get shot down. It will probably never be able to guarantee that it can strike even South Korea or Japan with nuclear missiles, let alone the United States.

Everybody in the North Korean hierarchy (along with some millions of other North Koreans) would certainly be dead only hours after the regime launched nuclear weapons at any of those countries. The United States has literally thousands of nuclear weapons. It would take only a few dozen quite small ones to virtually exterminate the entire ruling elite, and North Korea would have no way of stopping them.

A few not-very-high-tech nuclear weapons would give Pyongyang no usable ability to launch a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies. They would, however, give it a pretty credible nuclear deterrent.

Launching a few nuclear weapons against a major nuclear power is suicidal, but those same few weapons can be a perfectly good deterrent against a nuclear attack by that same power, because they give the weaker party a capacity for “revenge from the grave.” Even a country as powerful as the United States will behave very cautiously when faced with the possibility that an opponent might land even one or two nuclear weapons on its territory.

North Korea has lived under the implicit threat of US nuclear weapons for almost seven decades, and the United States has never promised not to use those weapons against it. It’s almost surprising that we haven’t seen North Korean nuclear weapons before now.

North Korea is just doing the same thing that Pakistan did in the 1980s and 90s out of fear of Indian nuclear weapons, and that Iran was doing in fear of both Pakistani and Israeli nuclear weapons in the last fifteen years.

The Security Council is quite right to try to block North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, and the successful use of international sanctions to stop Iran offers some hope that it may succeed. But North Korea is not a crazy state plotting a nuclear holocaust at the cost of its own extinction. Its nuclear weapons programme is a perfectly rational – although highly undesirable – policy for a small country with a big problem.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“He would…United States”; and “North Korea…now”)