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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.

North Korea’s Nukes

Early this month North Korea claimed to have launched a ballistic missile from a submerged submarine. Yesterday it announced that it can now make nuclear warheads small enough to fit on a missile. If both those claims are true, then it can now deliver a nuclear weapon on the United States, at least in theory, but there is always some doubt about North Korean claims.

While a defence official in Pyongyang said on Wednesday that the country’s nuclear programme has “long been in the full-fledged stage of miniaturisation,” some Western defence experts think the North Koreans have not really mastered the art yet. But General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, the senior US military commander in South Korea, thinks otherwise.

“I believe (the North Koreans) have the capability to have miniaturized the device at this point, and they have the technology to potentially actually deliver what they say they have,” Scaparrotti said last October. But to be sure that the miniaturised weapon actually works on a ballistic missile, North Korea would have to test-fire it to see if it survives the heat and vibration of re-entering the atmosphere in working order. It has not yet done that.

Others think that the footage of the submarine launch may have been faked. The missile emerges from the sea, sure enough, with the Maximum Leader looking proudly on, but Kim Jong-un was obviously photoshopped in, and in one shot there seems to be a barge floating on the surface near the missile’s exit point. However, let us assume for a moment that both claims are true – because they will be sooner or later.

What does North Korea intend to do with its nuclear weapons? And why is it trying so urgently to persuade its enemies that they are ready to use now?

The rational and conventional answer to the first question is that Pyongyang’s nukes are solely intended to deter the United States from using nuclear weapons on North Korea. The United States has long-standing military alliances with both South Korea and Japan, and it has never said that it would abstain from using nuclear weapons if there were a war between North Korea and its neighbours.

In this rational world, having enough nuclear weapons to deter the United States from going nuclear would give North Korea a major advantage in the event of a ground war in the Korean peninsula. Its army is much bigger than the South Korean and US ground forces facing it, and it might even manage to overrun South Korea in a non-nuclear war. Or at least, it may believe it could.

How many North Korean nuclear weapons would be enough to deter the United States from using its own nukes, in this context? A dozen would probably do it, and Prof. Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, thinks that North Korea probably now has that many, “half likely fuelled by plutonium and half by highly enriched uranium.”

But rationality has not been the outstanding feature of politics in North Korea recently. In the past three years Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has purged most of the men who worked closely with his father, Kim Jong-il, and many have been executed. Whole families have been murdered, including some with links by blood or marriage to Kim’s own.

The crimes imputed to the victims and the methods of killing also grow increasingly bizarre. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service reported recently that North Korea’s defence minister, General Hyon Yong Chol, was executed last month for falling asleep during a meeting where Kim Jong-un was present.

Again according to the NIS, the weapon used to execute General Hyon was a ZSU23-4, a Russian-made tracked anti-aircraft vehicle. It mounts four linked autocannons that fire 23 mm shells at the rate of 3,400 rounds per minute. If that report is true, it would have been hard to find enough of Hyon to bury.

The impression this all creates of political chaos and utter uncertainty in the North Korean capital may be misleading. The old Soviet regime was never more monolithically stable than at the height of Stalin’s purges in 1936-38. But at the moment Kim’s regime certainly LOOKS unstable when viewed from the outside. There are no safe assumptions, including assumptions about the rationality of the leadership.

So we cannot just assume that North Korea’s nukes are purely defensive, or that Kim Jong-un, after 28 years of living in a gilded cage and three and a half years of absolute power, has been adequately instructed in the theories of nuclear deterrence that have become orthodox in older nuclear-weapons states. Nor is anybody in the North Korean military hierarchy going to try to instruct him now, if he is ignorant in such matters.

The simple truth is that the rest of the world doesn’t know what is happening in North Korea at the moment. The mystery has deepened with the abrupt last-minute cancellation of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s scheduled visit to North Korea. We’ll have to wait to find out what’s really going on – but meantime military forces all over north-eastern Asia are undoubtedly on high alert.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit pragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“The crimes…leadership”)