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

The North Korean Purge

15 December 2013

The North Korean Purge

By Gwynne Dyer

Purges in Communist states have rarely stopped with the execution of one senior Party member, especially when he has been tortured into “confessing” at his show trial that he was planning to stage a coup using “high-ranking military officers” and other close allies.

“I didn’t fix the definite time for the coup,” Chang Song-thaek, the former number two in the hierarchy of the world’s last totalitarian state, said at his trial. “But it was my intention to concentrate (my allies in) my department and in all the economic organs in the cabinet and become premier when the economy goes totally bankrupt and the state is on the verge of collapse.”

It’s most unlikely that Chang was really planning a coup, but all of his suspected allies and associates in his own department and other parts of the government, plus any senior military officers suspected of less than total loyalty to Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, are in grave danger. Only two of Chang’s aides have been killed so far, but hundreds or thousands of other people thought to be linked to him may suffer the same fate.

This is unquestionably the biggest internal crisis in North Korea since the early years of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the regime and grandfather of the current dictator. Challengers to the Kim family’s monopoly of power have often been killed, but this is the first public show trial in North Korea since 1958.

It’s also the first time that the regime has publicly admitted that there are rival factions in the senior ranks of the Workers’ (Communist) Party. It’s hard to believe that this will not be followed by a wider bloodbath among the leading cadres along the lines of Stalin’s purges in the former Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s in China. It’s harder to understand what is driving the current upheaval, but some plausible guesses are possible.

When Kim Jong-il, the father of the current ruler, was dying, he chose Chang as the man who would ensure a smooth transfer of power to his son. (Chang was married to the elder Kim’s sister, and was therefore presumably loyal to the family.) Chang acted as chief adviser to Kim Jong-un, who was only 28 and quite inexperienced when he inherited the leadership in 2011, and his manner sometimes seemed quite overbearing.

At the same time, Chang was the principal advocate within the regime for an economic opening on the Chinese model to rescue North Korea from its crushing poverty. To achieve that goal, he first had to wrest control of the country’s leading industries from the military, whose enterprises account for a third of the entire economy. This naturally made him an enemy in the eyes of the military establishment.

So we can speculate that Kim Jong-un, as he gained confidence in his own abilities, grew increasingly hostile to the dominating influence of Chang, who was more than twice his age. He would need allies before he moved against Chang, and many military officers were glad to oblige.

On this reading of events Kim wants to get rid not only of Chang but of the entire generation of older military and civilian leaders who secretly regard him as an upstart. His objective would be to replace them wholesale with younger men who owe their positions directly to him. Or maybe something else is at the root of all this turmoil: we simply don’t know.

What we do know is that there is great turmoil in North Korea, a nuclear-armed country with the fifth-biggest army in the world. Most people assume that at some point in the future the regime will collapse, and some well-informed people worry that the collapse could come quite suddenly and quite soon. Interestingly, almost nobody wants that to happen.

Most North Koreans don’t want it to happen despite the dreadful conditions they live in, because a lifetime of propaganda has convinced them that South Koreans (and everybody else) lives in even worse conditions than the citizens of the Workers’ Paradise.

Most South Koreans don’t want it to happen because they would then have the duty of rescuing 24 million North Koreans from dire poverty. In theory they want unification, but there are only 50 million South Koreans to bear the burden, and it would take a generation of sacrifice to accomplish that task.

Neither North Korea’s Chinese neighbours nor South Korea’s American allies want it to happen, because the collapse of the Pyongyang regime could bring them into direct conflict. As a recent study by the Rand Corporation pointed out, it would cause a race between Chinese troops and South Korean and American troops to take control of North Korea’s territory.

The Chinese would be determined to keep American troops away from their own border with North Korea. The South Koreans and their American allies would feel compelled to go to the aid of a North Korean population that was probably facing starvation by then. And both sides would be racing to gain control of North Korea’s nuclear weapons before something terrible happened.

In such circumstances, a collision between Chinese and South Korean/American forces is all too easy to imagine. Kim Jong-un is a very nasty piece of work, but a lot of people are praying for his survival.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 11 and 12. (“At the same…establishment”; and “Most North…task”)


The North Korean Dilemma

26 November 2010

The North Korean Dilemma

By Gwynne Dyer

South Korea’s defence minister, Kim Tae-Young, was forced to resign after criticism that he was too slow to respond when North Korea attacked the island of Yeonpeong on Tuesday, killing at least four people. But what was he supposed to do? What can his replacement, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Kim Kwan-jin, do? Not much, really.

South Korean artillery fired back, dropping eighty shells on North Korean gun positions along the coast facing Yongpyeon, so honour has been served. But now North Korea is warning that the joint US-South Korean military exercises that began just off that coast on 28 November (and include a huge US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier) are pushing the region “to the brink of war.”

So what was US defence secretary Robert Gates supposed to do? Cancel the exercise (which has been scheduled for months, and was already postponed once to allay Chinese concerns)? Launch air strikes against North Korea and risk a wider war, maybe even one in which Pyongyang tried to use the primitive nuclear weapons it claims to possess? Resign?

And what is North Korea’s Chinese ally supposed to do? Beijing is doubtless appalled by what Pyongyang is doing. A major war in the region is the very last thing it wants. But China cannot publicly condemn North Korea’s actions without risking the collapse of the Pyongyang regime, which is the next-to-last thing it wants.

Beijing desperately does not want its people to witness the collapse of another Communist regime: it is still haunted by the events of 1989. It does not want a huge flood of North Korean refugees coming across the long frontier between the two countries. And it most certainly does not want a unified, democratic Korea as its neighbour along that frontier. So it murmurs platitudes and does nothing.

Even South Korea is deeply ambivalent about the prospective collapse of North Korea. In principle, every South Korean wants a reunited country, but in practice most of them don’t want it quite yet.

I happened to be in Seoul, interviewing people in government offices, on the day in 1994 when the death of the original North Korean dictator, Kim Il-sung, was announced. There was panic, understandably, since he had been in power since anybody in those offices could remember, and they had no idea what was coming out of the box next. But one of the things they feared most, they discovered, was unification.

I don’t think most South Koreans had thought it through before that day, but faced with the prospect of 25 million poverty-stricken North Koreans landing in their laps, they quickly realised that this was not going to be good for them. Like good patriots, they wanted the blessings of reunification eventually, but not on their watch.

It was understandable. They were the first generation of South Koreans to scramble back up to a decent standard of living after the devastation of the Korean War – by 1953, per capita income in Korea was lower than in what is now Bangladesh – and they feared that reunification would knock them back for another generation.

They had watched the reunification of Germany, and they knew that had been very expensive. But West Germans outnumbered East Germans by more than three-to-one, whereas there were only 45 million South Koreans to bear the burden of 25 million North Koreans. Moreover, West Germany was far richer than South Korea, and North Korea was vastly poorer than the old East Germany.

South Koreans are more used to prosperity now, but the cost of reunification would still be crippling, even if it happened peacefully. If it involved a North Korean attack, launched by a military elite who saw their privileged position in society slipping away, the level of destruction would be so great that it would take a generation to repair. So in practice, South Korea also wants the North Korean regime to survive.

In fact, everybody wants the weird North Korean dictatorship to survive – even the United States, although it would never admit it – because the level of uncertainty in East Asia if it fell would be utterly terrifying. That makes it very hard to “punish” the North Korean regime when it behaves badly.

It wasn’t punished for torpedoing a South Korean warship just to the west of Yonpyeong island last March (if that is what actually happened: the “international panel” that investigated the incident all came from South Korea’s allies). Neither will it be punished for shelling Yeonpeong island this month.

And it won’t even be punished severely if, as the North Korean news agency promised, it makes “second and even third rounds of attacks without any hesitation if warmongers in South Korea make reckless military provocations again.” Like the current US-South Korean war games in the Yellow Sea, for example.

This year’s North Korean attacks may be related to a power struggle within the military, or they may be a display of determination by the newly anointed heir to the throne, Kim Jong-un, son of current leader Kim Jong-il and grandson of “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung. Nobody outside Pyongyang knows what is driving this policy. But they are avoiding massive retaliation that would make matters worse, and hoping that the crazies are not in control.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“Beijing…nothing”; and “They had…Germany”)

Koreans, Israelis and Nukes

25 May 2009

Koreans, Israelis and Nukes

By Gwynne Dyer

Why are Koreans so much braver than Israelis when faced with the threat of nuclear weapons?

North Korea’s second underground nuclear test, much bigger than its first in October, 2006, did not cause panic in South Korea. Even when North Korea conducted a short-range missile test only hours after the explosion, to underline that all of South Korea lies open to nuclear attack, South Koreans went about their business as usual. Nobody fled the country to escape from the threat.

How different from Israel, where a recent opinion poll conducted by the Centre for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University revealed that almost a quarter of Israel’s seven million citizens would consider leaving the country if Iran gets nuclear weapons. Israeli leaders talk about an “existential threat” to the country’s survival, and warn almost daily that Iran is on the brink of developing the bomb.

There are major differences between the North Korea-South Korea relationship and the Israel-Iran one, but they just deepen the puzzle. The two Koreas have actually fought a war in which millions died, and the two countries’ troops still face each other across a massively fortified ceasefire line. Almost every year there are violent incidents along the border or on the seas around the Korean peninsula.

Israel and Iran, by contrast, have never fought a war, and do not even have a common border. Iran has no nuclear weapons, and denies that it has any intention of making any. Nor has Iran ever threatened war with Israel.

Iran’s current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has said that the Israeli state should be “wiped from the pages of history,” which makes him about the twentieth leader of a Muslim country to voice that empty sentiment. However, he has never said that Iran should do that job, nor is he in any position to attack Israel. It is the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who controls Iran’s foreign policy and armed forces.

During his twenty years in office, Ali Khamenei has never been involved in a foreign war, nor has he ever echoed the remarks of the excitable Ahmadinejad. Whereas North Korea finds some pretext to declare that war with the South is imminent almost every year. So why are Israelis almost hysterical about the Iranian threat, while South Koreans are phlegmatic about the North Korean threat?

It gets even weirder. Both Israel and South Korea have a security guarantee from the United States, which ultimately includes the backing of the US nuclear deterrent. But South Korea has no nuclear weapons of its own and no ambitions of acquiring them, whereas Israel has hundreds of the things. In fact, it has enough nuclear weapons and delivery systems to destroy every Iranian city at the same time in a first strike.

Israelis are just as intelligent as Koreans, so there must be more going on here than meets the eye. Indeed, Israeli leaders know that Muslim leaders are not homicidal and suicidal maniacs, even if the general public is encouraged to believe in the myth of “mad mullahs.” There has to be some genuine strategic distinction that explains the difference between the Israeli and the South Korean responses.

There is. It lies precisely in the fact that Israel possesses nuclear weapons, while South Korea does not. South Koreans trust in the US nuclear deterrent, having no alternative. Israelis trust in their own deterrent, and enjoy the luxury of having the US deterrent as back-up — but they also have other fish to fry.

Israel’s nuclear weapons are not meant only to deter a NUCLEAR attack on Israel. They would serve that purpose quite well, but they are also configured to give Israel “extended” deterrence; that is, the ability to stop a variety of other things from happening by threatening to use nuclear weapons.

Those things would certainly include a conventional military attack on Israel, but they might extend to other political or technological developments in the Arab world as well. In conformity with deterrence doctrine, Israel has never published a list of the things that it might seek to deter by the threat of nuclear weapons use, but all the Arab governments are keenly aware that such a list probably exists.

All Israeli military and political leaders see the regional monopoly of nuclear weapons that their country has had for the past forty years as a huge strategic asset. It would evaporate overnight if any Arab state could deliver even a single nuclear weapon onto Israeli soil. Israel would then be equally deterred from launching a nuclear first strike because of the certainty of devastating retaliation.

Would an Iranian nuclear weapon, if such a thing existed, also negate Israel’s “extended” deterrence? Only if the Iranian regime were willing to risk the virtual annihilation of Iran for the sake of the Arabs, which most Arabs would doubt. But Israelis have always taken Islamic solidarity more seriously than most Muslims do.

So the South Koreans stay cool about North Korean nuclear weapons despite the eccentricity of the North Korean regime, while the Israel security establishment worries about Iranian nuclear weapons for reasons quite different from those it mentions in public. And since Israelis are a people haunted by the Holocaust, the government’s rhetoric about an “existential threat” is taken literally by the population, some of whom respond with fantasies of flight.

They are only fantasies. They aren’t actually leaving.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Iran’s…Threat”)