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”)