Bullets Cross DMZ: Random Observations

By now, you’ve read the reports of what happened in the last few days, but here’s a quick recap. Last week, South Korea accused North Korea of planting mines near a South Korean border checkpoint, blowing the legs off two South Korean soldiers. Seoul’s response, which I found a bit asinine at the time, was to blare propaganda at a few hundred helpless North Korean conscripts. Yesterday, North Korea shelled the loudspeakers, South Korea fired back and evacuated some civilian villages near the shelling, and Kim Jong Un mobilized his military for war.

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First, can we please stop referring to shelling as artillery “exchanges?” It’s not a swap meet. (Update: The same goes for “trading artillery fire.” As if — North: I’ll give you two 76.2-millimeter rounds for one 155-millimeter round. South: Throw in a belt of 14.5-millimeter and you’ve got a deal.)

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Having worked through the available evidence of Kim Jong Un’s psychology, I’m sincerely worried that he is willfully provoking what he expects (probably correctly) will be a limited war. A limited war is His Porcine Majesty’s easiest path to the legitimacy he is unlikely to attain through competent governance, religious piety, charisma, popular acclaim, or any other means. Even if he loses, he will be able (or thinks he will be able) to mischaracterize a defeat as a victory, and himself as the master strategist. At a time when Kim is purging the top ranks of his military, when even the security forces in the provinces are demoralized by the hatred and vengeance of those they torment, he needs a big enough event to unite the country against outside enemies. Is the limited artillery duel we’ve seen so far enough to achieve that? I doubt it.

My hope is that he wanted a reason to redeploy his forces to the front and disrupt whatever plans they might be forming. My fear is that we’re now in a pattern where the regime — possibly for psychological reasons, and possibly for more calculated ones — will engage in a long-term series of escalating provocations against the South. The South, in turn, has authorized disproportionate responses. The potential for miscalculation is obvious. Remember, in 2010, no one expected North Korea to do anything as rash as sinking a South Korean warship, or shelling a South Korean fishing village. Off-hand, I can’t recall a single occasion in recent decades when North Korea fired artillery with a bore larger than 14.5 millimeters against the South Korean mainland. Each provocation pushes the envelope just slightly. This may be the new normal.

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I continue to feel that a military response to provocations at this level may make a few ajosshis feel good, but is useless as a deterrent. What deters Kim Jong Un is what weakens his grip on power. Clearly, it is ideas from South Korea that frighten him most. South Korea should threaten to expand broadcasting to North Korea if North Korean forces continue to attack the South. (Update: Related thoughts from The New York Times. Also, a valued reader writes: “Heck, they should expand broadcasting regardless.” Fair enough.)

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I’ve seen a number of predictions that Pyongyang will engage in additional provocations for the upcoming 70th anniversary of the founding of its ruling party. I’ve also read analysis that assumes that this will culminate in a nuclear or a missile test. So far, I haven’t seen satellite evidence suggesting that such a test is imminent, but there’s still time. The attacks of 2010 didn’t include any missile or nuclear tests, but were a distinct and closed cycle of their own. Pyongyang may have something very different in mind.

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Now that we’ve finally put to rest the nonsense that Kim Jong Un is an enlightened Swiss-educated reformer, let’s keep an account of all the scholars and reporters — John DeLury, Rudiger Frank, Alexandre Mansourov, and Jean Lee — who spent the better part of 2012 propagating this nonsense.

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A simple question: how many of those who noisily demand that South Korea sign a peace treaty with North Korea will at least have the decency to demand that North Korea stop its acts of war against the South? A week into Korean War II, there isn’t a peep of protest on Christine Ahn’s Twitter feed, but then, Ahn has always been a selective pacifist. The obvious question about a peace treaty is why anyone would expect North Korea to abide by one when it consistently violates an armistice. The real answer, of course, is that North Korea and its supporters abroad don’t really want peace; the regime is quite literally addicted to war. Without a continuous state of conflict, tension, and siege, there would be no justification for its existence, and no excuse for the unfavorable comparisons between its standard of living and South Korea’s. A peace treaty is merely incidental to their real goal, which is a peace treaty negotiation, and all the things North Korea would get in that negotiation — diplomatic recognition, security guarantees, the breaking of Seoul’s alliances, our agreement not to “slander” them (for their human rights atrocities, for example), and the lifting of sanctions, which would surrender the world’s remaining leverage and amount to de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power.

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South Korea has ordered the “partial” evacuation of Kaesong, shortly after after striking a deal to give North Korean slave laborers there a 5% wage hike. (In reality, the “wages” go straight into Kim Jong Un’s bank accounts.) That agreement came just days after the South accused North Korea of planting the mines that maimed two of its soldiers, and gave Pyongyang most of what it has unilaterally demanded. Yesterday’s evacuation was probably a precaution to protect the South Korean managers there. No doubt, South Korea fully intends to continue to profit from North Korea’s forced labor, and to bow to the demands of the appeasers and profiteers who exercise such an obvious influence on its policies. Although I had briefly harbored hopes that Park Geun-Hye would at least be principled toward North Korea, I’ve largely abandoned that hope by now. (For that matter, Park hasn’t demonstrated much competence as an executive, either.) Park has always been for Sunshine Lite, and still is. My error was to confuse consistency with principle. As long as South Korea continues to pay, indirectly, for the artillery and missiles aimed across its own borders, I can’t believe that its government is serious about defending its own land and people. And if Seoul isn’t serious about its defense, why I should be?

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Update: Remember when I wrote that silencing Park Sang-Hak wouldn’t end North Korea’s threats? Or when Professor Lee and I wrote this, back in November of 2014?

Pyongyang’s latest victory through intimidation and coercion carries unnerving implications for South Korea’s policy toward North Korea. Caving into blackmailers merely begets more blackmail. North Korea’s long litany of threats will not end simply because of the South’s one-time compliance on the leaflets. In the past, Pyongyang has attempted to assassinate activists, threatened to blow up the presidential mansion, and attack the South’s major media outlets.

It may be prudent to move the balloon launches away from populated areas, in the unlikely event that the North does in fact respond militarily, but yielding to such threats is self-defeating both on principle and as a matter of practical policy. Using the national police to gag South Korean activists undermines the government’s foreign policy and violates their right to free speech. [New York Times]

Well, South Korea continues to block leaflet launches — an act that made it less free, but certainly doesn’t seem to have made it any safer.


  1. If it was possible to load up all of the US Stealth Bombers with Choco Pies (the Orion version, not the Lotte ones), hi-calorie survival rations, and DVDs of K-Pop music videos and drop hundreds of tons of them across every starving or rebellious town…

  2. North Korea has issued an ultimatum that expires at 5:00 PM Saturday (Pyongyang Time, I think; 4:30 AM EDT) for South Korea to end the propaganda broadcasts.

    Guess now Kim Jong-un will have to act on this threat or look weak.

  3. In the event of significant armed conflict, there is the possibility that
    pro-North Korean groups in the US, particularly those which maintain
    ties with the Pyongyang regime, will engage in certain “actions” in support of the North, and some of those actions may go beyond their
    rights under the First Amendment.

  4. A possibility, not a probability or a certainty.

    A prediction on my part, so the evidence, if any, will necessarily come later.

    As for the reasons behind my suspicions, I refer to the Code Pink
    statement of a few years ago that they would serve as “human shields” for the North in the event of conflict, the speech by a
    top Nodutdol leader to the Workers World Party a couple of years
    ago in which she said that activists with her group would take certain
    actions in the event of conflict, and the call today by the leader of
    the Minjok Tongshin website for those Koreans overseas who
    support the North to engage in struggle against the “imperialists.”
    Some of these threatened actions may be peaceful in nature and
    otherwise consistent with free expression, but as I noted, when dealing with groups of this nature, the possibility of illegal acts
    should not be discounted.

  5. What do these “propaganda loudspeakers” broadcast? Is it truth?

    I feel differently fromJoshua…it is, to my mind, probable that any major act of aggression by baby Kim will see him overthrown by the colonels of the DPRK who realize how deficient their military is for any long term action. I think I include the commanders of the 15 divisions of special forces in this observation.

  6. About 50 of the DPRK’s submarines are reported to have put to sea. That’s interesting, but it would be more useful to know if, in the past week, we have seen them being properly victualed, with new batteries and weapons. That would be preparation for hostilities, and serious. The DPRK’s conventional submarines have only limited sea time experience. Many of them are quite small with very limited endurance. So while their deployment is certainly cause for concern, they may be more of an hypothetical threat (like the increase in tube artillery) rather than an actual threat. Reports are that the artillery has been placed on ready status, whatever that means. The real threat comes from the combination of tanks and the DPRK’s enormous special forces, and there is very little discussion on their status or whereabouts at all. I don’t know what the Pentagon or Blue House know in that respect, but no news might be seriously bad news.

    The other interesting lack of information is the location of the three Chinese Group Armies in Shendong military area, the 16th and 40th garrison armies and the excellent 39th. These are major elements, and one would like to know their state of readiness.

    I feel that any advance across the DMZ by the DPRK would be met by an advance into the DPRK from the Chinese,and the replacement of Baby Kim with a tolerable military regime under Chinese tutelage. it would be good to know where the Chinese forces are now.

    Baby Kim has been resolutely hostile to Beijing over the past three years,and has been trying to use Putin’s Russia as a tool to manipulate China.. The DPRK has useful annoyance value for China much of the time against the West, but not now. China needs stability in the region because its economy is failing to sustain its prior growth. For the next few years, South Korea will be more important to China than the DPRK …while a collapse of the DPRK would give China access to the world’s second largest source of mixable rare earth minerals,thereby ensuring Chinese monopoly. An unstable nuclear DPRK is not in China’s interests.

  7. survjournalism: a gentle reminder that if the two Koreas do go to open war, the North has a couple ten-thousand artillery tubes aimed at Seoul. Add in the rockets and Seoul would take one heck of a pounding. There’s about 10 million people in the city and surrounding burbs, and the megapolis has about 25 million. That’s a lot of people to expose to artillery fire.

    Certainly the South and US forces would do everything possible to stop that, but until they did it would be carnage.

    So no, let’s not go to open war. I’d prefer a quiet coup that sees Fat Boy and his hench-thugs strung upside-down with piano wire, and a more-quiet negotiated agreement between South Korea and China on how to take care of the North after that.

  8. Most of those tubes can’t range south of Uijongbu. The new 300mm rockets are another story, and represent a major new threat that could overwhelm Seoul’s missile defenses. They may be able to reach as far as Osan, and can probably carry chemical warheads. http://freekorea.us/2014/08/20/south-koreas-missile-problem-and-ours/

    We should also bear in mind that a lot of our notions of what artillery does to cities is based on imagery of how it (and a lot of aerial bombardment) affected the wooden cities of Japan, and the brick cities of Europe. Reinforced concrete can take a lot more punishment. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presidential_Palace,_Grozny

  9. NKNews.org shows Chinese heavy equipment en rout for the border. It looks to me as if the light tank comes from the Beijing arsenal, so indicating a real build up of weaponry there.

    Now we are told there’s been a stand-down in the DPRK, I suspect Baby Kim’s head is loose on his shoulders. Calmer minds won, and they aren’t his supporters.

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