To Kim Il-Sung, Korean War I was a principally conventional and unlimited war whose goal was the unitary domination of the entire Korean Peninsula by force. To Kim Jong-Un, Korean War II is a war of skirmishes, whose less ambitious aim is hegemony over a supine and finlandized South Korea. Korea has changed dramatically since 1953. It should not surprise us that Pyongyang has adapted its strategy and objectives to fit this new reality. For Pyongyang today, survival is the first prerequisite to hegemony.
Pyongyang instigated many skirmishes between 1953 and 2009, but Korean War II, with its current strategies and objectives, began with the attacks of 2010. It is a war of more limited objectives. In the short term, Pyongyang seeks to weaken and threaten Seoul politically and economically, while solidifying its support at home. Its strategies against the South include information operations, cyberwarfare, extortion, and the exploitation of the aforementioned through the skillful negotiation of economic and political concessions. At home, it seeks to preserve and strengthen its political system by enriching and terrorizing the loyal classes, and by keeping the wavering and hostile classes too hungry, afraid, and exhausted to do anything but grow corn and mine coal. Abroad, it seeks hard currency, to weaken the impact of international sanctions and criticism, to neutralize emerging political threats, and to prevent the formation of alliances against it. Viewed this way, Pyongyang has been strikingly successful in achieving its more limited goals. In fact, it had achieved most of them in the years between 2003 and 2008, when Seoul provided it billions in regime-sustaining aid and a degree of protection from international criticism. Pyongyang’s medium-term goal would likely have involved the removal of some U.S. forces,* the effective abrogation of the U.S.-Korea alliance, and the finlandization of South Korea into the North’s cash cow, while the North used nationalistic information operations to achieve spiritual and political supremacy over the South. Only in the very long term would it have any hope of dominating the South, and only through a gradual process of confederation.
Kim Jong-Un almost certainly does not believe that his squalid little kingdom, whose population is half as much as that of the South, is capable of conquering and digesting his target today. The lack of fuel alone would stop a conventional invasion in a week or two. If his shriveled soldiers ever reached the markets of Musan and Kangneung, all the lies they’ve been told would be laid bare. He probably does believe that the growing striking power of his rocket artillery, missiles, and nuclear weapons, will increasingly shield him from retaliation for attacks of rising intensity. That’s why I expect Korean War II to intensify in the coming years, and quite possibly, before this year ends. Those attacks have a domestic political purpose, which I explained here, and external purposes. In 2010, those attacks concentrated on the waters near the Han Estuary and Incheon, near South Korea’s most vital sea lanes. In 2014, they included a potentially catastrophic cyberattack on South Korea’s nuclear power infrastructure. Last month’s attack may not have fully developed, but it frightened investors and underlined the risk premium that retards South Korea’s economy. For South Korean voters, business interests, and politicians, the temptation to ignore, deny, or appease these threats must be great. Pyongyang is counting on that.
Two weeks ago, I again raised the question of whether Kim Jong Un is rational and stable. Events since then have answered that question in the affirmative. Pyongyang has chosen its targets and strategies carefully enough to convince me that it is following a rational strategy. It has nibbled at the flanks of South Korea’s security, while avoiding (at least, for now) an all-out war it can’t win. With each attack, the deterrence of U.S. Forces Korea has become more irrelevant. With the rising potential of the KN-08 to strike the United States, the U.S. will increasingly hesitate to involve itself in North-South disputes, and the U.S.-Korea alliance will be marginalized. Pyongyang’s message for Seoul is that Seoul can only get security by buying it from Pyongyang.
In 2010, when Korean War II began in earnest, I first argued that information operations and financial sanctions would be more effective deterrents to these skirmishes than a military response. I continue to believe that a limited war would serve Kim Jong-Un’s political objectives, by allowing him to portray himself as the architect of a defensive military victory. Indeed, he is trying this very thing now, although it’s not clear that the strategy has been entirely successful. Yonhap, citing KCNA, reports that Kim Jong-Un recently fired some more officials, although it isn’t clear that this decision came after or because of the border standoff. After all, Kim Jong-Un was purging officials before August 4th. Still, the AP’s Hung-Jin Kim editorializes that the dismissals suggest that “the young leader holds them responsible for allowing the confrontation to nearly spin out of control.” In fact, it’s not clear that Kim Jong-Un agrees that the confrontation nearly spun out of control, or that he was even unhappy with the outcome. The Daily NK also publishes an anecdotal report that some North Koreans view their government’s expression of “regret” as an admission, a climb-down, and proof that “the authorities are capable of admitting their faults.” If Pyongyang concludes that it lost face (perhaps “awe” is the right word here) in the eyes of its subjects, it may feel compelled to launch an even greater provocation before the year ends.
I’ve denigrated the use of propaganda loudspeakers as a part of this deterrent strategy; after all, loudspeakers can’t reach a large enough audience to make a significant difference in the opinions of North Koreans. Last month’s events cause me to reconsider this judgment. It’s now evident to me — and to others, like Victor Cha, Choe Sang-Hun of the New York Times,** and Alastair Gale and Jeyup S. Kwaak of the Wall Street Journal — that the loudspeakers put significant political pressure on the regime. All three links are well worth reading in their entirety; so is this Joongang Ilbo interview with former South Korean psy-ops specialists, who put the content of the propaganda content into the context of a wider strategy.
If one accepts that this is so, it’s equally clear that an information strategy that reaches deeper into North Korea would be an even greater deterrent. There are some cell phone signal technologies that would allow a signal to reach as far as 50 miles. It’s conceivable, then, that South Korea could build high cell phone towers (or send up balloons) along the DMZ to allow the free flow of cell signals from Pyongyang to Busan. At the flip of a switch, North Koreans would have the technical ability to call relatives in the South, the information blockade would be perforated, and the North would face a severe challenge to redouble the phone-tracing offensive it has carried out along the Chinese border. Even if the switch is not flipped, these towers could be a powerful deterrent to attacks.
That is why, contra Aidan Foster-Carter, I think it’s still too early to say who won the last skirmish in the longer war. That will depend on terms yet to be negotiated. Although Park Geun-Hye didn’t negotiate a particularly good armistice to Korean War II last week, she did win by the only measure that really matters to her — the polls. The ROK military has also used the standoff for its own domestic propaganda. The agreement, by itself, did little to alter the status quo ante. If Park lifts sanctions or gives aid because of a sequence of events that started with an armed North Korean attack, South Korea will be the loser in the long run. If the outcome shifts the domestic political fortunes of either side, that could also shift the short-term advantage.
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* Most likely, just those that threaten it, such as air, naval, and missile defense units. Some level of U.S.-Korea alliance, such as a force structure that keeps American infantry and civilians within range of its rocket artillery, increases Pyongyang’s leverage over the United States. At the same time, an infantry-heavy force represents little real threat to Pyongyang.
** Choe should have known better than to call this the “Hello Kitty” offensive. Hello Kitty, of all sacrileges, is Japanese. “Siren strategy” would have been far better.