Atypically, the most unserious person in a left-wing Korean administration turns out not to be its Unification Minister. In an interview with Jonathan Cheng, the Wall Street Journal’s Seoul Bureau Chief, Cho Myoung-gyon concedes that Pyongyang may indeed have grander ambitions than defending itself against the Yankee hordes:
Mr. Cho also said that he was alarmed by increasing signals that North Korea sees its nuclear arsenal as a way to achieve its decades-old dream of unifying the Korean Peninsula under Pyongyang’s leadership. “Now that they are at the completion phase, they are coming up with new rhetoric that they haven’t been emphasizing for a long time, like unifying the peninsula under a socialist regime,” he said. Mr. Cho dismissed those aims as absurd. “I can say strongly and clearly that the unification that North Korea wants will never happen,” he said.
There is a rising debate in policy circles in Washington and Seoul about Pyongyang’s ultimate aims as it hones the ability to threaten the U.S. with a miniaturized nuclear device mounted onto a long-range missile. Some scholars and policy analysts fear that the North will use its nuclear arsenal to threaten South Korea and the U.S. into making concessions that it has long sought, such as ending annual joint U.S.-South Korean military drills and removing U.S. troops from South Korea.
That in turn could be a prelude to a war with South Korea, said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank, who argues that the primary goal of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program is to reunify the peninsula under Kim Jong Un. “A North Korea with nukes will become more aggressive towards a South without nukes,” Mr. Cheong said. Pyongyang’s threats to target Washington with nuclear weapons could deter the U.S. from engaging in any conflict on the peninsula, he said. [WSJ]
But don’t worry, he says. It will never happen.
If you won’t take it from me or from Professor Myers, then take it from Thae Yong-ho. The first implication of this is that even a “small” nuclear arsenal in North Korea represents an unacceptable threat of nuclear blackmail, to say nothing of proliferation. The second implication is that simply accepting North Korea as a nuclear state — as The Blob whose advice got us to this point now counsels us to do — isn’t the end of this crisis, it’s the beginning of a far more grave one.
Before I get to what Thae Yong-ho did not say at CSIS on Tuesday, and when he testified the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday, let’s start with what he did say. By now, you probably know that Thae was North Korea’s Deputy Ambassador to the U.K. before he defected in August 2016. This week, Thae made his first visit to the U.S. I could not have been more impressed or moved by his words. Do yourself a favor and bookmark this post. Then, go back this weekend and watch both events. Do this not only because Thae’s ideas are an essential, articulately formed North Korean perspective about the greatest national security crisis of our time from a man who obviously cares deeply about his nation and its people, or because he risked his life and the lives of his wife and children to deliver that perspective. Do it so that you can also see how badly the media distorted Thae’s remarks when it “reported” on them. Here is video of Thae’s remarks at CSIS:
In all the years I’ve been going to hearings of this Committee, I’ve never seen members or staff more interested or engaged than they were when Thae testified yesterday. It was literally standing room only for staff. Fresh-faced twenty-somethings and wizened Hill veterans alike filled the flanks of the hearing room, hanging on every word. Although I can’t do justice to Thae’s complete remarks in this post, I’ll attempt to summarize his main points from both events, in the approximate order of the length and priority Thae himself gave them.
– Thae spent most of his time calling for a much greater emphasis on information operations and subversion inside North Korea, contrasting the potential value and low cost of such operations against the high cost of our military forces in South Korea (or, God forbid, a war). He called for different information strategies for the Pyongyang elites and the poor everywhere else. He called for satellite TV broadcasts into North Korea and for smuggling in small SD cards (which the kids in Pyongyang call “nose cards” because they hide them inside their noses — yeah, ick).
– Thae said that broadcasts to North Korea should dispense with blunt polemics and epithets (of the kind that in my view, and apparently Thae’s, the South Korean right lazily resorts to). Instead, he called for informing North Koreans of the natural rights they ought to possess: to a living wage, and not to have their pretty daughters taken away to Pyongyang to work at elite-only hospitals or dance troupes, or to be used as modern-day palace courtesans.
– Thae’s most subversive statements questioned the family legitimacy of Kim Jong-un, noting that Kim Il-sung never accepted Kim Jong-un’s mother — whom Kim Jong-il expropriated from her husband — into the royal family. He pointed out that Kim Jong-un has never produced a photograph of himself with Kim Il-sung for this reason, and that few North Koreans even knew that Kim Jong-un had an older brother before Kim murdered him. Kim Jong-un’s parentage is now deemed so sensitive inside North Korea that before he took power, Kim Jong-un released a short film on his family history to a small group, which Kim’s advisors later urged him not to release. Everyone who saw it was later purged. Thae believes that to broadcast this film, which was recently still on YouTube, to North Korea would cause North Koreans to question Kim Jong-un’s claim to be the rightful heir to Kim Il-sung. (I don’t have time to get you a link at the moment; see Thae’s CSIS remarks.)
– Kim Jong-un was not properly prepared for his own succession. Not only was he not prominent in the royal court before 2009, he was hidden from view. In January 2009, none of the North Korean diplomats even knew who Kim Jong-un was. Then, one day, they were all told to start singing the song “Footsteps.” The fact that the botched currency “reform” came later that year causes Thae to infer that Kim Jong-un pushed for or supported it. Thae also thinks the failure of this initiative convinced Kim Jong-un to resist broader economic reforms, while avoiding large-scale crackdowns on the markets. Only later were the diplomats even told the name of their new master, and they still don’t know the year of his birth (by contrast, the year of Kim Il-sung’s birth is the year zero in the Juche calendar). Kim Jong-un was and is obsessively insecure about the degree of respect he commands among the hard-faced generals who surround him, which is why he occasionally shoots one for dozing off during a speech.
– Thae nearly brought himself — and me — to tears when, near the end of his remarks at CSIS, he spoke of his own decision to defect. Thae and his family were nearing the end of their time in London, and his high-school-age sons contemplated a life without Facebook or the internet. Intense discussions followed: Why can’t we have the internet in North Korea? Because if people knew the things you knew, they’d ask questions. Thae must have believed that this knowledge would endanger them all, and worse, that his sons would never forgive him for throwing away the chance to live freely.
I believed the best legacy I could leave for my sons was to give them the freedom that is so common to everyone in America. Had we not defected, I feared that someday my sons would have cursed me for forcing them back to North Korea. They were used to online gaming, Facebook messaging, email and internet news. I believed my sons would suffer a lot if they returned to the North Korean system. Indeed, how could any boys raised in the London education system and familiar with freedom of thought ever go back and re-acclimatize to life in North Korea? I could not confiscate freedom and enjoyment of liberty from them. I could not take back the happy smiles of my sons by bringing them back to North Korea. I could not force my sons to pretend to be loyal to Kim Jong Un and the North Korean system and to shout ‘long live the supreme leader Kim Jong Un!,’ ‘long live the socialist paradise of the DPRK’ – like I did all my life. [Testimony of Thae Yong-ho, House Foreign Affairs Committee, Nov. 1, 2017]
– North Korea’s military has standing orders to retaliate if they see evidence of “fire and fury” from a U.S. or South Korean strike. It’s unlikely that a first strike could stay “limited,” and likely that it would instead cause massive loss of life.
– Thae refuted the conventional wisdom that Kim Jong-un only wants nukes for self-defense, and broadly confirmed my theory that Kim Jong-un plans to leverage his nuclear arsenal to gradually, then suddenly, subjugate South Korea by forcing Seoul to weaken its defenses and negotiate U.S. forces out. About halfway into the hearing, Congressman William Keating (D, MA) asked Thae a question about stabilizing post-collapse North Korea. Thae apparently misunderstood Keating’s question and started talking about North Korea’s plans to “stabilize” the South. Keating tried to get Thae back on his question, but Chairman Royce stopped Keating because he — like me — was even more interested in what Thae was saying about Pyongyang’s intentions. Watch the whole exchange at 1:32.
– Specifically, Thae said that Pyongyang’s plan was inspired by the fall of South Vietnam and the recession that played a significant part in denying Saigon the capacity to fuel, arm, and maintain its big-on-paper army. Pyongyang views the withdrawal of U.S. forces and consequent capital flight as the cause of that recession. In fact, the recession was a global one. Several factors converged on South Vietnam, including the oil shock, the loss of U.S. development and military aid, and the fact that fewer American paychecks were being spent on Tu Do Street. But the general model isn’t far off from what I’ve been ranting about for the last several years, but for some variations. For example, I expect the silencing of men like Thae to be one of Pyongyang’s first objectives, and I’d imagined that Pyongyang would try to throw the South Korean economy into crisis with limited artillery attacks in areas with inflated real estate prices, or by turning the economically vital air and sea lanes near Incheon into conflict zones. Thae’s chronology of the fall of South Vietnam is a bit off, too: the U.S. had largely “Vietnamized” the war and drawn down its forces by 1972. The Paris Accords followed in 1973. By then, South Vietnam was experiencing a major recession. But as I sat behind Thae listening to him, I finally understood the “then suddenly” part of Pyongyang’s plan to bankrupt Seoul, at least as Pyongyang sees it.
– We must persuade the elites in Pyongyang that they will have a future in reunified Korea, or they will resist it. But because of Kim Jong-un’s recent purges, the elites doubt that they have much of a future under his rule.
– We should continue to expand sanctions. It’s too early to tell if they’re working.
– Kim Jong-un’s greatest fear is actually an internal uprising. Thae elaborates on this near the end of his remarks at CSIS, before the first audience member question.
– Oh, yeah, and we should also try to talk to Kim Jong-un before we start a nuclear war. Thae didn’t say we should offer a freeze, or a peace treaty, or an aid package, or an industrial park — none of that. Just this:
Some people do not believe in soft power, but only in military options. But it is necessary to reconsider whether we have tried all non-military options before we decide that military action against North Korea is all that is left. Before any military action is taken, I think it is necessary to meet Kim Jong Un at least once to understand his thinking and to try to convince him that he would be destroyed if he continues his current direction.
Not that it matters, but I don’t disagree with a word of it — if it’s even possible, and if we can find an appropriate format for it (Thae later conceded in his congressional testimony that it might not be). The point that I’m setting up here is that in the context of Thae’s entire written statement and his verbal remarks, this was a throw-away line without any specific proposals. It was clearly not what Thae emphasized, did not have the meaning it implied to readers, and couldn’t have comprised more than one percent of what Thae said, but it was all the media — and Yonhap in particular — heard.
As a lawyer, I’m not one for the indiscriminate bashing of professions. I’m a voracious consumer of journalism myself. I know stellar journalists and terrible ones. This week, the terrible ones showed up and reminded me why Americans have learned to distrust the media, and why Koreans should. They owed it to us to report on Thae Yong-ho’s important, perhaps historically determinative ideas. How sad for us all that they chose to report their own tired ideas instead. Yonhap’s headlines are the best example of this.
It is strictly true that Thae states at one point, early in his CSIS speech, that engagement should include engaging the regime. It is also true that “engage” is a deliberately vague word that can mean many things. Still, this headline is in no sense an accurate summation of Thae’s most important, second-most important, or third-most-important point. It is not an honest or complete reflection of Thae’s remarks in any sense.
This statement is even more misleading. If anything, Thae urged minimal engagement with a self-isolated heir who has never heard the word “no” before we go to war with him. Yonhap’s headlines, by contrast, evoke the dozens of tone-deaf, intellectually exhausted talk-to-North-Korea op-eds that think-tank nitwits inexplicably keep writing, no matter how ardently Pyongyang insists that it just isn’t interested. Thae didn’t call for any of that. He didn’t propose a freeze, protection payments, concessions, negotiations, a peace treaty, Kaesong 2.0, exchange programs to teach them how to launder money or do men’s synchronized swimming or fold paper cranes or write malicious code, or any of the other twaddle that Northwest D.C. academics and South Korean Peace Studies professors produce in bulk. He proposed a last-chance message to Kim Jong-un before we resort to war. He would “talk to North Korea” on a completely different level. For the record, I agree that it’s our obligation to try. If the alternative is war, then we should find some appropriate way (and that rules out a hamburger summit) to deliver a plain statement to Kim Jong-un that there are some interests we’re deadly serious about protecting.
But what isn’t in the coverage is even more damning: nothing about an insider’s confirmation of Pyongyang’s plausible-sounding plan to subjugate Seoul, his talk of the possibility of a “civilian uprising or his delicately implied advocacy that we encourage one, and much too little about Thae’s main emphasis — his call for informing the North Korean people about their natural rights as human beings, which is (if you’re familiar with Thae’s prior statements) clearly leading toward a “people’s revolution.”It couldn’t be more obvious that the reporters listened to the first five minutes, heard what they wanted to hear, typed out and emailed their stories, and ignored the far more important and profound ideas Thae risked his life to speak freely about. (And to think that people still doubt that Pyongyang could reach over the DMZ to censor the South Korean media!) What Thae said about Kim Jong-un’s family and political illegitimacy are certain to drive Pyongyang to lethal fury. He has made himself the Emmanuel Goldstein of North Korea and a prime candidate for assassination, and he certainly knows it. The least I can do for this brave man is give him the last word.
Q. What’s South Korea’s biggest drawback?
A. They’re too naive compared to North Koreans.
Q. What do you mean?
A. I sometimes get that impression when I talk with South Koreans. And I think to myself, ‘How will they face North Korea with a mentality like that?’
First, the North Korea commentariat told us that the Yongbyon reactor might be for no more nefarious purpose than generating electricity (never mind that it was never connected to the electrical grid). Then, it told us that the North merely wanted aid and recognition by the United States, to better provide for the people it had so recently starved to death in heaps, the dust of whose loves and aspirations now fills a thousand forlorn and forgotten pits in the barren hills of Hamgyeong. It told us that Pyongyang only wanted to open itself up to the world and bask in our gentle rays of glasnost and perestroika. It told us that if we were willing to disregard the good sense of the voting public and pay enough extortion money, surely Pyongyangcould betalked out of its nukes.
What all of these theories had in common — aside from being wrong — is that they required a determined ignorance of the nature of the regime in Pyongyang. The appeal of these theories has always been greatest among those Americans who knew the least about its ideology and abuses of its own people (arms control experts, diplomats, and left-leaning academics), and among those South Koreans with the fewest objections to either. Overwhelming majorities of the commentariat in Washington and Seoul also embraced the reassurance these theories offered. Indeed, many proponents of these discredited theories still cling to the fantasy and they can talk Pyongyang into a nuclear and missile freeze, no matter how many times Pyongyang declares its unwillingness to discuss or consider any such thing.
At some point, we can’t confine the blame for this atrocious predictive record to the commentariat itself; some of that blame must also stain the journalists and policymakers who keep slogging back to this well of wisdom to fill their buckets and ladle it into the troughs of newspaper readers and presidents. Foreign affairs is not an empirical science; still, one wonders when a predictive record becomes catastrophic enough that the theories and their adherents get the Dick Cheney treatment. Surely, in the modern history of analytical folly, “They will open up and reform,” has to be right up there with, “He only wants the Sudentenland,” and, “They will welcome us as liberators.” For all my criticisms of President Trump — and there have been many of them, for many reasons, on many issues — he is the first president we’ve had in 30 years who possessed the instincts to reject this nonsense.
“We cannot have a society in which some dictators someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States because if somebody is able to intimidate us out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing once they see a documentary that they don’t like or news reports that they don’t like. That’s not who we are. That’s not what America is about.” – Barack Obama, Dec. 19, 2014
If these recent incidents are in fact more indicative of Pyongyang’s new way of war and how it will escalate in the coming years than the 1950 Kim Il-sung strategy, on what basis do we believe that deterrence that was failing before will succeed now? On what basis do we doubt that a nuclear-armed North Korea will continue to escalate this war of skirmishes? On what basis do we believe that the crisis is already as bad it as it will get? If the commentariat ducks those questions, perhaps it hasn’t applied its imagination to the question of just howmuch worsethings will get in five years if present trends continue. Illusions are stubborn things, and the commentariat’s predictive failures could make for a fine seminar on cognitive biases one day. That’s why I keep pushing back against this latest dangerous blandishment.
Beneath all of this is the long record of Pyongyang’s ideology and stated intentions to use its nukes to achieve reunification on its terms, an intention Pyongyang is increasingly brazen about. Brian Myers and Edward Oh make that case compellingly enough in new articles. I won’t repeat them here, though I can’t resist quoting this passage from Myers:
Also worth mentioning in this context are conservative reports of an academic proposal now circulating among higher-ups that proposes, as a transition to unification, a Kaesong Confederated State. This would be a swathe of jointly administered territory along the southernmost reaches of the North, from the port of Haeju in the west to the Geumgang mountains in the east, that would play host to five universities. That last word, I suspect, is meant about as seriously as the Associated Press’ use of the word bureau for its Pyongyang office.
Of course, one need not choose deterrence or unification as Pyongyang’s reason for sacrificing all the aid, money, prosperity, and recognition the commentariat told us it wanted — as it consistently sacrificed all of those things for the nuclear weapons it preferred, for some reason. If you want to be precise, the answer is both deterrence and reunification, because Pyongyang’s strategy is to deter Washington and Seoul from responding to its carefully calibrated attacks against American or South Korean interests and targets — attacks that will be designed to dissolve their increasingly uncertain alliance, but mostly to raise a chorus of calls from the usual commentariat for us to make a few “small” concessions that will be calculated to lower the South’s military and ideological defenses, skirmish by skirmish and crisis by crisis, against North Korean hegemony and remote control through a confederation.
To know whether we can deter Pyongyang, we must know what we’re deterring. It is as true — and as irrelevant — that we can deter a 1950-style invasion or a nuclear first strike on Seattle as it was true 80 years ago that the Maginot Line could protect Alsace-Lorraine from Hindenburg’s Prussian cavalry. Whether you believe that Pyongyang’s war-of-skirmishes strategy is plausible matters less than whether a petulant, impulsive, morbidly obese, and psychotic 33-year-old heir to a medieval dynasty who has never heard the word “no” does.
Professor Lee raises, if ever so briefly, the standards of a newspaper that is simultaneously America’s most prestigious, and in terms of its North Korea coverage, easily its worst.
But a nuclear North Korea is unlike a nuclear China or Russia. During the Cold War, neither Beijing nor Moscow faced an existential threat in the form of an alternate Chinese or Russian state. Pyongyang, on the other hand, has had to live with a far more prosperous and legitimate Korean state across its southern border.
This internal dynamic of the Korean Peninsula compels Pyongyang to continue to threaten war and perfect its weapons of mass destruction. The regime’s logic is that the more advanced its nuclear capability, the less likely the United States will be to defend South Korea at the risk of sacrificing millions of American lives at home.
Hence, for the North, menacing the United States is a nonnegotiable means of isolating and exercising dominance over Seoul. This is how the regime of Kim Jong-un seeks to ensure its long-term survival. [Sung-Yoon Lee, The New York Times]
I often wish that I could write as well in my first language as Professor Lee can write in his second language. I always look forward to his op-eds — not only because they’re a pleasure to read, but also because off-hand, I can’t think of anyone else who writes about North Korea in the English language, who also reads North Korean propaganda in the original Korean, who possesses the additional understanding and context of having been raised in the Korean culture, and who is possessed of the good judgment to interpret that evidence usefully for the reader. If you’re as devoted a NYT non-subscriber as I am — I say this as someone who has co-written two op-eds (both with Prof. Lee) that the Times has published — this is well worth spending one of your free clicks.
For the last 60 years, the people of North Korea have been told that they must sacrifice all their wants — and too many of their needs — for the sake of a holy war with Oceania that has always been imminent. Pyongyang’s media manipulation strategy shows the world’s most gullible journalists (and I mean you, Will Ripley) images of subjects who are (or who appear to be) united in fanatical, robotic devotion to the state’s war propaganda. Yet out in the provinces, the people have stopped believing it.
People have also been overheard complaining among themselves about how the government has to take such actions to create an artificially tense atmosphere, as without them, the people would show no real concern. “North Korea would suffer unspeakable destruction if war breaks out, so are they really going to attack the US?” one resident said to the source.
Evidence suggests that the regime does not have any such intentions, and is merely focusing on creating an atmosphere of war without undertaking any significant military maneuvers. Years of false claims of a coming “total war” and threats of annihilation have damaged the government’s credibility among the people. [Daily NK]
“These latest measures do not represent any change in the regime’s strategy, and their failure to even respond to this week’s joint US-South Korea military drills with exercises of their own is further proof. They will just continue with their saber-rattling, forcing the people to the streets for daily demonstrations, taking pictures and putting on a show, but nobody at this point believes they will really start a war,” the source said. [Daily NK]
But whether this confidence is an expression of weariness or reassurance (or some combination of both) may depend on the individual. Some North Koreans say “when the war comes” as code talk for “after the regime ends.” A former member of the Pyongyang elite told me this in a conversation more than a decade ago. Here is more evidence of that.
“An increasing number of residents are pointing out that, for them [the North Korean people], provoking the US is a losing battle. We are the ones who suffer from the regime’s belligerent behavior with no consideration for reconciliation and cooperation,” he added.
Some residents are said to be welcoming the regime’s propaganda that a war is imminent, a source in North Hamgyong Province said. We want the suffering to finally end even if it means losing a war,” he said.
“Kim Jong Un is using the same old strategy of his grandfather (Kim Il Sung) and father (Kim Jong Il) to consolidate the population with threats of war, but it is not really effective anymore.” [Daily NK]
Often, I think we underestimate how intelligent, and how perceptive some North Koreans are in seeing through the state’s propaganda, yet at the same time, they may not be nearly perceptive enough about the cost of the war Kim Jong-Un is leading them into. Are their circumstances so desperate that they would gamble everything to reset the future? I suspect we’d find different answers to that question in Pyongyang, in the provinces, and in the barracks. We should help all of them understand that cost in vivid terms, along with who will bear it, and who profits from this regime’s endless war hysteria and all of the hard labor it is used to justify. History is often written by people who see only their desperation, who yearn to erase the future, and who damn all consequences. But if the North Korean people are waiting for us, they are waiting in vain. No matter the circumstance or the scenario, the cost of rebooting their future will be great. It will be far greater for them if it involves war with us. If they want a future, they must take history into their own hands.
~ ~ ~
* The rhetorical similarities between Goebbels’s words and Pyongyang’s rhetoric today are uncanny. Said Goebbels in 1943: “Do you believe with the Führer and us in the final total victory of the German people? Are you and the German people willing to work, if the Führer orders, 10, 12 and if necessary 14 hours a day and to give everything for victory? Do you want total war? If necessary, do you want a war more total and radical than anything that we can even imagine today?” You see what I mean? But war fever and Stakhanovite exhortations have short shelf lives — historically, no longer than ten years. A state can only sustain the ideological fervor for this level of self-sacrifice for so long before the people tire of it.
As we begin rehashing the time-worn policy arguments about responding to a nuclear North Korea, it’s useful to inform those arguments with further evidence of just how Pyongyang is leveraging its nuclear hegemony, by escalating its control over speech in South Korea. Last week, a few of us noticed that KCNA published a “death sentence” against four journalists (two reviewers and two newspaper presidents) over a review of “North Korea Confidential” by James Pearson and Daniel Tudor, asserting further that “the penalties will be enforced at an arbitrary point in time at an arbitrary point, without any additional procedure.”
President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves.
I’ve posted the full text of KCNA’s threat below the fold (click “continue reading.”) The threat drew a mild condemnation from Seoul. What, do you suppose, are the odds that KCNA made this threat without the personal approval of His Porcine Majesty? No doubt, Pyongyang found the cover of the Korean edition to be provocative:
I don’t know if the reviewers would have even seen this cover. Pearson, an affable person who has done some excellent investigative journalism about North Korea’s money laundering in Malaysia and Singapore, also sent me a review copy when the book came out in English. My copy doesn’t have that cover. Other authors who’ve sent me review copies have done so by .pdf, and none of those texts showed a cover image. But then, the North Korean judicial system isn’t known for its evidentiary rigor or protections of due process.
Why else might Pyongyang target “North Korea Confidential?” It’s certainly a useful snapshot of how provincial North Korea in 2015 differed from the circa-1985 impression that most foreigners have of its society, culture, and economy, although a regular (or obsessive) Korea-watcher won’t read much there that she hasn’t read somewhere else. The book is hardly an indictment of North Korea’s political system. Pearson and Tudor don’t ignore the existence of the political prison camps or other human rights abuses, but those things aren’t the main focus of their book. They mainly focus on economic and cultural changes in North Korea since the Great Famine, and on evidence supporting the implication (of which I’m skeptical) that these things will necessarily drive political change. In their conclusion, they are “doubtful about the possibility of regime collapse” and skeptical of the proposition that “sanctions could push the DPRK to the breaking point.” They ultimately conclude that “the most likely scenario for North Korea in the short and medium term is the gradual opening of the country under the current regime.”
None of which is really my point. My point is that compared to any number of other North Korea books one can read in Korean, “North Korea Confidental” is mild stuff. It’s not half as inflammatory, subversive, or acerbic as most of what you might read at this blog, or at B.R. Myers’s Sthele Press. Having mostly finished this post last week, I decided to hold it for a few days while I emailed some other authors to ask whether their works are published in Korean. Professor B.R. Myers informs me that “The Cleanest Race” is; so is Kang Chol-hwan’s “The Aquariums of Pyongyang;” Yeonmi Park’s, “In Order to Live;” and most of Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard’s books. All of these books are more ideologically dangerous to Pyongyang than “North Korea Confidential.” Why not them?
The key to explaining this, I think, is that the authors themselves were not the targets of this threat; the Korean journalists who reviewed the book’s Korean edition were. And here, we find the makings of a pattern and an escalation, because a reader brings to my attention that KCNA has also published this threat against centrist and right-of-center Korean media — sorry, make that “Puppet Reptile Writers.” Apologies for the long quote, but this is worth reading and archiving in full:
Pyongyang, September 1 (KCNA) — Yonhap News, Chosun Ilbo, Dong-A Ilbo, Maeil Kyongje, Munhwa Ilbo and other vicious conservative media of south Korea professing to represent the south Korean media are speaking ill of the Korean People’s Army’s resolute warning for mounting enveloping fire on Guam and the will of the Korean people to wage death-defying resistance against the U.S. and are unhesitatingly trumpeting about such rhetoric as “enhanced war atmosphere” and “creation of tensions for maintaining social system”.
A spokesman for the Central Committee of the Journalists Union of Korea in a statement Friday says this clearly proves that the puppet conservative media are made up of hack writers, servants of bellicose forces at home and abroad and group of traitors with whom we can not live together.
The Central Committee of the Journalists Union of Korea sternly declares as follows reflecting the towering grudge and hostility of the mediapersons of the DPRK against the puppet conservative media going reckless to hurt the dignity of the DPRK while pointing an accusing finger at the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK:
We will sharpen the just writing brushes to defend our leader, our party and our social system and win a final victory in the confrontation with the U.S.
No matter how loudly the hostile forces may cry out, they can never check the advance of the DPRK dashing toward the bright future of humankind along the straight road of independence, Songun and socialism.
We will track down the puppet conservative reptile writers fostering discord within the nation under the auspices and at the instigation of the anti-reunification forces at home and abroad, and throw overboard all of them.
The puppet ultra-right conservative hack writers without elementary conscience as writers have to be completely stamped out. This is the unanimous will of the mediapersons of the DPRK, and this will be put into practice.
Our grime and merciless pen will sight the bases which commit hideous crimes against the DPRK by spreading misinformation about it, and beat them to pieces.
The puppet conservative media escalating confrontation with the DPRK while dare challenge the annihilating spirit of the army and people of the DPRK will never be able to evade the shower of retaliatory blows. -0- [link]
Let’s call all of this precisely what it is: terrorism. See also Pyongyang’s extraterritorial censorship of “The Interview” in the United States, Europe, and Asia. See also (in no particular order) its series of attempts between 2008 and 2014 to murder North Korean dissidents in exile, its 2012 threat to shell the offices of conservative South Korean newspapers, its 2014 threats against defector-activists who launch leaflet balloons over the DMZ, its approval of the 2015 slashing attack on the U.S. Ambassador, its 2016 threat to murder the President of South Korea, its 2017 threat to murder the ex-President of South Korea and just about anyone who angers it, and its 2017 murder of Kim Jong-Nam in Kuala Lumpur.
I offer that evidence for the benefit of anyone who is tempted to believe the palliative that we can just “learn to live with” a nuclear North Korea, to view our own acknowledgement of Pyongyang’s nuclear status as the end of this crisis, or to find reassurance in the belief that Pyongyang, having achieved nuclear hegemony at such cost, will rest contentedly within its own borders. On the contrary, from now until the end of Kim Jong-Un’s life, every book review, editorial, film, conference, and U.N. vote will be cast as a choice between the offending thoughts, on one hand, and assassination or war on the other. How much of your freedom of thought will you give up for the sake of “peace?” The problem with that question is that no one ever asks it just once.
I have written before about how the generals in Pyongyang believe they can gradually subjugate South Korea into submission and remote control by confederation, rather than attempt to occupy a country with twice its population and many times its wealth. I have written about how Pyongyang’s attempts to censor opinion in South Korea and elsewhere, including the United States and Europe, are at the vanguard of those plans, because Pyongyang knows that to control people, you must first control their thoughts. Pyongyang’s thought control takes many forms, from death threats, to hacking the email of scholars here, to threatening the organizers of conferences. So does the thought control of its simpaticos in South Korea, who use the courts to intimidate refugees, use South Korea’s oppressive libel laws to suppress parliamentary and political speech, send thugs from state-subsidized labor unions to attack their critics, and (as Roh Moo-hyun did) use selective and ideologically motivate tax audits against unfriendly newspapers. And these are just the things we know about.
North Korea and the anti-anti-North Korean left in South Korea have many instruments for controlling the thoughts of South Koreans. Recently, I argued how various forms of censorship have gravely damaged South Korea’s liberal democracy and the quality of its political debate. Meanwhile, the fawning coverage that foreign and Korean journalists have given Moon Jae-in is enough to make Kim Jong-un envious of his treatment by KCNA. These are the journalists who are supposed to be the guardians of a free press. But at the critical moment, they are almost as derelict as (though less corrupt than) the Associated Press was when it made its Faustian bargain with the North Korean government. You won’t hear a critical word from the AP about the fact that its business partner just published a threat to murder four fellow journalists. Remember that the next time anyone from the AP makes a self-serving soapbox argument about its important role as a guardian of your freedom (which is exactly what the AP and journalists should be).
As for most foreign and Korean journalists, they’re so personally and ideologically enamored of Moon Jae-in, and so invested in the narrative of Pyongyang as David besieged by Goliath, that they’ve blinded themselves to this partial eclipse of South Korea’s freedoms. Pray that Kim Jong-Un’s Moonshadow Policy is no more successful than Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy was. You can try to reassure yourself that this is South Korea’s problem, but recent history suggests that while the path of totality will eventually cover all of Korea, the path of the partial eclipse will be global. And so far, Pyongyang’s campaign seems to be working. By the way, when was the last time you saw a movie about North Korea? I’ll bet it wasn’t made after 2014.
Since North Korea’s sixth* nuclear test, I’ve already read several analyses concluding that North Korea now has the bomb for good, and that we might as well give up on denuclearization — as if Pyongyang’s acquisition of a nuclear arsenal ends with us all living happily ever after together. You can only believe that if you either haven’t read much North Korean propaganda — or choose to ignore it, just as much of Europe ignored the words Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf in the 30s. But what North Korea wants is South Korea. It has always wanted South Korea, and it has never stopped saying that it wants South Korea. Its messianic vision of reunification has always rested on its express promise of reuniting Korea under its rule. You can try to pretend that away, but North Korea won’t be content to sit behind its borders and watch its legitimacy eroded away by unfavorable comparison — made vivid by every smuggled DVD of a South Korean TV drama — to a superior model of Korean nationhood.
In the meantime, Pyongyang needs cash, and it will sell any weapon to any buyer to get it. And it will threaten or murder any critic, foreign or domestic, whose words undermine the integrity of its propaganda, until in some small way, we are all subject to Pyongyang’s global censorship. Not even the U.S. Ambassador, or a Hollywood film studio, is off limits to its goon squads. Accepting a nuclear North Korea doesn’t mean this crisis is over. It means we’ve entered Korean War II in earnest. Korean War II is a war of skirmishes in which Pyongyang will seek to incrementally terrorize South Korea into submission and the U.S. into disengagement. It will mean a new period of accelerating crises and outrages that will almost inevitably lead to miscalculation and war. We cannot live with a nuclear North Korea.
The geniuses who’ve spent the last 30 years misjudging Pyongyang and counseling us to appease it are soon to fill your TV screens and op-ed pages. They would sit this episode out if they had any shame at all, and you will tune them out if you’re more sensible than they are. Which, statistically speaking, you probably are.
There is much overlap between these advocates of appeasement and those who once said, in no particular order, that (1) North Korea only wanted nuclear reactors to generate electricity, (2) that if we cut a deal, it would keep its word, (3) Kim Jong-Un would be the reformer we’ve all been waiting for, (4) Pyongyang only wants nukes for defense, and (5) that years of tough sanctions — sanctions that almost none of these critics had read or knew the first thing about — haven’t worked. They now call for a deal, in the hope that you haven’t noticed how Pyongyang has insisted, again and again, that it will never give up its nukes. What, do they suppose, are we supposed to negotiate except this year’s price of extortion? We can neither talk, nor bomb, nor wait out way out of this crisis.
Clearly, sanctions haven’t worked yet, if you define “work” to mean disarm or topple Kim Jong-Un. Whether they’re beginning to work remains to be seen. It’s a lazy argument that equates coincidence with causation for polemic convenience. One could have made it after North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, when financial sanctions (as we know now) clearlyhadput Pyongyang under withering pressure and eventually forced it to return to talks (where we exchanged real concessions, including the lifting of sanctions, for false promises to disarm). Therearesomeearlysigns that sanctions are beginning to fray the system’s financial and political cohesion, but as I’ve said all along, it will take two to three years for them to begin to show their effects, and it’s too early to call this evidence compelling.
So does this mean we’re too late? Yes, we’re too late to stop North Korea from having a nuclear arsenal, but not too late to stop it from having a bigger and better one, not too late to undermine Kim Jong-Un’s misrule politically, and not too late to truncate whatever crisis is to come four or five years from now. Our goal now must be to abbreviate, as much as possible, the amount of time we have to try to deter a state that’s increasingly undeterrable by abbreviating the rule of Kim Jong-Un.
Meanwhile, beseech the deity of your choice that the Defense Department is accelerating its development of boost-phase missile defenses; ground-based missile defenses like the Arrow, Iron Dome, and C-Ram systems; and hyper velocity projectiles that will allow conventional 155-millimeter and 5-inch artillery to be integrated into a missile defense network. That’s probably our only option for defending Seoul and Osan Air Base against North Korea’s tube artillery, and its chem/bio-capable 300-millimeter artillery rockets. Those systems may give us a partial sense of security a few years from now, at great cost, but the only way we’ll ever have lasting security from Kim Jong-Un’s threats is the end of his misrule. That change — the change that we need, and that the North Korean people need even more desperately than we do — must come from within.
~ ~ ~
Previously said “seventh.” Since corrected, thanks to a reader.
I’m already on record on the topic of threatening war against North Korea: it scares our friends more than our enemies (who assume, correctly I hope, that we’re bluffing). If we want to threaten the thing our enemies fear most, threaten to sow the seeds of the revolution that the people of North Korea desperately need. Nukes aren’t much good in that kind of war, and China would never tolerate their use so close to its borders. If we can’t resist threatening to bomb someone, at least threaten to bomb the person who is responsible for this crisis, and deliver those threats privately. The people of North Korea didn’t elect Kim Jong-Un. At least Americans had a choice, sort of.
One aspect of the defense secretary’s statement, however, was deeply troubling: “The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.” The overriding evidence suggests that Kim Jong Un cares not a whit for his people — threatening their destruction will not serve to deter him and is, more importantly, detrimental to US aims. Over the longer term, the United States has an interest in the peaceful unification of the peninsula under Seoul’s democratic leadership. Threatening the North Korean people with destruction is to make enemies of potential friends; it is, more troublingly, a promise to extend and deepen, rather than end, the suffering that the Kims have long inflicted on their people. [Michael Mazza, American Enterprise Institute]
Mind you, everything I’ve seen or heard about Mattis until now has given me reason to admire his intellect and patriotism. Maybe he has the wrong people in charge of his press office, but this is a terrible message to send at a time when our need to gain the confidence of Koreans on both sides of the DMZ is greatest. Statements like this, and especially this one from Senator Graham, send a message that Korean lives are unimportant to us. Talk like this not only empowers everyone, north and south, who hates us, but it sends a message throughout the world that America is a dangerous ally to have and should be kept at arm’s length. If America blunders into a nuclear war in Korea, what ally would ever want to be close to us again?
There is a certain view, popular mostly among the soft-liners who did so much to get us into this crisis and now seek to reassure themselves, that North Korea only wants nukes to protect itself from us. They aren’t wrong; it’s just that they’re less than half right. Pyongyang says it wants nukes as a defensive deterrent, and of course, it does:
Pyongyang, April 29 (KCNA) — The Korean People’s Army is providing strong support for the nuclear power in the East, the invincible military power as it reliably protects peace and security of the Korean peninsula, resolutely smashing the reckless moves of the U.S. imperialists and their vassal forces for a nuclear war against the DPRK, Rodong Sinmun Saturday says in an article.
The DPRK’s nuclear deterrence for self-defence is the powerful guarantee for defusing the danger of a nuclear war and ensuring durable peace on the Korean peninsula and a common treasure of the nation for reunification and prosperity of the country, the article notes, and goes on:
The U.S. is the arch criminal increasing the tension and escalating the danger of nuclear war on the Korean peninsula.
Peace cannot be protected by submission and begging. It is the nature of the imperialists to become more violent when someone begs for peace. And it is the bitter lesson taught by history and reality that submission and concession to imperialism will result in wreck of peace and stability and ruin of a country and nation.
The DPRK has bolstered up its nuclear deterrence despite all sorts of ordeals to foil the U.S. brigandish moves for a nuclear war and defend the destiny of the entire nation.
But the soft-liners willfully ignore the greater part of Pyongyang’s stated intentions. If you want to know what those intentions are — and some of us are trying very hard not to — the best-educated speculation is worth less than Pyongyang’s own declarations. All you have to do is read them:
The era for independent reunification advancing under the banner of By Our Nation Itself was ushered to end the history of national division spanning more than half a century and the inter-Korean relations achieved epochal development. This would have been unthinkable without the invincible military strength of the DPRK provided by the Songun politics.
But surely, you say, it’s still unthinkable — the idea of a backward, impoverished state imposing “independent reunification” on its own terms over one of the world’s most prosperous states. Surely the days when Sparta could conquer Athens are centuries behind us. Surely the North’s conscripts would be agog and disillusioned at the first sign of the South’s prosperity (or whatever remained of it). But as I’ve argued, the North has no intention of occupying the South for the foreseeable future, until it subdues the South politically, ideologically, and economically. And as I’ve also argued, it’s closer to achieving this than most of us know, or dare to admit.
All Koreans are benefiting from the Songun politics and living under the protection of the nuclear power in the East. The DPRK’s strong nuclear deterrence for self-defence provided by the great Songun politics is the symbol of the national dignity and precious treasure common to the nation.
If the U.S. and the south Korean puppet group persist in escalating the moves to stifle the DPRK, the latter will further strengthen its nuclear deterrence. -0-
As if they weren’t going to do that anyway.
It would have required no geopolitical genius to predict in 1933 that Hitler’s rule would inevitably end in war and suffering. One would only have had to read an honest translation of “Mein Kampf” to see it. So it is today; Pyongyang’s intentions are on full display to those who are willing to read them. It has a clear and plausible strategy for winning the same goal it has repeated for decades. What’s more, it knows that it cannot long survive as the poorer, failed Korea as the flow of information slowly undermines its legitimacy in the eyes of its own people. It knows very well that within the next decade, and perhaps much less, one Korea or the other must dominate and absorb the other. Are we willing to listen to the protagonist in this escalating crisis?
Korean War II began in earnest with the attacks of 2010. Pyongyang’s war is no longer a conventional invasion, but a war of skirmishes that supports a strategy that is primarily political. It will premeditate a series of escalating provocations, each of them calculated to end with certain concessions that will pave its way to one-country, two-systems hegemony over the South. I would argue that Pyongyang cameclose to achieving many of its political objectives during Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency. Pyongyang will soon add to this strategy the leverage of an effective nuclear arsenal and the capacity to strike the United States. Given the political instability and mercurial public sentiment in South Korea, and the rising risk of a breach in the U.S.-Korea alliance, our question will soon be, “Who will stop them?”
If Kim Jong-un’s strategy is what I think it is, it involves provoking a series of escalating security crises, with a plan to “de-escalate” each one through talks, or ideally, though an extended-yet-inconclusive “peace treaty” negotiation, in exchange for a series of pre-planned concessions that would amount to a slow-motion surrender of South Korea. I say “escalating” because Pyongyang’s provocations have escalated in recent years, and because it’s a sure bet they’ll escalate even more after Pyongyang has an effective nuclear arsenal. From that moment, it could be as little as five years before Pyongyang’s strategy achieves sufficient hegemony to exercise significant control over South Korea’s politics, media, textbooks, defense policies, and economic resources, and to effectively intimidate any noisy defectors and activists into silence.
Along the way, however, the risks are great that either a miscalculation, or a U.S. or ROK refusal to slouch passively toward surrender, would end in the most devastating war since 1945. In this post, I will argue that if North Korea cannot be disarmed without war, war is inevitable, but also that premature talk of war impedes our chances of disarming Pyongyang peacefully.
Those who invited this crisis by counseling us to indulge Pyongyang now insist that Pyongyang’s only purpose for acquiring nuclear weapons is to protect itself. But having watched Pyongyang wage the war of skirmishes it resumed in 2010 with the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do attacks, I cannot agree that Pyongyang’s objective is merely regime survival. Pyongyang knows that it cannot survive forever as the poorer Korea. Rather, its strategy is to coerce Seoul into a political framework that allows it to exercise and expand its political and economic control over all of Korea. Its master plan does not involve an occupation of the South for the foreseeable future; instead, it contemplates using South Korea’s own government to enforce its writ.
If this belief makes me an outlier, so be it. Just bear in mind that what you and I believe is possible matters less than what Kim Jong-un believes is possible. I also believe that Pyongyang is closer to achieving these objectives than most Americans or South Koreans suspect. Americans underestimate how many South Koreans would willingly sacrifice freedom for the sake of “peace,” or “inter-Korean relations.” Freedom, after all, is as difficult a thing to appreciate as peace unless you’ve lived without it. But if you think that sacrifice would prevent war, keep reading.
One waypoint toward Pyongyang’s objective is sanctions relief from Seoul. This is not just for the primary economic benefits of, say, reopening Kaesong. Any laxity by Seoul in enforcing U.N. sanctions would have far greater secondary benefits for Pyongyang. It would have domino effects in the capitals of North Korea’s arms clients and enablers throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, would create more diplomatic distance between Washington and Seoul, and would break up the global sanctions enforcement coalition-building strategy that had finally taken shape. It would also put Seoul in direct conflict with the Trump administration’s emerging policy, which will emphasize economic pressure. The economic benefits of unearned sanctions relief would help Pyongyang validate its “byungjin” policy by enriching its elites, by showing off its selective prosperity to its sympathizers abroad, and by underwriting its political control over its own “wavering” and “hostile” classes.
Another waypoint is to undermine political support for Seoul’s military alliance with Washington in both capitals. Pyongyang seeks to strain that alliance by raising war fears, and by getting exercises canceled and key weapons systems (read: THAAD, Patriots) withdrawn. It wants to show South Koreans and Americans that this alliance is more risk than it’s worth. If the point comes when the alliance does more to constrain U.S. options and advance them, that time may come sooner than most of us expect.
The war scare that swept through Twitter last week advanced Pyongyang toward that objective. The Pentagon quickly debunked it, and for now, the White House’s strategy is moving toward a well-thought-through list of North Korean industries and targets for sanctions. I could not have said it better than the headline over Grant Newsham’s recent piece for the Asia Times: “Before attacking North Korea, please try everything else.” The subhead to his piece was, “Try sanctions, real sanctions.” (Do read the entire piece.) War talk is not only premature and unnecessary, it’s apt to help bring Pyongyang closer to realizing its political objectives by scaring South Koreans into wanting the U.S. gone.
Maybe some of this war talk is simple disinformation or bad journalism. My fear is that the White House thinks raising the fear of war will put Pyongyang and Beijing off their game and raise our leverage. It needs to understand that a war panic could cost us the confidence of people in Japan and South Korea whose support we’ll need to prevent war. This crisis is scary enough at it is. Turning well-grounded concerns into panic serves no one’s interests but Kim Jong-un’s.
But it is also true that the anti-sanctions / talk-to-North-Korea crowd is, however unintentionally, also contributing to the risk of war. To their credit, most of them are at least honest enough to admit that they no longer believe a negotiated nuclear disarmament of North Korea is possible. They should also be honest enough to admit that accepting North Korea’s nuclear status will lead to a catastrophic war, not peace. A nuclear North Korea will not coexist with us, with South Korea, or with human civilization itself. As Anthony Ruggiero and I recently noted:
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un last month sent assassins to Malaysia to murder his half-brother in a crowded airport terminal with a chemical weapon. Pyongyang has sent assassins abroad to kidnap and kill human rights activists and dissidents, proliferated ballistic missiles, and sold weapons — including man-portable surface-to-air missiles — to terrorists and their sponsors. It attacked South Korea twice in 2010: sinking a warship and shelling a fishing village, which killed 50 of its citizens. The hermit kingdom is a state sponsor of terrorism, even in the absence of a formal designation: it has helped Syria use chemical weapons against its own people, and attacked our freedom of expression with terrorist threats against movie theaters across the United States.
Nor can the U.S. invest its hopes in talks alone. Pyongyang insists that it will neither freeze nor dismantle its nuclear and missile programs. U.S. envoys have met with their North Korean counterparts during almost every year in the last decade, yet failed to induce Pyongyang to return to disarmament talks. In 2012, President Obama finally secured Pyongyang’s agreement to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. Two weeks later, Pyongyang reneged.
I might add that in 2007, North Korea secretly built a nuclear reactor in a part of Syria now controlled by ISIS. There is no compromise, no half-surrender, no piece of paper that will secure peace and prevent war without Pyongyang’s disarmament and without fundamental humanitarian reforms. As long as Pyongyang possesses weapons of mass destruction, and as long as its model of survival is based on terror and secrecy, it will still pose an existential threat to the United States, to Americans’ freedom of speech, and to the security of the entire world. As the Sony cyber terrorist threat, the Bangladesh Bank theft, and the horrors in Syria have shown us, North Korea isn’t just a Korean problem, it is, as President Trump said recently, “a humanity problem.” If you really think the solution to this is as simple as “talk to them,” at least review the record on just how many times President Obama and his predecessors tried to do exactly that.
That’s why, in the medium term, the U.S. may well decide that it must strike first to prevent a direct North Korean nuclear threat to the American people. The more Washington trusts Seoul, the more value it sees in maintaining an alliance with Seoul to help disarm Pyongyang peacefully, and the less likely war is. The less Washington trusts Seoul, the less certain it is whose side Seoul is on, and the less certain it is that a warning to Seoul wouldn’t also be a tip-off to Pyongyang, the less likely President Trump is to warn Seoul of a preemptive strike. You don’t have to tell me the risks of this. There are people in South Korea I love. Not that it should matter; the people on both sides of the DMZ who would suffer are human beings. We should want all of them to have a chance not only to survive, but also to live.
[Korean refugees flee south, 1950. This photo, by Max Desfor, won a Pulitzer Prize.]
There are times when I suspect that it requires a Ph.D. to harbor the madness that we can ever have peace with a “responsible” nuclear North Korea. Thankfully, the first 2,000 names in the telephone directory have a firmer grasp on reality than this. Only 35 percent of them support preemptive strikes, but just 11 percent of them support the idea of accepting that North Korea will keep building nukes. Overwhelming majorities want us to enforce sanctions (80 percent) and continue our diplomatic efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear program (81 percent). They hold uniformly dim views of North Korea (78 percent “unfavorable” and 61 percent “very unfavorable”). Majorities are “very concerned” about North Korea having nuclear weapons (65 percent) but would still support the use of force if an Asian ally got into a “serious conflict” with North Korea (64 percent).
Each week that passes diminishes our chances to prevent another war in Korea. There is no more time to be wasted on the palliative policies of engagement and talks that have produced no positive results, and which have done so much to bring us to the present crisis by paying Pyongyang to nuke up. For now, there is no chance that talks will achieve our key aim of disarming Pyongyang, but it would be a grave error to rule out talks entirely, because the time will come when diplomacy will be essential to preventing war. If sanctions and political subversion bring Pyongyang to the point where it fears (and Beijing also fears) that its regime will collapse — and to achieve the necessary pressure to disarm Pyongyang, they must — then we must leave Pyongyang a diplomatic escape that, while distasteful to it (and in some regards, to us) is still preferable to war. But for now, our choice increasingly comes down to making sanctions work or accepting that war is inevitable.
Over the years, the soft-liners’ explanations for why Pyongyang sacrificed billions of dollars and millions of lives to build a nuclear program have shifted. First, they said it just wanted the electricity. Then, they said it wanted a bargaining chip to trade away for better relations with us. Now, they say it just wants to protect itself from us. Unlike them, Brian Myers has listened to what Pyongyang has been telling its own subjects — it wants reunification, on its own terms.
North Korea needs the capability to strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons in order to pressure both adversaries into signing peace treaties. This is the only grand bargain it has ever wanted. It has already made clear that a treaty with the South would require ending its ban on pro-North political agitation. The treaty with Washington would require the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula. The next step, as Pyongyang has often explained, would be some form of the North–South confederation it has advocated since 1960. One would have to be very naïve not to know what would happen next. As Kim Il-Sung told his Bulgarian counterpart Todor Zhivkov in 1973, “If they listen to us, and a confederation is established, South Korea will be done with.”
Western soft-liners keep saying the U.S. must finally negotiate a peace treaty with Pyongyang. That’s where their op-eds conveniently end. These people show no awareness of what such a treaty would have to entail. Are they in favor of withdrawing U.S. troops? If so they should come right out and say so, instead of pretending North Korea will content itself with the security guarantees it has rejected for decades. Many observers believe that the stronger the North Koreans get, the more reasonable they will become. Whenever I think I’ve seen the height of American wishful thinking, I find out it can get even sillier. [Slate]
The conventional wisdom is that North Korea, with half of the South’s population and a fraction of its economy, cannot hope to defeat the South. Myers thinks they’re much closer to winning the Korean War than most of us are willing to believe, and I think he’s right about that:
The stars are aligning very nicely for the strategy [Kim Jong-un] inherited from his father. Just as North Korea is perfecting its nuclear weaponry, China has acquired the economic power to punish South Korea for improving its missile defenses. Opinion polls in the South now strongly favor the left-wing presidential candidate Mun Jae-in, who in 2011 expressed hope for the speedy realization of a North–South confederation. If he or anyone else from the nationalist left takes over, years of South Korean accommodation of the North will ensue, complete with massive unconditional aid.
This went on under George W. Bush, and the alliance survived. Donald Trump, however, is much less likely to allow an ostensible ally to subvert UN sanctions while paying tributary visits to Pyongyang. And Kim Jong-un knows this. He knows that whatever security guarantees Trump gave to Seoul were made to the current conservative administration only. So Kim Jong-un has a better chance than his father did of pressuring the alliance to a breaking point. With China’s support he can pull a left-wing South Korean administration in one way while pushing the Americans in another.
Having lived in South Korea for the past 15 years, I don’t share most Americans’ confidence that it will always choose America over a North-supporting China. My own impression—bolstered by the ongoing controversy surrounding the stationing of the THAAD missile defense system—is that a growing number of South Koreans would rather see their state’s security compromised than risk their own prosperity. [Slate]
Read the whole thing.
Lately, I’ve often thought that the two Koreas are racing toward political collapse, and it’s anyone’s guess which one will lose first. In the North, Kim Jong-un’s brutality and incompetence are alienating the elites and pushing more of them to defect. Gradually — but too gradually — its financial lifelines and trade relationships are being cut one by one. Its people, though unorganized for now, are deeply alienated against the state, resentful of its corruption, and envious of the oligarchy’s ill-gotten wealth. Its system has never been more vulnerable to a well-orchestrated political and economic attack. Unfortunately, the only well-orchestrated attack underway today is being waged against the wrong Korea.
In the South, anarchy and mob rule will end as they always do. To an even greater extent than in the United States, the mobs are gullible, naive, and easily manipulated by spurious reporting and conspiracy theories. The people are so disunited and polarized into warring tribes that Diogenes would search in vain for a moderate voter. The political culture views mass protests, which should be the last resort of a free people, as a higher form of democratic expression than an independent judiciary or orderly self-government through the franchise. In the end, the minority will get what the majority deserves. It isn’t hard to see how a Korean “peace process” would proceed between a unilaterally disarmed South Korea and a nuclear-armed North Korea. Seoul, cut adrift by its allies, would make an overt agreement to end “slander” of the North’s system and a tacit agreement to say nothing as the North’s agents and proxies terrorize the last few noisy editors, defectors, and dissidents into silence or flight. Within five years, the incremental surrender of one of the world’s most prosperous nations to one of the world’s most wretched, repressive, and murderous regimes mankind has ever conceived could be irreversible. But at the time, they will call it peace.
If South Korea’s most sober and cool-headed people are checking the prices of houses in Fairfax this week, there are some good reasons for that. Our next president-elect’s Korea policy could not be more unsettled if he had written it on an Etch-a-Sketch, set the Etch-a-Sketch on the bed of the honeymoon suite in Trump Tower, and fed four quarters into the magic fingers.
In his 2000 book, “The America We Deserve,” Trump advocated a surgical strike against the North’s nuclear facility before it’s too late. In this year’s campaign, he said the North is China’s problem to fix, though he also expressed a willingness to hold nuclear negotiations with the North’s leader while eating hamburgers. Trump has also called the North’s leader a “madman,” a “maniac” and a “total nut job,” but he’s also praised the young dictator, saying it is “amazing” for him to keep control of the country. [Yonhap]
On the U.S. side, then, it has never been so true that “personnel is policy.” The potential candidates for State, Defense, and Treasury are a Whitman Sampler — diverse and surprising, and in some cases, we’ll probably want to throw them away after the first bite. The New York Timeslists the candidates for Secretary of State as John Bolton, Bob Corker, Newt Gingrich, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Stanley McChrystal. All of these men are well-qualified, experienced, and intelligent, and they’ve given much serious thought to foreign policy, although I’d have some misgivings about Gingrich’s temperament and judgment.
Also, Dana Rohrabacher’s name has been mentioned. So has Rudy Giuliani’s, although I can’t see what he really knows about foreign policy.
Bolton’s nomination would throw the left and the isolationists into apoplexy. It’s tempting to say that this alone is a reason to nominate him (it isn’t). I’d be most reassured by the nomination of Bolton or Corker (who is blamed by some on the right for green-lighting President Obama’s Iran deal, but who played an essential role in passing the North Korea sanctions law this year).
Having met Bolton more than once, he’s a much more sophisticated thinker than his foes give him credit for. I was most surprised by his dry sense of humor — indicative of a capacity to digest contradictions and contraindicative of a one-dimensional ideologue. Bolton narrowly lost a tough confirmation fight to be U.N. Ambassador in 2005, due in part to his undiplomatically harsh characterization of North Korea. I’ve relished pointing out that at the time, one of the strongest critics of Bolton’s criticism of Kim Jong-il was John Kerry, who went on to say worse of Kim Jong-un, thus implicitly validating that Bolton was really right all along. On North Korea policy, I’ve defended Bolton’s record and pointed out that President Obama’s entire North Korea policy (such as it was) was a series of sand castles built on UNSCR 1718, which Bolton drafted and negotiated.
For Treasury Secretary, candidates under discussion include Jeb Hensarling of Texas, the current Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Steve Mnuchin, a Wall Street banker who financed a string of successful Hollywood films and who holds conventionally conservative economic views, and Tim Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor and darling of economic conservatives. For Defense, those under consideration include Michael Flynn (who has been accused of being too cozy with Putin), Jon Kyl, and Jeff Sessions.
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South Korea’s beleaguered President, Park Geun-hye is understandably terrified of this uncertainty and the risk that Trump’s election could endanger the country’s alliance with its long-standing security guarantor. For example, Victor Cha was quoted as suggesting that Trump might accelerate the transfer of operational control of alliance forces from the U.S. to South Korea. It’s a move first proposed by Donald Rumsfeld, but South Koreans have come to see it as a first step toward U.S. withdrawal. Nervous South Koreans have been trying to build bridges to Trump’s transition team, even as protesters have massed in the streets in an attempt to oust the first democratically elected South Korean President to have an effective North Korea policy since … ever.
The United States should impose “secondary boycott” sanctions on Chinese financial institutions for doing business with North Korea, a senior member of the transition team of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump was quoted as saying Tuesday.
Former Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner, considered a key policy expert in the transition team, made the remark during a meeting with a bipartisan group of South Korean lawmakers, according to Rep. Na Kyung-won of the ruling Saenuri Party.
Feulner’s remark suggests the U.S. is expected to intensify pressure on China. That’s also in line with Trump’s stance on how to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. He has said that he would pressure Beijing to exercise more of its influence over Pyongyang because it is basically China’s problem to fix.
Feulner also strongly reaffirmed the alliance with South Korea, Na said.
“While stressing that there is no daylight in the alliance between the two countries, he said that there is no difference in the positions of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party or between the ruling party and the opposition party,” she said. [Yonhap]
Trump now denies that he ever suggested that South Korea and Japan should go nuclear. (I’m willing to give him a pass on that if it reassures people, but the idea of going nuclear doesn’t strike me as an insane view from the perspective of defense planners in Seoul, Tokyo, or Taipei. What strikes me as insane is the idea of letting Beijing and Pyongyang have a nuclear monopoly in Asia.)
In any event, the reassurance won’t last.
First, North Korea immediately made it clear that it won’t denuclearize. This isn’t surprising, although even in his infamous “hamburger” gaffe, Trump still said of Kim, “[W]ho the hell wants him to have nukes?” That puts Trump and His Porcine Majesty on a collision course.
Second, even assuming Trump nominates a competent foreign policy team, we’ll likely see some difficult negotiations next year over the next USFK cost sharing agreement. I hadexpressed the view that South Korea should pay a greater share of the cost of USFK long before Trump did. According to the World Bank, Israel spends 5.9 percent of its GDP on defense and the U.S. spends 3.5 percent. By contrast, South Korea spends 2.5 percent and Japan, just one percent. With the U.S. paying the cost of new THAAD batteries in South Korea, U.S. taxpayers will shoulder a higher cost. Given the insufficiency of THAAD as a defense against shorter-range missiles, South Korea may have to buy C-RAM and Iron Dome to protect Seoul and its surroundings. Clearly, South Korea and Japan will have to do more. It’s also true that the three countries are stronger together, and that by integrating their defense strategies, all three countries would spend less to protect themselves against a common threat. The U.S. can make a good deal for the taxpayers if South Korea and Japan pay something more than 50% of the cost, and something less than 100%.
The greater danger, however, lies in the convergence of North Korea’s nuclear hegemony and weak leadership in Seoul. Pyongyang is gradually losing control over the flow of information to its suffering people, and an impoverished North cannot coexist with a prosperous South. Kim Jong-un knows that this ideological competition is zero-sum, and that one system must eventually defeat the other. He cannot possibly believe that his starving conscript army could occupy South Korea today. Instead, since 2010, he has been fighting a war of skirmishes, instigating calculated provocations and sometimes winning important concessions on South Korea’s self-defense, its national policy, its sanctions-busting financial subsidies to Pyongyang, and even South Koreans’ freedom to criticize the North’s system of “government.”
It’s not hard to see how this war of skirmishes will escalate when Kim Jong-un gains an effective nuclear monopoly on the Korean peninsula, or how a future leftist South Korean government might yield to a slow-motion surrender, as part of an extended “peace process,” to the celebration of much of the world press and a few academic dullards who will not even understand what they’re witnessing. Indeed, the greatest Korea policy challenge that most Americans do not fully grasp is how deeply anti-American and anti-anti-North Korean — and in many cases, how pro-North Korean — the South Korean left really is. Today, it looks overwhelmingly likely that the left will end up winning next year’s South Korean presidential election. It’s difficult to see how the next Secretary of State will align with the next South Korean president on defense or North Korea policy.
What all of this means is that the U.S.-South Korean alliance is about to face its greatest threat since the election of Jimmy Carter, only now, the potential consequences are vastly more terrible for Korea, and for us all: One Slave Korea, the end of nuclear nonproliferation, an increasingly direct North Korean threat to the U.S., and a vast range of geopolitical, humanitarian, and economic effects, all of them bad.
Professor Lee and I have a new piece published in Foreign Affairs, a sequel to his piece, “Pyongyang’s Playbook.” In this today’s contribution, we identify a long-standing historical pattern that few others have noticed — that some of Pyongyang’s most violent attacks against South Korea coincide with its charm offensives, suggesting that talks on civil exchanges and “reunions” are (at best) ineffectual in securing long-term improvements in relations, and (at worst) maskirovka to give Pyongyang plausible deniability. To break the cycle of provocation and payment, the U.S. and South Korea must find and apply more effective, non-military strategies of deterrence, including the more comprehensive and sustained application of sanctions and information operations.
In August, as the most recent skirmish in Korean War II began, I published two posts about the risk that Kim Jong Un would respond to stronger U.S. and South Korean policies with all-out war. Because that risk depends on whether Kim is rational, I used those posts to discuss the implications of answering this question in the affirmative and the negative.
In the first post, I argued that if Kim Jong-Un is rational, then his provocations since 2011 would appear to have been calibrated to avoid all-out war, but that they would escalate as he approaches a true nuclear capability. His provocations may have been part of a rational (if inhuman) strategy calculated to win concessions, overawe his subjects and neighbors, and gradually finlandize and neutralize South Korea. I also noted that Kim’s father had largely achieved this condition by 2007, but that in the past, stronger policy responses had caused both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il to make temporary concessions, and to withdraw to fight another day rather than risk a war that would destroy them. Nonetheless, each emperor in this squalid little dynasty has amplified his leverage with the Madman Theory, cultivating perceptions that he was irrational, even eager for war.
In the second post, I reviewed the available evidence that Kim Jong-Un really is a madman. Most of the analysis judged him to be impulsive, unpredictable, and dangerous, but none found him to be irrational. The most alarming analysis, by an Irish psychologist, suggested that Kim’s key loyalists are addicted to the dopamine released by tension and conflict — that is to say, they are quite literally addicted to the infliction of terror. Viewed this way, Pyongyang’s provocations are rationally calculated to satiate this addiction, but this cycle of craving and satiation will eventually escalate, warp their judgment, self-reinforce, and cause them to take unreasonable risks.
Whichever alternative one accepts — that the provocations are part of a rationally conceived plan or a response to a biochemical craving — they are likely to deepen as Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities improve. Under either alternative, it is urgent that we find some way to either deter or preempt further provocations before Kim Jong-Un is effectively nuclear capable, when they will escalate to levels that would challenge our powers of restraint. As further evidence that these cycles are escalating, the ROK Army claims that Pyongyang has “intensified its provocations.” And, as you’ve almost certainly read by now, North Korea announced today that it intends to launch a long-range missile at “a time of its choosing” — probably around October 10th, the 70th anniversary of its founding conspiracy to commit phobocracy — andin flagrant violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.
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Before the August skirmish, we had yet to see Kim Jong-Un embark on one of these cycles of cross-border escalation and confrontation. The events of August have since provided us with new data suggesting that, psychologically speaking, His Porcine Majesty is just a fleshier cut from the same carcass as his father and grandfather. In August, he (or whoever planned it) chose his provocation strategy coldly yet rationally, carefully avoiding all-out war. Our first evidence for this is the meticulous analysis of John Grisafi for NK News, who informs us that North Korean forces calibrated their use of force down to the millimeter:
Most early reports described the first round fired by the North as possibly being a small rocket. But later multiple sources consistently described it as a 14.5 mm anti-aircraft machine gun (AAMG), citing the South Korean military. This would likely be either a ZPU-2 or ZPU-4. The ZPU series AAMG is a large-caliber machine gun originally designed as anti-aircraft artillery, though also commonly used for ground warfare as well.
The second volley of three rounds was fired from a 76.2 mm gun, likely a ZIS-3 or a North Korean-produced derivative thereof. This is a direct fire gun, meaning it is fired at a target for which the gunners have direct line-of-sight. It is primarily used as an anti-tank weapon.[*] This weapon is relatively small compared to most modern artillery. Even most standard infantry mortars are larger (North Korea’s primary infantry mortar has a caliber of 82 mm while South Korea and the United States use an 81 mm mortar). [NK News]
Grisafi also notes that South Korea did not return fire for nearly an hour, despite the fact that its counter-battery fire control system should have been capable of responding much sooner. This suggests that, notwithstanding South Korea’s announced shoot-first, ask-later policy, the ROK forces intentionally gave the North Korean gunners enough time to “shoot-and-scoot,” avoiding casualties on the North Korean side. Grisafi concludes:
Though the North may occasionally engage in military provocation and the South is willing to respond in kind, neither side wants an open conflict. The fact that this incident initially resulted in only controlled return fire by the South and no further military action by either side demonstrates the ability and desire of both sides to limit escalation. Both sides appear to have intentionally fired at such times and/or locations to provoke the opposing side but not actually inflict casualties. Avoiding escalation of an incident into open conflict requires strict discipline, strong command and control, and clear rules of engagement in the military forces on both sides. [NK News]
Grisafi’s entire piece is well worth reading. If his analysis is correct, might we eventually expect to see evidence of those “clear rules of engagement”? Yes. The Daily NK now cites “a military source in Kangwon Province,” who says that North Korean troops “received orders … to absolutely make sure no one got drawn into provocations from the South.”
“Unlike the strong countermeasures we usually hear about, threatening to turn the South into a sea of fire if they even so much as touch a blade of grass in our territory, the orders were to make sure not to get involved, so the soldiers were puzzled,” the source explained. The orders were handed down from the KPA General Staff to each military corps from the commander in chief Kim Jong Un, he added.
Specifically, ranking officials were told to ensure no actions were taken based on emotions and to manage troops well to avoid any conflict stemming from accidental fire. Not only that, high-ranking officers under the KPA General Staff were dispatched to units along the border area to confirm the orders were being implemented. [….]
“The order drafted in the name of the KPA General Staff did cause some anxiety among soldiers and their families, but it also led to some officers making sarcastic comments about being scared off without even giving it a fight,” she concluded. [Daily NK]
The gap between the rules of engagement and the rhetoric confused the soldiers.
“The whole notion of all-out war was to boost soldiers’ morale, but the border areas would have seen huge losses if that really happened, since we would have been attacked with state-of-the-art weaponry from the U.S.” he asserted. “The commander in chief (Kim Jong Un) is well aware of America’s power, so that’s why he probably gave out those orders through the General Staff.”
Added the source, the incident has led to confusion among soldiers, since they know that it’s the North that first provokes the South, yet they are told not to get drawn into provocations. Most soldiers are aware that provocations along the border area originate from the North.
The Daily NK also claims to have corroboration from “another source in North Hwanghae Province” who reported that “[n]aval troops based in Haeju in South Hwanghae also received the ‘restrain from engaging’ order.”
The picture this paints is of a regime that planned and calculated the initial provocation (planting the mines), planned for a range of potential South Korean responses (loudspeakers, artillery), monitored its adversary’s response (drones), and also planned for a credible threat of escalation (submarines), to force South Korea to bargain away concessions (sanctions, which any Peace Studies grad student can tell you never work, but which are always inexplicably at the front of Pyongyang’s list of demands). The agreement both sides made to “de-escalate” this calculated crisis has already devolved into an agreement to walk away, keep talking sh*t about each other, and fight another day. It solved approximately nothing, except to soothe South Korean investors, and let North Korea demobilize the troops it needed to bring in a meager harvest.
True, Pyongyang did not pay a price for its outrages, but at least it hasn’t turned profit from them yet. Psychologically, the tensions were no more than a temporary relief for North Korea’s hungry and demoralized troops, and may have disillusioned anyone needing a dopamine palliative. Park Geun-Hye has successfully spun the incident as an example of her facing down the North Koreans. She achieved a significant political boost, and used the incident for her own domestic propaganda, bracing the foundations of patriotism in a society that could form a division with of all its draft dodgers abroad (and should). Talks about civil exchanges and family “reunions” continue, but since the North has denied making an apology, the South has said that it will not lift bilateral trade sanctions imposed in 2010, after Pyongyang torpedoed the ROKS Cheonan.
It sickens me a little to see anyone talk of a “winner” in this crisis. I doubt the answer matters much to Kim Jung-Won or Ha Jae-Heon, whose fate was to become objects of the malignant indifference that Kim Jong-Un inflicts on millions of North Koreans, and of the more apathetic kind that most South Koreans hold for his victims. The question that matters now is whether Kim Jong-Un still believes that crime pays, and how many victims his next crime will take. The developing evidence now suggests that he did not achieve his financial and political objectives, but wasn’t strongly deterred, either. It also suggests that if anyone has gained a short-term political advantage, it is Park Geun-Hye. Unfortunately, this also means that Kim Jong-Un will now feel intense domestic pressure to secure a victory to legitimize his rule. That virtually ensures that we’ll see another provocation in the short term, and we’ll probably also see a significant escalation from Pyongyang within the next year. That is the inevitable cost of breaking such a long established cycle of provocation and payment.
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* A small quibble here. It was used as an anti-tank weapon against German panzers in 1941. Today, a 76.2-millimeter gun might destroy an armored personnel carrier or other lightly armored vehicle, but it would be useless against a modern main battle tank. I suppose most of the North’s 76.2-millimeter artillery shoots high explosive rounds today.
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 includeinformationoperations, 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 firstargued 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, heis 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.
They came, they talked, and they solved nothing, but after a tense weekend, at least Korea is not at war. As of this writing, it looks like representatives of the two Korean governments will continue to talk and solve nothing, except to calm South Korea’s foreign investors. The North will not admit that it laid the mines that forever maimed Staff Sergeant Kim Jung-Won and Sergeant Ha Jae-Heon, the South will eventually relent on blaring propaganda to a few hundred captive North Korean conscripts, and the North will continue to disseminate its propaganda inside South Korea in far more efficient ways. Eventually, Pyongyang will demobilize the army to help with the harvest. In a year, hardly anyone will remember this week.
Except, of course, for Kim Jung-Won and Ha Jae-Heon.
I’ve always been interested in the chronology of North Korea’s provocation cycles. As an analogue to recent events, the cycle that interests me most is the one leading up to the attack on the Cheonan in March 2010, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island that November. A review of the history preceding those attacks shows that although the first seven months of 2009 were filled with provocations, Pyongyang was relatively conciliatory for the rest of the year, and the early months of 2010 were a time of relative (and ultimately, deceptive) calm.
President Obama began 2009 with an inauguration speech that offered to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” As if to reaffirm that peace is anathema to a regime founded on isolation and conflict, North Korea responded with a familiar cycle of provocations — a missile test (April), a nuclear test (May), a U.N. Security Council resolution (June) answered with another round of missile tests (July). Also during this period, the North Koreans announced that they had begun (April) and completed (November) reprocessing a batch of plutonium at Yongbyon — all in flagrant violation of George W. Bush’s deathbed accord of 2007, known here as Agreed Framework 2.0.
In August, North Korea released journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee to Bill Clinton, released a South Korean businessman it had detained at Kaesong, and sent a high-level delegation to the funeral of Kim Dae-Jung (whose widow Kim Jong-Un very recently snubbed). In November, North Korea called on the U.S. to accept bilateral talks. These developments caused some journalists and analysts to declare a “charm offensive.”
(The other significant event of this period was the Great Confiscation of December 2009, which appears to have caused a degree of internal unrest in North Korea. I do not overlook this as another potential explanation for North Korea’s subsequent conduct. Over the last summer, there was also a spike in reports of internal dissent and resistance in the North.)
Then came January 2010, and North Korea’s New Year speech. Analysis of it followed the formula that “vagueness times mendacity divided by selection bias times preconception plus confirmation bias equals garbage with the predictive utility of an asthmatic nonagenarian’s horoscope.” Accordingly, some analysts seized on an isolated reference to “good-neighborliness and friendship with other countries.” Given the events of 2009, Pyongyang must have known that this olive branch could only bear so much fruit, but for eleven more weeks, there was Peace in Our Time.
If you don’t see much of a pattern here, you’re not alone. What’s noticeable about the period leading up to March 26, 2010 is the relative absence of clashes between North and South Korean forces, and the rhetorical preponderance of conciliation over hostility, even as Pyongyang premeditated the murder of 46 young sailors. The most significant incident during this interlude was North Korea’s shelling of disputed, South Korean-controlled waters in January 2010. Then, North Korea backed away from direct confrontation when South Korean and U.S. forces were engaged and watchful. If that pattern holds today, Pyongyang will wait until Seoul lets its guard down and attack at an unexpected time, place, and manner. That is why this may be over for now, but it’s not over.
The attacks of 2010 were the most significant North Korean attacks since 1968. They also went mostly unanswered, and wrong-footed a U.S.-Korea alliance that found itself unable to deter them. Last week’s events marked the first North Korean artillery attack on the South Korean mainland for many years. One hopes that South Korea’s superficially forceful response will deter rational men in Pyongyang from greater outrages, but I doubt it. Even if the South Korean artillery had hit something or someone, that someone was expendable to Kim Jong-Un, and speakers blaring k-pop won’t deter much of anything, either. If North Korea’s political system really is addicted to confrontation, and if Pyongyang continues to gain confidence from the protection of a nuclear arsenal, the next provocations may set another grim precedent.
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]
By now, you’ve read that South Korea’s government has accused the North Korean military of sending soldiers across the DMZ to plant mines near South Korean guard posts, an act that blew the legs off two South Korean soldiers last week.
The two South Koreans, both staff sergeants, triggered the mines last Tuesday just outside their post, within the South Korean half of the 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone, a buffer separating the two Korean armies.
One lost both legs in the first blast, involving two mines. The other soldier lost one leg in a second explosion as he tried to help his wounded colleague to safety, the ministry said. [N.Y. Times]
The mines in question were box mines like this one, a copy of a Russian TMD antipersonnel mine.
South Korea says it has ruled out “the possibility they were old mines displaced over the border by shifting soil patterns,” but I admit that when I first read the report, I wondered about this. After all, in June, Yonhap reported that North Korea was planting more mines along the DMZ, not to maim or kill South Korean troops, but to maim or kill its own troops, who might want to imitate the embarrassing cross-border defection of a young North Korean soldier in June, the latest in a string of incidents suggesting that morale in the North Korean Peoples’ Army is flagging. This is also the rainy season in Korea — albeit an exceptionally dry one. Still, if the mines were triggered in low-lying areas, it might be possible that summer rains washed them downhill to where the ROK soldiers triggered them.
On further examination, however, an accidental explanation seems unlikely. South Korea claims that the mines were placed on “a known South Korean border patrol path,” and “just outside the South Korean guard post, which is 1,440 feet south of the military demarcation line.” That’s a long way for three mines to travel together, completely by accident, to a place right along a trail and next to a ROKA border post. Worse, the mines “exploded as the soldiers opened the gate of a barbed-wire fence to begin a routine morning patrol,” and were planted “on both sides of a barbed-wire fence protecting the post.” Most of the DMZ is double fenced, and a large mine wouldn’t wash through a fence line.
Finally, the incident happened near Paju. Along most of the DMZ in that area, the South Korean side is uphill from the North Korean side. Water doesn’t usually wash mines uphill.
These facts strongly suggest that the placement was deliberate. The U.N. Command seems to agree, and “condemns these violations” of the 1953 Armistice. It’s only the latest illustration of the folly of any call for peace talks with a government that won’t abide by an Armistice, or for that matter, any other agreement. There is, of course, a calculated strategic objective behind North Korea’s support for advocates of a peace treaty. Both Pyongyang and its apologists want sanctions liftedbefore North Korea disarms, and probably whether it disarms or not. (Pyongyang demands that we lift sanctions immediately because sanctions don’t work, of course.) By preemptively giving up their leverage before Kim Jong-Un disarms, the U.S., the U.N., and South Korea would effectively recognize Pyongyang as a nuclear-armed state.
But if calls for a peace treaty are mostly confined to the likes of Code Pink and a few extremists, undermining the effect of sanctions with financial aid for Pyongyang remains politically popular in South Korea, and amounts to almost the same thing for North Korea’s nuclear program. Just as North Korean troops were planting the mines that maimed the ROK soldiers, a coalition of far-left types and business profiteers called on the South Korean government to lift bilateral sanctions against North Korea, known as the “May 24th Measures.” South Korea imposed those measures in 2010 after Pyongyang, with premeditation and malice aforethought, torpedoed and sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 of its sailors. Of course, the May 24th measures still exempted the largest South-to-North money pipe, the Kaesong Industrial Park, which blunted the sanctions’ deterrent effect. If North Korea had complied with South Korea’s demand for an apology, we’d have known that the deterrent was sufficient, and some limited, financially transparent, and ethical re-engagement might have been appropriate.
It gets worse. Yonhap is now speculating that the man behind this latest incident is none other than Kim Yong-Chol, head of the Reconnaissance General Bureau. In that capacity, General Kim was featured prominently in “Arsenal of Terror” for directing a campaign of assassinations (most of them unsuccessful) of refugee-dissidents in South Korea and human rights activists in China, and for being behind the Sony cyberattacks and threats. Yonhap also says that Gen. Kim was behind the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do attacks of 2010, although I’ve also heard Kim Kyok-Shik’s name mentioned. President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.
Clearly, then, there is still a need to deter Kim Jong-Un and his minions, to show them that they will pay a price for their acts of war. August 15th will be the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation, and there has been much speculation, not discouraged by Pyongyang, that Pyongyang will celebrate it with some major provocation. At this point, the least-informed reporters covering Korea will seek comment from the least-informed North Korea “experts,” who will say there’s nothing we can do about this, short of (the false choice of) war. By now, of course, all of them should know that this is just plain wrong.
Today, South Korea’s military is speaking through clenched teeth, using words that sound like threats of war. Major General Koo Hong-mo, head of operations for the Joint Chiefs, says, “As previously warned on many occasions, our military will make North Korea pay the equally pitiless penalty for their provocations.” The Joint Chiefs themselves have said the North will “pay a harsh price proportionate for the provocation it made.” (Can a price or penalty be both proportionate and pitiless? But I digress.) A spokesman for the South Korean military said, “We swear a severe retaliation.” Tensions are already high in the Yellow Sea, the site of North Korea’s deadly attacks of 2010.
Asked what kinds of retaliation will be taken, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok declined to elaborate, only saying that “The substance cannot be disclosed now, but we will wait and see.” Kim highlighted that the military will ensure the punitive action is taken against North Korea because the country’s responsibility for the mine detonation has been clearly proven. [Yonhap]
I certainly hope South Korea doesn’t launch a military response when the U.S. government is such an unsteady guarantor, and when the deaths of a few dozen (or a few hundred) conscripts and civilians on both sides will hardly give Kim Jong-Un any pause and do little to deter him (but much more about that later this week). In fact, I suspect this is more empty talk. I would like to think, however, that South Korea has a more serious response than this in mind:
South Korea Monday resumed a propaganda loudspeaker campaign along the tensely guarded border in retaliation for the detonation of a North Korean mine in the demilitarized zone last week, the Defense Ministry said.
The loudspeaker broadcasting, a kind of psychological warfare against the communist North, started during the evening on that day and continued on and off down the road in two spots along the border, the ministry said.
“As part of retaliation for North Korea’s illegal provocation, our military will partly carry out loudspeaker broadcasting along the military demarcation line as the first step,” according to the ministry. [Yonhap]
As a defense doctrine, the notion of shouting to a few hundred conscripts within earshot is very nearly the opposite of “speak softly, and carry a big stick.” As a deterrent, it’s ludicrous. And as an American taxpayer, I can only ask myself: if South Korea isn’t serious about its own defense, why should we be serious about its defense?
Any fool can see that the profiteers and appeasers who’ve dictated the terms of South Korea’s security policy and relations with North Korea have not only made their country less safe, but brought it to the brink of war. A military response would be ill-advised and disproportionate, and would only kill a lot of people who are utterly expendable to those responsible for this attack. If the South Korean government is serious about deterring the next provocation, it should not limit its voice to a few unfortunate conscripts along the border; it should open the medium-wave spectrum to subversive broadcasts to all of the North Korean people, and fund services like Radio Free North Korea and Open News that produce those broadcasts. And yes, it should suspend operations at Kaesong for a few months — or better yet, permanently — to impose a financial price on those responsible for this attack.