Must read: Brian Myers on what North Korea really wants (hint: it’s South Korea)

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.

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Trump & Korea Policy: We Now Enter the Bargaining Stage

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 Times lists 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.

Park must have been relieved when, in a ten-minute telephone conversation, Trump promised that America would continue to be a “steadfast and strong” ally, would stick by Seoul “all the way,” would “never waver,” and would be “with you 100 percent.” Reports of the conversation between Park and Trump suggested that Trump had backed away from some of his more isolationist rhetoric, and reassured jittery South Koreans. One subject Park probably brought up was sanctions against North Korea, maintaining the momentum toward cutting off Kim Jong-un’s hard currency, and confronting China’s long-standing and willful sanctions-busting. Here, Trump’s team has been saying the right things:

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 had expressed 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.

But on the bright side, I hear there are some great bargains in Loudon County. See it before the last leaves fall.

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In Foreign Affairs: “North Korea’s Next Dare”

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.

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Madman Theory aside, Kim Jong-Un isn’t mad. He’s just evil.

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 — and in 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.”

Another significant fact is that so many of Pyongyang’s submarines were ready to deploy, something I doubt they’re ordinarily ready to do. The North Koreans also flew at least one drone over the DMZ, probably to check on the extent of South Korean deployments in the area, to help them better assess and adjust the risk of escalation.

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.

Best of all, Seoul discovered the deterrent value of information operations, and had already threatened to turn the loudspeakers back on if the North tests a missile. Imagine what a strong deterrent it would have if it built cell towers along the DMZ.

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.

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For Pyongyang, Korean War II is a war of more limited objectives

To Kim Il-Sung, Korean War I was a principally conventional and unlimited war whose goal was the unitary domination of the entire Korean Peninsula by force. To Kim Jong-Un, Korean War II is a war of skirmishes, whose less ambitious aim is hegemony over a supine and finlandized South Korea. Korea has changed dramatically since 1953. It should not surprise us that Pyongyang has adapted its strategy and objectives to fit this new reality. For Pyongyang today, survival is the first prerequisite to hegemony.

Pyongyang instigated many skirmishes between 1953 and 2009, but Korean War II, with its current strategies and objectives, began with the attacks of 2010. It is a war of more limited objectives. In the short term, Pyongyang seeks to weaken and threaten Seoul politically and economically, while solidifying its support at home. Its strategies against the South include information operations, cyberwarfare, extortion, and the exploitation of the aforementioned through the skillful negotiation of economic and political concessions. At home, it seeks to preserve and strengthen its political system by enriching and terrorizing the loyal classes, and by keeping the wavering and hostile classes too hungry, afraid, and exhausted to do anything but grow corn and mine coal. Abroad, it seeks hard currency, to weaken the impact of international sanctions and criticism, to neutralize emerging political threats, and to prevent the formation of alliances against it. Viewed this way, Pyongyang has been strikingly successful in achieving its more limited goals. In fact, it had achieved most of them in the years between 2003 and 2008, when Seoul provided it billions in regime-sustaining aid and a degree of protection from international criticism. Pyongyang’s medium-term goal would likely have involved the removal of some U.S. forces,* the effective abrogation of the U.S.-Korea alliance, and the finlandization of South Korea into the North’s cash cow, while the North used nationalistic information operations to achieve spiritual and political supremacy over the South. Only in the very long term would it have any hope of dominating the South, and only through a gradual process of confederation.

Kim Jong-Un almost certainly does not believe that his squalid little kingdom, whose population is half as much as that of the South, is capable of conquering and digesting his target today. The lack of fuel alone would stop a conventional invasion in a week or two. If his shriveled soldiers ever reached the markets of Musan and Kangneung, all the lies they’ve been told would be laid bare. He probably does believe that the growing striking power of his rocket artillery, missiles, and nuclear weapons, will increasingly shield him from retaliation for attacks of rising intensity. That’s why I expect Korean War II to intensify in the coming years, and quite possibly, before this year ends. Those attacks have a domestic political purpose, which I explained here, and external purposes. In 2010, those attacks concentrated on the waters near the Han Estuary and Incheon, near South Korea’s most vital sea lanes. In 2014, they included a potentially catastrophic cyberattack on South Korea’s nuclear power infrastructure. Last month’s attack may not have fully developed, but it frightened investors and underlined the risk premium that retards South Korea’s economy. For South Korean voters, business interests, and politicians, the temptation to ignore, deny, or appease these threats must be great. Pyongyang is counting on that.

Two weeks ago, I again raised the question of whether Kim Jong Un is rational and stable. Events since then have answered that question in the affirmative. Pyongyang has chosen its targets and strategies carefully enough to convince me that it is following a rational strategy. It has nibbled at the flanks of South Korea’s security, while avoiding (at least, for now) an all-out war it can’t win. With each attack, the deterrence of U.S. Forces Korea has become more irrelevant. With the rising potential of the KN-08 to strike the United States, the U.S. will increasingly hesitate to involve itself in North-South disputes, and the U.S.-Korea alliance will be marginalized. Pyongyang’s message for Seoul is that Seoul can only get security by buying it from Pyongyang.

In 2010, when Korean War II began in earnest, I first argued that information operations and financial sanctions would be more effective deterrents to these skirmishes than a military response. I continue to believe that a limited war would serve Kim Jong-Un’s political objectives, by allowing him to portray himself as the architect of a defensive military victory. Indeed, he is trying this very thing now, although it’s not clear that the strategy has been entirely successful. Yonhap, citing KCNA, reports that Kim Jong-Un recently fired some more officials, although it isn’t clear that this decision came after or because of the border standoff. After all, Kim Jong-Un was purging officials before August 4th. Still, the AP’s Hung-Jin Kim editorializes that the dismissals suggest that “the young leader holds them responsible for allowing the confrontation to nearly spin out of control.” In fact, it’s not clear that Kim Jong-Un agrees that the confrontation nearly spun out of control, or that he was even unhappy with the outcome. The Daily NK also publishes an anecdotal report that some North Koreans view their government’s expression of “regret” as an admission, a climb-down, and proof that “the authorities are capable of admitting their faults.” If Pyongyang concludes that it lost face (perhaps “awe” is the right word here) in the eyes of its subjects, it may feel compelled to launch an even greater provocation before the year ends.

I’ve denigrated the use of propaganda loudspeakers as a part of this deterrent strategy; after all, loudspeakers can’t reach a large enough audience to make a significant difference in the opinions of North Koreans. Last month’s events cause me to reconsider this judgment. It’s now evident to me — and to others, like Victor Cha, Choe Sang-Hun of the New York Times,** and Alastair Gale and Jeyup S. Kwaak of the Wall Street Journal — that the loudspeakers put significant political pressure on the regime. All three links are well worth reading in their entirety; so is this Joongang Ilbo interview with former South Korean psy-ops specialists, who put the content of the propaganda content into the context of a wider strategy.

If one accepts that this is so, it’s equally clear that an information strategy that reaches deeper into North Korea would be an even greater deterrent. There are some cell phone signal technologies that would allow a signal to reach as far as 50 miles. It’s conceivable, then, that South Korea could build high cell phone towers (or send up balloons) along the DMZ to allow the free flow of cell signals from Pyongyang to Busan. At the flip of a switch, North Koreans would have the technical ability to call relatives in the South, the information blockade would be perforated, and the North would face a severe challenge to redouble the phone-tracing offensive it has carried out along the Chinese border. Even if the switch is not flipped, these towers could be a powerful deterrent to attacks.

That is why, contra Aidan Foster-Carter, I think it’s still too early to say who won the last skirmish in the longer war. That will depend on terms yet to be negotiated. Although Park Geun-Hye didn’t negotiate a particularly good armistice to Korean War II last week, she did win by the only measure that really matters to her — the polls. The ROK military has also used the standoff for its own domestic propaganda. The agreement, by itself, did little to alter the status quo ante. If Park lifts sanctions or gives aid because of a sequence of events that started with an armed North Korean attack, South Korea will be the loser in the long run. If the outcome shifts the domestic political fortunes of either side, that could also shift the short-term advantage.

~   ~   ~

* 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.

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Korean War II: It’s (probably) over for now, but it’s not over

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.

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Bullets Cross DMZ: Random Observations

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

~   ~   ~

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.)

~   ~   ~

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.

~   ~   ~

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.)

~   ~   ~

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.

~   ~   ~

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.

~   ~   ~

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.

~   ~   ~

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?

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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North Korean Men Cross DMZ (and plant land mines)

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.

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 8.47.20 AM

[via AFP]

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. Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 6.43.36 PM

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 6.44.10 PM

[Google Earth]

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 lifted before 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:

loudspeakers

[South China Morning Post]

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.

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Silencing Park Sang-Hak won’t end North Korea’s threats (updated)

For the first time since 2010, North Korea has fired across the border into South Korean territory, this time with 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft guns. The North Koreans were shooting at the second of two launches of balloons carrying a total of 1.5 million leaflets, by North Korean refugee Park Sang-Hak and the Fighters for a Free North Korea.

The North Koreans didn’t respond to the first launch of 10 balloons at noon, but at around 4:00 in the afternoon, they fired on a second group of 23 balloons. Thankfully, no one got hurt, at least on the southern side. It’s not clear whether the North Koreans hit any balloons, although the 14.5 ammunition probably cost more than the balloon and its cargo. A few rounds landed “near military units and public service centers in Yeoncheon County,” near the DMZ, and one of them did this:

14.5mm hole

[via Yonhap]

The Soviet-designed 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft gun comes in 2- and 4-barrel variants, as this quaintly aged U.S. Army training film shows.

True to their word, the ROKs shot back. They used K-6 machine guns, which are similar to the American M-2 .50 caliber machine gun, a slightly smaller caliber than the 14.5. Despite Park Geun-Hye’s public instructions to return fire without waiting for her permission, the ROKs didn’t shoot back until 5:30, about 90 minutes after the North Koreans fired. This time lag suggests that the front-line soldiers held their fire until they received orders from higher up their chain of command, although it’s not clear how high.

Rather than give the ROK Army the last word, the North Koreans fired again after this.

In launching the balloons, Park Sang-Hak and his compatriots defied threats from North Korea, because if you have the brass to sneak across the border into China and make it to South Korea, and if you’ve already survived one assassination attempt, you’re no ordinary man, you’re a honey badger who learned to shave, dress himself, and speak Korean.

Needless to say, the South Korean government’s “call for restraint,” to avoid harming “burgeoning fence-mending between the Koreas,” has no effect on such beings:

“We, defectors, run toward the frontline of freedom and democratic unification to end Kim Jong-un’s three-generation power transition in order to fulfill Hwang’s lifetime goal of liberating North Koreans and democratizing the country,” read the leaflets, which were launched with one-dollar bills and other pamphlets.

“In the North, Hwang is known to have died tragically. This campaign is meant to let North Koreans know he is buried in the South Korean national cemetery.” Park Sang-hak, the head of the activists group, said. [….]

Continuing its previous statements, Pyongyang warned through its official Korean Central News Agency a day earlier that Seoul should stop the activists from sending the anti-North Korea leaflets or face an “uncontrollable catastrophe” in inter-Korean relations. [Yonhap]

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.

Right after the statement from the North, the unification ministry asked the civic groups to scrap their plan, citing inter-Korean tensions. Despite its call, however, the government largely retained its long-standing hands-off position on the issue, saying it has no legal ground to stop them. “The issue is something that the leaflet-scattering group should decide for themselves,” a unification ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

Which is good, because a lot of South Koreans want their government to block Park Sang-Hak from sending any more of his leaflet balloons.

Now, far be it for me (of all people) to denigrate the critical importance of setting the right ambience for North Korea. But if solving the North Korean nuclear crisis is really all about mood lighting, scented candles, and Marvin Gaye music, Park Geun-Hye might be a bigger problem than Park Sang-Hak, at least if you judge by what the North Koreans themselves are saying:

North Korea resumed its direct criticism of South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Friday, warning that her “nasty” remarks toward Pyongyang may dampen a rare mood of inter-Korean reconciliation.

In a statement, the National Reconciliation Council took issue with Park’s comments earlier this week that the communist neighbor is showing an ambivalent behavior of provocations and peace gestures. [….]

“(Park’s remarks) are an unacceptable provocation against us,” said an unnamed representative for the North’s council, a working-level agency dealing with inter-Korean affairs.

It is an “impolite and reckless” act, which throws cold water on the mood of improved inter-Korean relations created by a high-profile North Korean delegation’s trip to the South last week, read the statement. [Yonhap]

See also, etcetera. Sure, you can always say that the responsible thing is to avoid antagonizing violent people. Some might even say it’s the government’s job to prevent anyone else from offending violent people, even if the offense is caused by completely non-violent expression. Send leaflets over North Korea and it’s just a matter of time before they answer you with artillery, right? In the same spirit, if your newspapers print blasphemous cartoons, if your authors write blasphemous books, or if some guy publishes a crappy blasphemous movie on YouTube, hey, people might riot, other people might get hurt, and really, isn’t the mature thing to do to censor ourselves just this one time? Or maybe just one more time, because the North Koreans are offended by some dumbass American movie, and Japan wants to get its hostages back? Or because North Korea is offended by a British TV series? Or by Kim Seung Min’s radio broadcasts? Or by the election of a defector to the National Assembly, whom Pyongyang threatened to “hunt down?” Or by a policy proposal by the President of South Korea, one that North Korea also answered with artillery?

By now, you can see where this ends. Or, to be more accurate, where this doesn’t end, ever.

~   ~   ~

Update: The ROK Government now says that it is mulling “appropriate” measures to protect its citizens from similar incidents in the future, but that those measures will not include preventing more launches.

“As we said previously, there is no legal ground or relevant regulation to forcibly block the leaflet scattering as it is a matter to be handled by civilian groups on a voluntary basis,” he said at a press briefing. “The government, which is in charge of the safety and security of our people, will instead push for appropriate steps to deal with the matter.”

This is a more promising direction. Under U.S. constitutional law, the government can lawfully place reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of speech that’s protected under the First Amendment.

If Korean courts interpret the ROK Constitution similarly, and if the ROK Government were to restrict the FFNK from launching from populated areas or near military installations, that might be constitutional, would allow the launches to continue, would avoid rewarding a violent response to non-violent speech, and might also reduce the risk that North Korean attacks would harm bystanders.

Just remember this: Park and the FFNK are South Korean citizens, too.

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You’re gonna need a bigger boat.

So the news today is that North Korea–which President Bush removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008 for agreeing to give up its nuclear weapons programs–has warned the civilian populations of Baengnyeong-do, Yeonpyeong-do, and other islands in the Yellow Sea to evacuate now. The instrument this time is the quasi-official Uriminzokkiri, which is hosted in China, a nation that embraces the sacred principle that all speech, no matter how threatening or objectionable, has a protected place in the marketplace of ideas.

Yes, children, there is a word for this sort of thing.

Some sources are also alleging that during a visit to some of the artillery units with their guns trained on the islands, Kim Jong Un threatened to “wipe out” Baengnyeong-do, population 5,000, although the curious thing about that is I can’t find a KCNA report quoting His Porcine Majesty as saying quite what Sky News and Al Jazeera say he said.

kim_jong_un_boat_west_sea_yellow_sea

(KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

You can see more pictures of the budding Western-oriented reformer here, posing with one of North Korea’s 170 millimeter koksan guns, which, from forward placements, can range parts of Seoul.  I can hardly wait to hear how he reacts to this statement, by Rep. Mike Rogers:

“You have a 28-year-old leader who is trying to prove himself to the military, and the military is eager to have a saber-rattling for their own self-interest,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “And the combination of that is proving to be very, very deadly.”  [….] “This is very, very concerning, as we just don’t know the stability of their leader — again, 28 years old,” Rogers said. “We’re just not confident that we know he wouldn’t take those steps.” [CNN]

Keep the good people of the Yellow Sea islands in your thoughts.  These must be pretty scary times for them.

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N. Korea threatens to re-renounce Armistice; cancer threatens to re-kill Chavez

As one of the few Americans who can claim the “privilege” of a direct line of communication with North Korea, I offer two friendly reminders to my growing readership in Pyongyang:

North Korea visit

First, you can’t renounce something you’ve already renounced, and never really complied with anyway.  Second, South Korea never actually did sign that Armistice, and they aren’t sounding particularly stuck on it these days.

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Consistency or worse

The death of Kim Jong Il, while a joyous occasion on a metaphysical level, has generated little enthusiasm to curb (though I can’t fail to mention that Ban Ki Moon saw fit to lower the U.N. flag to half-staff for a mass murderer who flagrantly defied so many U.N. resolutions).

Recognizing that it’s still a bit early to say, all signs point to a dreary consistency, or worse, in North Korea’s policies toward Earth and its various political subdivisions.  Whoever is really in charge in Pyongyang now still wants South Korea’s money, intends to keep building nukes and missiles, and still sees no reason why South Korean money should compel them to change any of their other policies or aggressive behaviors.  A fresh report says that North Korean border guards shot and killed three more would-be refugees after the announcement of Kim Jong-Eun’s coronation.

You expect a high degree of consistency during a dynastic imperial transition of power in an absolute oligarchy, though admittedly, the post-Enlightenment world has sparse precedent for such things. Prof. Sung Yoon-Lee summarizes some of the better causes for pessimism here:

Today’s stakeholders in the Kim regime have a strong incentive to retain the same privileges tomorrow. Hence, they will likely support Kim Jong-il’s chosen one in the short run and advocate for what has worked well in the past–repression at home and extortion from abroad. This means reinforced control over the basic freedoms of the North Korean people and military provocations against South Korea and the United States in the coming year.  [Prof. Sung-Yoon Lee, National Bureau of Asian Research]

But consistency is one thing.  It’s quite another to use your first post-coronation statement of national policy to go out of your way to burn bridges:

On this occasion, we solemnly declare with confidence that foolish politicians around the world, including the puppet forces in South Korea, should not expect any changes from us,” a broadcaster on state television said on Friday.  [….]

“We will never engage with the Lee Myung-bak administration,” said the announcer.  “The sea of bloody tears from our military and people will follow the puppet regime until the end. The tears will turn into a sea of revengeful fire that burns everything.”  [Reuters]

A new leadership that was open to evolving toward a less hostile, less isolated, more productive posture would not have seen the need to say this. And given the tendency of South Koreans and Americans to pay vast sums based on the most vaporous hopes of potential reform, one wonders why North Korea doesn’t do that small service for the Selig Harrisons of the world.

In fact, the evidence we have in front of us now suggests that the only recent dramatic change in North Korea’s posture occurred in 2010, with North Korea’s direct attacks against South Korea on a scale unprecedented since 1968, if not 1953. Both were foreshadowed by North Korea’s 2009 declination of the olive branch President Obama probably intended to extend, and with its missile and nuclear tests.  One of several possibilities this suggests is that the people in charge of North Korea now may well have been in charge of North Korea by 2009, following the power vacuum created by Kim Jong Il’s stroke.  Kim Jong Il’s several visits to China and his meeting with Bill Clinton suggest that he eventually recovered to a certain degree, but the turn of North Korea’s policy in a radically aggressive direction coincides with reports that Jang Song Thaek, Kim Kyong Hui, and their dauphin Kim Jong Eun postured themselves to take over North Korea in 2009.  This suggests that Jang is at least a supporter (if not an architect) of North Korea’s more aggressive posture.  And if anyone were looking for a figurehead to symbolize the potential for reform, he could have groomed first son Kim Jong Nam, not the third son who (so the rumor has it) likes bondage porn and torturing small animals, and whose commerce with the wider world made little academic impression on him.

Of course, the left may well win South Korea’s next election, and North Korea could decide to “engage” with the new South Korean regime.  The signs suggest, however, that this engagement would be on the same extortionist terms that North Korea set in its engagement with the DJ and Roh administrations — no appreciable reform, limited and isolated investments generating cash for the regime’s own priorities, and a cessation of direct armed attacks only as long as the money continues to flow.  Significantly for the U.S., it would not mean an end to North Korea’s proliferation.  In the past, however, this primary U.S. security interest has always been subordinated to South Korean security interests.

I have advocated no dramatic policy changes toward North Korea for the present.  This is more about optics than expectations, however.  Perish the thought that some knave should argue, for purposes of the next South Korean election, that conservative policies in the U.S. and South Korea threw North Korea off a reformist track.  The premise of this theory is possible, I suppose, but not really plausible. Judging by the state propaganda machine’s limited progress toward deifying Kim Jong Eun, Kim Jong Il probably died a year or two before Jang Song Thaek expected.  Still, the general direction of North Korea’s succession has been fairly clear for two years.  Of course, I have no idea what specific outrages North Korea will carry out or abstain from next, other than the everyday ones that we’ve mostly quit thinking about.  All I offer are ways to influence North Korea’s pavlovian calculus over the long term.  Prof. Lee expects to see more provocations sooner, and his argument for that expectation seems likely and is worth reading in full.  But there would not have been equally good arguments for that outcome in 2009 and 2010, and those provocations so outperformed even the most pessimistic predictions that they were tantamount to a limited unilateral war.  That’s really my point.  Some people will want to see reasons for hope in North Korea’s transition.  But for now, those hopes lack a basis in the available evidence.  Thankfully, we’ve seen relatively few of them so far.  I may even be arguing against a straw man.  If that changes, I may find time to revisit the topic.  But for the foreseeable future, I don’t expect to find much time to write here, and the light blogging will resume again.

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U.S. Increases Diplomatic Pressure on China, North Korea

Last week’s rumors that the Obama Administration was pressuring South Korea to talk to the North left many of us confused, wondering to what extent the rumors were true, and wondering if this augured a weakening of the administration’s policy (third item). The following days, however, saw leading members of the administration threatening a direct use of force against North Korea, suggesting that U.S.-Chinese relations are at a critical stage because of its failure to restrain North Korea, and reaffirming that the United States isn’t interested in talking with North Korea just for the sake of talking. Let’s begin with the comments of SecDef Gates in Seoul:

Mr. Gates also held out the possibility of direct talks between the South and the North as a precursor to the resumption of multiparty talks to end the crisis on the peninsula. The Obama administration has been trying to choreograph a resumption of the talks with the North that include China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

But a senior South Korean government official said that no bilateral talks were possible until the North agreed to preconditions from the government in Seoul about the agenda, which would include a discussion of the sinking of a South Korean warship last March, the North’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November and North Korean nuclear activities. He spoke privately because of the delicate nature of the issue during Mr. Gates’s visit. [….]

The official said the United States was not pressing South Korea to resume the six-party process, which ended in 2009 when North Korea withdrew. Nor did he expect that any significant announcements about a resumption of the talks would come from the trip by President Hu Jintao of China to Washington next week. [NYT]

Gates also talked about that uranium enrichment program that Dick Cheney and John Bolton made up:

The official, who has close knowledge of the so-called six-party talks aimed at dismantling the North Korean nuclear programs, suggested that the recent revelation of a new uranium enrichment facility in the North was “a very, very serious challenge and a real provocation.

“They must stop it immediately,” he said of the facility, which North Korean officials have said is operational. [NYT]

For its part, China seems to think that Sig Hecker is a part of the neocon conspiracy. That’s not a view shared by anyone who’s familiar with Hecker’s political leanings, but China has lately become accomplished at denying the undeniable:

“About the so-called uranium enrichment activities by North Korea that you’ve raised, it’s my understanding that Chinese people have not seen the site,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said at a forum hosted by China’s foreign ministry in Beijing.

“It’s some American experts who have seen the site, but even they did not see clearly… So this matter is still not very clear.” [Reuters]

Gates’s clarification on North-South talks gives credence to Slim’s suggestion that the United States is re-routing North Korea to South Korea to apologize for sinking the Cheonan and shelling Yeonpyeong.

“The DPRK leadership must stop these dangerous provocations and take concrete steps to show they will begin meeting their international obligations,” Gates said at an open session with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Kwan-jin.

“With regard to next steps on North Korea, diplomatic engagement is possible, starting with direct engagement between DPRK and the South.” [….]

The secretary said negotiations are still a viable option. “When or if North Korea’s actions show cause to believe that negotiations can be productive and conducted in good faith, then we could see a return to the six-party talks,” Gates said. [CNN]

Rather than pressing the South to talk to the North, Gates seems to be forcing North Korea to make nice with the South before the discussion of the next payoff even begins.

The Commanding General of U.S. Forces Korea also made the first direct threat of force against North Korea’s ballistic missile program from a sitting U.S. government official:

Appearing on the US public broadcaster PBS, General Walter Sharp, the commander of US forces in South Korea said while deterrence is the first and utmost priority against Pyeongyang’s provocations, Washington will also be “prepared to respond” if deterrence fails to refrain the North.

Such remarks follow the US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ forecast earlier in the week that North Korea will likely develop intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the US within the next five years.

The general went further to say that Washington and its allies could consider demolishing Pyeongyang’s missile sites if circumstances forced them to do so.
The Kim Jong-il regime has already test-launched three intercontinental ballistic missiles, the last in April 2009, which traveled more than 3-thousand kilometers to land in the Pacific Ocean.

General Sharp, meanwhile, spoke negatively about the North’s recent proposals for talks with Seoul, adding there is no evidence of the regime’s sincerity towards the denuclearization process. [Arirang News]

To which I’d only say that a combination of financial sanctions and subversive asymmetric warfare is far less likely to provoke a direct all-out conflict — including one that might involve China — than the military options that U.S. and South Korean officials are now threatening openly. I know you’re probably wondering how that can be done plausibly. I’m writing a detailed answer and will publish it when it’s ready, as time permits.

I’ll leave you with the full text of a speech by Hillary Clinton at the State Department last week, where Clinton made it plain enough that China’s enforcement of U.N. Security Council sanctions falls short of her expectations. Read it yourself, below the fold, or read Yonhap’s condensed version. All of these words are just that, of course. We’re not going to have China’s full attention until we show our willingness to impose sanctions on the Chinese entities that are propping up North Korea financially.

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Rumors Hint at Policy Shifts in U.S. and South Korea

From Engagement to Reunification?

So says the Chosun Ilbo, in describing what would be a major policy shift for South Korea. From 2008 until now, the policy would best be described as reluctant engagement, which brought out North Korea’s violent and extortionate streak. Now, according to unnamed sources in the Unification Ministry, the administration seems to be looking for ways to prepare for and even accelerate reunification:

The government is shifting the emphasis of North Korea policy from exchanges and cooperation to fully fledged preparations for reunification beginning in 2011. “Next year, we intend to concentrate our efforts on strengthening our reunification capabilities rather than on dialogue with the North,” a Unification Ministry official said. It is apparently looking to influence ordinary North Koreans to bring about changes in the Stalinist country. “We must free ourselves from the perception that reunification by absorption is unfeasible,” he added.

More on that here. The problem with stories like this, of course, is that they name only anonymous officials, and therefore, we really don’t know whether we’re hearing the views of a junior official with rogue views, someone who represents a faction within the Ministry, or someone who is intentionally disinforming the Chosun Ilbo to scare the North Koreans. I maintain that the Lee Administration isn’t serious about holding North Korea accountable for anything, catalyzing change, or even about cutting off the money used to terrorize its own population until it shuts down Kaesong. When Kaesong closes, it will be time for a serious discussion of a policy shift. Everything else, especially this, is empty talk.

The Force Has Great Power Over the Weak-Minded

One of our perpetual questions about North Korea has to be whether they’re just too smart for us to comprehend, or whether it’s just the rest of us that are too stupid and weak-minded to deal with them properly. I still vote for the latter:

Senior Grand National Party lawmakers who gathered yesterday to deliberate the government’s policy toward North Korea after its attack on Yeonpyeong Island quarrelled intensely and broke into two camps.

One group argued the government should ease its tough stance against the communist regime to abate the highly strained relations between the two Koreas. This met fierce opposition from another group that maintained it was too early to “appease” North Korea.

I’d wonder where the constituency is for appeasing North Korea now, except that public opinion in South Korea is almost impossibly unpredictable. One person who obviously thinks there’s a constituency for appeasement is our old friend Comrade Chung. Although I can certainly see why the administration denied him permission to visit Kaesong, there’s a part of me that thinks he’d have been an ideal hostage — just think of what a win-win that would be for all of those involved.

Kim Jong Bill for Secretary of State?

Meanwhile, there are also rumors foreshadowing a policy shift on this side of the Pacific. I find those rumors hard to believe, beginning with the explanation that Hillary Clinton would step down … so spend more time with Bill. Yeah, right! If Hillary Clinton steps down, she’ll do it to distance herself from the administration or to mount a primary challenge, which I think is also unlikely.

Still, I can’t quite dismiss this. The obvious argument for Richardson’s appointment is that it would help the President with Latino voters, and I’ve always suspected that this President cares very much about domestic politics and so little about the actual substance of foreign policy that he’s delegated it to a group of sensible advisors, including James Steinberg, Kurt Campbell, Robert Einhorn, and Philip Goldberg. Putting Richardson in charge of them would be like putting a cat in a basket of pigeons. At a bare minimum, it would cost us a year of policy reviews, internecine struggles, and purges — a repeat of what happened after 2004. It might even mean that someone gets to follow in Mike Chinoy’s footsteps and write a book chronicling this administration’s paralysis-by-analysis on North Korea.

Ultimately, I don’t think it will happen because the adverse political consequences would outweigh the benefits, and the Administration seems smart enough to get this. Kim Jong Il’s behavior has been bad enough that any hint of Agreed Framework 3.0 would go over badly with the American people. Until now, President Obama has successfully neutralized foreign policy as a campaign issue, but a Bill Richardson foreign policy would give the Republicans an opportunity to cast off their discrediting by Bush, Rice, and Hill, find their voice, and make this an issue they can run on.

The greatest barrier, however, may be South Korea’s certain opposition to such a shift in Washington. Lee Myung Bak will still be President for a little more than two years, and with him facing a likely challenge from Park Geun-Hye on the right, you can expect his Administration to strongly oppose a new American diplomatic initiative to the North now. Say what you will about Lee not having a vote in our elections, but South Korea exerts a powerful influence over U.S. policy toward North Korea.

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South Korea Launches More Feel-Good Exercises

Here we go again!

South Korea moved hundreds of troops, fighter jets, tanks and attack helicopters near the heavily armed border with the North in preparation for massive new military drills as tensions continue to simmer following last month’s North Korean artillery attack that left four dead.

“We will completely punish the enemy if it provokes us again like the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island,” said Brig. Gen. Ju Eun-sik, chief of the army’s 1st armored brigade, according to The Associated Press. [Stars & Stripes]

Isn’t it remarkable how quickly the South Koreans learned to talk smack, just like North Koreans? For its part, the USFK says it’s not playing, and that’s just fine with me.

The firing drills Thursday near the Koreas’ land border will be the biggest-ever wintertime joint firing exercise that South Korea’s army and air force have staged, an army statement said. [USA Today]

I’m sure that shows of force play well in the tabangs and around padok games in South Korea these days:

Opinion surveys since the Nov. 23 attack found sharp jumps in negative sentiments toward North Korea, particularly among young adults who are normally less interested in politics and are two generations removed from the Korean War of the 1950s. The ratings of President Lee initialy took a hit amid perceptions of a weak response to the attack.

A survey done by Realmeter, one of South Korea’s largest market researchers, on Saturday and Sunday found that 67% of respondents favored going through with the military drill that Seoul carried out Monday. Government officials argued they needed to proceed with the drill to prevent North Korea’s attack from creating a de facto change in a maritime boundary. “We have put up with North Korea’s occasional provocations for decades,” said Park Sun-min, chief executive of Min Consulting, a political consulting firm in Seoul. “Now we’ve reached a level where we can’t do that anymore even if that means we might endure some limited warfare on our land.”

The drill may help Mr. Lee’s ratings recover, but Mr. Park said it was too early to tell. Some opposition party politicians before the drill urged Mr. Lee to call it off, citing the risk of escalation in the conflict. But the anger and wariness hasn’t necessarily translated into more fear among South Koreans. The Realmeter survey found that only 25% of respondents believed that North Korea would carry out its threats to attack if the drill happened. [Wall Street Journal, Evan Ramstad]

One thing I’ll say for these exercises — they’re a vast improvement over the saccharine hippie bong resin that South Koreans positively ejaculated all over each other in the 90’s. Yes, it really was that sickening. I hope these exercises will have some beneficial effect on ROKA readiness, but I doubt they’ll do much to deter the North Koreans or advance us toward solving the greater problem. I also doubt that the North Koreans are done provoking the South. Hopefully, the exercises themselves will pass without a serious incident. The North Koreans don’t really specialize in confronting people with guns anymore. Instead, they specialize in attacking the weak, the defenseless, or those who for whatever reason aren’t expecting to be attacked. The North Koreans know they can’t win symmetrically, so they fight asymmetrically. That’s another concept the South Koreans should learn from the North, because when they do, it will be a game-changer.

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The Richardson Effect

After a weather-related delay, South Korea says it is determined to continue with live-fire exercises in the Yellow Sea islands.

“The planned firing drill is part of the usual exercises conducted by our troops based on Yeonpyeong Island. The drill can be justifiable, as it will occur within our territorial waters,” said the JCS official. “We won’t take into consideration North Korean threats and diplomatic situations before holding the live-fire drill. If weather permits, it will be held as scheduled.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Ramstad accurately describes what is really at stake here:

The test will take place on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, which North Korean forces shelled last month in what appears to be an effort to effectively redefine border territory in the Yellow Sea off the countries’ west coast. The shelling killed four South Koreans, two of them civilians. With the test, South Korea is walking a tightrope by trying to defend waters it has controlled since the Korean War of the 1950s in a way that doesn’t escalate into more fighting, which would threaten the safety of its 50 million people and the vibrancy of its economy, the world’s 15th-biggest.

In a move that’s certain to resolve absolutely nothing whatsoever, the U.N. Security Council is holding “emergency closed-door consultations.” North Korea, which was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, is also threatening the United States:

In a statement, North Korea’s foreign ministry spokesman said: “We will be sure to settle scores with the U.S. for the extreme situation on the Korean peninsula. Our military does not speak empty words.”

See also:

Uriminzokkiri, the communist state’s official Web site, also said in a commentary that war on the Korean Peninsula is only a matter of time, stoking already high tensions after the North shelled a western South Korean island on Nov. 23 and killed four people. “If war breaks out, it will lead to nuclear warfare and not be limited to the Korean Peninsula,” it said.

It is also calling about 20 American military personnel who will participate in the exercises “human shields.”

I think it should be obvious whose fault all of this is: Bill Richardson! But to be completely serious, his visit shows no evidence of accomplishing the stated objective of reducing tensions. If anything, Richardson has given the North Koreans a louder media megaphone for its threats and encouraged its extortionate bombast. He also reminds us why we call him “Kim Jong Bill”:

“I hope that the U.N. Security Council will pass a strong resolution calling for self-restraint from all sides in order to seek peaceful means to resolve this dispute,” the statement read. “A U.N. resolution could provide cover for all sides that prevents aggressive military action.”

Substantively, this is indistinguishable from what the ChiCom Foreign Ministry is saying, and just as dangerously illogical. Let’s begin with the fact that North Korea specifically ceded four Yellow Sea islands to South Korea in the 1953 Armistice Agreement. The relevant provision is found in Article II, Paragraph 13(b):

[A]ll the islands lying to the north and west of the provincial boundary line between HWANGHAE-DO and KYONGGI-DO shall be under the military control of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army and the Commander of the Chinese People’s volunteers, except the island groups of PAENGYONG-DO (37 58′ N, 124 40′ E), TAECHONG-DO (37 50′ N, 124 42′ E), SOCHONG-DO (37 46′ N, 124 46′ E), YONPYONG-DO (37 38′ N, 125 40′ E), and U-DO (37 36’N, 125 58′ E), which shall remain under the military control of the Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command. All the island on the west coast of Korea lying south of the above-mentioned boundary line shall remain under the military control of the Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command. (See Map 3).

yellow-sea-islands.jpg

The agreement did not delineate between the two de facto states’ territorial waters, so we default to international customary law, which provides that a nation’s territorial sea extends for 12 nautical miles (or 14 terrestrial miles, or 22 kilometers) from its coastline at low tide, or to the mid-point to a neighboring nation’s coastline, whichever is less. There are North Korean islets just 1.67 miles north of Yeonpyeong, so South Korea’s territorial sea excludes most of the waters north of the island, but the 14-mile radius from Yeonpyeong-Do overlaps with the 14-mile radius from the nearest South Korean island to the east, meaning that South Korea is entitled to describe the 22-mile wide stretch of water between them as its “territorial sea.” (The status of the waters between Yeonpyeong-Do and the outlying islands to the west is more complex, although the status of the islands and the waters within 14 miles of their coastlines is controlled by the same principles.) Clearly, then, the waters within 14 miles of Yeonpyeong-Do, except those to the North, are South Korean waters. There is no basis in international law for North Korea’s novel and unilateral claim of all of the surrounding waters, save the restrictive corridors to the south of them.

800px-map_of_korean_maritime_bordersvg.png

To reasonable minds, “restraint” has nothing to do with what you do on your own side of the border, as long as it poses no threat to your neighbor (otherwise, it’s called “sovereignty”). “Restraint” means not shelling your neighbor or sinking its warships. North Korea has done both of these things in the last seven months. South Korea is contemplating nothing of the kind. Its Joint Chiefs of Staff have stated that “the artillery guns on Yeonpyeong will be aimed southwest and away from North Korea for the drill.” It is North Korea that needs to show restraint. A nation that is under the threat of an armed attack has a right under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter to defend its territory, and restraint does not require the abandonment of that right, or of the preparedness it demands, or of the exercises that are essential to preparedness. These exercises are taking place inside South Korean territory, spurious North Korean claims notwithstanding.

North Korea counts on weak-minded emissaries like Bill Richardson to meet its utterly unreasonable demands half way, in the same way that disreputable merchants raise prices 50% in September to convince addle-brained customers that a 25% discount in December is a great deal. There isn’t much of a case to be made that his visit has reduced tensions with North Korea; in fact, one can argue that his grandstanding, ill-timed visit has had had exactly the opposite effect.

Update: It’s our big annual apocalypse aversion sale! Save big on all MIA remains! This week only, plutonium fuel rods (see manager for pricing)! Bring your U.N. inspectors to see what Sig Hecker has already seen, but mostly, bring lots of cash!

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Keep Calm and Carry On

OK, I know those of you in South Korea are probably feeling a bit edgy for now, amid all of the drills, exercises, and North Koreans threats, which I’m sure our State Department would say are absolutely, positively not terrorism in any way, shape, or form. Still, I doubt that things will be quite this bad in Seoul by Monday:

I don’t think we’ve seen the end of North Korea’s escalation, and I also think Christmas is a fairly likely occasion for more of that, but the North Koreans aren’t irrational, and that’s why this won’t come to full-scale war. Kim Jong Il and those around him all know what happens to them and their regime if it does. South Koreans need to be rational now, but they also need to be brave. We’re at this literally dreadful state of affairs because for too long, too many South Koreans and Americans refused to recognize the pathology of this regime and thus enabled its capacity to terrorize the South even more (and indirectly, the United States). A few people are still incapable of understanding, or perhaps just unwilling to understand, how that cycle has vastly increased the danger to both countries over the last 20 years, as each successive leader has failed to resist the temptation to “manage” the threat out of the headlines, only to see it reemerge in some slightly more terrible and brazen form. I like the way Sung Yoon Lee put it in his latest piece for the Asia Times:

The more people in democratic societies think about the North Korean regime as a threat to humanity and less as an idiosyncratic abstraction, the more they will be resolved not to allow their leaders to resort to politically expedient measures with each future provocation or defer Korean reunification. For the South Korean leadership, breaking the taboo of potential economic costs of reunification should be a high priority. [….]

It’s time to acknowledge that while status quo maintenance in the Korean Peninsula has worked in deterring war over the past 57 years, it has all but failed in deterring North Korea’s ever-growing strategy of brinkmanship. It is also time to accept that relying on China to resolve the North Korea problem has produced few returns over the past two decades. As Pyongyang presses ahead in 2011 on its proven path of provocation-for-compensation, Beijing will, as usual, counsel patience, exhorting Washington and Seoul to let bygones be bygones and embrace the future.

I don’t happen to believe it’s too late to break that cycle, but this is one of those times when being the citizen of a free nation requires actual, physical courage. This crisis is a test, no less than the June Democracy Movement of 1987 was. I hope South Korea passes it.

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I wonder if China is pleased with Japan’s new plans to expand defense spending, deploy more PAC-3 Patriot missile batteries, build more submarines to patrol disputed waters, and arm more Aegis cruisers with Standard-3 missiles. Again, there is even talk of acquiring nuclear weapons. China has only its own reckless backing of North Korea to blame for this. Me, I’d be happier if we sold the same types of gear to Taiwan, which as I take delight in repeating, happens to have China’s only legitimate government anyway. But any step toward an integrated alliance of stronger Asian democracies is a step in the right direction. Key to this is that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan must not give in to the temptation of excessive dependence on a fickle and debt-laden America, and they must be able to survive a first strike well enough to give America a viable option of coming to their assistance. Chinese and North Korean behavior this year has tilted Asian voters sharply in the direction of demanding more defense spending and closer relations with the United States.

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In the Washington Post, Victor Cha argues against what he describes as five myths about North Korea. I mostly agree with 1 and 3; I agree with 4 for other reasons; and I agree with 5 even if I wish Cha gave us a better explanation than a consensus of august diplomatic minds that hasn’t a thing to do with the price of rice in Chongjin (the North Korea crisis will be solved in places like this, not in any embassy’s foyer). On point 2, Cha argues against the perception that “Kim Jong Eun is too young and inexperienced to successfully replace his father,” which he defends by noting that older, more experienced people will really be running things from behind the scenes. But isn’t that what most Kim Jong Eun skeptics have always said? Cha always notes that we have no good options in North Korea, something that’s undoubtedly been true since we irreversibly licensed North Korea’s nuclear power status in 1993. But rather than simply reflecting consensus views and writing pieces that no one ever disagrees with more than 40% of the time, I wish that Cha would actually offer a least-worst solution.
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In the Wall Street Journal, Brian Myers takes apart Selig Harrison’s imaginings of a reformist faction in North Korea. The key to scoring this speculative argument is the question of whether you really count what the North Koreans tell Selig Harrison as evidence of anything, because that’s about all the evidence Harrison really has. Myers might have answered this with his own interpretations of what the regime tells its own subjects, but as interesting as those interpretations are, I’m glad he didn’t rely on them. After all, North Korea’s actions alone are sufficient to refute Harrison’s view. The same can be said of too much of our foreign policy commentariat, which held similarly naive and wishful views for far too long. The less credit given to those views, the sooner we’ll turn to more productive alternatives.
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No, now that I think of it, Kim Jong Il probably isn’t accustomed to seeing his work panned by critics. Yes, Kim Jong Il’s writing is an easy enough target, but the piece actually ends with an insightful argument. Hat tip: Theresa.
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OPLAN 5027 1/2? It occurred to me last night that if North Korea escalates hostilities to the point that a military response becomes necessary to save lives in South Korea, such a response need only be sufficient to neutralize North Korea as an immediate threat to the South and deal its system a fatal political blow. This doesn’t necessarily require a full-scale invasion and occupation of all of North Korea, which could well unite much of the population around the regime. Instead, it might “only” require an intense bombardment of North Korea’s artillery sites near the DMZ — yes, a big “only,” that — followed by the seizure of a ten-mile-wide strip of North Korean territory nearest the DMZ. This would neutralize the artillery threat to the South and completely disrupt North Korea’s own military plans for threatening the South or repelling an allied invasion. It should go without saying that we shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to hit whatever nuclear targets we can, although there are undoubtedly some we’ll never find until after reunification. Rather than taking on the bloody work of racing the Chinese Army to Pyongyang and occupying a hostile country, we could encourage, support, and supply whatever elements were thereby emboldened to rise up against the regime (this would have the added effect of discouraging China from getting involved, unless it wants to get bogged down in an insurgency that would turn unpopular very quickly for any foreign power). Again, I doubt that such an uprising would succeed in the short term, but in the medium term, it would bleed the regime to death, both economically and politically.

In the comments, there have been some suggestions of arming the prisoners in the camps to fight as well, as they are said to have done in the Onsong Camp many years ago. I’m deeply ambivalent about this idea, because I think some of us underestimate how weakened those prisoners really are from the starvation and torture they’ve experienced. To arm people with no military training, organization, or outside logistical support can only mean one inevitable result — the massacre of the prisoners in any camp that rises. But then, it’s probably assured that the prisoners in most of these camps will never get out alive anyway.

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