Guest Commentary: How Pyongyang’s reunification plan outlived Seoul’s

The following commentary is submitted by OFK contributor Rand Millar.

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For most of the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century Germany was perceived by most European nations as the primary security hazard in Europe on account of its expansionist ambitions. In the aftermath of its defeat in the First World War, Germany was forbidden by the 1919 Versailles Peace Treaty from fortifying the left bank of its Rhineland territory or the right bank to a line 50 kilometers east of the Rhine river. This left Germany vulnerable to intervention from the west should its ambitions in eastern Europe stir again. Germany’s eastern ambitions were suppressed not ended by the Versailles treaty, and by the advent of Adolf Hitler in 1933, her ambitions in that direction were stirring again. In the early years of his Third Reich, Hitler had to tread carefully with the western powers, given Germany’s military weakness by design of the Versailles treaty. By 1936 Hitler imagined he had just enough revived military means to reoccupy the Rhineland, provided his move was not opposed by the western powers. In western Europe then as in Europe generally today, the attitude was one of “peace at any price”. On March 7, 1936, Hitler sent in modest German forces to reoccupy the Rhineland, as he correctly gauged the defeatist, supine character of the western powers and could be confident that they would not use the superior force then available to them in the French army to evict his battalions. To make certain the western powers stayed quiescent in reaction to his move into the Rhineland, Hitler used the tactic of offering to return his country to membership in the League of Nations, to agree to a treaty to outlaw aerial bombing as a tool of warfare, and to sign a new non- aggression pact with France. Many in the west were eager to accept his assurances, and told themselves that Hitler was only entering his own backyard anyway. Once it was clear that the German army move into the Rhineland would not be countered, Hitler dropped his smiling campaign of security assurances. Certainly the uncontested character of his move increased his popularity with many Germans and dampened the doubt of those Germans, many in high places, opposed to his adventurist foreign policy. Once he had made his move, Hitler began a program of fortification of the Rhineland. In so doing, he dramatically raised the cost of any conceivable western intervention in the event of a German military move eastward. In effect the French thus surrendered their ability to prevent Germany from achieving hegemony over France’s allies in eastern Europe.

An analogous phenomenon seems to be playing out on the Korean peninsula today. From the time of its first chief Kim Il Sung the Pyongyang totalitarian regime has sought to unify all of Korea under its rule. The first major attempt was frustrated during the Korean War. When the war ended, neither Kim nor his opponent in the south, Rhee Syng Man, were in a position to impose unification. It should be remembered though that Rhee was just as opposed as Kim to the continued bifurcation of Korea, even if Rhee’s vision of a united Korea was vastly different from that of Kim. Dwight Eisenhower’s difficulties in imposing the USA’s understandably limited vision for Korea on Korean nationalist Rhee in 1953 probably reminded him of his thorny relations with French nationalist Charles de Gaulle during the Second World War.

Rhee Syng Man’s vision for a united Korea progressively atrophied under the military-dominated regimes of Park Chung Hee, Chun Do Hwan, and Roh Tae Woo, with the success of their guided market economic policies in creating the powerful industrial and post-industrial economy in southern Korea. Authoritarian rather than totalitarian, these men were not nearly as successful as the communists were in the north in stamping out anti-regime tendencies among those in south Korea who felt disadvantaged relative to regime favorites during the upward trajectory of the economy in the south. Such anti-regime tendencies were most evident in universities in the south, where, as in north America and western Europe, the liberal arts and social sciences departments came under de facto far-left control, and became incubators for a generation of anti-government, pro Pyongyang regime activists who in their maturity would as graduates of top universities become employed in critical positions in government and the mass media in the south. They have networked with each other, liaised with northern agents in the south, and worked tirelessly in politics, the media, and the arts to promote southern subservience to the wishes of the Pyongyang regime and to defame the tens of thousands of defectors from the north who know all too well about life in the north and are living, walking rebukes to these sympathizers of the Pyongyang regime in the south.

If the southern military and post-military governments had progressively allowed the non- communist vision of a united Korea to atrophy, from 1972 onward they did sign on to inter-Korean declarations guided by Pyongyang which while seemingly platitudinous in fact envisioned Korean confederation in a system where north and south would have an equal say though the north’s population was half of the south’s and its economy ever-smaller in comparison to the south’s. Of course northern voting would be lock-step as dictated by the Kim family and its minions, while the democratized south would vote much more according to individual preference and thus have the smaller voice. So of course the Pyongyang regime would come to prevail in the proposed Korean confederacy.

If in the last two generations the south has built an economy that is a world-class marvel, the north has built and maintained a military vastly larger than its population or economic resources could sustain in a peacetime environment. So, the Pyongyang regime has always maintained its people in a psychological war footing, with chronic mobilizations and propaganda campaigns in an effort to prevent the growth of peaceable attitudes in the population. These efforts have become progressively less effective with the passage of time and the insidious growth of awareness in the northern population about the world beyond the control of the Pyongyang regime. In time disaffection could and likely has reached a point where a misstep by regime minions could set off serious and perhaps uncontrollable internal disturbances. What might happen if the south had a government as committed to unity under its democratic institutions as the Pyongyang regime is committed to its totalitarian vision?

Pyongyang knows that it faces no danger from an American-led invasion, and there is virtually no constituency in the south for any such invasion. Therefore there are no assurances the USA can offer that can assuage Pyongyang’s security concerns. The Pyongyang regime in fact believes that its security can only come from achieving hegemony over all Korea, and making the southern economy subject to its dictates, southern politics free from conservative opponents of the Pyongyang regime, and southern life and culture purged of any shred of disrespect of Kim Jong Un and his regime. Much or most of the left in southern Korea, and the prosperous 30-somethings and 40-somethings who make up their greatest support, either have no problem with this outcome or profess to disbelieve it. Their conservative opponents are without vision or stature, and mostly lost in petty political infighting. Neither the Buddhist nor the Roman church establishments in the south offer any evident resistance to the trend. The only appreciable resistance to the apparent trend toward submission comes from the Bible-based Christian churches in the south, and the network of north Korean defectors resident in the south. These last two are at least partially allied.

Kim Jong Un inherited from his father the vast artillery assemblage aimed at the Seoul metropolitan area proclaimed by senior northern military figures as able to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire”. If the peace-at-any-price people of the south are not unreasonably concerned about this, then the northern dictator essentially has the south as hostage, and has already won the battle for the hegemony and eventual totalitarian rule over the entire Korean peninsula he must have if his regime is to survive at all, except for the problem presented by the Americans.

The Americans save for their forces based in the Seoul area, have not been hostages to the Pyongyang regime, and are an incalculable threat to any end game the Pyongyang regime has for asserting itself at gunpoint to Seoul and compelling thus southern submission to its will. The sole purpose behind a generation of dogged development of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, and their intercontinental delivery systems, is to have the means to compel the USA to disengage itself from the security equation on the Korean peninsula by threatening American cities with the effective equivalent of what Seoul is already under threat of. Once that has been credibly achieved, then negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington, in the view of Kim Jong Un and his minions, are possible. The sole subject: American disengagement from Korea. Other scenarios, however recurrent and attractive to would-be Nobel prize winners, are without foundation.

At present Kim Jong Un’s regime has demonstrated likely possession of a few missiles of the ICBM class, and probable miniaturization of nuclear weapons thus capable of being lofted by such ICBMs. It may have one or more submarines capable of firing shorter-range ballistic missiles as well; these are probably intended to place Japanese cities at risk. As Hitler strove in March 1936 to offer various assurances to distract western powers from his occupation of the Rhineland and the resulting change in the strategic equation in Europe, so Kim Jong Un in January 2018 plays up the upcoming Winter Olympics and agrees to “peace talks” all to buy immediate acquiescence by outside powers to his claimed nuclear power status, and the fundamental change in Korean and east Asian security that such must cause.

As Hitler before him, Kim Jong Un knows what he wants, and he believes that he has the measure of his external opponents. Given the innate brittleness of his regime, he has no choice.

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Korean War II: A Hypothesis Explained, and a Fisking

In the last several months, as Pyongyang has revealed its progress toward acquiring the capacity to destroy an American city, the North Korea commentariat has cleaved into two camps: those who believe we can live with a nuclear North Korea, and those who do not. Regular readers know that I’m in the latter camp. North Korea has proliferated nuclear, ballistic missile, and chemical weapons technology. It uses weapons of mass destruction to murder people in foreign airports and terrorize its critics. It threatens terrorist attacks against our movie theaters. It robs banks, sells dope, and counterfeits currency. Its leaders have no discernible regard for human life. They send kids to die in gulags, drown infants for being racially impure, and condemn millions to mass starvation. They need conflict to justify the immiseration of their subjects, and may even be biochemically addicted to conflict. Admittedly, this isn’t a comforting view.

North Korea is an inherently unhealthy obsession, which may explain why a certain type of North Korea-watcher could see Kim Jong-un shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still interpret it as cry for talks. But if Kim Jong-un had the slightest interest in opening, reform, or improving the welfare of the people, he would have seized multiple opportunities to do so, rather than making it a national priority to isolate and impoverish them. He knows he can’t survive forever as dictator of the poorer, browner, uglier Korea. No matter how ardently some may wish to coexist with the horror he inflicts on North Korea’s people out of our sight, all of the evidence says that Kim will not coexist with us. To believe we can live happily ever after with a nuclear North Korea is a self-delusion that risks condemning millions of Koreans to slavery, and the rest of us to insecurity and terror. I have no affection for Donald Trump, but H.R. McMaster has decades of evidence on his side when he says that North Korea is not a status quo power.

One aspect of this argument that has drawn more interest lately is the surprisingly controversial notion that Pyongyang’s nukes might be part of a rational, coherent,  and plausible plan to achieve the thing it has said for decades that it intends to achieve — unification. As one who has advanced that argument, I’ve noticed a curious thing recently: people have come at me to poke holes in arguments I’ve never made. Some have tried to talk me out of the preposterous idea of North Korea sending an army of scrawny conscripts to occupy downtown Seoul. (They need not have wasted their time; I’ve made the same argument myself.) Or that Pyongyang wouldn’t “win” a war that destroys its prize and cash cow (ditto). Or that South Koreans would never let their government “surrender” to the North, which is as irrelevant as arguing about whether Americans “surrendered” to Putin in last year’s election. The Russians have developed more sophisticated ideas about achieving their interests than a “Red Dawn” sequel, and I also credit the North Koreans with having an equal or greater capacity for strategic thought. The laziest, most offensive, and most defamatory argument of all is that this must all be part of some scheme to peddle a war that I’ve consistently and vocally opposed, but this smear is de rigeur within certain quarters of the political left. One learns to tune it out, along with those who make such spurious claims. 

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Andray Abrahamian now argues against what he calls the “dangerous” ideas that “North Korea wants to use nuclear weapons to reunify the Korean peninsula by force or coercion,” or that Pyongyang can’t be deterred “because it is fundamentally irrational.” These aren’t really my hypotheses, either, although elements of them strike close enough to things I’ve written to be recognizable as corruptions of them. So, before I commence with the fisking, let’s clarify just what my hypothesis is: the North’s rational strategy is to use its nuclear arsenal to achieve hegemony over South Korea and reunify Korea under its rule — just like it has said since 1948. But as circumstances change, so do strategies. Under my hypothesis, Pyongyang intends to avoid both a major war and any perception of drastic political change in South Korea that might arouse its enemies to obstruct its strategy while they still can. I’m not arguing that this strategy will necessarily work, but plenty of precedent suggests that Pyongyang has reason to think it can.

1. Its short-term goals are no different than Putin’s goals for the United States or any number of other countries — to exercise enough control over how South Koreans think to obscure embarrassing truths, embarrass or silence its critics, influence elections and policies, and give an appeasement-minded leader in Seoul the political space to accede to its demands. As I’ll explain, it has already done or tried to do all of these things.

2. Its medium-term goal is to wage a war of skirmishes to coerce concessions that lower South Korea’s defenses and leave it vulnerable to extortion. Pyongyang will use coercive diplomacy to suppress the readiness of Seoul’s forces, the capability of its defenses, the resiliency of its economy to limited attacks, and the strategic posture of its defenses. It will demand the cancellation of defensive exercises or an end to the deployment of missile defenses. Eventually, it will demand “peace” talks for the removal of U.S. forces. I’ll explain how it has already done or tried to do all of that, too.

3. Its long-term goal is to establish and control an inter-Korean coalition government. As I’ve already explained, South Korea has already agreed to this in principle, in the 2000 and 2007 Joint Statements signed by former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Yes, the two Koreas differ sharply on their interpretations of those statements, for now. Once Pyongyang achieves military, strategic, and information hegemony over Seoul, it will be in a position to dominate that coalition, regardless of the two states’ relative economies and populations.

Thus, Korean War II will not be a mechanized, cross-border invasion or a surrender ceremony on the deck of the U.S.S. Pueblo. To the extent that a new Joint Statement or peace treaty amounts to the same thing, I’m confident that few South Korean voters will recognize it as such — and I’m just as confident that the reaction of most journalists and academics will be glowing coverage and op-eds. We will not see footage of North Korean tanks crashing through the gates of the Blue House anytime in the foreseeable future. Korean War II is being waged at a lower intensity, for more limited objectives, and at a far higher level of political sophistication than most of us give it credit for. This new way of war simmered and boiled for years before most experts or policymakers in Washington or Seoul even noticed that it had begun. I know how paranoid this may seem, but remember that this is an argument about Pyongyang’s intentions. It must be probative of something that if you put “North Korea paranoid” into a Google search window, you get more than half a million results. Paranoid people tend to do things that justify paranoia in others.

Phase 1: Influence What They Read & How They Think

So, let the fisking commence.

Pyongyang’s leaders today are not stupid and know even a slow takeover of the South through a federation is unrealistic. 

I’m glad we agree that Pyongyang’s leaders aren’t stupid, even if we disagree about their objectives (but much more on that later). So if, as Mr. Abrahamian now argues, its objective is self-preservation — or if it’s opening and reform, as he previously argued — why have such smart men been stupid enough to throw away multiple offers of aid, engagement, investment, and security guarantees? Why do these intelligent men continue to attack South Korea and get caught committing embarrassing crimes that are far less profitable than, say, exporting electronics, or reaching an agreement that would allow Rason and Kaesong to reach their potential? Pyongyang’s choices make no sense under any benign interpretation of its intentions, or under any interpretation that leaves the status quo intact, with Korea divided indefinitely.

They know that South Korea’s GDP is at least 30 times larger than theirs.

GDP can be one useful predictor of outcomes in conventional wars; it’s almost useless as a predictor of who wins asymmetric or hybrid wars, which are won by the side whose political endurance is greatest. See, e.g., North Vietnam versus South Vietnam, Rhodesia versus ZANLA, the Soviet Union versus the Afghan mujahedeen, and dozens of wars of “liberation” of the 1960s and 70s. Indeed, the more prosperous societies are, the more they and their business interests have to lose, and the more willing they become to trade political freedom for temporary security. Here’s something else to ponder: who believes it’s sheer coincidence that as South Korea became the world’s most wired society, North Korea built one of the world’s most advanced cyber warfare capabilities?

They know Seoul’s military budget is bigger than the North’s entire GDP. 

Hence the term “asymmetric” warfare. Russia’s economy and population are also smaller than ours, and to the best of my knowledge, Chris Hemsworth isn’t ambushing T-72s along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Rest assured that nothing in my posts hypothesizes that skeletal, vinalon-clad conscripts from Ryanggang-do will soon be guarding shuttered “booking” clubs in Kangnam. My worst-case scenario terrifies me precisely because a street-level view of it would, in its first years, seem banal to anyone who has lived in Korea. There are enough riot police in South Korea to contain almost any protest; it’s just a question of who is giving them what orders. Otherwise, I envision an escalation of what we’ve seen since 2010 — a war of provocations and skirmishes, punctuated by negotiations in which the South makes strategic and political concessions in exchange for Pyongyang’s promises to stop scaring people. Again, two South Korean presidents have already agreed in principle to a coalition government, toward which South Korea’s current President still sees the 2018 Olympics as a first cautious step. I doubt we’ll have to play this argument out for long. If my hypothesis is right, watch for Pyongyang to make more aggressive demands to speed up the implementation of those Joint Statements by this time next year, maybe after the 2018 mid-term elections.

They know that “taking” the South and controlling its diverse political and civil society institutions is impossible. They’re not interested.

Not interested? I don’t know how anyone could seriously argue that North Korea isn’t “interested” in controlling South Korea’s society and institutions. Would Mr. Abrahamian have us believe that in all of his visits to North Korea, he wasn’t harangued about unification and the necessity of all Koreans submitting to the leadership of the all-wise suryong? Has he never read any of the bitter denunciations by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland of disobedient “south Koreans,” or heard of Pyongyang’s many violent threats against its critics in the South? It’s no secret that Pyongyang has been running influence operations in the South for decades. I’ve also tried to catalog the many cases in which its Fifth Columnists in the South — not liberals, but people who support Pyongyang’s ideology — have been exposed in the media.

Having practiced law with the Army in Korea, I don’t agree that all of Korea’s institutions are strong or perceived as such. My interactions with Korean witnesses taught me that they had low confidence in the courts. The broad powers of police and prosecutors, and loose rules of evidence, can lead to dubious judgments. Koreans, especially on the left, justifiably distrust a politicized National Intelligence Service that ought to be distinguishing free speech from nefarious foreign influence.

But didn’t Park Geun-hye’s impeachment prove how strong South Korea’s democratic institutions are? No, it proved that a lot of people who really didn’t like Park Geun-hye could come out onto the streets until the courts gave them what they wanted. The conclusion was already foregone by the time the courts threw out the tablet that started it all: “The tablet PC allegedly contains crucial evidence tying Choi and Park to rampant corruption, but the court accepted argument from Park’s lawyers that its provenance is dubious” — that is, it was “found by a reporter under circumstances that remain unclear.” Choi Soon-sil later said she hadn’t used it since 2012. Of course, she had obvious motives to lie, but I’m glad I live in a society where any accused, no matter how hated she is on the streets, can demand a forensic examination of the evidence against her. Because on the off-hand chance Choi was telling the truth — and not for nothing, our burdens of proof favor the accused — you have to wonder how that evidence found its way onto the tablet and the headlines. You don’t have to like Park to see that the evidence against her would have been laughed out of an American courtroom. You can believe she was probably guilty of something (corruption, mishandling classified information, poor judgment, just plain weirdness) and still see her downfall as exposing vulnerabilities in the NIS, the presidency, the media, the courts, and laws that allow the impeachment of presidents before a full investigation is even done.

They know the South’s population is double theirs and that South Koreans are politically engaged and extremely attached to their hard-earned democracy.

Whoever doubts that any South Korean leader would compromise South Koreans’ political engagement and hard-earned democracy must not recall that in 2014, Park Geun-hye agreed to do exactly that to secure a new round of so-called family “reunions.” Specifically, Park agreed to end the “slander” of North Korea, although as a South Korean researcher pointed out, “the no-slander clause could prove problematic, as the North believes the South Korean media should be bound by it, which of course it isn’t.” But a vigorous free press would never let that pass! Well, just read how gleefully Choe Sang-hun covered it. And sure enough, within weeks, Pyongyang said Park’s criticism of its nuclear program and human rights abuses — and also, the testimony of “human scum” defectors before the U.N. Commission of Inquiry — violated the no-slander deal. As the AFP reported, “The “no-slander” clause was always going to prove problematic, with North Korea insisting it should extend to the South Korean media as well as private groups and individuals.” To me, it was far more problematic that Pyongyang demanded — and at least in its view, briefly got — a veto over what South Korean media and civic groups could say about it. I shouldn’t have to explain why that’s such a dangerous precedent. Yet not only was there no public outrage or media backlash, the few journalists who weren’t fast asleep did a golf clap.

As for South Koreans’ attachment to democracy, most people would probably agree with this statement in the abstract, but Koreans and Americans have very different ideas of what “democracy” means. Depending on how you ask the question, South Koreans’ support for freedom of speech is between ten and twenty percentage points lower than it is in the United States, and this is a society that already tolerates ham-handed government internet censorship, the fear of libel suits (even against journalists or sitting lawmakers) where truth is no defense, politically motivated censorship by both the political left and right, and standards of journalism I’ll charitably call “uneven.” Americans used to believe their own democratic institutions were unassailable until the 2016 election showed their vulnerability to skillful hybrid warfare.

Speaking of hybrid warfare, who else is old enough to remember the North Korean spy ring known as Ilshimhoe, which was run by a former USFK soldier and current “peace” activist named Michael Jang? Reconnaissance General Bureau agents ran the ring — it called itself a “Valentine Club” — from a safe house on the outskirts of Beijing. According to (admittedly, mostly right-leaning) Korean press reports, Ilshimhoe tried to influence the Seoul mayoral election in 2006, fed Pyongyang information about the six-party talks, and might have planted spies in the Blue House and various government offices. I know, you say — just gossip. Except that Jang and several others were brought to trial, convicted, and sentenced to prison terms. Well, then — it must be another case of McCarthyist persecution! Except that the convictions occurred on Roh Moo-hyun’s watch, after the head of the NIS hinted that he’d come under political pressure to stop digging and resigned. Shortly thereafter, the investigation did stop, the cases were quickly brought to trial, and I doubt that more than two or three of you knew that this had even happened.

Phase 2: A War of Skirmishes Against Seoul’s Defenses

Throughout the war of skirmishes Pyongyang has waged since at least 2010, it has made (and sometimes won) significant political, strategic, and financial demands from Seoul. Most notable was the alleged and abortive surrender of South Korea’s de facto maritime boundary, the Northern Limit Line or NLL. Seoul unilaterally imposed the NLL after the Korean War Armistice, because the warring parties couldn’t agree on a maritime extension of the DMZ. 

In 2007, in a last grasp at expanding on the 2000 Joint Statement, Roh Moo-hyun allegedly ceded the NLL, which protects some of South Korea’s most vital air and sea lanes (and some rich fishing waters) to a jointly controlled “peace zone.” I say “alleged” because Cho Myoung-gun, the Roh aide who is now Moon Jae-in’s Unification Minister, destroyed the text before Roh’s political opponents could take office and read it. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service leaked a transcript in 2013, and yes, the timing of that is curious. Disputes over the authenticity of the transcript are harder to credit. Just as in our legal system, when someone destroys evidence, it’s reasonable to assume he did it to hide something. In the end, polls said Koreans didn’t know what to believe, meaning South Korea entered the post-truth world at least four years before we did. (On that point, it’s worth listening to this discussion between Sam Harris and Anne Applebaum to understand that some disinformation strategies are designed to do nothing more than confuse people so much that they disengage. And if so, mission accomplished.)

Had Pyongyang secured this “peace zone,” the threat of its closure over, say, disputes about the apportionment of fishing rights or rights of innocent passage might have been enough to throw South Korea into a recession, crash its stock market, or spur capital flight — all without instigating a major war. The residents of the Yellow Sea Islands, like Baekryeong-do and Yeonpyeong-do, would have been hopelessly isolated and easy prey for abduction at sea. The result of the 2007 election prevented Seoul from carrying out the terms of this agreement (whatever it was) but in 2009, Pyongyang secretly approached South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and demanded a summit — the price for which would be $500 million in rice and fertilizer, and possibly some cash. In January 2010, after Lee refused to pay up, Pyongyang threatened to launch a “holy retaliatory war.” Two months later, North Korea sank the Cheonan. Eight months after that, it attacked Yeonpyeong-do, in the middle of the putative “peace zone.”

Similarly, in early 2015, Pyongyang proposed that Park Geun-hye and Kim Jong-un “meet each other and discuss ways toward peaceful reunification,” following Kim Jong-un’s speech calling for “fresh headway in the national reunification movement for this year.” We probably don’t know Pyongyang’s complete list of demands, but one was “freeze-for-freeze,” an idea calculated to degrade the readiness of U.S. and South Korean forces. No summit occurred. Then, in August, North Korean soldiers planted mines that blew the legs off two South Korean noncommissioned officers. Almost immediately, conspiracy theories blaming the U.S. for the incident sprang up all over the internet, probably as part of a disinformation strategy I like to call “implausible deniability.” For a few weeks, the world was wracked by war fears until Park Geun-hye “de-escalated” them through talks that yielded an agreement that gained the North valuable concessions on paper (though we can be thankful that these amounted to almost nothing in practice). You should expect to see more like this in the coming years, unless sanctions work quickly enough to force Pyongyang into another charm offensive.

If influencing what South Koreans think is a political prerequisite to Pyongyang’s strategic gains, then getting the U.S. out of Korea is the strategic gain most necessary for hegemony over the South. Eventually, Abrahamian gets around to admitting that might be on Pyongyang’s agenda.

What North Korea might want at this point is to decouple the alliance between South Korea and the United States, hoping that Washington over-reacts to Pyongyang’s new capabilities. This over-reaction might take the form of acting too aggressive and causing Seoul to question – perhaps even take steps to terminate – the alliance. It might be by provoking some kind of military action that turns Northeast Asian public opinion against Washington and leaves America isolated in the region.

And this:

It might be getting a favorable peace deal that removes U.S. forces from Korea.

I’m not here to defend Donald Trump’s bombast, and I’m glad we’ve heard less of it lately. I’ve criticized it for scaring our friends more than it scares our enemies, and I’ve argued that it will alienate people inside North Korea we should be appealing to. Trump’s speech in Seoul may have done him some good, but most Koreans probably still don’t like him. For the time being, and in spite of their personal feelings for Trump, they still like their country’s alliance with the U.S.

[N]uclear weapons are primarily about deterrence, not forcing one’s will on others…. Yet H.R. McMaster, President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, has led the charge to claim otherwise. Multiple times in the last several months he has made comments such as, “classical deterrence theory, how does that apply to a regime like the regime in North Korea?” 

Just like we deterred the attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyong-do, the Sony cyberattacks, the 2015 landmine incident, the Kim Jong-nam VX murder, nuclear and chemical proliferation to Syria, multiple threats against journalists, and half a dozen international assassination plots? What price did Kim Jong-un pay for any of those crimes?

Kim Jong Un is a rational actor, however. He may make imperfect decisions, but he wants to enjoy life and grow old.

Roll your mental odometer back to early 2010 and ask yourself two things. First, could you have imagined that North Korea would, with premeditation and malice aforethought, sink a South Korean warship and kill dozens of young sailors? Second, could you have imagined that North Korea would get away with that, with no form of retaliation, accountability, or even a serious U.S. effort to enforce sanctions? (You can ask yourself the same questions about the Yeonpyeong-do attack or the Sony cyberattack.) After the Cheonan attack, conspiracy theories circulated that sowed widespread doubt among South Koreans about Pyongyang’s responsibility. In the National Assembly election that followed weeks after the attack, the left-wing opposition actually won more seats, although it’s by no means clear that those conspiracy theories, North Korea policy, or the attack were major election issues (which is still disturbing). After the shelling of Yeonpyeong-do, the mayor of Incheon even suggested that by holding military exercises near the Northern Limit Line, the South sort-of had it coming. A rational actor analyzing those reactions would not only feel perfectly free to engage in further provocations at that level, but also to escalate them now that his nuclear arsenal deters us. Kim Jong-un has made some imperfect decisions (his eating habits, most obviously) but these attacks were, in retrospect, perfectly sound and rational calculations of his risks and rewards.

He wants his state to survive and to negotiate that survival with its southern competitor-state. And the United States has effectively deterred far more potent nuclear-armed enemies for decades.

The converse is also true: Pyongyang has deterred the U.S. for decades. One might even pause to ask why it needs a nuclear ICBM when its artillery was already enough to hold Seoul hostage. How does decoupling the alliance make any sense except as a prerequisite to a coerced negotiation for full implementation of the joint statements on Pyongyang’s terms? And how would that negotiation go with Moon Jae-in? If past history is any guide, a lot like the 2007 Joint Statement or Moon’s negotiation with China over THAAD — with no one really knowing exactly what Seoul gave away, but being fairly certain that it gave away too much. Suspicions about Moon have run high in Washington since he cut a deal with Xi Jinping not to deploy any more THAAD batteries. This should have been an alliance decision. It’s a significant gain for China, which also wants to decouple the U.S.-Korea alliance. Given who Moon Jae-in’s closest advisors are, Pyongyang has every reason to believe that it could get other significant gains from Moon at America’s expense. I can’t seem to harangue any journalists into reporting Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok’s past leadership of a radical pro-North Korean student group that tried to firebomb the U.S. embassy in Seoul, so I suppose it’s just as pointless to say that Moon has just appointed another ex-member of this same group to his cabinet.

[T]he idea that North Korea wants to reunify the peninsula by force is based largely on their propaganda. Indeed, their newspapers and educational materials do pine for unification. North Korean slogans do claim that “final victory” is nigh and that they must achieve “unification for future generations”. But North Korea’s propagandists claim a lot of things.

Mr. Abrahamian has certainly believed plenty of things Pyongyang has said, and I’ve believed a few myself, but they aren’t the same things. The difference is that the things I believe are better corroborated by Pyongyang’s behavior than the things he believes. I’ve already explained why Pyongyang’s war of skirmishes only makes logical sense as part of a malign strategy, and no logical sense as part of a strategy to gain aid, engagement, improved relations, diplomatic recognition, and the mere preservation of the status quo. That’s why I need better evidence than the insistence of someone who believed in Pyongyang’s siren song of glasnost and perestroika for so long to disregard the best evidence of its intentions — its words, with the essential corroboration of its behavior, and the testimony of at least one high-level defector.

Phase 3: One Country, Two Systems

South Koreans who supported the 2000 Joint Statement so enthusiastically must have understood that coalition would eventually require some compromises on their part, too. Even South Koreans who dislike politics and prefer not to think about North Korea at all (most of them, based on my anecdotal observations) must know that nothing matters more to Pyongyang than the enforcement of its personality cult. Surely they, or former members of Kim Dae-jung’s cabinet like Moon Chung-in, must have understood that such a compromise would necessarily involve ceding some autonomy to a coalition that would expect them to accept a less democratic government and some restrictions on criticism of North Korea — for the sake of peace, naturally.

I know it may all seem nutty to you and me, but it doesn’t seem nutty to Hankyoreh readers. A typical example: “As soon as possible, we have to build an economic community, ‘North-South confederation,’ in which the South and North’s economy, culture, and art are united.”

Six months into his presidency, Moon Jae-in’s awareness of his political constraints has limited his outreach to Pyongyang. This has clearly frustrated an impatient Kim Jong-un. Of course, some caution would be necessary on the part of any South Korean leader trying to implement or build on the joint statements. Of course, most South Koreans are warier of Pyongyang than they were ten years ago. Of course, Moon remembers how the revelations about the “peace zone” came back to embarrass those who had served in Roh’s cabinet. Of course, he remembers how his proposal as Roh’s Chief of Staff to solicit Pyongyang’s view before abstaining from a resolution condemning the North at the U.N. for crimes against humanity was a speed bump on his path to victory over a hapless, divided gaggle of opponents. Like any good politician, he wants to protect his public support and build a legislative majority. Without those things, he can’t do much of anything.

One sign to watch for would be if Pyongyang will again demand that a select-but-growing number of South Koreans — initially members of left-leaning unions, and maybe eventually, schoolchildren — visit the North to pay tribute to Kim Il-sung. It has already demanded that Seoul stop accepting North Korean refugees. If you’ve been paying attention, Pyongyang and the hard left have emphasized this as if Kim Jong-un’s survival depends on it. Of course, Moon Jae-in can’t go along with that openly, but if Roh Moo-hyun could find ways to do it quietly, so can Moon. Under Roh, South Korean consulates hung up on defectors who called. There have been periodic leaks of defectors’ personal information, which could make them easy prey for North Korean agents to coerce them into “re-defecting.” Is it any wonder why so many North Koreans have moved on to more welcoming countries?

As for Pyongyang’s final goal, you don’t have to take my word for that. Read it for yourself as a North Korean official explained it here, or at the end of this post, or as summarized here. Or, read this April harangue on the “three principles of unification,” with its particular emphasis on the importance of achieving national unity by silencing Pyongyang’s critics. As you read it, ask yourself if these are the words of people who don’t really mean what they say. Simply stated, Pyongyang wants to impose censorship to “eradicat[e] the distrust and antagonism between” North and South, remove U.S. forces, and get on with forming a confederation under its domination. The fact that I’m having this argument with well-informed people even now only raises my estimate of the plan’s chances of success, by reaffirming how continuity bias and wishful thinking can still blind intelligent people to what’s right in front of them.

This hypothesis explains a lot of Pyongyang’s conduct that other, more accepted theories don’t. From Pyongyang’s perspective, the plan is rational and plausible. If Pyongyang has identified the same cultural, political, institutional, and personal vulnerabilities I see in South Korea — particularly if viewed through the messianic groupthink that’s expected of the people who advise Kim Jong-un — it may have a plausible hope of success. Again, the provocations since 2010 don’t make sense if Pyongyang’s goal is what most academics have long misjudged it to be — opening, reform, and improved relations with the outside world. All of that conduct must seem mysterious and inexplicable to believers in a Pyongyang Spring that never came; it makes perfect sense to those who believe Pyongyang’s strategy is to use threats of tension and war, and the lure of improved “inter-Korean relations,” to silence its critics, manipulate opinions and elections, extract strategic concessions that would make South Korea economically and militarily vulnerable, and draw South Korea into a one-country/two-systems coalition that gives it all the benefits it wants (money, hegemony, prestige, the removal of a political rival) and none of the risks and costs it doesn’t (a major war, occupation, cultural pollution).

The Power of Wishful Thinking

Finally, let’s touch on the question of predictive judgment. In the footer bio of his article, Abrahamian describes himself as “a visiting fellow at the Jeju Peace Research Institute [who] used to help run a nonprofit that frequently took him to North Korea.” Presumably, this refers to Choson Exchange, whose website still lists him as an “Associate Director of Research,” and which for years ferried batches of North Koreans to Singapore to teach them economics, business, and law to stimulate their inevitable progression toward true capitalism, reform, and openness. Plainly, things haven’t worked out that way.

In 2011, a year after the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks, Abrahamian co-wrote of the special economic zone at Rason, “While it may be too early to say whether the region will succeed in drawing investment and reform, our recent trips to Rason lead us to believe that developments on the ground may eventually warrant a shift in foreign policy by governments around the globe.” Got that, governments around the globe? In 2013, a still-hopeful Abrahamian told a reporter for The Guardian that while the North Koreans were “avoiding saying reform or opening [up], … that’s what it amounts to – a crack at any rate.” In February of 2015, he still spoke of “palpable energy and excitement” among North Korean officials about special economic zones. This is more modest than “I have seen the future and it works,” but it’s still at great variance with the evidence of the regime’s resistance to openness, which was already clear enough to see from outer space.

In December of that year, Anna Fifield of The Washington Post, who is by turns the most wonderful and the most exasperating reporter writing about North Korea today, wrote a sympathetic story on Choson Exchange — not one critical view was included — headlined, “North Korea wants to open up its economy, and a small program in free-market Singapore shows how.” The evidence for the falsity of the first clause of this headline is far too voluminous for one link, but if you know what a darling Choson Exchange has long been to journalists and professional scholars, you might not even bother sweeping against this tide.

I can’t have been the only one who wondered how the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the Ministry of State Security, or Bureau 39 would let any North Korean not on their own payrolls go abroad to interact with foreigners. Could there be any exceptions? Yes, there was one “Mr. Kim, head of the technology and trade research department at the State Academy of Sciences,” which page 260 of this Library of Congress study (unlike the Post) informs us was the organization responsible for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Eventually, it’s admitted that “the presentations all revolved around state-related businesses,” presumably including the man peddling “a big, flashy ring that … channels sunshine and purifies the blood, stripping out the lipids that cause high cholesterol.” On second thought, maybe this isn’t such a sympathetic a story at all.

Another question I may be the only one asking — if this is North Korean capitalism, what is this improving on again? But then, I’ve never bought into the theory that capitalism inevitably leads to political reform or peace. The members of the Board of Directors of I.G. Farben received war crimes convictions, not Nobel Prizes. The Marxists have even granted North Korea a special exemption from Old Major’s dogma that capitalism inevitably drives nations to war. I’ve never accepted that North Korea is strictly socialist at all, rather than just economically totalitarian (just as it’s totalitarian in every other sense). To Fifield and Abrahamian’s credit, one eventually reads some mumbled concessions that Pyongyang still had “little to show for” its much-vaunted special economic zones, and that it faced “serious financial and reputational challenges” in attracting investors.

My point here is that the character and history of the regime ought to have made the failure of the engagement hypothesis predictable, and to some of us, it did. Being right then doesn’t necessarily make me right now, but it means I have a model of North Korea’s incentives and behavior with a stronger (and sometimes, eerily strong) predictive record going for it. I certainly wouldn’t take Mr. Abrahamian’s word over what the law would call admissions by a party to the case. The second point of which is that some journalists have an inexhaustible appetite for irrational optimism about North Korea. The opposite seems to be true of getting them to face up to the most rational pessimism.

~   ~   ~

Again, I’m not arguing that Pyongyang’s plan will necessarily work. Maybe the current hesitation of the South Korean public and the toughness of the Trump administration will hold (strong sanctions enforcement has solid bipartisan support, for now). Maybe the real Moon Jae-in isn’t as extreme as everyone he’s surrounded himself with for the whole duration of his political life, or as naive as he often seems to be. A bad election result could cost him or Trump the political support they’d need to advance their policies. The greatest wild card may be that, whatever South Korea’s problems of political cohesion, the North is showing signs of a much worse one among the rural poor, and within some unknown segments of the elites. This might open the way for a genuinely productive implementation of the joint statements, unification, and a lasting peace; or, it might incentivize Kim Jong-un to act even more rashly to implement them his way while he still can. His strategy will take time that he might not have if his money runs out first, or if his Crocodiles or the people suddenly turn on him.

The answer to all of this isn’t war; it’s helping Koreans to see the truth and distinguish it from lies. As I’ve argued before, we are where the last three presidents left us; all we can do now is pursue the strategy that carries the lowest risk of catastrophe. That strategy begins with a clear-eyed understanding of Pyongyang’s strategy, taking it seriously, and devising a strategy to disrupt it. It means preparing the Korean and American people for what may come — mentally, economically, and materially. And as Abrahamian says, yes, we’ll need to solidify the alliance. Trump needs to stop tweeting and making threats, and Moon needs to stop going behind our backs and act like an ally. I’m pessimistic about our capacity to deter more attacks even if we identify new means of deterrence, including the expansion of economic warfare and subversive information operations that scare Kim Jong-un without risking a catastrophic miscalculation that a “limited” counterstrike might. In the medium term, we may develop and deploy better defenses against missiles and artillery, which means we need to buy time, too.

It also means South Korea needs to strengthen its institutions. It needs multi-party reforms to de-politicize the NIS into two professional organizations that can earn the public’s trust — one for foreign intelligence and one for domestic counterintelligence (it bears emphasis that a reform process must not be used to halt embarrassing investigations or to pack the NIS with any party’s loyalists). It means reforming Korea’s libel laws by making truth a defense. It means protecting journalists who criticize politicians, investigate government malfeasance, and help the public separate truth from smears and conspiracy theories. It means enforcing government records laws with strong legal penalties for destroying evidence or obstructing justice. It means reforming the National Security Law to stop prosecuting those who engage in nonviolent speech and instead focus on the aggressive-but-fair pursuit of incitements to violence and foreign influence, particularly among government officials and teachers. It means strengthening rules of evidence and empowering defense lawyers to challenge the evidence against their clients zealously. And like governments everywhere, Korea must be prepared to relax its obsessive secrecy when the public needs to know the truth to make sound decisions about matters of public interest. Like many societies, including ours, Korea needs to mature in how it adjudicates information and passes judgment. If it can’t, the next few years may end the greatest economic and cultural bloom in its long history.

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Korean War II: What the Joint Statements tell us about Pyongyang’s strategy

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

George Orwell

On June 15, 2000, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il signed a joint statement agreeing to seek “independent” reunification and an inter-Korean coalition government. It was not the first joint statement between North and South. This relatively modest one from 1972 calls for “both parties [to] promote national unity as a united people over any differences of our ideological and political systems.” In retrospect, this was a rhetorical victory for Pyongyang. So was the statement that “reunification must be achieved with no reliance on external forces or interference,” although this seemed, at the time, to have been palliated by a subsequent statement that “reunification must be achieved peacefully without the use of military forces.”

The 2000 Joint Statement went much further. That agreement, celebrated by the Nobel Committee, widely hailed by the far left in both South Korea and the United States, purchased with an illegal payment of $500 million, and almost constantly flogged in North Korean propaganda to this day, consists of five points. They’re worth reviewing in full for what they suggest about Pyongyang’s intentions, its objectives, and its strategy for achieving them. Don’t waste your time reading these as a member of the Nobel Committee might have. Instead, read them as a North Korean negotiator would have drafted or edited them in 2000, or through the jaundiced eyes of someone in the United Front Department today. Paranoid people have enemies, too, after all.

1. The South and the North have agreed to resolve the question of reunification independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people, who are the masters of the country.

If you’ve read B.R. Myers’s book, “North Korea’s Juche Myth,” you’ve no doubt latched onto the phrase, “the Korean people … are masters of the country.” This is a far better definition of juche than the “self-reliance” one tends to see from Voxplainers and Buzzfeeders who recall the existence of North Korea once every nuclear test. The phrase “independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people” isn’t far off from “among our race only,” which in Korean translates to uri minjokkiri. Regular Korea watchers will recognize this as the name of one of North Korea’s main propaganda websites (if you will forgive the redundancy) for ethnic Koreans in the South and elsewhere. It’s not unlike some of the rhetoric we’ve also heard Moon Jae-in utter in some of his less guarded moments. Nationalism runs deep in both Koreas.

2. For the achievement of reunification, we have agreed that there is a common element in the South’s concept of a confederation and the North’s formula for a loose form of federation. The South and the North agreed to promote reunification in that direction.

Note the sly reference to “the South’s concept,” as if this idea really originated in Seoul rather than Pyongyang. This is the single most important concession the North won in 2000 and, to me, the Rosetta Stone of Pyongyang’s strategy. Whoever dominates this confederation will dominate Korea. In 2000, this might not have seemed like such a terrible prospect to Kim Dae-jung, who had so recently survived several attempts by right-wing dictator Park Chung-hee to kill him, and who had benefited from the support of pro-Pyongyang Koreans in Japan. Clearly, Kim’s view of North Korea was not an entirely hostile one. But if Roh Moo-hyun’s view was arguably even friendlier to Pyongyang, Roh could still only take things as far as the politics of the day allowed. Pyongyang had to set the pursuit of confederation aside during the presidencies of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. Meanwhile, it took full advantage of Barack Obama’s almost complete lack of a North Korea policy to develop a nuclear arsenal at mallima speed.

3. The South and the North have agreed to promptly resolve humanitarian issues such as exchange visits by separated family members and relatives on the occasion of the August 15 National Liberation Day and the question of unswerving Communists serving prison sentences in the South.

Note the omission of South Korean prisoners of war still held in the North in clear violation of the Armistice agreement. Note the complete betrayal of the (then, perhaps) hundreds of thousands of North Korean political prisoners — including children — suffering and dying in places like Camp 22. The sole focus was on setting free the North’s fifth columnists in the South. This implicitly restrained the South’s will to arrest others who were exposed, some of whom tried to manipulate the Seoul mayoral election and may have penetrated the Blue House itself. To Pyongyang, allowing a few brief, carefully monitored meetings between South Korean abductees and their family members was a small price to pay for this gain.

4. The South and the North have agreed to consolidate mutual trust by promoting balanced development of the national economy through economic cooperation and by stimulating cooperation and exchanges in civic, cultural, sports, health, environmental and all other fields.

“Balanced development” sounds like a formula for using South-to-North subsidies to level out the widening economic gap that had become a threat to Kim Jong-il’s domestic legitimacy. It explains how Pyongyang viewed nukes as a means to achieve economic prosperity as well as national hegemony (which is just what its propagandists told the North Korean people after the Great Famine).

As for cooperation in “the history, language, education, technology, culture, sports, and social sectors,” this would mean a politicized rewriting of history, introducing North Korean agitprop into classrooms and school textbooks (as the hard left Korean Teachers’ and Educational Workers’ Union has been repeatedly caught doing), and using sporting events to whip up nationalist and pro-confederation sentiments among South Koreans. If you say it can’t be done, you weren’t living in South Korea after the 2000 summit, watching this sentiment catch fire. That same sentiment still survives.

5. The South and the North have agreed to hold a dialogue between relevant authorities in the near future to implement the above agreements expeditiously.

Roh Moon-hyun’s 2007 sequel to the 2000 Joint Declaration reaffirmed the 2000 Joint Declaration and built on Pyongyang’s gains in new ways. Unfortunately, Roh Moo-hyun’s aides destroyed the transcript, so we can only approximate the actual terms, some of which are still a matter of controversy in South Korea today. We’ll turn to that controversy later in this post. In the interests of brevity, I’ll mention the more significant ones.

2. South and North Korea are to work for mutual respect and trust in order to overcome differences in ideology, system.

Pyongyang would surely interpret this as a call to avoid criticizing the North’s crimes against humanity. In retrospect, it clearly led up to Park Geun-hye’s 2014 agreement to refrain from “slander” of the North’s system. Park was no friend of free speech herself, and freedom of speech is not an ideal with a broad or deep constituency in South Korea, where governments on both the left and the right routinely censor their critics. Indeed, I often doubt the depth of that constituency here, such as among the academics and policy-makers who hardly raised a peep about the cyberterror threats that shut down “The Interview.” For all his prescient warnings about the dangers of tolerating censorship from abroad, Barack Obama did nothing about it. Again, Pyongyang’s own words are the best evidence of its intent.

Pyongyang holds the very idea of free speech in contempt. Not only has it used threats of violence to censor it in South Korea, but it has done so in Europe, in Southeast Asia, and here, in the United States.

3. South and North Korea are to ease military tensions, hold defense ministerial talks in November in Pyongyang to discuss ways of supporting inter-Korean economic cooperation and easing tension.

The agreement to “ease military tensions” might have won Pyongyang an end to military exercises that keep the South reader to deter a North Korean attack, but the elections of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye forced Pyongyang to defer that demand. Now, with the election of Moon Jae-in, the Chinese, left-of-center academics, and presidential advisor Moon Chung-in are trying to give this one to Pyongyang as a “freeze-for-freeze.” Pyongyang has balked at freezing its WMD programs, so Moon’s government is now seizing on the Olympics as an excuse to give Pyongyang a unilateral freeze next year.

The reference to “inter-Korean economic cooperation” probably refers to South-to-North subsidies like Kaesong and Kumgang. Remember the context: this agreement came as not long after U.S. actions against Banco Delta Asia had forced Kim Jong-il to sign the February 2007 Agreed Framework II, and almost exactly a year after the U.N.’s first Chapter VII sanctions resolution against North Korea, UNSCR 1718. Clearly, Pyongyang was thinking in terms of using South Korea to undermine sanctions intended to disarm it.

4. The two sides agree on the need to end the current armistice and establish permanent peace.

If Pyongyang sees confederation as its mechanism for ruling the South, it sees “peace” talks — the long-standing objective of its simpaticos here in the United States — as its vehicle for bullying the South into unilateral disarmament and confederation. To get to “peace,” it will first demand an end to the “hostile policy,” which means an end to sanctions, the withdrawal of U.S. forces starting with missile defenses, and an end to criticism of the North, particularly over its crimes against humanity. You can read it all right here, in Pyongyang’s own words. Scroll down.

5. The two sides are to create a special peace zone around Haeju in North Korea and nearby areas.

This brings us to why we have no transcript of the 2007 summit. Roh’s concession of South Korea’s maritime boundary — really, the maritime extension of the DMZ — at the end of his presidency and shortly before a presidential election would prove more controversial than Roh had guessed. Roh’s aides made sure to destroy the transcript before his more conservative successor, Lee Myung-bak, took office and started up the government computers where it had been saved.

Oh, and here’s some trivia for you. One of the aides who prepared and destroyed that transcript was Cho Myoung-gyun, who is now Moon Jae-in’s Unification Minister. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal‘s Jonathan Cheng, Cho seemed to credit a hypothesis for Pyongyang’s intentions similar to the one I’ve advanced; he also said this will “never happen.” Cho was indicted for destroying the transcript in 2013, but a court acquitted him on the ground that what he deleted was only a draft and therefore not really a presidential document at all (good luck telling a federal judge that in a Freedom of Information Act case here). Another difference between the U.S. and South Korean systems? Double jeopardy! There, prosecutors can appeal acquittals. Cho’s case is still pending in South Korea’s highest court.

One need only look at the map to see why this would have been such a dangerous concession. Depending on its breadth, this “peace zone” could have ceded South Korea’s control over the airspace through which many of the flights to Incheon Airport must pass, and over the sea lane that serves the port of Incheon and protects the Yellow Sea islands. This is Seoul’s economic jugular. By cutting it, Pyongyang could blackmail Seoul with the threat of a partial blockade, leading to panic, capital flight, and recession. That happens to fit perfectly with what Thae Yong-ho posited in his congressional testimony last month.

7. South and North Korea are to actively push for humanitarian cooperation and expansion of the reunions of separated families.

Naturally, this aid would be “humanitarian” in the same sense that North Korean workers at Kaesong were paidwages.” It would mean a resumption and expansion of South Korean subsidies to the North to enrich the Pyongyang elites at the expense of South Korean taxpayers. Above all, it would turn any U.S. requests that other cut trade relations with Pyongyang into a punchline, thereby undermining our last chance to disarm Pyongyang peacefully — and thus, making war almost inevitable.

In the abstract, the idea of inter-Korean peace and cooperation sounds great to us and even greater to South Koreans. But a close reading the terms of the statements, and a retrospective understanding of how left-leaning governments have tried to implement them, lends itself to more paranoid interpretations. The agreements weren’t fully implemented, but that’s not because Roh, in particular, didn’t try. With Pyongyang near nuclear breakout, I expect that we’ll soon see Pyongyang press its demands for Moon Jae-in (who gives the impression of being an easy mark) to implement past joint statements, and perhaps to sign an even more ambitious one. 

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S. Korean Unification Minister: Hey, maybe Kim Jong-un would use his nukes to reunify Korea under his rule

Atypically, the most unserious person in a left-wing Korean administration turns out not to be its Unification Minister. In an interview with Jonathan Cheng, the Wall Street Journal’s Seoul Bureau Chief, Cho Myoung-gyon concedes that Pyongyang may indeed have grander ambitions than defending itself against the Yankee hordes:

Mr. Cho also said that he was alarmed by increasing signals that North Korea sees its nuclear arsenal as a way to achieve its decades-old dream of unifying the Korean Peninsula under Pyongyang’s leadership. “Now that they are at the completion phase, they are coming up with new rhetoric that they haven’t been emphasizing for a long time, like unifying the peninsula under a socialist regime,” he said. Mr. Cho dismissed those aims as absurd. “I can say strongly and clearly that the unification that North Korea wants will never happen,” he said.

There is a rising debate in policy circles in Washington and Seoul about Pyongyang’s ultimate aims as it hones the ability to threaten the U.S. with a miniaturized nuclear device mounted onto a long-range missile. Some scholars and policy analysts fear that the North will use its nuclear arsenal to threaten South Korea and the U.S. into making concessions that it has long sought, such as ending annual joint U.S.-South Korean military drills and removing U.S. troops from South Korea.

That in turn could be a prelude to a war with South Korea, said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank, who argues that the primary goal of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program is to reunify the peninsula under Kim Jong Un. “A North Korea with nukes will become more aggressive towards a South without nukes,” Mr. Cheong said. Pyongyang’s threats to target Washington with nuclear weapons could deter the U.S. from engaging in any conflict on the peninsula, he said. [WSJ]

But don’t worry, he says. It will never happen.

If you won’t take it from me or from Professor Myers, then take it from Thae Yong-ho. The first implication of this is that even a “small” nuclear arsenal in North Korea represents an unacceptable threat of nuclear blackmail, to say nothing of proliferation. The second implication is that simply accepting North Korea as a nuclear state — as The Blob whose advice got us to this point now counsels us to do — isn’t the end of this crisis, it’s the beginning of a far more grave one.

We cannot live with a nuclear North Korea because it will not live with us.

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A top defector risked his life to tell us of Pyongyang’s plans & vulnerabilities. The media put its own words in his mouth.

Before I get to what Thae Yong-ho did not say at CSIS on Tuesday, and when he testified the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday, let’s start with what he did say. By now, you probably know that Thae was North Korea’s Deputy Ambassador to the U.K. before he defected in August 2016. This week, Thae made his first visit to the U.S. I could not have been more impressed or moved by his words. Do yourself a favor and bookmark this post. Then, go back this weekend and watch both events. Do this not only because Thae’s ideas are an essential, articulately formed North Korean perspective about the greatest national security crisis of our time from a man who obviously cares deeply about his nation and its people, or because he risked his life and the lives of his wife and children to deliver that perspective. Do it so that you can also see how badly the media distorted Thae’s remarks when it “reported” on them. Here is video of Thae’s remarks at CSIS:

And here is Thae’s written testimony, and video of his live testimony, at the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

In all the years I’ve been going to hearings of this Committee, I’ve never seen members or staff more interested or engaged than they were when Thae testified yesterday. It was literally standing room only for staff. Fresh-faced twenty-somethings and wizened Hill veterans alike filled the flanks of the hearing room, hanging on every word. Although I can’t do justice to Thae’s complete remarks in this post, I’ll attempt to summarize his main points from both events, in the approximate order of the length and priority Thae himself gave them.

– Thae spent most of his time calling for a much greater emphasis on information operations and subversion inside North Korea, contrasting the potential value and low cost of such operations against the high cost of our military forces in South Korea (or, God forbid, a war). He called for different information strategies for the Pyongyang elites and the poor everywhere else. He called for satellite TV broadcasts into North Korea and for smuggling in small SD cards (which the kids in Pyongyang call “nose cards” because they hide them inside their noses — yeah, ick).

– Thae said that broadcasts to North Korea should dispense with blunt polemics and epithets (of the kind that in my view, and apparently Thae’s, the South Korean right lazily resorts to). Instead, he called for informing North Koreans of the natural rights they ought to possess: to a living wage, and not to have their pretty daughters taken away to Pyongyang to work at elite-only hospitals or dance troupes, or to be used as modern-day palace courtesans.

– Thae’s most subversive statements questioned the family legitimacy of Kim Jong-un, noting that Kim Il-sung never accepted Kim Jong-un’s mother — whom Kim Jong-il expropriated from her husband — into the royal family. He pointed out that Kim Jong-un has never produced a photograph of himself with Kim Il-sung for this reason, and that few North Koreans even knew that Kim Jong-un had an older brother before Kim murdered him. Kim Jong-un’s parentage is now deemed so sensitive inside North Korea that before he took power, Kim Jong-un released a short film on his family history to a small group, which Kim’s advisors later urged him not to release. Everyone who saw it was later purged. Thae believes that to broadcast this film, which was recently still on YouTube, to North Korea would cause North Koreans to question Kim Jong-un’s claim to be the rightful heir to Kim Il-sung. (I don’t have time to get you a link at the moment; see Thae’s CSIS remarks.)

– Kim Jong-un was not properly prepared for his own succession. Not only was he not prominent in the royal court before 2009, he was hidden from view. In January 2009, none of the North Korean diplomats even knew who Kim Jong-un was. Then, one day, they were all told to start singing the song “Footsteps.” The fact that the botched currency “reform” came later that year causes Thae to infer that Kim Jong-un pushed for or supported it. Thae also thinks the failure of this initiative convinced Kim Jong-un to resist broader economic reforms, while avoiding large-scale crackdowns on the markets. Only later were the diplomats even told the name of their new master, and they still don’t know the year of his birth (by contrast, the year of Kim Il-sung’s birth is the year zero in the Juche calendar). Kim Jong-un was and is obsessively insecure about the degree of respect he commands among the hard-faced generals who surround him, which is why he occasionally shoots one for dozing off during a speech.

– Thae nearly brought himself — and me — to tears when, near the end of his remarks at CSIS, he spoke of his own decision to defect. Thae and his family were nearing the end of their time in London, and his high-school-age sons contemplated a life without Facebook or the internet. Intense discussions followed: Why can’t we have the internet in North Korea? Because if people knew the things you knew, they’d ask questions. Thae must have believed that this knowledge would endanger them all, and worse, that his sons would never forgive him for throwing away the chance to live freely.

I believed the best legacy I could leave for my sons was to give them the freedom that is so common to everyone in America. Had we not defected, I feared that someday my sons would have cursed me for forcing them back to North Korea. They were used to online gaming, Facebook messaging, email and internet news. I believed my sons would suffer a lot if they returned to the North Korean system. Indeed, how could any boys raised in the London education system and familiar with freedom of thought ever go back and re-acclimatize to life in North Korea? I could not confiscate freedom and enjoyment of liberty from them. I could not take back the happy smiles of my sons by bringing them back to North Korea. I could not force my sons to pretend to be loyal to Kim Jong Un and the North Korean system and to shout ‘long live the supreme leader Kim Jong Un!,’ ‘long live the socialist paradise of the DPRK’ – like I did all my life. [Testimony of Thae Yong-ho, House Foreign Affairs Committee, Nov. 1, 2017]

– North Korea’s military has standing orders to retaliate if they see evidence of “fire and fury” from a U.S. or South Korean strike. It’s unlikely that a first strike could stay “limited,” and likely that it would instead cause massive loss of life.

– Thae refuted the conventional wisdom that Kim Jong-un only wants nukes for self-defense, and broadly confirmed my theory that Kim Jong-un plans to leverage his nuclear arsenal to gradually, then suddenly, subjugate South Korea by forcing Seoul to weaken its defenses and negotiate U.S. forces out. About halfway into the hearing, Congressman William Keating (D, MA) asked Thae a question about stabilizing post-collapse North Korea. Thae apparently misunderstood Keating’s question and started talking about North Korea’s plans to “stabilize” the South. Keating tried to get Thae back on his question, but Chairman Royce stopped Keating because he — like me — was even more interested in what Thae was saying about Pyongyang’s intentions. Watch the whole exchange at 1:32.

– Specifically, Thae said that Pyongyang’s plan was inspired by the fall of South Vietnam and the recession that played a significant part in denying Saigon the capacity to fuel, arm, and maintain its big-on-paper army. Pyongyang views the withdrawal of U.S. forces and consequent capital flight as the cause of that recession. In fact, the recession was a global one. Several factors converged on South Vietnam, including the oil shock, the loss of U.S. development and military aid, and the fact that fewer American paychecks were being spent on Tu Do Street. But the general model isn’t far off from what I’ve been ranting about for the last several years, but for some variations. For example, I expect the silencing of men like Thae to be one of Pyongyang’s first objectives, and I’d imagined that Pyongyang would try to throw the South Korean economy into crisis with limited artillery attacks in areas with inflated real estate prices, or by turning the economically vital air and sea lanes near Incheon into conflict zones. Thae’s chronology of the fall of South Vietnam is a bit off, too: the U.S. had largely “Vietnamized” the war and drawn down its forces by 1972. The Paris Accords followed in 1973. By then, South Vietnam was experiencing a major recession. But as I sat behind Thae listening to him, I finally understood the “then suddenly” part of Pyongyang’s plan to bankrupt Seoul, at least as Pyongyang sees it.

– We must persuade the elites in Pyongyang that they will have a future in reunified Korea, or they will resist it. But because of Kim Jong-un’s recent purges, the elites doubt that they have much of a future under his rule.

– We should continue to expand sanctions. It’s too early to tell if they’re working.

– Kim Jong-un’s greatest fear is actually an internal uprising. Thae elaborates on this near the end of his remarks at CSIS, before the first audience member question.

– Oh, yeah, and we should also try to talk to Kim Jong-un before we start a nuclear war. Thae didn’t say we should offer a freeze, or a peace treaty, or an aid package, or an industrial park — none of that. Just this:

Some people do not believe in soft power, but only in military options. But it is necessary to reconsider whether we have tried all non-military options before we decide that military action against North Korea is all that is left. Before any military action is taken, I think it is necessary to meet Kim Jong Un at least once to understand his thinking and to try to convince him that he would be destroyed if he continues his current direction.

Not that it matters, but I don’t disagree with a word of it — if it’s even possible, and if we can find an appropriate format for it (Thae later conceded in his congressional testimony that it might not be). The point that I’m setting up here is that in the context of Thae’s entire written statement and his verbal remarks, this was a throw-away line without any specific proposals. It was clearly not what Thae emphasized, did not have the meaning it implied to readers, and couldn’t have comprised more than one percent of what Thae said, but it was all the media — and Yonhap in particular — heard.

As a lawyer, I’m not one for the indiscriminate bashing of professions. I’m a voracious consumer of journalism myself. I know stellar journalists and terrible ones. This week, the terrible ones showed up and reminded me why Americans have learned to distrust the media, and why Koreans should. They owed it to us to report on Thae Yong-ho’s important, perhaps historically determinative ideas. How sad for us all that they chose to report their own tired ideas instead. Yonhap’s headlines are the best example of this.

Top N.K. defector urges U.S. to meet with Kim

It is strictly true that Thae states at one point, early in his CSIS speech, that engagement should include engaging the regime. It is also true that “engage” is a deliberately vague word that can mean many things. Still, this headline is in no sense an accurate summation of Thae’s most important, second-most important, or third-most-important point. It is not an honest or complete reflection of Thae’s remarks in any sense.

Top N.K. defector urges maximum engagement with Pyongyang

This statement is even more misleading. If anything, Thae urged minimal engagement with a self-isolated heir who has never heard the word “no” before we go to war with him. Yonhap’s headlines, by contrast, evoke the dozens of tone-deaf, intellectually exhausted talk-to-North-Korea op-eds that think-tank nitwits inexplicably keep writing, no matter how ardently Pyongyang insists that it just isn’t interested. Thae didn’t call for any of that. He didn’t propose a freeze, protection payments, concessions, negotiations, a peace treaty, Kaesong 2.0, exchange programs to teach them how to launder money or do men’s synchronized swimming or fold paper cranes or write malicious code, or any of the other twaddle that Northwest D.C. academics and South Korean Peace Studies professors produce in bulk. He proposed a last-chance message to Kim Jong-un before we resort to war. He would “talk to North Korea” on a completely different level. For the record, I agree that it’s our obligation to try. If the alternative is war, then we should find some appropriate way (and that rules out a hamburger summit) to deliver a plain statement to Kim Jong-un that there are some interests we’re deadly serious about protecting.

But what isn’t in the coverage is even more damning: nothing about an insider’s confirmation of Pyongyang’s plausible-sounding plan to subjugate Seoul, his talk of the possibility of a “civilian uprising or his delicately implied advocacy that we encourage one, and much too little about Thae’s main emphasis — his call for informing the North Korean people about their natural rights as human beings, which is (if you’re familiar with Thae’s prior statements) clearly leading toward a “people’s revolution.” It couldn’t be more obvious that the reporters listened to the first five minutes, heard what they wanted to hear, typed out and emailed their stories, and ignored the far more important and profound ideas Thae risked his life to speak freely about. (And to think that people still doubt that Pyongyang could reach over the DMZ to censor the South Korean media!) What Thae said about Kim Jong-un’s family and political illegitimacy are certain to drive Pyongyang to lethal fury. He has made himself the Emmanuel Goldstein of North Korea and a prime candidate for assassination, and he certainly knows it. The least I can do for this brave man is give him the last word.

Q. What’s South Korea’s biggest drawback?

A. They’re too naive compared to North Koreans.

Q. What do you mean?

A. I sometimes get that impression when I talk with South Koreans. And I think to myself, ‘How will they face North Korea with a mentality like that?’

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The deterrence of North Korea has already failed

First, the North Korea commentariat told us that the Yongbyon reactor might be for no more nefarious purpose than generating electricity (never mind that it was never connected to the electrical grid). Then, it told us that the North merely wanted aid and recognition by the United States, to better provide for the people it had so recently starved to death in heaps, the dust of whose loves and aspirations now fills a thousand forlorn and forgotten pits in the barren hills of Hamgyeong. It told us that Pyongyang only wanted to open itself up to the world and bask in our gentle rays of glasnost and perestroika. It told us that if we were willing to disregard the good sense of the voting public and pay enough extortion money, surely Pyongyang could be talked out of its nukes.

What all of these theories had in common — aside from being wrong — is that they required a determined ignorance of the nature of the regime in Pyongyang. The appeal of these theories has always been greatest among those Americans who knew the least about its ideology and abuses of its own people (arms control experts, diplomats, and left-leaning academics), and among those South Koreans with the fewest objections to either. Overwhelming majorities of the commentariat in Washington and Seoul also embraced the reassurance these theories offered. Indeed, many proponents of these discredited theories still cling to the fantasy and they can talk Pyongyang into a nuclear and missile freeze, no matter how many times Pyongyang declares its unwillingness to discuss or consider any such thing.

At some point, we can’t confine the blame for this atrocious predictive record to the commentariat itself; some of that blame must also stain the journalists and policymakers who keep slogging back to this well of wisdom to fill their buckets and ladle it into the troughs of newspaper readers and presidents. Foreign affairs is not an empirical science; still, one wonders when a predictive record becomes catastrophic enough that the theories and their adherents get the Dick Cheney treatment. Surely, in the modern history of analytical folly, “They will open up and reform,” has to be right up there with, “He only wants the Sudentenland,” and, “They will welcome us as liberators.” For all my criticisms of President Trump — and there have been many of them, for many reasons, on many issues — he is the first president we’ve had in 30 years who possessed the instincts to reject this nonsense.

Now, the commentariat tells us that we must accept a nuclear North Korea as a fait accompli and fall back on deterrence. I’ve grown tired of rehashing all of the counterpoints to this — did we deter the sinking of the Cheonan, the Yeonpyong attacks, the Sony cyberterrorism, the 2015 landmine incident, Pyongyang’s multiple assassination attempts and threats against journalists, its nuclear and chemical proliferation, or the assassination of Kim Jong-nam with VX in the Kuala Lumpur airport? On what basis do we still deceive ourselves into believing that we’ve seen the worst of this behavior, or that this problem is a distant one?

“We cannot have a society in which some dictators someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States because if somebody is able to intimidate us out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing once they see a documentary that they don’t like or news reports that they don’t like. That’s not who we are. That’s not what America is about.” – Barack Obama, Dec. 19, 2014

If these recent incidents are in fact more indicative of Pyongyang’s new way of war and how it will escalate in the coming years than the 1950 Kim Il-sung strategy, on what basis do we believe that deterrence that was failing before will succeed now? On what basis do we doubt that a nuclear-armed North Korea will continue to escalate this war of skirmishes? On what basis do we believe that the crisis is already as bad it as it will get? If the commentariat ducks those questions, perhaps it hasn’t applied its imagination to the question of just how much worse things will get in five years if present trends continue. Illusions are stubborn things, and the commentariat’s predictive failures could make for a fine seminar on cognitive biases one day. That’s why I keep pushing back against this latest dangerous blandishment.

Beneath all of this is the long record of Pyongyang’s ideology and stated intentions to use its nukes to achieve reunification on its terms, an intention Pyongyang is increasingly brazen about. Brian Myers and Edward Oh make that case compellingly enough in new articles. I won’t repeat them here, though I can’t resist quoting this passage from Myers:

Also worth mentioning in this context are conservative reports of an academic proposal now circulating among higher-ups that proposes, as a transition to unification, a Kaesong Confederated State. This would be a swathe of jointly administered territory along the southernmost reaches of the North, from the port of Haeju in the west to the Geumgang mountains in the east, that would play host to five universities. That last word, I suspect, is meant about as seriously as the Associated Press’ use of the word bureau for its Pyongyang office.

Of course, one need not choose deterrence or unification as Pyongyang’s reason for sacrificing all the aid, money, prosperity, and recognition the commentariat told us it wanted — as it consistently sacrificed all of those things for the nuclear weapons it preferred, for some reason. If you want to be precise, the answer is both deterrence and reunification, because Pyongyang’s strategy is to deter Washington and Seoul from responding to its carefully calibrated attacks against American or South Korean interests and targets — attacks that will be designed to dissolve their increasingly uncertain alliance, but mostly to raise a chorus of calls from the usual commentariat for us to make a few “small” concessions that will be calculated to lower the South’s military and ideological defenses, skirmish by skirmish and crisis by crisis, against North Korean hegemony and remote control through a confederation.

To know whether we can deter Pyongyang, we must know what we’re deterring. It is as true — and as irrelevant — that we can deter a 1950-style invasion or a nuclear first strike on Seattle as it was true 80 years ago that the Maginot Line could protect Alsace-Lorraine from Hindenburg’s Prussian cavalry. Whether you believe that Pyongyang’s war-of-skirmishes strategy is plausible matters less than whether a petulant, impulsive, morbidly obese, and psychotic 33-year-old heir to a medieval dynasty who has never heard the word “no” does.

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Sung-Yoon Lee: Nukes are Pyongyang’s “nonnegotiable means of isolating & exercising dominance over Seoul.”

Professor Lee raises, if ever so briefly, the standards of a newspaper that is simultaneously America’s most prestigious, and in terms of its North Korea coverage, easily its worst.

But a nuclear North Korea is unlike a nuclear China or Russia. During the Cold War, neither Beijing nor Moscow faced an existential threat in the form of an alternate Chinese or Russian state. Pyongyang, on the other hand, has had to live with a far more prosperous and legitimate Korean state across its southern border.

This internal dynamic of the Korean Peninsula compels Pyongyang to continue to threaten war and perfect its weapons of mass destruction. The regime’s logic is that the more advanced its nuclear capability, the less likely the United States will be to defend South Korea at the risk of sacrificing millions of American lives at home.

Hence, for the North, menacing the United States is a nonnegotiable means of isolating and exercising dominance over Seoul. This is how the regime of Kim Jong-un seeks to ensure its long-term survival. [Sung-Yoon Lee, The New York Times]

I often wish that I could write as well in my first language as Professor Lee can write in his second language. I always look forward to his op-eds — not only because they’re a pleasure to read, but also because off-hand, I can’t think of anyone else who writes about North Korea in the English language, who also reads North Korean propaganda in the original Korean, who possesses the additional understanding and context of having been raised in the Korean culture, and who is possessed of the good judgment to interpret that evidence usefully for the reader. If you’re as devoted a NYT non-subscriber as I am — I say this as someone who has co-written two op-eds (both with Prof. Lee) that the Times has published — this is well worth spending one of your free clicks.

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Some N. Koreans grow weary of a war that is forever imminent, as others yearn for it.

For the last 60 years, the people of North Korea have been told that they must sacrifice all their wants — and too many of their needs — for the sake of a holy war with Oceania that has always been imminent. Pyongyang’s media manipulation strategy shows the world’s most gullible journalists (and I mean you, Will Ripley) images of subjects who are (or who appear to be) united in fanatical, robotic devotion to the state’s war propaganda. Yet out in the provinces, the people have stopped believing it.
People have also been overheard complaining among themselves about how the government has to take such actions to create an artificially tense atmosphere, as without them, the people would show no real concern. “North Korea would suffer unspeakable destruction if war breaks out, so are they really going to attack the US?” one resident said to the source.
Evidence suggests that the regime does not have any such intentions, and is merely focusing on creating an atmosphere of war without undertaking any significant military maneuvers. Years of false claims of a coming “total war” and threats of annihilation have damaged the government’s credibility among the people. [Daily NK]
Or, in the original German, “Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg?” And the people said “nein.”*
“These latest measures do not represent any change in the regime’s strategy, and their failure to even respond to this week’s joint US-South Korea military drills with exercises of their own is further proof. They will just continue with their saber-rattling, forcing the people to the streets for daily demonstrations, taking pictures and putting on a show, but nobody at this point believes they will really start a war,” the source said. [Daily NK]
But whether this confidence is an expression of weariness or reassurance (or some combination of both) may depend on the individual. Some North Koreans say “when the war comes” as code talk for “after the regime ends.” A former member of the Pyongyang elite told me this in a conversation more than a decade ago. Here is more evidence of that.

“An increasing number of residents are pointing out that, for them [the North Korean people], provoking the US is a losing battle. We are the ones who suffer from the regime’s belligerent behavior with no consideration for reconciliation and cooperation,” he added.

Some residents are said to be welcoming the regime’s propaganda that a war is imminent, a source in North Hamgyong Province said. We want the suffering to finally end even if it means losing a war,” he said.

“Kim Jong Un is using the same old strategy of his grandfather (Kim Il Sung) and father (Kim Jong Il) to consolidate the population with threats of war, but it is not really effective anymore.” [Daily NK]

Often, I think we underestimate how intelligent, and how perceptive some North Koreans are in seeing through the state’s propaganda, yet at the same time, they may not be nearly perceptive enough about the cost of the war Kim Jong-Un is leading them into. Are their circumstances so desperate that they would gamble everything to reset the future? I suspect we’d find different answers to that question in Pyongyang, in the provinces, and in the barracks. We should help all of them understand that cost in vivid terms, along with who will bear it, and who profits from this regime’s endless war hysteria and all of the hard labor it is used to justify. History is often written by people who see only their desperation, who yearn to erase the future, and who damn all consequences. But if the North Korean people are waiting for us, they are waiting in vain. No matter the circumstance or the scenario, the cost of rebooting their future will be great. It will be far greater for them if it involves war with us. If they want a future, they must take history into their own hands.

~   ~   ~

* The rhetorical similarities between Goebbels’s words and Pyongyang’s rhetoric today are uncanny. Said Goebbels in 1943: “Do you believe with the Führer and us in the final total victory of the German people? Are you and the German people willing to work, if the Führer orders, 10, 12 and if necessary 14 hours a day and to give everything for victory? Do you want total war? If necessary, do you want a war more total and radical than anything that we can even imagine today?” You see what I mean? But war fever and Stakhanovite exhortations have short shelf lives — historically, no longer than ten years. A state can only sustain the ideological fervor for this level of self-sacrifice for so long before the people tire of it.

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Kim Jong-Un’s Moonshadow Policy is eclipsing free thought in S. Korea, and beyond

As we begin rehashing the time-worn policy arguments about responding to a nuclear North Korea, it’s useful to inform those arguments with further evidence of just how Pyongyang is leveraging its nuclear hegemony, by escalating its control over speech in South Korea. Last week, a few of us noticed that KCNA published a “death sentence” against four journalists (two reviewers and two newspaper presidents) over a review of “North Korea Confidential” by James Pearson and Daniel Tudor, asserting further that “the penalties will be enforced at an arbitrary point in time at an arbitrary point, without any additional procedure.”

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves.

I’ve posted the full text of KCNA’s threat below the fold (click “continue reading.”) The threat drew a mild condemnation from Seoul. What, do you suppose, are the odds that KCNA made this threat without the personal approval of His Porcine Majesty? No doubt, Pyongyang found the cover of the Korean edition to be provocative:

I don’t know if the reviewers would have even seen this cover. Pearson, an affable person who has done some excellent investigative journalism about North Korea’s money laundering in Malaysia and Singapore, also sent me a review copy when the book came out in English. My copy doesn’t have that cover. Other authors who’ve sent me review copies have done so by .pdf, and none of those texts showed a cover image. But then, the North Korean judicial system isn’t known for its evidentiary rigor or protections of due process.

Why else might Pyongyang target “North Korea Confidential?” It’s certainly a useful snapshot of how provincial North Korea in 2015 differed from the circa-1985 impression that most foreigners have of its society, culture, and economy, although a regular (or obsessive) Korea-watcher won’t read much there that she hasn’t read somewhere else. The book is hardly an indictment of North Korea’s political system. Pearson and Tudor don’t ignore the existence of the political prison camps or other human rights abuses, but those things aren’t the main focus of their book. They mainly focus on economic and cultural changes in North Korea since the Great Famine, and on evidence supporting the implication (of which I’m skeptical) that these things will necessarily drive political change. In their conclusion, they are “doubtful about the possibility of regime collapse” and skeptical of the proposition that “sanctions could push the DPRK to the breaking point.” They ultimately conclude that “the most likely scenario for North Korea in the short and medium term is the gradual opening of the country under the current regime.”

Of course, things don’t seem to be working out that way. Indeed, Kim Jong-Un’s greatest domestic achievement may be his success in sealing North Korea’s borders and implementing a moderately effective digital censorship regimen, perhaps with the technical assistance of well-meaning engagers here.

None of which is really my point. My point is that compared to any number of other North Korea books one can read in Korean, “North Korea Confidental” is mild stuff. It’s not half as inflammatory, subversive, or acerbic as most of what you might read at this blog, or at B.R. Myers’s Sthele Press. Having mostly finished this post last week, I decided to hold it for a few days while I emailed some other authors to ask whether their works are published in Korean. Professor B.R. Myers informs me that “The Cleanest Race” is; so is Kang Chol-hwan’s “The Aquariums of Pyongyang;” Yeonmi Park’s, “In Order to Live;” and most of Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard’s books. All of these books are more ideologically dangerous to Pyongyang than “North Korea Confidential.” Why not them?

The key to explaining this, I think, is that the authors themselves were not the targets of this threat; the Korean journalists who reviewed the book’s Korean edition were. And here, we find the makings of a pattern and an escalation, because a reader brings to my attention that KCNA has also published this threat against centrist and right-of-center Korean media — sorry, make that “Puppet Reptile Writers.” Apologies for the long quote, but this is worth reading and archiving in full:

Pyongyang, September 1 (KCNA) — Yonhap News, Chosun Ilbo, Dong-A Ilbo, Maeil Kyongje, Munhwa Ilbo and other vicious conservative media of south Korea professing to represent the south Korean media are speaking ill of the Korean People’s Army’s resolute warning for mounting enveloping fire on Guam and the will of the Korean people to wage death-defying resistance against the U.S. and are unhesitatingly trumpeting about such rhetoric as “enhanced war atmosphere” and “creation of tensions for maintaining social system”.

A spokesman for the Central Committee of the Journalists Union of Korea in a statement Friday says this clearly proves that the puppet conservative media are made up of hack writers, servants of bellicose forces at home and abroad and group of traitors with whom we can not live together.

The Central Committee of the Journalists Union of Korea sternly declares as follows reflecting the towering grudge and hostility of the mediapersons of the DPRK against the puppet conservative media going reckless to hurt the dignity of the DPRK while pointing an accusing finger at the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK:

We will sharpen the just writing brushes to defend our leader, our party and our social system and win a final victory in the confrontation with the U.S.

No matter how loudly the hostile forces may cry out, they can never check the advance of the DPRK dashing toward the bright future of humankind along the straight road of independence, Songun and socialism.

We will track down the puppet conservative reptile writers fostering discord within the nation under the auspices and at the instigation of the anti-reunification forces at home and abroad, and throw overboard all of them.

The puppet ultra-right conservative hack writers without elementary conscience as writers have to be completely stamped out. This is the unanimous will of the mediapersons of the DPRK, and this will be put into practice.

Our grime and merciless pen will sight the bases which commit hideous crimes against the DPRK by spreading misinformation about it, and beat them to pieces.

The puppet conservative media escalating confrontation with the DPRK while dare challenge the annihilating spirit of the army and people of the DPRK will never be able to evade the shower of retaliatory blows. -0- [link]

Let’s call all of this precisely what it is: terrorism. See also Pyongyang’s extraterritorial censorship of “The Interview” in the United States, Europe, and Asia. See also (in no particular order) its series of attempts between 2008 and 2014 to murder North Korean dissidents in exile, its 2012 threat to shell the offices of conservative South Korean newspapers, its 2014 threats against defector-activists who launch leaflet balloons over the DMZ, its approval of the 2015 slashing attack on the U.S. Ambassador, its 2016 threat to murder the President of South Korea, its 2017 threat to murder the ex-President of South Korea and just about anyone who angers it, and its 2017 murder of Kim Jong-Nam in Kuala Lumpur.

I offer that evidence for the benefit of anyone who is tempted to believe the palliative that we can just “learn to live with” a nuclear North Korea, to view our own acknowledgement of Pyongyang’s nuclear status as the end of this crisis, or to find reassurance in the belief that Pyongyang, having achieved nuclear hegemony at such cost, will rest contentedly within its own borders. On the contrary, from now until the end of Kim Jong-Un’s life, every book review, editorial, film, conference, and U.N. vote will be cast as a choice between the offending thoughts, on one hand, and assassination or war on the other. How much of your freedom of thought will you give up for the sake of “peace?” The problem with that question is that no one ever asks it just once.

I have written before about how the generals in Pyongyang believe they can gradually subjugate South Korea into submission and remote control by confederation, rather than attempt to occupy a country with twice its population and many times its wealth. I have written about how Pyongyang’s attempts to censor opinion in South Korea and elsewhere, including the United States and Europe, are at the vanguard of those plans, because Pyongyang knows that to control people, you must first control their thoughts. Pyongyang’s thought control takes many forms, from death threats, to hacking the email of scholars here, to threatening the organizers of conferences. So does the thought control of its simpaticos in South Korea, who use the courts to intimidate refugees, use South Korea’s oppressive libel laws to suppress parliamentary and political speech, send thugs from state-subsidized labor unions to attack their critics, and (as Roh Moo-hyun did) use selective and ideologically motivate tax audits against unfriendly newspapers. And these are just the things we know about.

It may be a complete coincidence that at this moment, Moon Jae-in and the hard-left labor unions are now using threats of criminal prosecution to assert ideological control over Yonhap and other state-owned media. Then again, it may not be a complete coincidence. Whatever this is, it is not “liberal.”

North Korea and the anti-anti-North Korean left in South Korea have many instruments for controlling the thoughts of South Koreans. Recently, I argued how various forms of censorship have gravely damaged South Korea’s liberal democracy and the quality of its political debate. Meanwhile, the fawning coverage that foreign and Korean journalists have given Moon Jae-in is enough to make Kim Jong-un envious of his treatment by KCNA. These are the journalists who are supposed to be the guardians of a free press. But at the critical moment, they are almost as derelict as (though less corrupt than) the Associated Press was when it made its Faustian bargain with the North Korean government. You won’t hear a critical word from the AP about the fact that its business partner just published a threat to murder four fellow journalists. Remember that the next time anyone from the AP makes a self-serving soapbox argument about its important role as a guardian of your freedom (which is exactly what the AP and journalists should be).

As for most foreign and Korean journalists, they’re so personally and ideologically enamored of Moon Jae-in, and so invested in the narrative of Pyongyang as David besieged by Goliath, that they’ve blinded themselves to this partial eclipse of South Korea’s freedoms. Pray that Kim Jong-Un’s Moonshadow Policy is no more successful than Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy was. You can try to reassure yourself that this is South Korea’s problem, but recent history suggests that while the path of totality will eventually cover all of Korea, the path of the partial eclipse will be global. And so far, Pyongyang’s campaign seems to be working. By the way, when was the last time you saw a movie about North Korea? I’ll bet it wasn’t made after 2014.

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… and Kim Jong-Un got the bomb, and we all just lived happily ever after.

Since North Korea’s sixth* nuclear test, I’ve already read several analyses concluding that North Korea now has the bomb for good, and that we might as well give up on denuclearization — as if Pyongyang’s acquisition of a nuclear arsenal ends with us all living happily ever after together. You can only believe that if you either haven’t read much North Korean propaganda — or choose to ignore it, just as much of Europe ignored the words Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf in the 30s. But what North Korea wants is South Korea. It has always wanted South Korea, and it has never stopped saying that it wants South Korea. Its messianic vision of reunification has always rested on its express promise of reuniting Korea under its rule. You can try to pretend that away, but North Korea won’t be content to sit behind its borders and watch its legitimacy eroded away by unfavorable comparison — made vivid by every smuggled DVD of a South Korean TV drama — to a superior model of Korean nationhood.

Why do we refuse to believe Pyongyang when it makes its intentions so manifest? Because it couldn’t conquer and occupy the South by conventional war? Do we assume that Pyongyang’s plans haven’t evolved since 1953? I assure you — its current plans are much more rational and attainable than that.

In the meantime, Pyongyang needs cash, and it will sell any weapon to any buyer to get it. And it will threaten or murder any critic, foreign or domestic, whose words undermine the integrity of its propaganda, until in some small way, we are all subject to Pyongyang’s global censorship. Not even the U.S. Ambassador, or a Hollywood film studio, is off limits to its goon squads. Accepting a nuclear North Korea doesn’t mean this crisis is over. It means we’ve entered Korean War II in earnest. Korean War II is a war of skirmishes in which Pyongyang will seek to incrementally terrorize South Korea into submission and the U.S. into disengagement. It will mean a new period of accelerating crises and outrages that will almost inevitably lead to miscalculation and war. We cannot live with a nuclear North Korea.

The geniuses who’ve spent the last 30 years misjudging Pyongyang and counseling us to appease it are soon to fill your TV screens and op-ed pages. They would sit this episode out if they had any shame at all, and you will tune them out if you’re more sensible than they are. Which, statistically speaking, you probably are.

There is much overlap between these advocates of appeasement and those who once said, in no particular order, that (1) North Korea only wanted nuclear reactors to generate electricity, (2) that if we cut a deal, it would keep its word, (3) Kim Jong-Un would be the reformer we’ve all been waiting for, (4) Pyongyang only wants nukes for defense, and (5) that years of tough sanctions — sanctions that almost none of these critics had read or knew the first thing about — haven’t worked. They now call for a deal, in the hope that you haven’t noticed how Pyongyang has insisted, again and again, that it will never give up its nukes. What, do they suppose, are we supposed to negotiate except this year’s price of extortion? We can neither talk, nor bomb, nor wait out way out of this crisis.

Clearly, sanctions haven’t worked yet, if you define “work” to mean disarm or topple Kim Jong-Un. Whether they’re beginning to work remains to be seen. It’s a lazy argument that equates coincidence with causation for polemic convenience. One could have made it after North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, when financial sanctions (as we know now) clearly had put Pyongyang under withering pressure and eventually forced it to return to talks (where we exchanged real concessions, including the lifting of sanctions, for false promises to disarm). There are some early signs that sanctions are beginning to fray the system’s financial and political cohesion, but as I’ve said all along, it will take two to three years for them to begin to show their effects, and it’s too early to call this evidence compelling.

If you remember nothing else about our sanctions against North Korea, remember these points. First, as a practical matter, and until early 2016, the U.S. had stronger sanctions in place against Zimbabwe than against North Korea. Our North Korea sanctions were among our weakest sanctions programs, out of deference to Beijing, which consistently cheated on U.N. sanctions, to the point of selling Pyongyang the trucks that carry its missiles. Even then, the U.S. only began to enforce the new sanctions authorities Congress gave it in June 2017. It’s time to offer Beijing a sharper choice than it has had to make before. That’s not just a threat of secondary sanctions and trade consequences; it’s also a threat of instability along China’s border. If Pyongyang and Beijing are willing to threaten our security, why should we refrain from doing the same to them?

So does this mean we’re too late? Yes, we’re too late to stop North Korea from having a nuclear arsenal, but not too late to stop it from having a bigger and better one, not too late to undermine Kim Jong-Un’s misrule politically, and not too late to truncate whatever crisis is to come four or five years from now. Our goal now must be to abbreviate, as much as possible, the amount of time we have to try to deter a state that’s increasingly undeterrable by abbreviating the rule of Kim Jong-Un.

Meanwhile, beseech the deity of your choice that the Defense Department is accelerating its development of boost-phase missile defenses; ground-based missile defenses like the Arrow, Iron Dome, and C-Ram systems; and hyper velocity projectiles that will allow conventional 155-millimeter and 5-inch artillery to be integrated into a missile defense network. That’s probably our only option for defending Seoul and Osan Air Base against North Korea’s tube artillery, and its chem/bio-capable 300-millimeter artillery rockets. Those systems may give us a partial sense of security a few years from now, at great cost, but the only way we’ll ever have lasting security from Kim Jong-Un’s threats is the end of his misrule. That change — the change that we need, and that the North Korean people need even more desperately than we do — must come from within.

~   ~   ~

Previously said “seventh.” Since corrected, thanks to a reader.

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The North Korean people didn’t elect Kim Jong-Un. Stop threatening to bomb them.

I’m already on record on the topic of threatening war against North Korea: it scares our friends more than our enemies (who assume, correctly I hope, that we’re bluffing). If we want to threaten the thing our enemies fear most, threaten to sow the seeds of the revolution that the people of North Korea desperately need. Nukes aren’t much good in that kind of war, and China would never tolerate their use so close to its borders. If we can’t resist threatening to bomb someone, at least threaten to bomb the person who is responsible for this crisis, and deliver those threats privately. The people of North Korea didn’t elect Kim Jong-Un. At least Americans had a choice, sort of.

The people of North Korea don’t make policy, can’t criticize their government’s policies, and often don’t even agree with those policies. They’d rather eat than have missiles. So I really wish we would not play directly into the hands of Kim Jong-Un’s propaganda by threatening the very people we’ll need to befriend, support, and empower to verifiably disarm His Porcine Majesty.

One aspect of the defense secretary’s statement, however, was deeply troubling: “The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.” The overriding evidence suggests that Kim Jong Un cares not a whit for his people — threatening their destruction will not serve to deter him and is, more importantly, detrimental to US aims. Over the longer term, the United States has an interest in the peaceful unification of the peninsula under Seoul’s democratic leadership. Threatening the North Korean people with destruction is to make enemies of potential friends; it is, more troublingly, a promise to extend and deepen, rather than end, the suffering that the Kims have long inflicted on their people. [Michael Mazza, American Enterprise Institute]

Mind you, everything I’ve seen or heard about Mattis until now has given me reason to admire his intellect and patriotism. Maybe he has the wrong people in charge of his press office, but this is a terrible message to send at a time when our need to gain the confidence of Koreans on both sides of the DMZ is greatest. Statements like this, and especially this one from Senator Graham, send a message that Korean lives are unimportant to us. Talk like this not only empowers everyone, north and south, who hates us, but it sends a message throughout the world that America is a dangerous ally to have and should be kept at arm’s length. If America blunders into a nuclear war in Korea, what ally would ever want to be close to us again?

I am not one of those Pollyannas who believe the myth, popular among those who’ve misjudged North Korea for decades or spent the last eight years whistling toward the very crisis I predicted here, that Kim Jong-Un only wants nukes to deter us. North Korea wants nukes for much more than that.

We cannot coexist with a nuclear North Korea because it will not coexist with us. Its political system requires conflict and crisis to justify itself. Trump is right that this is a crisis. But a crisis is no time to shoot one’s self in both feet.

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North Korea says it wants South Korea. It might just get it.

There is a certain view, popular mostly among the soft-liners who did so much to get us into this crisis and now seek to reassure themselves, that North Korea only wants nukes to protect itself from us. They aren’t wrong; it’s just that they’re less than half right. Pyongyang says it wants nukes as a defensive deterrent, and of course, it does:

Pyongyang, April 29 (KCNA) — The Korean People’s Army is providing strong support for the nuclear power in the East, the invincible military power as it reliably protects peace and security of the Korean peninsula, resolutely smashing the reckless moves of the U.S. imperialists and their vassal forces for a nuclear war against the DPRK, Rodong Sinmun Saturday says in an article.

The DPRK’s nuclear deterrence for self-defence is the powerful guarantee for defusing the danger of a nuclear war and ensuring durable peace on the Korean peninsula and a common treasure of the nation for reunification and prosperity of the country, the article notes, and goes on:

The U.S. is the arch criminal increasing the tension and escalating the danger of nuclear war on the Korean peninsula.

Peace cannot be protected by submission and begging. It is the nature of the imperialists to become more violent when someone begs for peace. And it is the bitter lesson taught by history and reality that submission and concession to imperialism will result in wreck of peace and stability and ruin of a country and nation.

The DPRK has bolstered up its nuclear deterrence despite all sorts of ordeals to foil the U.S. brigandish moves for a nuclear war and defend the destiny of the entire nation.

But the soft-liners willfully ignore the greater part of Pyongyang’s stated intentions. If you want to know what those intentions are — and some of us are trying very hard not to — the best-educated speculation is worth less than Pyongyang’s own declarations. All you have to do is read them:

The era for independent reunification advancing under the banner of By Our Nation Itself was ushered to end the history of national division spanning more than half a century and the inter-Korean relations achieved epochal development. This would have been unthinkable without the invincible military strength of the DPRK provided by the Songun politics.

But surely, you say, it’s still unthinkable — the idea of a backward, impoverished state imposing “independent reunification” on its own terms over one of the world’s most prosperous states. Surely the days when Sparta could conquer Athens are centuries behind us. Surely the North’s conscripts would be agog and disillusioned at the first sign of the South’s prosperity (or whatever remained of it). But as I’ve argued, the North has no intention of occupying the South for the foreseeable future, until it subdues the South politically, ideologically, and economically. And as I’ve also argued, it’s closer to achieving this than most of us know, or dare to admit.

All Koreans are benefiting from the Songun politics and living under the protection of the nuclear power in the East. The DPRK’s strong nuclear deterrence for self-defence provided by the great Songun politics is the symbol of the national dignity and precious treasure common to the nation.

If the U.S. and the south Korean puppet group persist in escalating the moves to stifle the DPRK, the latter will further strengthen its nuclear deterrence. -0-

As if they weren’t going to do that anyway.

It would have required no geopolitical genius to predict in 1933 that Hitler’s rule would inevitably end in war and suffering. One would only have had to read an honest translation of “Mein Kampf” to see it. So it is today; Pyongyang’s intentions are on full display to those who are willing to read them. It has a clear and plausible strategy for winning the same goal it has repeated for decades. What’s more, it knows that it cannot long survive as the poorer, failed Korea as the flow of information slowly undermines its legitimacy in the eyes of its own people. It knows very well that within the next decade, and perhaps much less, one Korea or the other must dominate and absorb the other. Are we willing to listen to the protagonist in this escalating crisis?

Korean War II began in earnest with the attacks of 2010. Pyongyang’s war is no longer a conventional invasion, but a war of skirmishes that supports a strategy that is primarily political. It will premeditate a series of escalating provocations, each of them calculated to end with certain concessions that will pave its way to one-country, two-systems hegemony over the South. I would argue that Pyongyang came close to achieving many of its political objectives during Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency. Pyongyang will soon add to this strategy the leverage of an effective nuclear arsenal and the capacity to strike the United States. Given the political instability and mercurial public sentiment in South Korea, and the rising risk of a breach in the U.S.-Korea alliance, our question will soon be, “Who will stop them?”

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Stop the war. Enforce sanctions.

If Kim Jong-un’s strategy is what I think it is, it involves provoking a series of escalating security crises, with a plan to “de-escalate” each one through talks, or ideally, though an extended-yet-inconclusive “peace treaty” negotiation, in exchange for a series of pre-planned concessions that would amount to a slow-motion surrender of South Korea. I say “escalating” because Pyongyang’s provocations have escalated in recent years, and because it’s a sure bet they’ll escalate even more after Pyongyang has an effective nuclear arsenal. From that moment, it could be as little as five years before Pyongyang’s strategy achieves sufficient hegemony to exercise significant control over South Korea’s politics, media, textbooks, defense policies, and economic resources, and to effectively intimidate any noisy defectors and activists into silence.

Along the way, however, the risks are great that either a miscalculation, or a U.S. or ROK refusal to slouch passively toward surrender, would end in the most devastating war since 1945. In this post, I will argue that if North Korea cannot be disarmed without war, war is inevitable, but also that premature talk of war impedes our chances of disarming Pyongyang peacefully.

Those who invited this crisis by counseling us to indulge Pyongyang now insist that Pyongyang’s only purpose for acquiring nuclear weapons is to protect itself. But having watched Pyongyang wage the war of skirmishes it resumed in 2010 with the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do attacks, I cannot agree that Pyongyang’s objective is merely regime survival. Pyongyang knows that it cannot survive forever as the poorer Korea. Rather, its strategy is to coerce Seoul into a political framework that allows it to exercise and expand its political and economic control over all of Korea. Its master plan does not involve an occupation of the South for the foreseeable future; instead, it contemplates using South Korea’s own government to enforce its writ.

If this belief makes me an outlier, so be it. Just bear in mind that what you and I believe is possible matters less than what Kim Jong-un believes is possible. I also believe that Pyongyang is closer to achieving these objectives than most Americans or South Koreans suspect. Americans underestimate how many South Koreans would willingly sacrifice freedom for the sake of “peace,” or “inter-Korean relations.” Freedom, after all, is as difficult a thing to appreciate as peace unless you’ve lived without it. But if you think that sacrifice would prevent war, keep reading.

One waypoint toward Pyongyang’s objective is sanctions relief from Seoul. This is not just for the primary economic benefits of, say, reopening Kaesong. Any laxity by Seoul in enforcing U.N. sanctions would have far greater secondary benefits for Pyongyang. It would have domino effects in the capitals of North Korea’s arms clients and enablers throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, would create more diplomatic distance between Washington and Seoul, and would break up the global sanctions enforcement coalition-building strategy that had finally taken shape. It would also put Seoul in direct conflict with the Trump administration’s emerging policy, which will emphasize economic pressure. The economic benefits of unearned sanctions relief would help Pyongyang validate its “byungjin” policy by enriching its elites, by showing off its selective prosperity to its sympathizers abroad, and by underwriting its political control over its own “wavering” and “hostile” classes.

Another waypoint is to undermine political support for Seoul’s military alliance with Washington in both capitals. Pyongyang seeks to strain that alliance by raising war fears, and by getting exercises canceled and key weapons systems (read: THAAD, Patriots) withdrawn. It wants to show South Koreans and Americans that this alliance is more risk than it’s worth. If the point comes when the alliance does more to constrain U.S. options and advance them, that time may come sooner than most of us expect.

The war scare that swept through Twitter last week advanced Pyongyang toward that objective. The Pentagon quickly debunked it, and for now, the White House’s strategy is moving toward a well-thought-through list of North Korean industries and targets for sanctions. I could not have said it better than the headline over Grant Newsham’s recent piece for the Asia Times: “Before attacking North Korea, please try everything else.” The subhead to his piece was, “Try sanctions, real sanctions.” (Do read the entire piece.) War talk is not only premature and unnecessary, it’s apt to help bring Pyongyang closer to realizing its political objectives by scaring South Koreans into wanting the U.S. gone.

Maybe some of this war talk is simple disinformation or bad journalism. My fear is that the White House thinks raising the fear of war will put Pyongyang and Beijing off their game and raise our leverage. It needs to understand that a war panic could cost us the confidence of people in Japan and South Korea whose support we’ll need to prevent war. This crisis is scary enough at it is. Turning well-grounded concerns into panic serves no one’s interests but Kim Jong-un’s.

But it is also true that the anti-sanctions / talk-to-North-Korea crowd is, however unintentionally, also contributing to the risk of war. To their credit, most of them are at least honest enough to admit that they no longer believe a negotiated nuclear disarmament of North Korea is possible. They should also be honest enough to admit that accepting North Korea’s nuclear status will lead to a catastrophic war, not peace. A nuclear North Korea will not coexist with us, with South Korea, or with human civilization itself. As Anthony Ruggiero and I recently noted:

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un last month sent assassins to Malaysia to murder his half-brother in a crowded airport terminal with a chemical weapon. Pyongyang has sent assassins abroad to kidnap and kill human rights activists and dissidents, proliferated ballistic missiles, and sold weapons — including man-portable surface-to-air missiles — to terrorists and their sponsors. It attacked South Korea twice in 2010: sinking a warship and shelling a fishing village, which killed 50 of its citizens. The hermit kingdom is a state sponsor of terrorism, even in the absence of a formal designation: it has helped Syria use chemical weapons against its own people, and attacked our freedom of expression with terrorist threats against movie theaters across the United States.

Nor can the U.S. invest its hopes in talks alone. Pyongyang insists that it will neither freeze nor dismantle its nuclear and missile programs. U.S. envoys have met with their North Korean counterparts during almost every year in the last decade, yet failed to induce Pyongyang to return to disarmament talks. In 2012, President Obama finally secured Pyongyang’s agreement to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. Two weeks later, Pyongyang reneged.

I might add that in 2007, North Korea secretly built a nuclear reactor in a part of Syria now controlled by ISIS. There is no compromise, no half-surrender, no piece of paper that will secure peace and prevent war without Pyongyang’s disarmament and without fundamental humanitarian reforms. As long as Pyongyang possesses weapons of mass destruction, and as long as its model of survival is based on terror and secrecy, it will still pose an existential threat to the United States, to Americans’ freedom of speech, and to the security of the entire world. As the Sony cyber terrorist threat, the Bangladesh Bank theft, and the horrors in Syria have shown us, North Korea isn’t just a Korean problem, it is, as President Trump said recently, “a humanity problem.” If you really think the solution to this is as simple as “talk to them,” at least review the record on just how many times President Obama and his predecessors tried to do exactly that.

That’s why, in the medium term, the U.S. may well decide that it must strike first to prevent a direct North Korean nuclear threat to the American people. The more Washington trusts Seoul, the more value it sees in maintaining an alliance with Seoul to help disarm Pyongyang peacefully, and the less likely war is. The less Washington trusts Seoul, the less certain it is whose side Seoul is on, and the less certain it is that a warning to Seoul wouldn’t also be a tip-off to Pyongyang, the less likely President Trump is to warn Seoul of a preemptive strike. You don’t have to tell me the risks of this. There are people in South Korea I love. Not that it should matter; the people on both sides of the DMZ who would suffer are human beings. We should want all of them to have a chance not only to survive, but also to live.

[Korean refugees flee south, 1950. This photo, by Max Desfor, won a Pulitzer Prize.]

There are times when I suspect that it requires a Ph.D. to harbor the madness that we can ever have peace with a “responsible” nuclear North Korea. Thankfully, the first 2,000 names in the telephone directory have a firmer grasp on reality than this. Only 35 percent of them support preemptive strikes, but just 11 percent of them support the idea of accepting that North Korea will keep building nukes. Overwhelming majorities want us to enforce sanctions (80 percent) and continue our diplomatic efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear program (81 percent). They hold uniformly dim views of North Korea (78 percent “unfavorable” and 61 percent “very unfavorable”). Majorities are “very concerned” about North Korea having nuclear weapons (65 percent) but would still support the use of force if an Asian ally got into a “serious conflict” with North Korea (64 percent).

Each week that passes diminishes our chances to prevent another war in Korea. There is no more time to be wasted on the palliative policies of engagement and talks that have produced no positive results, and which have done so much to bring us to the present crisis by paying Pyongyang to nuke up. For now, there is no chance that talks will achieve our key aim of disarming Pyongyang, but it would be a grave error to rule out talks entirely, because the time will come when diplomacy will be essential to preventing war. If sanctions and political subversion bring Pyongyang to the point where it fears (and Beijing also fears) that its regime will collapse — and to achieve the necessary pressure to disarm Pyongyang, they must — then we must leave Pyongyang a diplomatic escape that, while distasteful to it (and in some regards, to us) is still preferable to war. But for now, our choice increasingly comes down to making sanctions work or accepting that war is inevitable.

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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.

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* Most likely, just those that threaten it, such as air, naval, and missile defense units. Some level of U.S.-Korea alliance, such as a force structure that keeps American infantry and civilians within range of its rocket artillery, increases Pyongyang’s leverage over the United States. At the same time, an infantry-heavy force represents little real threat to Pyongyang.

** Choe should have known better than to call this the “Hello Kitty” offensive. Hello Kitty, of all sacrileges, is Japanese. “Siren strategy” would have been far better.

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