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Chosŏn Realism

datePosted on 12:37, May 28th, 2009 by Lew

(This and the last are posts I’ve been meaning to put up all week, having been prevented by a migraine and a deadline.)

This week seems an opportune time to link to a small but superb collection of North Korean propaganda posters reproduced (with two brief and fascinating contextual notes) from David Heather and Koen de Ceuster’s book North Korean Posters.

(“Let’s extensively raise goats in all families!”)

Discussion of the second test in the media has cast a great deal of heat and not very much light on the issues at stake, including one alarming statement in the NZ media by Tim Beal of Victoria University that the USA could defeat the DPRK militarily “without losing a single soldier” (audio), which runs contra to the understanding of the situation I had when I lived there. My understanding, admittedly mostly from pub discussions with officers in the South Korean and US defence establishment, was that the reason there’s a stalemate is a sort of mutually assured destruction, because while the forces in the South clearly have the strategic advantage, the DPRK has an unknown but very large number of well-protected and hidden artillery pieces and conventional rockets in the mountains just north of the border, within easy range of Seoul, and the few dozen hours it might take to destroy them all could result in catastrophic loss of life and infrastructure in that very densely-populated city.

Tough call.


17 Responses to “Chosŏn Realism”

  1. StephenR on May 28th, 2009 at 14:53

    This week seems an opportune time…

    You forgot about the…watchamacallit…budget! Perhaps you’re aiming at the ‘budget fatigue’ market..?

  2. StephenR on May 28th, 2009 at 14:58

    I recall an series/exhibition that showcased Chinese propaganda posters which were an interesting reflection on changing attitudes over the decades since the seventies. Those North Korean ones are…man, aggressive. Surprised? Nope.

  3. Lew on May 28th, 2009 at 15:04


    If Bill’s dulcet tones are beginning to grate, might I recommend this accompaniment to the posters?


  4. StephenR on May 28th, 2009 at 15:06

    Yuck, that’s bloated even for a national anthem.

    P.S. That particular Southlander sure ain’t dulcid.

  5. Pablo on May 28th, 2009 at 17:22

    I tend to agree with you that Mr. Beal’s assessment is too optimistic. More importantly, the current NK sabre-rattling has to be more properly understood in the context of competition between regime hard and soft-liners over the succession after Kim Jung-il (the issue of succession BTW, is considered the Achilles Heel of authoritarian regimes, especially personalist ones). By testing another relatively low yield nuke and another generation of short range SSMs (in the wake of the failure of their ICBM launch a couple of months ago), the regime hardliners are hoping to provoke a Western over-response that will play to nationalist sentiment on national security grounds and thereby undercut moderate moves at a post-Kim liberalisation.

    Thus the response needs to be constructed in that light, and Mr. Beale’s scenario might not work out quite the way he envisions it. China and Russia’s response, more so than that of the US, SK and Japan, are what matter most in this game. Without Chinese and Russian cooperation, the US-SK-Japan triumvirate have limited options other than a selective array of non-military sanctions that will have limited impact on the internal balance of power struggles within NK.

  6. Lew on May 28th, 2009 at 22:03


    Yeah. Whoever fires the first shot loses; the US for being the aggressor, and the DPRK by ceasing to exist.

    Though I disagree with Dr Beal’s assessment of the military situation on the 38th parallel, he’s fundamentally right in that the DPRK (or those who want it to persist) cannot countenance the possibility of open war. That way lies ruin. What other options do they have, without China and Russia?

    I think the responses of Russia and China are as relevant to the DPRK strategy – without Chinese buy-in to their agenda they have no long-term economic future; without Russia’s buy-in they lose their main (alleged) smuggling route. Those countries’ responses to the second test have, I think, exposed a flaw in the previous administration’s assessment of the region – that China and Russia are Natural Allies Of Evil(™), and would take any half-chance to put the boot into the US. I think that given the Obama administration’s perceived dovishness they had a half-chance to say nothing, or handwave weakly against the DPRK’s belligerent intransigence on the 1953 armistice, and yet they’ve essentially chosen to ally with the USA and ultimately the side of long-term regional peace. That’s a big deal, and one which must be scaring the hell out of certain factions within the wider Kim family regime. And it comes despite (in China’s case) the likelihood of significant upheaval on its northeastern border in the case that the DPRK collapses.


  7. reid on May 28th, 2009 at 23:25

    Personally I see NK’s ultimate target as Japan. That was what the missile test last month was about.

    Japan has been expanding its military manufacturing capability in the field of robotics and given the rising importance of unmanned vehicles and their world leadership in the field it could quickly capture a lead in the market. It could also become a real threat to China, don’t think China hasn’t noticed.

    Meanwhile Russia was making threatening noises toward NK today, warning about nuclear responses. Trouble is, if Russia takes out NK, it will have to deal with China.

  8. Lew on May 28th, 2009 at 23:35


    Personally I see NK’s ultimate target as Japan. That was what the missile test last month was about.

    `Target’ presumes they (think they) could launch an attack and survive more than 72 hours. That would speak to a lavel of delusion beyond even the Norkies. If they’re as well informed as they ought to be, they realise they can’t survive; their bargaining chip is that any offensive action against them could result in a few hundred thousand civilian casualties in Seoul whose blood is on the hands of the aggressor. No dice if they move first.

    I think we also disagree about the state of Northeast Asian affairs. I’m of the school which thinks that boundaries in the region (excluding the 38th and Taiwan) are largely set; I see no likelihood of either Japan or China engaging in anything other than generally peaceable, mutually-beneficial relations for the foreseeable future. China sees greater benefit in commerce than in military imperialism.


  9. Matt on May 29th, 2009 at 06:52

    I think Tim Beal is probably right. The key word is “militarily” however.

    The problem is political, in that winning the war would be easy. Conventional conflict would probably take less than a week. Winning the peace? With nuclear weapons lying around and people queuing up to buy them? How keen is South Korea to have a border with China anyway?

    I’m sure Beijing also has an opinion.

  10. Matt on May 29th, 2009 at 07:01
  11. Danyl Mclauchlan on May 29th, 2009 at 07:41

    Whenever the question of North Korea comes up I wonder what China’s long term strategic goal for the Hermit Kingdom is. Containment? Status quo?

  12. reid on May 29th, 2009 at 08:21

    `Target’ presumes they (think they) could launch an attack and survive more than 72 hours. That would speak to a lavel of delusion beyond even the Norkies.

    Lew, NK is playing the role of a willing suicide bomber. It is doing the talking on behalf of China.

    This is about China vs Japan. Japan and the US have been working to paint it as between NK and SK. It’s not.

    The aggressive acceleration of both NK’s and Iran’s nuclear programs is due to Bush 43’s actions in Iraq. What choice do either of those nations have?

    Finally, does anyone really think that NK would do this if it didn’t already have effective delivery systems?

    Expect either a pre-emptive attack by Russia on NK and/or an NK strike on Japan.

  13. marty mars on May 29th, 2009 at 09:46

    I’m not sure if any of the posturing is for external purposes. It seems to me that although we want to see North korea as a glove puppet of china, it isn’t. This aggressive posturing is for internal purposes to shore-up support for the different successors to the ‘dear leader’, as mentioned in pablo’s comment. Obviously one way to create fervent internal support is to generate heat around external enemies.
    Is this regime really so much worse than others or are we letting the propaganda influence our views? Do we really care about the staving citizens? there seem to be plently of them in democratic countries. Is it the fact that they are banging off nuclear weapons? Not as scary as india and parkistan having them in my book. Isn’t it really that they are out of control? Yes out of the control of western influences, and that really pisses off the powers that be. Don’t get me wrong – I am not a fan of this oppressive regime – I just can’t stand being told what to think.

  14. Lew on May 29th, 2009 at 10:42


    Cheers, good link.


    Good question, I can’t really answer it.


    I reject the premises.


    Right on – it’s an internal issue being played out in terms of external relations, and (given the past six it’d be foolish and simplistic to take the signals at face value and respond as if it’s a straight client-patron-enemies situation.

    To (attempt to) answer your latter questions:
    * Yes, it’s that bad.
    * No, we don’t really care in general, but it’s a useful hook on which to hang our other concerns about the regime.
    * Not on the same scale, and because there’s a ready comparison with the ROK, it’s clearly apparent that the reason for the poverty is not a lack of resources or internal strife, but a calculated socio-political strategy in which the people are collateral.
    * The nukes are symbolic. The DPRK’s immediate military deterrent is secured with conventional weapons, to which the nuke adds nothing until full implementation, which hardly anyone credible believes they have achieved.
    * The ‘US neo-imperialist control’ argument is at the core of DPRK propaganda, but I think it’s a red herring intended to distract from the issues of internal control which are the real problem. The West, including the USA, would be happy if the DPRK went the route of China, Russia and (to a very limited extent) Pakistan – they can keep their oppressive internal regimes as long as they don’t destabilise the region, and as long as they start behaving like good international citizens, which means an end to the (alleged) smuggling of arms, drugs and counterfeit currency. The trouble, in the DPRK, is that the degree of internal control largely precludes participating meaningfully in international trade or diplomacy.


  15. Jack on May 29th, 2009 at 14:14

    Matt – some of those posters are clearly Chinese, rather than Korean. That said, nice graphic design!

  16. Tom Semmens on May 30th, 2009 at 14:12

    Dealing once and for all with the DPRK was the war George W. Bush should have fought, not Iraq. Having said that, I doubt the ROK would even need the assistance of US ground forces. The ROK has 700,000 men in active service and five million reserves. They are equipped with modern weapons of the latest type and they would easily defeat the ill-trained, poorly equipped rabble that the DPRK’s army would undoutaably turn out to be.

    The DPKR possibly retains the ability to inflict heavy civilian losses on the people of Seoul, and may be able to deploy WMD’s.

    However, the DPRK army is short even of ammunition, barely trains due to shortages of fuel and supplies and the officer corps is corrupt to its very core.

    I think there is a lot of alarmist threat inflation over the North Korean military – the DPRK will turn out to be one more army like Saddam’s “formidable million man army.”

  17. Rich on June 2nd, 2009 at 14:24

    If North Korea can’t successfully invade the South, and knows it, then if the South Koreans/US don’t invade the North, then things will just continue indefinitely until a Korean Gorbachev decides the whole thing isn’t worthwhile.

    If North Korea gets deliverable nukes, then all this does is reinforce that any regime change is too risky.

    I guess the only real problem is if North Korea having nukes encourages S Korea and/or Japan to acquire them, normalising the acquistion of such weapons.

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