Brief considerations on Korea

Normally I would leave discussion of this sort of topic to Pablo, whose expertise is much greater than mine (and I expect he will weigh in with his own thoughts on the topic too). But I lived there for a few years and had a great deal of time to ponder the security situation there, both through my own research and in discussion with several groups of former soldiers and senior businesspeople whom I was teaching English whilst there, and I think I have a handle on it.

A bit of background. The DPRK (North) and ROK (South) Korea remain officially at war; the armistice agreed in 1953 after the Korean War was not a peace treaty and signalled only a cessation of hostilities which has been accompanied by significant military and intelligence preparations on both sides. It is a tense situation, but it is at a fairly stable equilibrium because the mutual assured destruction principle still holds to a large extent. The ROK and its allies understand that the DPRK and its primary military and command assets are sufficiently well-defended that an assault from the South would draw a counter-attack which would inflict massive civilian, military and infrastructure casualties — estimates range in the hundreds of thousands of deaths in greater Seoul alone, which is within easy artillery range. And that’s with conventional weaponry alone, not taking into consideration the possibility of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons (the regime certainly has the former two; it’s generally agreed that it also has the latter, but not in a deliverable form). For its part the DPRK understands that such an assault on the ROK would spell the end of its regime at the hands of a US-led NATO force.

There is a sense among people responding to the the news that yesterday’s exchange of artillery fire at Yeonpyeong Island in the West Sea is qualitatively different from the dozens of other skirmishes which have taken place over the past 50-odd years of this cold conflict. It is true that this is one of the more serious engagements of that war, but it essentially follows the same pattern. Some action by the ROK and its allies (in this case a joint US-ROK naval exercise) granted the DPRK a pretext to rattle its chains; it fired a few rounds and some fiery rhetorical statements and the ROK does likewise. Two ROK soldiers have died, a dozen or so soldiers and a few civilians have been injured, and more civilians from the region have evacuated to the mainland. The casualty count is higher than usual, but so far, so typical. Late last night (NZ time) the DPRK released a statement alleging that the ROK had fired first. This is almost certainly false — the ROK rarely instigates these sorts of engagements — but that doesn’t matter. The purpose of the statement is to raise questions as to the ROK’s moral standing in the engagement, and to provide the ROK government with cover to stand down on the basis that it’s not worth going to war over a misunderstanding. If they do stand down the ROK government risks a minor loss of face, but since they are a liberal-democratic state whose populace has no appetite for war (and for the strategic reasons mentioned above) then barring much more serious provocation they will do so, President Lee Myung-bak’s own florid rhetoric about “enormous retaliation” notwithstanding.

Again: business as usual. While this latest event is perhaps quantitatively more serious than some previous events, it is qualitatively no different. This is the same strategic posturing game which is played out every crab fishing season in the West Sea, and year-round on the land border between the two states. The most serious mistake most of those who are now calling this the start of World War III are making is to try to understand this event in customary diplomatic terms as they would the relationship between two liberal-democratic states in good international standing. The DPRK’s actions and motivations make no sense when viewed in this light, because the DPRK is not, and never has been such a state. The explanation of these events are to be found, if anywhere, in an examination of the DPRK’s internal regime dynamics. Pablo has written about this topic recently with regard to the sinking of the ROK naval vessel Cheonan in March, and I urge you to reread his post in light of these most recent events.

So I don’t think there’s anything much to this. Due to the DPRK’s military doctrine of total war, an invasion or genuine commencement of hostilities would not begin with a few mortars; it would start with a massive and rapid deployment of force, targeted at the most vulnerable civilian and infrastructure targets, likely in the middle of the night and preferably during an adverse weather event or some sort of civil unrest. None of these conditions abide at present. But the fundamental point is that the tense yet stable strategic situation on the 38th has not changed, so it is very unlikely that either side will choose this juncture as the hook upon which to hang the possible demise of their state. There have been some recent developments in that strategic situation — the probable elevation of Kim Jong-Il’s son to a senior position in preparation for ascent to leadership of the regime; fresh concerns about the regime’s nuclear weapons program, and so on — but I believe these are too minor and too recent to have wrought the sorts of changes to the internal DPRK dynamic and to the cross-border dynamic which would be required for a substantial change in posture.

Of course, you never know. I have no special inside information or insight into the strategic situation there, and it may be that events of which few people are aware are driving this situation. But on the face of things this has been just another day on the 38th Parallel.


14 thoughts on “Brief considerations on Korea

  1. Good analysis Lew.

    I guess the only real danger is if this attack was precipitated by some internal power struggle between soft- and hard-liners in the DPPK military in light of the succession to Kim Jung-Un’s leadership. The latter was promoted to four star general at age 27 in spite of his complete lack of leadership background or skills. For the old guys who earned their stars the hard way, that may not sit too well, which is why I think that given his limited experience etc., Kin Jung-Un is a walking dead man once the old man kicks off. So perhaps what we are seeing is the first salvo (no pun intended) in an internecine power struggle in light of the succession. That could be trouble as the internal logic of the power struggle could outweigh rational considerations of international consequences. Nukes will not factor into the equation in any event, for the reasons you describe.

    The muted ROK response says much about how they see the situation, because if anyone can glean a motive for the DPPKs behaviour it is its southern neighbour. On the other hand, the response may be muted simply because the ROK does not want to exacerbate the situation or play into the hands of the hard-liners up North.

  2. Thanks Pablo. Yes, I agree — though lacking any detail beyond what you describe here and in the linked post I didn’t see much use in rehashing it. But it’s certainly true that those cold warriors are just as practiced at internal brinksmanship and games of annihilation chicken as they are at the external versions we’re familiar with.

    That said, I do have a theory (based on discussions with Korean veterans, for what that somewhat distorted view is worth) that the best hopes for Korean peace lie with one of the generals taking the lead, rather than the Kim dynasty; in a similar way to how Khruschev, as a trusted member of Stalin’s inner circle and one responsible for enacting many of its more brutal policies, had seen the failings of Stalinism more clearly than some of the other, more distant, observers within the regime. Though I’m the first to concede that the hope of such a comparatively benign outcome as observed in the USSR is faint in the Korean case.


  3. Eric, yeah. Somewhat surreal, since most of the DMZ is beautiful forested wilderness the like of which doesn’t exist elsewhere in the ROK. Apparently the last known habitat of totemic Korean animals such as the black bear.

    Found it even spookier from the Chinese side, in Dandong, viewing the DPRK across the river. There are factories and shipyards and apartments and even a ferris wheel on the far side — none of it lit or evidently inhabited. We sat and watched on the riverfront for hours, saw no vehicles except army patrol boats. A few people walking or cycling on the bank, and the only light we saw, just on dark, was the blue glow of a single welding torch down at the waterline. That was a grim metaphor.

    Funny story, though. Once, on a roadtrip in ROK, my wife and I went up toward (not into) the DMZ. I stopped to photograph the explosives laid under a bridge (all the bridges, bluffs, cuttings & dams up there are wired in case of ground invasion). When I returned to the car we were blocked in by police. The officer was very polite and wanted all my details — where I lived, who I worked for, my visa status, &c, and also details of my family and residence in NZ, including phone numbers and all. I thought it best to comply fully, and after 15 minutes or so it became clear that he didn’t care a damn about my taking photos of artillery emplacements or dynamite piles; he was looking to retire soon and just wanted a contact to put on his NZ residency visa application! Never did hear from him, though.


  4. And speaking of succession dramas in oppressive dictatorial regimes, rumour is that Frank Bainimarama has died of a heart attack. (According to Ali Jones of Newstalk ZB, this has been confirmed by family member of a senior Fijian interim government official).

    Update: A TVNZ reporter has apparently spoken to Bainimarama this afternoon. So much for that source.


  5. I would guess the opposite, Pablo. While I think the real cause of this little event lies in the internal politics of Pyongyang, I don’t think Jong-Un’s position is as weak as you say it is. Everything you mentioned about his lack of leadership experienced applied to Jong Il back in the 80s, and obviously he had little trouble keeping hold. I think the Jong-Un vs The Generals dynamic you’ve described doesn’t capture the real situation. More likely is one group of Generals vs another group, with Jong-Un the figurehead of the second group, whose real leaders are likely to be Chang Sung-Taek and his wife. Whether one group is more hardline than the other, or whether it’s simply a factional dispute over the spoils of power with no genuine policy content, I’m not sure.

    One thing that does seem interesting to me when you look at the continuum of incidents along the inter-Korean border from 1953 to the present is that the last fifteen years have been mostly dominated by naval incidents while the border itself has been quiet. At first I thought this might be related to South Korea’s well known aspirations to be Asia’s second or third blue water navy. But North Korean naval troublemaking probably assists rather than impedes that aspiration. More likely is a perception on both sides that land-based provocations carry an unacceptably high risk of escalation, while naval ones are appropriately low volume, even when they involve attacks on civilians as this did.

    On a parochial note everybody is talking about this at my workplace this morning. There’s quite a few people who seem to relish the idea of giving the North Koreans a kicking, worryingly, but I doubt their views will find much acceptance in the actual corridors of power, where corruption and apathy is at least accompanied by a realistic view of the costs of war.

  6. Hugh, I’m not so sure. Those generals held an actual, genuine loyalty for Kim Il-sung, since he was the guerilla leader under whom most of them served fighting the Japanese — in other words, a real soldier with real nationalistic aspirations. Also, until his death, the DPRK was doing comparatively well — for much of that time, better than the ROK (with Soviet & other patronage). Korean society being what it is, it’s not hard to see them transfer some of that loyalty to his son and anointed heir, but those bonds of military and confucian loyalty have been strained in the intervening decades, and a second-generation of unblooded leadership may be too much to bear, particularly given the state’s flagging fortunes. In addition, the generals are no longer the same — few, if any, from Kim Il-sung’s era remain.

    The remainder of your analysis I tend to agree with. The gung-ho attitude toward North Korea, particularly among Americans who don’t see the downside, is frightening. I find that if you keep repeating the phrase ‘10,000 artillery shells per hour into one of the most densely-populated and congested cities in the world’, they start to get an inkling of the potential for a bloodbath.


  7. Hugh:

    I am not sure how you “guessed the opposite” to my comment other than being your usual contrarian self (apparently fueled by water cooler debate), but your first paragraph essentially confirms what I said in my comment on the post–there are factional disputes rather than real international issues at play.

    The rest of your comment was uninteresting, although Lew is always nice to engage with tangents. What the Fox-fed Yank public think about nuking NK (when they are not nuking Iran) is irrelevant, and the fact that the SK leadership is soft-peddling the incident is clear proof that this is not a bonafide international incident worthy of escalation (did I not say this before?).

    It does not matter if Kim Jung-Un is backed by one side or another–it is the succession crisis that matters. I could elucidate a whole lot more on authoritarian succession crises being the Achilles Heel of the regime, but you seem to like simple descriptions of events and historical precedent as explanatory variables rather than conceptual frameworks based upon both of them. So be it. I can also refer you to my previous post on the universal law of genetic decline so as to give you a hint, beyond what Lew explained above, why the son is not quite like the father or grandfather.

    So to put it simply for you, since you already understand the basics without apparently comprehending the bigger picture: it is the NK internecine quarrel about the direction of the succession, not the personalities involved, that are the driving force in this affair. Even if you do not understand this, the SK leadership clearly does even if they have their own domestic reasons for doing so–which is the point that Lew made at the onset.

  8. Pablo, where I disagree with you is your assertion that Jong-Un is a “walking dead man once the old man kicks off”.

    And who’s talking about the Fox-fed yank public? I work for Japanese government.

  9. It’s hard to debate, Lew, because we know so little about what goes on in Pyongyang. Even if we were experts, rather than interested amateurs, there’s little we could say with authority. A big question mark is the degree to which Kim Jong Il cares about his legacy. If he’s disposed to use his powers of patronage to build a pre-existing network of support for Jong Un before he dies, or becomes so sick he’s effectively politically dead, all the factors you’ve listed may not be insurmountable.

    Of course the frustrating thing is that if he had done this we would have no way of knowing, due to the extraordinary opacity of North Korea’s power structures. So I guess we’ll have to see.

    The problem with the sombre reflection on the carnage that a new Korean war would wreck is that it effectively gives the North all the cards. There’s no incentive for North Korea to behave more than absolutely minimally responsibly, at least to anybody other than China or to a lesser extent Russia. If North Korea blows up a crisis that might lead to war the onus is then on the South to defuse it – and there’s an incentive for another crisis to be blown up as soon as possible.

  10. OK Hugh.

    We can respectfully disagree on the fate of Jung-Un and whether he commands enough support to put down what to my mind will be inevitable challenges to his leadership, which I see as the likely cause of this and the previous ChonAn sinking incident.

    My remark about the Fox-fed public had to do with the rabble rousing in the US that I have been watching and was not directed at at your work interlocutors. I should have made that clear.

    Here is an analysis the differs from mine and overlaps with yours and ties into Lew’s original post. It is good food for thought:

  11. Lew / Pablo,

    You both seem in agreement that this is much ado about nothing. But DPRK’s significance ultimately lies in that it is a client state of the PRC. And China has been unwilling to distance itself from the DPRK. If anything, it is drawing closer. Zhou Yongkong (a Standing Committee member, and a rising power) attended the annointment of Kim Jong-Un (standing next to Kim Jong-Il), while Xi Jinping described the Korean war as a war of foreign aggression, something Jiang Zimin or Hu Jintao have not (at least to my awareness). Turning points are very subtle . . .

  12. Will:

    The PRC has everything to lose and nothing to gain by backing the DPRK to the hilt. It does need a major conflict in its backyard (in what it essentially views as a buffer state) at a time when it is unable to protect the sea lines of communication upon which it depends on for 80% of its primary good imports (including strategic commodities like coal). The DPRK is an economic drain on, and a source of illegal immigration into the PRC, among many other negatives. Even ideologically the two regimes have moved apart. A major war that forces the US to invoke its security guarantee for the ROK is exactly what the Chinese do not need at this moment.

    If anything, the best Chinese response to a war on the Korean peninsula that involves the US is to stage some sort of assault on Taiwan that will force a quid pro quo ceasefire and withdrawal of troops back to home soil. Even that scenario would be too risky, although less so than committing Chinese troops to battle against US forces on the peninsula.

    So the reason the PRC has diplomatically backed the DPRK is to help it save face and reaffirm the diplomatic ties between them that keep the DPRK as a buffer. And like Russia, the Chinese see anything that keeps the US busy wasting military resources putting out small fires world-wide as a good thing for them.

    Bottom line: the Chinese are into conflict-avoidance unless things are overwhelmingly on their terms regardless of who stands next to who at foreign photo ops. This is not one of those times.

  13. this was mildly interesting, but could i interject that, in the interests of resuscitating precision in english language discussion of political events, you all consider using the phrase ‘liberal-oligarchic’ in referring to western governments? unless discussing helvetia?

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