As anyone who follows the news will have seen recently, events on the Korean peninsula seem to be spiralling into a cycle of increasing tension as North Korea continues to provide strong rhetoric against the South and wider nations over the current diplomatic situation, which seems to have culminated so far in a ‘declaration of war’ and news that the Yongbyon reactor will be reopened. How serious is this, and does it really herald war for the peninsula?
North Korea is one of the most unusual and terrifyingly Orwellian states on the planet. Imagine a nation where every member of the population has spent the last 60 years being told that they live in a paradise, and that they have the greatest living conditions on earth. Add to this complete state control of the media and broadcast, a network of spies and informants and a gulag archipelago that would make Stalin jealous. Presiding over this nation of some 23 million utterly indoctrinated and militarized people is a tiny elite who enjoy a pampered and privileged lifestyle which provides them with any manner of goods and services. At the very top of this is the ruler Kim Jong Un, who has inherited his position from his father Kim Jong Il. The Kim dynasty are treated almost as gods, and no criticism of any form is officially tolerated.
Kim Jong Nam inherited his position from his father, who died in late 2011, and who had a challenging relationship with the outside world. At barely 30 years old and with no military experience or other state experience to speak of, the young Kim lacks the powerbase and support that his father built during his long years as the heir apparent. Kim Jong Il had several children, and appeared reluctant to anoint any one of them as the heir to the throne. By contrast he had spent many years in the shadow of his father, and was able to build some support in the senior echelons of North Korean society, and develop an understanding of how he could rule. The young Kim has none of this, and has been unexpectedly catapulted to power, bereft of the powerbase that can sustain him.
While Kim will enjoy the support of the State, he has come to power in a difficult time. The country has not had time to adjust to the thought of him as the leader of the nation – there was seemingly little preparing of the stage over the years for his ascension to the position (e.g. no portraits, TV appearances or any other sign of public presence). At the same time North Koreas position is precarious – the State has survived far longer than most totalitarian states by clamping down on any form of external news and contact with the real world. The combination though of mobile phones, the Internet and other forms of communication, coupled with dreadful famines and a dire economic situation means that while no Arab Spring uprising is likely, for the first time the complete and unquestioning adulation of the masses is not 100% assured. The transit of people out to China, and the slowly more porous northern border means that there is seepage of news and information from the outside world into North Korea. People are in a small way perhaps now realising that the world they inhabit is not a paradise after all.
This background is important when trying to understand the context of what we see going on in North Korea now. The rhetoric, the threats, the sense of trying to bring the nation together to unite against the external enemy – all of this seems a good way to help focus peoples minds on an external threat, and to perhaps once again pledge their fealty to Kim.
|Kim on guidance visit (copyright news.com.au)|
It is telling that there have been multiple photos of Kim appearing in the media while making visits to the armed forces. Kim Jong Il used to do something similar, whereby he would make a regular ‘guidance’ visit to various KPA units and reiterate advice on how things could be done better (a trait of Kim Jong Il was his unerring ability to be a world expert at whatever he turned his mind to apparently). If anything Kim Jong Un has been more prominent in these sorts of visits, where he seems determined to establish his credentials as a military leader. Not a military man by background, and with no real party power base to speak of, he needs to ensure that he can count on the loyalty of the armed forces to support his regime. Photos of him delivering guidance may appear somewhat hammed up to the Western audience, but in North Korea they serve as evidence that Kim has an understanding of the threat and is prepared to meet it.
The use of the rhetoric against South Korea and the US is important – it provides a unifying theme and helps focus attention on repelling the long expected attack. At the same time, the attempt to conduct a crude form of ‘nuclear blackmail’ by conducting tests of devices and rockets helps demonstrate Kims credentials as a credible world leader, with the most advanced technology and the ability to dictate terms to the wider world. The problem though is that as Kim is discovering now, it is difficult to back down from the pedestal when the other side don’t react as you expect them to.
The reaction from the wider world, including China (a crucial power broker in this area) has been overwhelmingly hostile to North Koreas recent nuclear tests. Unlike in previous years, where the implied threat of testing was enough to form deals which in part benefited North Korea, this test has instead seen the imposition of sanctions and global condemnation. While the regime itself is not under threat, it is clear that the testing of a nuclear weapon has backfired significantly, and led to further isolation.
The recent stepping up of rhetoric feels as much about trying to save face internally, by ignoring the deeper isolation (and likely suspension of food aid which would have helped alleviate some of the famine reportedly going on), and instead focusing on the threat to the nation. To that end the rhetoric emerging from Pyongyang in recent days has been significantly more hostile, and has culminated in a so-called ‘declaration of war’.
Is War Likely?
Despite the situation, an intentional war does not seem likely. There is no sign of any mobilisation in the North, and reports on the internet from visitors to South Korea say that there is no increase in military presence there either. The question that needs to be asked is not ‘what does North Korea gain from war’, but ‘what does Kim and his closest advisors gain from war’. Given the near certainty that any North Korean attack would be halted and then eventual regime collapse would surely follow, it is hard to see why Kim would wish to purposefully attack the south as such a move would be akin to ending his own regime.
If ones assumes that there is no desire for war in Pyongyang, then the assumption must be that what we are seeing is instead a very public manifestation of Kims attempts to secure the loyalty of the people and secure his own regime. One cannot help but wonder whether he and his advisors are looking for some kind of small victory which allows them to portray to the world (or more accurately North Korea) that he has triumphed over the South and the USA, and enable him to rule with greater support. So, the short answer is no, intentional war is not likely, but the real danger perhaps lies in miscalculation.
The authors own very personal concern about this situation is not of a juggernaut Korean army heading south into the DMZ in the manner of a Larry Bond novel. Instead it is where something occurs at a very localised level which rapidly escalates out of control. We’ve seen in the past circumstances where the two sides can exchange fire; given the delegation of authority to unit level to return fire, there is a danger that a poorly aimed live fire exercise, or a genuine miscalculation could lead to a rapid escalation of events over which neither side has full control.
|Kim and the Generals - an unlikely pairing? (copyright telegraph.co.uk)|
It is highly unlikely to think that the North Korean units would open fire of their own accord. With a very centralized command and control structure, it is unlikely that the regime would be willing to chance an overly keen junior officer starting a war on his own initiative. So, one question of key concern then is what are North Korean rules of engagement? If the situation emerges that they can return fire without further authority, then they could potentially misconstrue live firing exercises near the DMZ and in turn cause an escalation. The worry is perhaps that Kim and his advisors in Pyongyang may find themselves struggling to co-ordinate events, as poor North Korean communications and overtly heavy chains of command struggle to pass the messages in time. By the time the situation is clear, it may be too late to authorise a ‘ceasefire’ order. That then is perhaps the authors greatest worry, that something very minor escalates out of control due to poor understanding on both sides.
What would the implications of war be?
As odd a question as this may sound, there are several very serious implications if events in the Korean Penisula were to turn violent. Beyond the likely carnage and vast loss of life that would stem from any attacks, particularly with Seoul being in artillery range of the DMZ, the wider implications would have a huge impact, not just on Korea but also the global economy.
Assuming that any war is relatively short, due to the lack of resources, up to date equipment and effective personnel in the North Korean military (think Iraqi military of 1991 with even more obsolete equipment), the South will find itself laden with two major problems. Firstly the cost of rebuilding Seoul and other cities damaged in the attack. This by itself would have major economic consequences for the country and would probably have wider ramifications for the global economy as the worlds 15th largest economy struggled to rebuild. It could be done, but it would be at a vast cost of resources.
The more serious question is ‘what do you do with North Korea itself’? The cost of reunifying Germany in 1991 came in at billions of Marks for the German economy. This was to merge two economies that were not that dissimilar and were both relatively industrialised. To merge the two Korean economies would cost billions, if not trillions, as the South finds itself laden with the requirement to modernise and update a nation with creaking infrastructure not updated in decades. As the population adapted to life in the 21st century, there is likely to be real challenges preventing movement for jobs, food and support. The sheer scale of the challenge in ‘deprogramming’ the millions of North Koreans who will discover that everything they have taken from granted since birth is a lie is a job which will keep psychologists busy for generations.
The serious question probably needs to be asked – could the South ever realistically absorb the
financial and human cost of reunification with North Korea? As we move ever further away from the
last time the peninsula was united, the two countries ties grow fewer. Families split for generations
will eventually lose contact, and the relationship becomes more theoretical than real. As the two
countries have such different experiences, they are effectively becoming two distinct and separate nations. It is hard to imagine that in 30-40 years time as the last few who remember Korea as a united peninsula pass on, that there will be the same desire to work together. Over time one must wonder whether South Korea will eventually seek to step away from reunification and the ever more expensive responsibilities that go with it, in favour of seeing the North as a separate country. While this may be unlikely now, with little real hope for improvement in the economy or life in the North, it will only get more expensive and challenging to resolve this problem.
|Contemplating the reality of and limitations to power? (copyright www.telegraph.co.uk)|
The Nuclear Question
One issue that the author has deliberately not really focused on is the nuclear issue itself. This is because it is hard to imagine a scenario at present where the North is able to threaten with a nuclear weapon. While they may possess some devices that have been tested, we have not seen evidence of a credible deterrent force, nor an ability to deliver these weapons at any distance. At best a North Korean aircraft may be able to deploy the weapon over the south, assuming it made the run unmolested. Paradoxically, now that North Korea has nuclear weapons, it is discovering that possession is perhaps less valuable than the threat of acquisition. It has already seen that testing weapons does not elicit the same response as shutting down processing and enrichment plants. From a military perspective, until such point as North Korea can field a militarily viable deterrent force, capable of presenting a second strike capability, its nuclear devices are a concern, but hard to see as a useful military tool. Kim is doubtless well aware that use of a nuclear weapon on the peninsula will draw a harsh response from China and Russia, both of whom share land borders with North Korea, let alone the reaction from the USA.
So, while it is concerning to wonder what a dictator with nuclear weapons could do if he was so minded, the Koreans currently find themselves in a strange position- not able to command the same attention for possession as acquisition, and not able to make proper military use of any device, their nuclear capability is perhaps far less useful to them than some may think. It is perhaps for this reason then that the North has announced it will reactivate the Yongbyon complex, realising that it can elicit far more concessions from halting a programme in its tracks than it can from demonstrating an existing capability to the outside world.
What does this mean for the UK and USA?
There are wider implications of this for both the UK and the USA. For the Americans the current situation, and associated surge in deployment of some highly advanced capabilities will come as an expensive bill during this time of sequestration. The funding for the deployment of F22s and B2s will be found, but one has to wonder what else will be cut to pay for it. Given the deep financial crisis that the Pentagon currently finds itself in, this crisis is an unhelpful reminder that the outside world is not beholden to congressional politics. It also serves as a reminder that despite the focus on Iraq and Afghanistan, the US still has a large and very capable force deployed in both Japan and Korea to focus on the threat from the North.
For the UK the crisis has once again highlighted the value of both the Defence Attaché network and the wider Embassy network. While Humphrey has no idea at all of the sort of communications that have gone on, it is worth noting that the UK has an embassy in Pyongyang, unlike the US or most other Western governments. This means that even on a low key level, the UK is able to meet with North Korean counterparts and actually talk to them in some way – which is more than most other countries are able to do. This is arguably of genuine value to our allies as it enables us to offer a genuinely credible perspective on how things are going in Pyongyang and how they interpret the world. For a very small outlay to run the Embassy, the UK is able to help maintain influence in the ‘credit bank’ which we can use when justifying our value to other nations such as the US.
Similarly the presence of a senior Defence Attaché in Seoul helps serve as a reminder that the UK still has defence commitments to the region, and is a member of the UN Armistice Commission that was created at the end of the Korean war. The presence of this official allows the UK the opportunity to see the developing crisis from both sides, and to have a much better understanding of what is going on in the region.
For those who say that this doesn’t matter, then they should consider this - namely that any war which damages the South Korean and wider Asian economy will also have a massively damaging impact on our own economy. The global economy is so interlinked now that the fallout from the conflict could see major job losses and economic difficulty in the UK, plus the wider ramifications of human tragedy that inevitably follows a conflict. By following this properly, understanding the situation and being able to hopefully influence in a very small way, the UK is able to try and ensure it is best placed to understand and help resolve the situation. As a member of the P5, and a nation with strong economic and cultural interests in the region, the UK does have a strong vested interest in the peaceful resolution to this current situation.
This is a difficult time for the Korean Peninsula, it is always concerning when rhetoric is notched up
and talk of war follows, no matter where the situation is. One must hope that cooler heads prevail
and that the circumstances emerge whereby the North is able to stand down with its dignity
relatively intact, so as to avoid humiliating a potentially dangerous foe. One must hope that this
situation resolves itself peacefully, for the consequences if things do go wrong are simply too terrible to contemplate.