The North Korea flap seems to be calming down, so here I reprint my original essay for the Diplomat a few weeks ago on the crisis. I’d like to thank Diplomat Editor Harry Kazianas for inviting my submission. And yes, that is a picture of me heading off to the Pyongyang Casino last summer, and I am happy to say I won $60 at blackjack against the Chinese dealer. Apparently my gambling problem is ‘pivoting’ to Asia too.
North Korea is a constant enigma, a point made apparent once again in the current crisis. Analysts of every stripe have mispredicted its behavior and longevity for decades, and this time around, it is again very unclear what exactly they want. So rather than make any predictions that will turn out to be laughably wrong next month, here are some observations that help narrow range.
1. Goaded into Conflict?
The North Koreans are experts at bluster. The previous president of South Korea was so disliked, that he was portrayed as a rat being decapitated in the Pyongyang newspapers. So when the North started saying outrageous stuff this time around, the first response of analysts everywhere was cynicism. And in the South Korean media, although it is front-page news, the commentary borders on ridicule. No one believes they mean it. A Korean friend of mine spoke for a lot of South Koreans, I believe, when he said to me that he almost wished NK would pull some stunt so that SK would finally give the NK the beating it richly deserves after so many decades of provocation.
In fact, this is why I think the language this time is so over-the-top, such as nuking the US homeland directly. Because NK has such a rich history of extreme rhetoric, they must be more and more extreme in each crisis, or no one will pay attention to them. NK is the boy who cried wolf. So many threats about a ‘sea of fire’ in Seoul and ‘merciless’ strikes against imperialism pass with no follow-through that no one listens anymore. If you have seen any of the Korean-man-on-the-street interviews in the media, again and again South Koreans say it is no big deal, they are not really paying attention, and so on. Hence, only more and more outrageous NK talk will get our attention.
The danger here is that this may paint NK into a rhetorical corner where they must lash out – not because they actually want to, but because their credibility as a player in the region, as well before a riled-up domestic audience, will require some follow-up to tough talk. For example, the North Korea Central New Agency (KNCA) has said that NK teenagers are swarming into recruitment stations in eager anticipation of smashing the Yankee Colony (SK). If public opinion is whipped up like this, does it not require some kind of outlet? All the nationalist hysteria stoked by Pyongyang has to go somewhere. In China, the party lets students raise havoc at Japanese facilities as steam control. What will North Korea do with its now-energized population? Are dreary ‘mobilizations’ for the coming planting season really a substitute for military action after months of tough talk? This is why I think some sort of provocation is likely; a missile test seems likely, but will that be enough?
The Kaesong closure, I believe, demonstrates this rhetorical entrapment problem. As NK war-talk reached a fever pitch in the last few weeks, the SK media responded with derision, saying we’ve heard all this before, they don’t mean it, it’s all just talk, etc. If the North did mean it, they would take action that showed a real willingness to carry costs for this feud, specifically, closing Kaesong. (Closing the Kaesong inter-Korean industrial zone is costly, because the SK companies that operate there do not pay their NK employees directly, but the regime, and in dollars. So it is huge cash cow for the otherwise hard currency-poor North.) So contemptuous was the Southern commentary, that the DPRK foreign ministry released a hyperbolic counter-statement decrying exactly this commentary and threatening to close Kaesong. A short time later, they did.
The point is that NK was effectively goaded into upping the level of tension (closing Kaesong), even though they probably did not want to. Boy-who-cried-wolf NK now so lacks credibility, that they were forced to escalate just to be taken seriously. If one combines that perceived need to act for credibility’s sake alone, with the ever-increasing extremism of language which previous hyperbole requires, then it is easy to see NK doing something really dangerous. NK is painting itself into a corner and may be goaded into escalation by external cynicism, even though the elite would rather not do so. (For students of international relations theory, this is an excellent example of action-reaction spirals taking on a life of their own.)
2. The Analysts vs. the Media
In the last few weeks I have done a fair amount of media on NK, and I have come away with the strong impression that the global media and the NK analyst community really differ on the crisis. If you watch CNN, BBC, Sky News, and other major outlets, the coverage frequently leads with North Korea and takes the threat of war very seriously. Reporters sent to Seoul or Yeonpyeong have a tendency to end their reports with lines like, ‘but these people know that their lives could be changed by rain of missiles in a matter of minutes,’ or ‘Korea today stands on the brink of all-out war.’ Easy there, cowboy – you reporters only got off the plane at Incheon two days ago. Indeed, I mentioned during the 2010 crisis that I thought the media were flirting with alarmism then too. That may be great for ratings but only amps up the pressure on all parties. As the goading of NK into the Kaesong closure suggests, the media can generate a self-fulfilling prophecy if they hype the region as ‘at the brink of 1950 all over again.’ (Let’s thank god there was no Fox News during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)
But if you listen to the analyst community, particularly those of us in Korea or with genuine local expertise, there is near unanimity there will be no war. I have seen lots of my friends on BBC, CNN and other outlets in the last few weeks, and we are all saying the same thing: there will be no war.
My own sense that this is pretty well-known, but it is worth repeating: NK will lose a war – completely and quickly. As lots of analysts have been noting recently, NK’s military is clapped out and short on everything – food, fuel, spare parts. Indeed, one obvious reason for NK to acquire nuclear weapons is to short-cut the widening military gap between it and SK, much less the US. While we hear that the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) is the fourth largest force in the world, that may not actually be so. Further, there are big questions as to its combat effectiveness and willingness to fight once the war turns and command-and-control begins to break down. (Today’s US military tends to target C&C in conflicts with airpower. It is likely to do so in a second Korean conflict.) The KPA, like other, erstwhile communist militaries, is postured around WWII and the Korean War. Huge amounts of infantry, tanks, and artillery would fight in massive battles like Kursk 1943. But that is simply not how the hi-tech US and South Korean militaries will fight. NK is almost completely lacking in the ‘C4ISR’ (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) technologies that structure today’s ‘networked battlefield.’ All those NK teens with their ‘summer of 1914’ spirit will find their divisions pummeled by stand-off strikes they can neither defend against nor respond to. American airpower particularly will be so dominant and intrusive, and Korea is geographically so narrow, that any NK concentrations will be easy targets. One could easily imagine Gulf War 1-style ‘roads of death’ all over again.
(The one conventional ace in the hole NK has is special forces. Estimates go as high as 200,000, and it is widely thought they will land in SK on mini-subs and light planes, or pour through tunnels dug under the DMZ. [In fact DMZ tours will actually take you into a few of the tunnels the South has uncovered.] We assume these spec-ops forces will create behind the lines havoc, targeting bridges, power plants, etc. Given their Korean nationality, they will not have the ‘cultural fit’ problem of German soldiers who tried this on the Americans during the Battle of the Bulge.)
While North Korean artillery could indeed devastate Kyeonggi, allied air power would target those firing tubes right from the start. Worse for NK, tens of thousands of dead civilians would be a humanitarian catastrophe but not shake the constitutional and material foundations of the South. And it would immediately cost NK any remaining global sympathy. China particularly would have no choice after such a civilian holocaust but to abandon NK to its fate. If China did not, it would immediately confirm the fears of every neighboring state that it is a dangerous hegemonic aspirant, and it would face a very tight containment ring with Japan, India, and ASEAN working together.
A similar logic applies to a Northern nuclear strike against the South. Estimates are that NK has between five and ten warheads between five and ten kilotons each. (Those numbers come from US and SK intelligence, but they are soft.) That yield – the energy released by the atomic chain reaction – is about half that of the Hiroshima bomb, which killed around 100,000. A Northern strike would again create a humanitarian catastrophe, but almost certainly not knock the South out of war. With fifty million people, South Korean could ride out even a full NK first strike and still fight.
Worse, large questions loom about whether the warheads could actually be delivered. NK’s air force is even more dated than its army. So we assume they would use a missile – hence all the tests. But this is still tricky. Nuclear warheads must be miniaturized to fit; the earliest US bombs were enormous. Precise targeting is hard; NK rockets may simply fall in the water. (This may seem unlikely, because SK is not that far away. But those who remember the ‘throw-weight’ debate of the Cold War will recall that the USSR regularly built very large ICBMS, because their guidance technology was so primitive. It is not hard to imagine this applies to NK as well.) Worse, missile defense technologies are improving, and the US has begun moving such assets to the region. And finally, as with a conventional devastation of Seoul, a nuclear strike would immediately cost NK all global sympathy. Indeed, China might reckon at that point that nuke-using NK is so dangerous that it should actually help the Americans and South Koreans invade the country.
Lastly, a point rarely mentioned in the media coverage is that SK still has the death penalty. After a second Korean war, particularly if it involves enormous civilian casualties in the South, most think there will be war crimes trials. And given how awful NK human rights abuses are, there will likely be a truth and reconciliation process that will probably not offer much reconciliation. In a NK collapsing under US-Southern airpower and ground advance, one could easily see the Kim family running for their lives as did the Gaddifis or Ceaușescus. Angry North Koreans might simply lynch them as happened to Mussolini, while captured elites would almost certainly face the hangman like Saddam did.
In short, most analysts think a war is extremely unlikely. NK will lose – quickly and completely. This will not be 1950 all over again. If there is a second war, SK will push for a final resolution to the long nightmare of NK orewellianism, and the US will likely support that. China will be backed into a corner, because Northern survival strategy depends on civilian counter-value strikes that will be intolerable in global opinion. And no one in the Kim family wants to wind up like Gaddifi or Milosevic. While Dennis Rodman’s new bff, Kim Jong Un, may be too young and naïve to know this stuff, I am all but positive, as are most in the analyst community, that the generals and Kim Jong Il loyalists who surround KJU on the National Defense Commission do know this well.
3. So What is the Point of this Crisis?
Which brings us to this current crisis, where the regime’s goals are once again very unclear. They want no war, as they will lose it, badly and quickly, and then face the hangman. Hence I would say that this is simply more brinksmanship. I see four possible reasons, not mutually exclusive:
I think John Hudson at Foreign Policy gets it right that one goal is simply attention. A long-standing element of NK ideology is its evolution into a ‘strong and prosperous nation’ with global respect, but in reality it is ‘Turkmenistan without the oil,’ as a friend once put it at a conference. (That was my own experience in NK as well; the place is falling apart.) And it is well-known now that the regime’s real ideology is hyper-nationalism with a nasty racial element. Or, as your NK guide will tell you, ‘everyone knows we Koreans are best!’ So prestige – the sense that others are talking about NK, are aware of it, worry about it, respect it, and so on – is very important. As Oscar Wilde once put it, ‘the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.’ This is why NK gets ‘insulted’ so easily. Especially for KJU, new and dilettantish, global attention is an important way to verify to himself and his people that he is in fact the leader of a real country and not just the gangster-in-chief of the Korean version of the Corleone family (which he is).
The SK Sunshine Policy (1998-2007) was the good old days of post-Cold War NK. Soviet aid ended, provoking a terrible famine that nearly brought down the country in the late 1990s. Chinese aid means the increasing economic colonization of the country. The Americans and the Japanese have gotten burned too often to come back to negotiations without real concessions. So a return to Sunshine in which SK extended nearly unconditional aid would be ideal. But last year, SK voters once again elected a conservative president. Traditionally NK tests new SK presidents with its hijinks. In this sense, the current crisis is ‘ritualized.’ NK would have preferred a left-wing president; last year’s leftist candidate promised a return to some version of Sunshine. So one interpretation is that this crisis is an effort to bully the new president into aid.
c. Recognition of its Nuclear Status
Another possibility is that a nuclear crisis demonstrates that NK has arrived as a nuclear state. NK has ginned up its own little version of the Cuban Missile Crisis, high on the momentum of its nuclear and missile tests, complete with all the diplomatic pomp-and-circumstance and global media attention befitting a nuclear power. KCNA particularly has hammered away at the theme that NK is now a part of an elite club; nuclear weapons are, apparently, ‘the nation’s life.’ Conversely, the other five members of the Six Party Talks (NK, SK, China, US, Japan, Russia) all want NK to denuclearize. Hence a regional nuclear crisis may serve to re-set the negotiating table so that NK nukes are considered a part of the status quo. They will never give them up, and this crisis is probably meant to tell us that.
d. the KPA Defends Military First
Finally, my own kremlinological guesstimate is that this crisis actually reflects regime power jockeying. Under Kim Jong Il, the military’s role was elevated, likely to forestall a coup. While Kim Il Sung ruled the country through a well-established network of loyalists and did in fact fight during the Pacific War, KJI did nothing of the kind. So in the mid-90s, KJI coopted the KPA through a ‘military-first policy’ that moved NK from a party dictatorship toward military cronyism. The KPA was elevated in the constitution and had preferential access to the budget. Indeed, this militarization contributed to the famine by stripping the civilian budget of funds. NK defense spending is reckoned to be a staggering 25-35% of GDP. (That figure too is a guess based on academic conferencing and such on this issue; there is no obvious way to verify it.)
So if KJU is the reformer of rumor, or if he simply wants NK to be less dependent on China and so less vulnerable to its domination, a reduction in the military predation would be wise. It is not hard to imagine therefore that the generals are struggling behind the scenes to gin up reasons why the KPA continues to require an enormous presence in the government and economy. An external crisis serves perfectly to demonstrate the KPA’s necessity to North Koreans, to explain why they are poorer than their Southern cousins (which they know now due to the partial marketization and informal relations that sprung up with China since the famine), and to remind KJU and the Kim family who is really in charge.
This does not mean a coup or shooting in the streets. Given the post-unification hangman’s noose that awaits all DPRK elite figures, there are strong incentives for all players to constrain factional jockeying to prevent regime collapse. That said, it is hard to imagine a youngster with no military or party experience taking over a Confucian-gerontocratic, militarized, ideological system with no establishment pushback. My own sense is that this crisis is the outcome of an internal struggle over the new pecking order under Kim III. The military does not want its privileges rolled back or civilian authority – of the party over the military – restored.
Here is a follow-up, ‘response to my critics’ piece to this essay that responds to critiques from readers. Read together, I think they form a nice whole.