By Bandy Aowdenek
Somewhere in a bunker in Pyongyang Kim Jong Un is sat surrounded by the lads from the Pyongyang University Union, as they chant “DO IT, DO IT, DO IT, DO IT, DOIT DOIT DOIT! But no, go on, do it, it’ll be funny”. That assessment may or may not be true. A Thousand Flowers has no bloggers from the Hermit Kingdom as of yet. However this analysis is not entirely that different from much of the mainstream media who can only point to insanity as the cause of North Korea’s recent actions.
There’s a lot to back up the idea that the North Korean regime is behaving erratically – the reports that birds cried when Kim Jong il died and keeping a man who died in 1994 as your Eternal President are a few giveaways.
North Korea, or to give it it’s proper title the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea was one of dozens of new states to emerge from WW2 as a state aligned with the Communist bloc. Despite North Korea’s origins as a Soviet ally in the days of the cold war, today it’s ended up somewhere quite different and rather strange – the philosophy that informs the state is not “Marxism-Leninism” but instead “Juche”, which relates to “self-reliance”. In fact in October of last year after Kim Jong Un became the new leader of North Korea potraits of Lenin and Marx were removed from Pyongyang.
North Korea’s ended up with a bizarre ideology that is a product of it’s circumstances – as a siege state, surrounded by enemies in Japan, South Korea and the United States. It’s sole remaining patron, China offers support to the North Koreans not out of an identification or solidarity with the regime but rather that it fears catastrophe if the state were to fall apart. So North Korea has developed a Spartan style military based economy making it one of the foremost national security states in the world. It has one of the largest armies on earth – arguably the largest if you include it’s reserves.
One in every twenty members of it’s population is enlisted in the Korean People’s Army. It has thousands of artillery pieces pointed at the South Korean capital Seoul. However it’s most important possession – one that gives the besieged state real clout – is it’s nuclear weapons programme. It’s the North Korean’s nuclear weapons that allow it to sit around the same table with the US, Russia, China and South Korea – even though the North only has the same GDP per capita as Latvia or Turkmenistan.
So North Korea is an isolated, nuclear armed, police state that is desperate to start a war to save the regime’s skin. Or if not start a war, cause enough instability in the region that South Korea and the US will relent to it’s demands – perhaps the introduction of more aid for example. The reality is a bit more complex. What the North Koreans ultimately want is not a war with the US and the South that they would be defeated in (though it would not be like the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, as I will look at later). Kim Jong Un actually wants a formal peace treaty with the South and the United States, as opposed to the armistice agreement they have today.
What?? North Korea wants to make peace?? How does that fit in with the sea of fires in the United States, the call initiate to thermonuclear war “today or tommorow”? All of that may just be rhetoric – but what about the alleged sinking of the Cheonan, or the shelling of the Yeonpyeong Islands, two cases in which North Koreans were accused of aggression, and with no similar (overt military) response in kind from the South or the US. How can this be the behaviour of a state that wants peace?
I’m going to link to two youtube videos in this post by a channel called Caspian Report. I’d recommend anyone who has a youtube account to subscribe to the channel, it has some great geopolitical analysis presented very well. The first one details what the North Koreans actually want.
If you’re too lazy to watch the video or don’t have speakers the basic gist is that Kim Jong Un knows his state is a mess and that if he wants to reform it he will inevitably come into conflict with the ruling elite of the North. Given North Korea’s siege status that ruling elite is made up in no small part by the military. Jong Un wants a peace treaty so that he can attract outside investment into the North from businesses who are otherwise unwilling to build real estate for the US airforce to bomb. To remove that threat he needs a formal peace treaty, a guarantee his state will not be attacked. Once he has that formal treaty he can move on to face his rivals in the regime – namely the military. Right now North Korea is the most militarised state on earth and the generals will be wary of any moves to limit their influence. Only with a peace treaty can the regime safely start to cut military spending and invest it in civilian infrastructure.
The North Korean military see Jong Un as an untested leader who has achieved his position solely through the North’s dynastical system – Kim Il Sung founded the North Korean state, his son Kim Jong il succeeded him and when he died Kim Jong Un took over. There must surely be North Korean generals who are unhappy at having to take orders from someone there by birth – particularly when they are sitting on all the hardware any coup plotter could ever need. On the topic of hardware it’s worth dealing with what the North’s military capacity and strategy actually is. There is always a perception that rogue states armies are tinpot affairs that could be destroyed by US technology in a matter of days – if not hours. Iraq I and II, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia and Libya are pretty clear examples of how a conventional state military of a third world rogue state does up against the power of US Imperialism. North Korea is different though, as this video outlines below.
North Korea has spent just under fifty years preparing for one thing – war. It spends a quarter of it’s national wealth on the military and maintains an immense standing army, as well as reserves. Whatever developments you may have in air land or sea power, if you have millions and millions of motivated soldiers running at an outnumbered enemy with guns there is a limit to what their technology can do. The North Korean strategy is not that crazy and not that unwinnable. The North has hundreds of artillery pieces placed along the mountains of the border aimed at the South Korean capital. Seoul is an economic powerhouse inseparable from the wider East Asian economy. The North Korean’s believe that if they can do catastrophic damage to the capital in the first few days of a war they can force the South to demand peace talks before the US air force bombs the already economically crippled North back to the dark ages.
At the same time as the artillery shells would be hitting Seoul the North Koreans would be sending infiltrators to create chaos at key military and civilian sites in the South – as well as marching troops and tanks through gigantic underground tunnels. One North Korean special forces defector reached the South by swimming all the way from the North to the South – which he had done repeatedly in scouting out targets for the regime in Pyongyang.
The obvious risk the North would have in starting a war with the South (particularly if they did disastrous damage to Seoul, enraging the South Koreans) is that the US and South Korean Army would march North and topple the regime and presumably execute the North Korean elite. Even here though the march to Pyongyang would not be the same as the US army’s toppling of Saddam. The North has a mountainous geography suited to guerilla warfare – which would involve millions of armed combatants. These would take a much much heavier toll on the US army than the Taliban or the Iraqi insurgency. Then of course there is the ultimate guarantee of safety for the North Korean regime – it’s nuclear programme. If the price for a march on Pyongyang was a nuclear attack on Tokyo or Seoul it would not be supported.
So North Korea has rather more clout than previous rogue states – why doesn’t the US enter into a meaningful negotation with it on the issue of a peace treaty? For a start an inevitable condition the North Koreans would insist upon would be the full withdrawal of US troops in the South. The forced retreat of the US army by a “rogue state” is politically intolerable for Washington. It could set a precedent for other countries – Cuba and the US blockade, the Iranian nuclear program, Syria and the Golan etc. It also clashes with the new posture of the US military pivot to East Asia. After being tied down in two wars in the middle east, Obama has shifted the US military to surrounding a growing Chinese superpower. The dream many US planners have is a regime collapse in the North, followed by annexation by the South and permanent US military bases on the border with China.
A unified Korea ruled by Seoul provides other benefits too – it could potentially be one of the new economic superpowers of the 21st century. The entire north would be ruled as a gigantic special economic zones, with wages a fraction of the south (in line with current living standards) thus providing millions of cheap labourers for South Koreas businesses. South Korea’s Thatcherite culture towards trade unions combined with the North’s repression of virtually all independent workers organisation would provide one of the most compliant workforces in the world for businesses to exploit. It would also mean access to extensive mineral deposits in the North, which could cover the costs of reunification.
If the US recognises the North Korean government as a legitimate entity in a peace treaty it would undermine the dream scenario of a new free market superpower with US troops on the border with China. The unfortunate consequence to that is that keeping the Korean peninsula in a constant state of war stops any kind of reform to North Korean society and runs the permanent risk of full scale war. So remember the next time you hear a ridiculous threat by the North to turn the western world into a pile of ashes – they’re a starving, dysfunctional, militarised society who are desperate for a peace treaty. That makes North Korea’s consistent threats a bit more understandable than just writing them off as crazy.