North Korea and the drums of war

There are two sides to every crisis, and the dangerous situation developing on the Korean Peninsula is no different. Unfortunately, the commentary coming out of the BBC sets the tone for the British press. It’s the idea that the collective senility that grips the North Korean regime (and what we all like to have a laugh about, including this blog) explains why Kim Jong-un is banging the drum of war. The South, the USA, they’re so much innocent bunnies caught in the DPRK’s nuclear-tipped headlights. Kim is simply a mad man holding the world to ransom simply because he can.

Well, no. This simply will not do. The dynamics of confrontation are always complex, and it is no less the case on the world’s last Cold War frontier. So far, the rhetoric has become more extreme than any point since, well, ever. After all, it’s not everyday North Korea issues formal declarations of war and threatens to nuke the Western seaboard. But for all that everything so far remains within the established rules of the Korean game. That isn’t to say the situation isn’t dangerous. It is.

Context, as they say, is everything, and North Korea is a product of its circumstances as much as any other government and society is. Unlike other satellite regimes of the USSR, early on the North faced its own Cold War frontier. Following the Korean War and the Sino-Soviet split (in which Kim Il-sung allied with Mao), the Soviets were understandably reluctant to provide military aid to such an uncertain ally. Therefore the North had to provide for its own defence to a degree that the likes of East Germany, Czechoslovakia etc. did not. Facing it across the 38th Parallel were ranged South Korean and US military forces, backed by nuclear weapons. Hence the North’s development has by virtue of Cold War logic, been skewed toward the military. And, as surely as social being conditions consciousness, the bizarre – to us – juche ideology of self-reliance and grotesque personality cults around the Kim dynasty makes perfect sense to a nation thrown onto its relatively meagre human and material resources as it struggles to throw off a perceived superpower threat. Naturally, as the North have tried to make good the gap so the South and the Americans responded in kind through annual parades of military might, and making available the latest hardware.

As I wrote a few years ago,

The truth is no one has an interest in war. While the US would like to see a united Korea under its military protection as strategic leverage against China, Obama’s administration like all those before it know the price paid in lives, materiel, and funds would be too much for the American public to stomach. It’s one thing to take on lightly armed decrepit states and insurgencies: it’s quite another to enter a war with the prospect of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons being deployed against US troops. Similarly for the South – even if fighting does not dip south of the demilitarised zone, the 10 million inhabitants of Seoul and the 25 million in surrounding areas are well within the range of the North’s guns. In all likelihood the area immediately south of the DMZ would be comprehensively devastated. And on top of that the South would face the bill of absorbing the North. The Economistputs the cost for unification at $900bn – it would of course be much higher if the North gets raised to the ground. The North itself knows it cannot win and hopes a combination of hysterical denunciation, rocket launches and nuclear testing will be enough to keep its enemies at bay. I might not think much of Trotsky’s analysis of the USSR, but his insight that the Stalinist bureaucracy wants peaceful coexistence with the big capitalist powers so it can carry on living off the backs of workers and peasants is spot on.

But in recent weeks there has been something of a shift inside the North Korean regime. The Brilliant Comrade’salleged involvement in the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel off Baengnyeong Island in early 2010, followed by the shelling of Yeongyeong Island that November helped burnish his military credentials while the Dear Leader groomed him for office. But since assuming power, the apparatus of the party-state has undergone a purge. Out are Kim the Elder’s cronies, and in come his own people. There are plots and rumours of plots.

With a grip on power that could be shakier than appearances suggest, Kim needs the Korean People’s Army on side. Especially when the policy direction he announced in the new year is likely to exacerbate tensions among this key regime support. It is no secret that North Korea’s economy is in a precarious situation, and renewed famine is an ever-present danger. Per-capita GDP is estimated to be below that of Sudan, Papua New Guinea, and Lesotho. It’s 18 times smaller than the South’s. Back in the summer a well-known defector revealed Kim’s desire to emulate China’s example – an argument that turned out to be a canny prediction. Basically, this means abandoning the ‘Military First’ policy that has long been the regime’s priority (in 2010, the military consumed 16 per cent of total expenditure). In this context, ramping up the threat level keeps the military disciplined by external threat while resource is directed elsewhere. Furthermore, the North’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistics has never been irrational. Despots the world over have noticed that the US and its allies tend to militarily intervene where no real opposition exists. Kim’s nukes on the other hand have the advantage of warding off the Americans while reducing expenditure on conventional arms. The “nukes plus economic development” line getting pushed by Pyongyang is, within the realpolitik options it perceives, a reasonable one.

The problem Kim has is when this crisis blows over and the Korean people avoid the abyss, the armed forces will still be there. They can only be kept on high alert for only so long. The difficulty he has is integrating them into his economic development plan. Again, China may provide a possible answer. When Deng Xiaoping initiated the great programme of economic liberalisation in 1979, he struck a deal with the People’s Liberation Army that in return for a 20% reduction in military personnel and a lower budget, the army could have access to the market. This involved retooling armament plants for consumer durables like white goods, cars and motorbikes, TVs and so on. 20 years later Jiang Zemin decreed that it had led to a bloated, inefficient and corrupt sector, leading directly to a series of high profile scandals. But in its early phase at least it provided the home-grown commodities a growing domestic economy demanded, gave the army a material stake in the reintroduction of market relationships, provided employment opportunities for laid off conscripts and, crucially, brought off opposition.

But that is an if. Bellicose rhetoric is nothing new, but all it could take is for a jumpy officer on either side to take a pot shot for the conflagration to start – especially so as the North has already cut the hotline with the South. The situation has to be diffused and, as you might euphemistically put it, the US sending a squadron of stealth bombers to the peninsula is “not helpful”. But the USA could have a positive role to play. It is, after all, as embroiled as much as the two Koreas. If it is serious about de-escalation and turning the DMZ into a Cold War museum, it needs to take the lead in diffusing the situation – and piously lecturing the North on atomic bombs while it has nuclear missiles and artillery shells pointed in Pyongyang’s general direction is not going to do it. A plan for lasting peace requires commitment, and a good place to begin is with the North’s primary foreign policy objective since the collapse of the USSR – a non-aggression treaty between it and the USA. With that as the starting point everything else – the nuclear programme, the closure of American bases, cutting the military, normalising relations, aid, and a peace treaty – can follow.

The stand off along the 38th Parallel has its 60th anniversary this summer. The longer it goes on for, the more likely the technical state of war could become a real shooting one. For the sake of millions of lives, it’s time this appalling and grotesque relic of 20th century geopolitics was drawn to a close.

Image: “When provoking a war of aggression, we will hit back, beginning with the US!”

  1. “the dangerous situation developing on the Korean Peninsula”

    I’m unconvinced. Kim Young ‘Un is merely sabre-rattling in response to the deployment of nuclear capable stealth bombers in the joint US/South Korea exercises now taking place – it looks good on the home front.
    And as a bonus, the West is able to use the drama to justify the renewal of Trident (as Cameron has attempted) and the US government/arms industry is able to justify enhanced militarisation of the Pacific Rim.

    The end result: the ‘crisis’ will fade like a summer mist once the joint exercises are over yet because of the ‘threat’ billions will need to be spent and the economies of various nations will become more dependent on the military-industrial complex. Job done.