Korea: Spectacular Theatrics Can Only Do So Much

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April 4, 2013: The mythical North Korean “Ministry of Intimidation” is working overtime to come up with new threats each day. The government is using these threats mainly to create tension inside North Korea and more support for new ruler Kim Jong Un. This is essential this time of year because the food shortages are always worst just before new crops are planted. But it’s also the time of year when it gets warmer and the days are longer. This is a big deal because of the growing electricity shortages.

This sort of drama in North Korea is nothing new but it’s never been played this hard and long before. This theater always has a happy ending, with the third act featuring an imaginary victory for North Korea but no real change for anyone. It is all theater, backed up by the threat of violence that never becomes real. This time North Korea has got the world’s attention to an extent never seen before. For most of the planet this is all entertainment, but for most North Koreans it’s their lives, and when all the shouting is done most North Koreans are still cold, hungry, and in the dark without real prospects of much of a future. Spectacular theatrics can only do so much. The really important issue is what North Korean leaders do after the curtain comes down. What happens after the show is over? To actually go to war would be suicidal for the North Korean leadership. Most of them know that, but in the last few years more and more of them have been making preparations to flee the country. These theatrics only delay the continued decline of the economy and government ability to control the increasingly restive population. In the last year the government has promised spectacular improvements in the economy. This did not happen. Creating a state of war with the neighbors will not reverse that failure and North Koreans will still be hungry and poor when all the artificial anger and angst dissipates. The world can only wait to see how this plays out.  

As in the past, what North Korea wants is more money, food, and other aid from South Korea and other wealthy nations. The North Korean threats don’t feature this angle but it’s in the small print. In effect, its extortion as in’ “if you want us to shut up, pay up.” While there is still disagreement in the North Korean leadership about how to fix the decrepit North Korean economy, it’s agreed that lots of free food, fuel, cash, and other aid would help a great deal.

If North Korea does attack, it is expected to be small scale stuff. This might include attacks (like torpedoing an American or South Korean warship) that the north could deny. If the U.S. or South Korea reacted violently to these small attacks North Korea could then declare itself the victim of unprovoked aggression and demand that the UN halt the violence and help North Korea obtain compensation.

Over the last few days many North Korean military units put on alert (meaning more busy work and less sleep) have been taken off and gone back to their usual duties (growing food or working in factories, plus training that did not involve using up fuel or spare parts).

The North Korean government is doing more local stuff to improve morale. It was recently announced that the best universities would no longer automatically accept children of the ruling elite but that admittance would be open to everyone according to their abilities, not their family background. About ten percent of North Koreans are much better off than everyone else up there. These people work for the bureaucracy, military, or security agencies and their families are considered “loyal.” Most of the rest of the population are considered members of historically “disloyal” families. The new admissions policy is a major change in the class politics that has long characterized social and economic mobility in the north. This is meant to make Kim Jong Un appear to be a reformer and someone the unhappy North Koreans can trust.

April 3, 2013: North Korea announced that military commanders had been authorized to strike American targets. This authorization included the use of nuclear weapons. North Korea does not have any nuclear weapons but for those churning out the belligerent press releases that is not a problem. If you lie long and loud enough, more people will believe you.

The U.S. announces more warships, equipped anti-missile systems, are being off North Korea and Guam (which is within range of some of North Korea’s larger missiles).

North Korea has closed access to the special economic zone where South Korea runs factories that provide well-paying jobs for North Koreans and a lot of hard currency for the North Korean government. Hundreds of South Koreans currently in the zone are allowed to leave but none are allowed to enter the zone. This means that the factories will be out of business until the border is open again.

April 2, 2013: More than ever before, the U.S. is working with China to handle any attack by North Korea in an organized fashion. For the first time China is not blindly backing whatever the North Koreans say. Technically, North Korea and China have a treaty that obliges China to come to the aid of North Korea if North Korea is attacked by South Korea or anyone else. This time around, even the Chinese are unsure of what the North Koreans are up to and are not willing to risk another war for North Korea. The Chinese leadership is unclear what its options are, thus the discussions with the United States, to make it clear what the U.S. will and will not do. The big issue here is who will control North Korea if the North Koreans do start shooting. The South Koreans feel they have been backed into a corner this time and have made it clear that the south will shoot back. South Korea wants to unite the country, and China has always believed that this would only happen with U.S. permission. So the two superpowers are secretly discussing who will do, or allow, what. This has been informally discussed in the past, but this time the negotiations are rather more earnest. China has also been seen (via spy satellites and locals gossiping via cell phone and Internet) moving more combat troops to the North Korean border.

South Korea has lost track of two North Korean mini-subs that were seen to leave a base on the west coast, just north of the DMZ several days ago. These 130 ton subs can only stay at sea for a few days or a week at most.

North Korea announced that it would restart the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which can produce nuclear material for bombs and has been shut down since the 1990s. It will take at least six months (and probably years) to resume production at Yongbyon. This reactor was shut down in the 1990s, as part of an aid deal. But the northerners refused to completely dismantle their Yongbyon nuclear reactor. They insisted on leaving some of the structure intact and would not surrender unused nuclear fuel. This sort of double dealing is so typical of the North Koreans. In response, South Korea increased its defense spending.

Near the Chinese border a North Korean border guard soldier killed five of his superiors and fled, after being caught stealing food from the unit stores. The soldier had been unhappy with the smaller meals that were being provided recently. The soldier escaped to China but was captured and returned, to be executed.

April 1, 2013: An editor for a prominent Chinese Communist Party publication (Deng Yuwen) revealed that he had been suspended for publicly criticizing continued Chinese support for North Korea. Deng wrote a February 27th article on that subject for a British publication. This sort of thing is allowed when the government wants divisive issues (within the ruling elite) to get some exposure and debate. But in this case the Foreign Ministry and their allies got very angry and Deng got slapped but not completely silenced. This indicates that the opposition to continued support for North Korea is still growing within the Chinese government. If nothing else, this serves to make North Korean leaders more anxious about continued Chinese support and more attentive to Chinese requests (that the Koreans tone down the warlike rhetoric).   

In response to North Korean rhetoric, South Korea announced that it would fight back vigorously if the north acted on any of its threats.

March 30, 2013: North Korea declared that it is in a state of war with South Korea. However, the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between the two countries is quiet and South Koreans still go north each day to run factories in a special economic zone.

March 28, 2013: The U.S. made it clear that it would respond with force if North Korea acted on any of its threats. To emphasize this, two B-2 bombers flew to South Korea and participated in training exercises (by dropping smart bombs on an island off the coast). The U.S. has also sent B-52 bombers to South Korea and F-22 fighters are believed to be on the way as well.

March 27, 2013: North Korea shut down the last “hot line” with South Korea, a phone service that was established to help quickly defuse any border incidents.

March 24, 2013: The U.S. and South Korea announced that they had completed updating their emergency war plans, in the event that North Korea actually attacks.

March 23, 2013: Just weeks after offering high-speed (3G) cell phone service to tourists on March 1st, North Korea has shut down access for foreigners. These new capabilities were created mainly to extract more money from foreigners (tourists, commercial travelers, and diplomats) and to boost the morale of senior officials and their families (who still have access). The security services monitor what happens on this new network, but it is a major change from before. Until this year foreigners could not use cameras without official permission and cell phone use was heavily restricted. But embarrassing cell phone pictures got out anyway, and then there were those damn commercial photo satellites supplying Google Earth with all manner of embarrassing images. So North Korea decided to roll with it, take their chances, and get paid. The typical foreign visitor ends up paying several hundred dollars for the privilege of bringing in their smart phone and being able to use it. For example, just getting the phone in costs nearly a hundred dollars and calls to the United States are eight dollars a minute (but is much cheaper for most other countries). The secret police will pounce if anyone tries to tweet really embarrassing photos, but what exactly qualifies is a moving target. But until the current crises is over, North Korea is shutting down foreigner access and taking a loss.

China has made it more difficult for North Korea to import components needed for their ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program. The new Chinese border checks also make it more difficult to smuggle out drugs, counterfeit cash, and anything other illegal stuff North Korea sells to obtain foreign currency.

March 22, 2013: North Korea posted a new four minute video on the Internet, depicting their troops invading South Korea and conquering Seoul in three days.

 

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