N. Korea’s bluffing works again

In this Friday, April 12, 2013 file photo, two men hold hands as they pose for photos in front of a portrait of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, right, and his son Kim Jong Un at a flower show featuring thousands of Kimilsungia flowers, named after the late leader Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Enemy capitals, North Korea said, will be turned into a sea of fire. North Korea's first strikes will be a signal flare marking the start of a holy war. Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal is mounted on launch pads, aimed at the windpipe of our enemies. And it's not all talk. The profoundly isolated, totalitarian nation has launched two rockets over the past year. But there is also a logic behind North Korea's behavior, a logic steeped in internal politics, one family's fear of losing control and the ways that a weak, poverty-wracked nation can extract concessions from some of the world's most fearsome military powers. <AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan, File>


North Korea has scored another brilliant diplomatic success. It has scared the world and created a sense of acute international crisis out of nothing.

In the last two weeks, Seoul has been flooded with international journalists most of whom have come to report on the “growing tensions between the two Koreas”. One should feel sorry for these poor souls when they desperately searched in vain the streets of Seoul for signs of such tensions. The lack of South Koreans worrying about North Korea’s exercise in political theatrics must have caused much consternation back home.

As usual, South Koreans are relaxed and largely indifferent about North Korea’s rhetoric. To the average resident of Seoul it is a bit strange that people are paying serious attention to what Pyongyang says. Given North Korea’s archaic political system, bankrupt economy, small size and decaying military, as well as its very long track record of bluffing, it is indeed a bit strange.

Needless to say, North Korea’s leadership does not plan to commit collective suicide by starting a war. This, however, does not mean that the world should feel relaxed about the longer term future of the Korean peninsula. A sudden full-scale North Korean attack on South Korea or the United States is probably less likely than Mexico doing the same. Nonetheless, the Korean peninsula is a potentially explosive place. Now is probably therefore a good time to discuss the potential dangers that lie ahead.


The most obvious danger is the threat of escalation triggered by a minor incident on the DMZ or NLL. Such an incident may be a deliberate provocation, but an accident as a result of high tensions in a heavily militarized area is probably far more likely. After all, the border between two Korean states is known to be the most militarized border worldwide.

In the past, the South Korean side was remarkably restrained in its reaction to incidents and deliberate provocations. Sometimes, I would say, the South Korean military and government presented the world with truly Christian behavior in their willingness to turn the other cheek.

As recently as 2010, the South Korean side gave us yet another example of such restraint. Seoul’s official reaction to the sinking of the Cheonan warship consisted almost exclusively of symbolic measures, being spliced with some stern rhetoric. The response to the shelling of Yeonpyeong island was also muted.

Times are changing, though. The dominant mood in South Korea military and in the Blue House is different now. The South Korean military is ready and rather eager to strike back in case of North Korean provocation (or what they perceive to be a provocation). Of late, they have made it clear that they do not care much for proportionality, and will strike decisively in case of provocation. Unfortunately, they probably mean what they say.

One can therefore easily imagine how a minor attack from the North Korean side or an accident may provoke not just a response, but also an attack on government and military agencies in the regions or even Pyongyang. If visible and symbolic targets are hit in Pyongyang, it will mean a tremendous loss of face for the North Korean government, and the North Korean generals will have a great temptation to massively retaliate against what it may perceive as an aggressive overreaction.

This counter-counter-response will lead to an escalation that will probably not reach the level of a full-scale war, but might indeed produce a serious crisis in Korea and quite likely leave hundreds, if not thousands of people dead. And a full-scale war is still a possibility, albeit not highly likely


The second potential danger is North Korean regime collapse, and the political and military consequences of this. The regime appears to be stable right now, but there is good reason to believe that popular support for the Kim family has finally begun to disappear. This means that a popular revolution is not impossible in the long run and that the probability of a coup or other elite infighting cannot be ruled out.

The full-scale attack on South Korea is probably only possible if the regime starts to collapse. As many failing governments have known, a war occasionally helps to distract public dissatisfaction from the rulers. It will also justify very harsh suppression of discontent especially since potential insurgents can be presented as foreign spies hell bent on the destruction of their fellow countrymen. Last but not least, such a large-scale attack is likely to lead to an international diplomatic intervention, which will freeze the situation in North Korea, thus saving the regime from collapse in the short-run.

In other words, a stable North Korea is a very unpleasant state, but most of its victims are other North Koreans. An unstable or collapsing North Korea, however, may constitute a great threat to the outside world as well.

Even greater threats may result from the loss of domestic control within North Korea. As of now, North Korea has some 30-50kg of weapon-grade plutonium, plus an unknown amount of enriched uranium. It also has a large stockpile of chemical weapons. All of these are at present carefully guarded, but a North Korean regime implosion is likely to bring with it a disintegration of law and order. If so, people who are currently in charge of protecting such lethal weaponry will probably be tempted to sell the stuff to the highest bidder – bidders they might go looking for themselves.

We should also not forget that there is a real risk of insurgents or mutinous troops overrunning such facilities and taking what they want. The consequences are all too obvious for proliferation.

There is very good reason to believe that US and Chinese special forces have considered such threats, they are indeed likely to have operational plans for North Korea’s disintegration. Most likely they will move to secure known storage facilities and nuclear research centers. However, the key word in all of this is ‘known’. We cannot be sure that both China and the US have been able to locate all of such facilities. We should also remember that such facilities are heavily fortified and are designed to withstand takeover attempts. We should therefore not pin too much hope on such military measures.


What can be done about such threats? Frankly, not much. Short to medium term threats of escalation can be countered if the South Korean military stop thinking about ‘righteous revenge’. Success in a massive counterstrike will bring destructive and destabilizing results.

In the event of North Korea’s collapse, little can be done. Some pro-Pyongyang activists and diplomats from third countries have told me privately that the world should avoid actively promoting the disintegration of North Korea’s regime because of the above-mentioned risks. However, this is a seriously flawed argument. Disintegration is likely to come anyway, and there is very little we can do to stop it (even if we wanted to).

So all we can do is to be prepared for the worst, and not allow ourselves to be hijacked by paranoia or wishful thinking. Unfortunately, the recent success of the Pyongyang orchestrated media scare has shown us that it is not too difficult to hijack the world media.

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