Background to the tensions over North Korea


Donald Trump seems intent on making childish belligerent noises over North Korea and this is concerning because bellicose rhetoric (such as considering doing some “very severe things”) has the effect of raising the stakes and expectations. This can create its own dynamic and lead to Trump doing something rash because to not take action after talking tough would make him (at least in his own eyes and those of his supporters) look weak, and for such weak-minded people that is something to be avoided at all costs.

In order to understand how we got to this state, professor Ji-Young Lee of American University provides a brief history of the region and how the split occurred

Koreans in the South and North have led separate lives for almost 70 years. Korean history and a collective memory of having been a unified, independent state for over a millennium, however, are a powerful reminder to Koreans that they have shared identity, culture and language.

For example, in both Koreas the history of having resisted Japanese colonialism is an important source of nationalism. Both North and South Korean students learn about the 1919 March 1 Independence Movementin school.

Consider, too, the Korean language. About 54 percent of North Korean defectors in South Korea say that they have no major difficulty understanding Korean used in South Korea. Only 1 percent responded that they cannot understand it at all.

However, the divergent politics of North and South Korea have shaped differences in Koreans’ outlook on life and the world since the split. South Korea’s vibrant democracy is a result of the mass movement of students, intellectuals and middle-class citizens. In North Korea, the state propaganda and ideology of Juche, or “self-reliance,” were used to consolidate the Kim family’s one-man rule, while reproducing a certain mode of thinking designed to help the regime survive.

In the first ten minutes radio program The World, two analysts discussed what the latest ICBM test by North Korea means and what might be a prudent course to follow. The first speaker says that even if the missile has a range that could reach the US, this does not mean that they will attack the US, as the fearmongers here are warning. The North Korean leaders may be ruthless and rigid but they are not suicidal. The leaders of Russia and China seem to realize this and are trying to head off any military action. It is clear that the North Korean leaders have seen that countries that do not have their own deterrents are at the mercy of the US. Once both Iraq and Libya dismantled any putative nuclear weapons program, the US invaded them and created chaos.

This article looks at the options available but as usual frames them in a very propagandistic way, as if the US has the right to attack other countries

As Greitens told me, there are basically three broad options Trump can choose from: 1) military strikes; 2) diplomacy; or 3) economic sanctions. But here’s the rub: option one is incredibly dangerous, and options two and three have a mixed track record at best.

The diplomatic option would see the US try to come to some sort of agreement with North Korea to either give up its programs or, at a minimum, freeze their development. Over the past few decades, though, North Korea has shown no desire to follow any agreements, consistently breaking accords with the US and its partners and covertly advancing its nuclear weapons and missile efforts.

The article assumes that the US can be trusted to keep its agreements, something that is debatable at best. But the cost of military action is very high.

If the US is worried North Korea might make the first move, though, it could launch a preemptive surgical strike on North Korea. It would certainly do damage to the country’s missile and nuclear programs. But North Korea would retaliate, imperiling the safety of US allies South Korea and Japan.

Pyongyang has the world’s largest artillery arsenal at its disposal, with around 8,000rocket launchers and artillery cannons on its side of the demilitarized zone between the North and South, and it could use that arsenal to strike the major capital of Seoul. It could also use its short-range missiles to strike Tokyo and other large Japanese urban areas, some of them with only about a 10-minute warning.

But a fight between the North and South would be bad enough. Simulations of a large-scale artillery fight produce pretty bleak results. One war game convened by the Atlantic back in 2005 predicted that a North Korean attack would kill 100,000 people in Seoul in the first few days alone. Others put the estimate even higher. A war game mentioned by the National Interest predicted Seoul could “be hit by over half-a-million shells in under an hour.” Those results don’t bode well for one of Washington’s closest allies, or for the 25.6 million people living in Seoul.

This is something that the two Koreas should be left to solve for themselves without outside countries meddling. Who knows, freed from neo-Cold War concerns, they might come to an agreement. Even though North and South Korea have taken wildly different political and economic paths, it does not seem far-fetched that countries that have a string common ethnic heritage but were split for political reasons can become united again. It happened with Germany and Vietnam and there is some talk of Greek and Turkish Cypriots joining again.

Comments

  1. hyphenman says

    Two points:

    First, while the media insists on referring to the missile launched on 4 July as an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) it was actually an IRBM (intermediate range ballistic missile with). IRBMs have a range between 1,864 miles (3,000 KM) 3,418 miles (5,000 KM). [Gawd I wish we could dump the imperial system of measurement and join the rest of the world.]

    ICBM sounds much scarier than IRBM so, because all of this is about scariness, we go with ICBM.

    Second. North Korea doesn’t want to be able to strike the United States (or anyone) first. To do so would be suicide (remember MAD?) North Korea wants second strike capability to ensure that the U.S. and our other adventurous allies don’t attack first.

    Cheers,

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  2. hyphenman says

    Yes, the above is in complete agreement with Mano’s:

    The first speaker says that even if the missile has a range that could reach the US, this does not mean that they will attack the US, as the fearmongers here are warning. The North Korean leaders may be ruthless and rigid but they are not suicidal. The leaders of Russia and China seem to realize this and are trying to head off any military action. It is clear that the North Korean leaders have seen that countries that do not have their own deterrents are at the mercy of the US. Once both Iraq and Libya dismantled any putative nuclear weapons program, the US invaded them and created chaos.

  3. says

    The North Koreans are not at all stupid; their missiles are on mobile launchers and they shuffle them around a fair amount. I hope there are level heads in the pentagon telling Trump that a decapitation strike is no longer an option. We need to remember that the US and South Korea have been overtly practicing decapitation strikes against the north as military maneuvers all the time. Of course the North want a deterrent.

    I’m also particularly frustrated by the hypocrisy of the US testing a ballistic missile back in February – a real honest-to-shit ICBM – and now running to the UN Security Council crying that North Korea did the same thing. The US is deploying much deadlier warheads in its vast nuclear arsenal (probably skating over lines in some agreements) and has proliferated nuclear weapons to pretty much the entire world.

    We need to sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up.

  4. says

    Oh, and I’ll say it again because it bears repeating:
    The North Koreans have been practicing a consistent version of realpolitik for a very long time. It’s ridiculous when the US, which is headed by a dunderheaded tantrum-thrower, calls Kim “crazy.” Nobody in Washington should call anyone crazy.

  5. says

    A rogue nation that’s an imminent threat to world peace and the lives of millions shouldn’t have nuclear weapons!

    But what can be done about the US?

    Also, my favourite thing right now is how the US pissed off China by doing a huge arms deal with Taiwan but the US is still making demands of China when it comes to North Korea.

    American exceptionialism, amirite?

  6. Chiroptera says

    Mano Singham: The leaders of Russia and China seem to realize this and are trying to head off any military action.

    And don’t forget about South Korea. Most of them want to avoid military action as well. Especially since they would be second only to North Korea in the devastation they would suffer.

  7. jrkrideau says

    1 hyphenman

    Gawd I wish we could dump the imperial system of measurement and join the rest of the world.

    Feel free. Just don’t bother to give Imperial units. If people want to know what it is in Imperial let them figure it out themselves.

    Imperial units are rather quaint but almost no one in the world knows what they mean.

    I was looking at a recipe for something the other day and it called for a quart of something. A quart? What the devil is a quart in real terms? It works out to roughly a litre but, of course, an Imperial quart and a US quart are different sizes. ARGH

  8. hyphenman says

    9. jrkrideau No. 8

    That’s true, you’re absolutely correct.

    Why should I feel guilty writing in units that makes sense and not based upon the body measurement of some git who was so unfortunate as to be born into someone’s royal family?

    Cheers,

  9. Heidi Nemeth says

    Summer Nemeth, an investment banker married to a South Korean, has run the numbers and says that South Korea could buy North Korea. It is a better solution than any of the three options mentioned: 1) military strikes; 2) diplomacy; or 3) economic sanctions.

    Option 4) have South Korea buy North Korea!

    Yes, Summer is my daughter.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    The article assumes that the US can be trusted to keep its agreements, something that is debatable at best.

    Nope – not debatable at all.

    Clinton’s deal promised money the Republican Congress refused to provide.

    Americans refuse to remember, but Pyongyang knows.

  11. mnb0 says

    “This is something that the two Koreas should be left to solve for themselves without outside countries meddling.”
    Now you’re a jerk towards Japan, a country directly threatened by the North-Korean missiles.
    Don’t be a jerk.

  12. Dunc says

    One of my mentors taught me that the first option to consider when examining any problem should always be “do nothing”. If you start out with the idea that you have to do something, you can quickly find yourself doing things you’ll come to regret.

  13. secondtofirstworld says

    I couldn’t agree with your last paragraph even if I wanted to, it’s like watching The Interview while smoking Pineapple Express.

    The former South Korean president was arrested and arraigned for massive corruption and its accompanying autocracy, which she learned from her father, who was the South’s last dictator. Meanwhile, Un is responsible for killing his brother, and very likely also responsible for Warmbier’s death. He began his rule by shelling the South, which is something many commenters seem to forget when they talk about the North threatening Japan or America. They can’t reach them, but sure as hell would overrun the South if it’s left up to them. As for the language: the current post colonial dialect is spoken by both, minus the euphemisms they can’t know because DMZ. Yet, thanks to Stalin’s actions, a lot of Koreans were deported to Central Asia, and they speak the archaic Korean known to some from movies and tv shows about the Joseon era. As for the March 1st 1919. It’s misleading to claim that that date is of the utmost of importance to both. Having lived in a communist country myself, I know first hand they have other dates. For starters they only count time from liberation day, and they count the “true Korea’s independence” from whence Kim Ir Sen became a successful freedom fighter (and the South claims it was a nome de guerre with the other actual Kim being the fighter who died). They’d agree on almost nothing.

    Did it happen in Germany? The country being unified does not equal to the nation being unified. For decades, Soviet military occupation has only oppressed nationalistic urges, and blamed the crimes of Nazism on West Germany. The former East Germany is plenty famous for its wide support of the far left and far right, as they have no democratic roots. The fact, that Alternative für Deutschland has a bigger success than Die Linke ever could have is alarming in light of the fact, that they endorse racial and ethnic purity, arson and shooting refugee men on the border. Which brings me to the former COMECON. So long it existed, East Germany called over Vietnamese, but the second the wall has fallen, they wanted to deport them. The Vietnamese government issued the humanitarian response of “we don’t want them either”. The conditions of Hakka Chinese and the Karen tribes are far from ideal, and while economically the country did take huge steps, the divide with the south is not over.

    Last, but not least, Cyprus. Yes, there is sentiment, that among each other they wish to get closer, but the problem is, they both depend on their sponsor, and it’s a snowball’s chance in hell, that Erdogan will sit down with Greek fascists and both magically agree, that Cypriots should handle their own country, and of course giving up offshore status will be a piece of cake too. North Koreans have to want freedom in a bloodless transition, and as long that doesn’t happen, a bilateral talk is doomed to fail.

  14. rjw1 says

    Unlike the other victims of US aggression, North Korea actually possesses weapons of mass destruction, so Kim and his fellow oligarchs are probably safe for the indefinite future. Unless of course strategic planners in the Pentagon decide that the North Korean regime wouldn’t retaliate to a US ‘surgical strike’ because retaliation would guarantee its destruction. Anyone wanna bet?

  15. hyphenman says

    @ryw1 No. 15

    Possibly.

    Any retaliation, however, would have to be non-nuclear because the whole prevailing winds carrying the radioactive cloud over Japan thing.

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