North Korean military officer with diagram of the demilitarized zone in Panmunjom, North Korea

According to the New York Times on  April 23, 2012, “North Korea on Monday accused South Korea’s government and news media of slandering its leadership and threatened “special actions” by the military, a sharp escalation of the bellicose statements that have accompanied the rise of Kim Jong-un, the North’s new and still unproven leader.”

The AP report by Vincent Yu clarifies that North Korea has regularly threatened to attack the government of President Lee Myung-bak in South Korea, but threats have become harsher and more specific, causing some fear that a military provocation may occur as part of the effort to establish Mr. Kim’s authority at home and boost his potential negotiating leverage with the United States.

On Monday, the North Korean military said it would act “soon” and named its targets, including the government of President Lee, several South Korean newspapers and television stations and “rat-like” elements that it said were “destroying fair-minded public opinion.”

Time to Panic? Dispelling some Myths

No. My years of experience in South Korea have exposed me to in depth analyses of similar provocative statements and events over the course of the years.  Let me dispel some of the myths around North and South Korea

Myth 1: China would like nothing more than to see South Korea come under their sphere of influence.

China has never shown any interest in South Korea. They have always supported a divided Korea as a buffer between Japan/the West, and this caused them to send human waves of Chinese foot soldiers into North Korea to reestablish and make permanent the division at the 38th parallel during the war. Satisfied at having pushed MacArthur’s troops back to the 38th parallel, they negotiated a treaty with the West.

Myth 2: By allowing an attack, China could intervene, forging a peace deal  making them a world power equal to what the US was in the 1950s and 1960s. 

There is no strategic reason to do so. They already dominate the region and are South Korea’s major trading partner and economic ally. China is facing many daunting economic and social challenges of it’s own and has no interest in upsetting the status quo. A thriving North Korean regime and cooperative South Korea serves as an ideal buffer against the West and a war in Korea would be an unnecessary burden and distraction.  Since China wants to avoid waves of immigration from North Korea, they continue to help the North Koreans as their major provider of food and energy.

Myth 3: The nature of the North Korean threats is different and more serious this time around.

Good policy takes both the war threat and the typical baseless North Korean brinkmanship tactics scenarios seriously. But there is nothing extraordinary in this rhetoric, and it was anticipated in the wake of the recent failed launch.

Myth 4:  The US needs to take a harder line in view of North Korea’s nuclear threat and belligerent rhetoric, which President Obama may not be able to pull off. 

No administration mishandled the North Korean dialogue more than Bush, who provoked them with his “axis of evil” rhetoric and empty sabre rattling, which only served to undermine the U.S.’s influence in the region and highlight the U.S.’s lack of options. Nothing was accomplished, the 6 way talks were suspended, and tension on the peninsula was heightened, straining relations with allies throughout the region. Even this blatant exceptionalism did not destabilize the region to the point of provoking a war, demonstrating the relative stability of the situation in North Korea and in the Korean peninsula. no matter which political party controls the White House.

Myth 5: North Korea, because of its difficult economic situation, has nothing to lose by launching a war now.

The realpolitics of the region greatly favor the status quo. It’s a rare event that vested interests gamble it all away on desperate acts of war. In fact, when war does break out, as in the two World Wars, it is the result of stumbling into in an environment of smouldering conditions until a tipping point is reached.  North Korea is in a continued position to receive aid from China, the US and South Korea (as under the more liberal former administrations of Kim Dae Joon and No Mu Hyeon. Even if the current Lee administration takes a harder line, the voting demographics point to a return to more liberal policies in the future.)

Final Analysis:

The Korean War (or the 6-25 War, as the South Koreans refer to it) occurred at the tail end of a full-out war as the result of a rushed power grab by the regional powers – Russia, China, US as they moved in to free Korea of their 35 year-long imperial Japanese occupation.  The arrangement that best suited all controlling interests was to divide the peninsula into two nations at the 38th parallel, and that was supposed to be the end of it.  For some inexplicable reason, the arrangement did not quite suit the Koreans, who wondered why they, instead of Japan were to be punished. Neither North nor South Korea would sign the armistice agreement, and finally it was the North that broke it, instigating the war, plowing through the peninsula all the way to the Southeastern corner.

MacArthur’s surprise landing at Incheon, under the auspices of the UN drove the line of scrimmage back to the 38th parallel.  However, MacArthur also failed to follow the script, pushing all the way up to the Chinese border. The Chinese pushed the West right back to the 38th parallel, where  hostilities ceased, and MacArthur was recalled by Truman.

In retrospect, it isn’t so surprising that North and South Korea would reject the gentleman’s agreement to divide their nation, and commence hostilities at the time.

Since then, a lot has changed, and it’s fair to say that the threat of war and unification are over.  South Korea has a thriving economy, and three North Korean administrations have entrenched themselves in a cozy vested power structure, enjoying the fruits of a corrupt and comfortable niche.

That is, barring the possibility that a sabre rattling accident gets out of hand. However, there have been numerous tests of this – sinkings of South Korean ships by the North, kidnappings, the botched assassination of President Park Cheong Hee that took his wife’s life, the Pueblo incident, and numerous other provocations.  Yet none of these has escalated into a full scale war. And a great many of these occurred at a time when NK had the clear military superiority, which they no longer have.

While the threat of a war is remote, the primary concern is NK’s arms dealing, counterfeiting, drug trading and the development of nuclear arms for trade and the potential to disrupt the status quo abroad.

Right now, the North been playing a cat and mouse game – in effect bribery – to hedge their bets with China, as their main supplier of food and energy. They want to diversify their supply by tapping into the West, and are using this nuclear card as their ace.

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Snap! principle of  political alarmism:

Rogue nations develop nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip. Expecting them to give up their ace is unrealistic. What they really want is to extort their way into the economic order. Slow and steady wins the race.