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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Meanwhile on the Korean Peninsula

Apologies in advance for the length (nearly 4000 words) but its not a topic that can be condensed without losing the important info or its context.

Also apologies for the some of the links or lack thereof as this could have been the most link heavy post I had ever written but I culled a lot due to the sheer number. If your interested I encourage you to go out and read up on this yourself.

Everyone’s favorite international bogeyman, North Korea, has been back in the media over the last few weeks as international tensions raise and the drum beat for war grows ever more strident.

In the media the discussion has ranged from invasions, targeted strikes, regime change, further sanctions to speculative, and often salacious, articles about the current ruler of North Korea, the baby faced Kim Jong Un, and his family but almost all of this discussion boils down to the geo-political version of shouting “wont someone think of the children!

And I am posting this on ANZAC day because if there is any day where it’s appropriate to honor those who fought and died in war but to also remember exactly what they fought and died for then this is the day.

But don’t be mistaken that this post is going to stupidly glorify war or make some limp argument for peace; I will be just setting out my thoughts on the situation and let you make up your own mind.

So like my previous geo-political post on the South China Sea I am going to try and unpack the issues and lay out the facts so that instead of everyone chanting “North Korea Bad! USA Good! War, War, War!” in unison we can discuss this with a little more balance and perspective.

And the best place to start is with the history of the region itself, North East Asia, because trying to focus on the situation today without understanding how we got to the Korean peninsula being one big armed camp leaves vital pieces out of the puzzle.

Some History

The two Korea's we have today were once one Korea (a Korea with a long and proud history and distinct language and culture – despite what the POTUS says) and in the late 19th century Korea, and the surrounding region of Manchuria, was invaded, occupied and annexed by Imperial Japan (just like Russia has done in the Ukraine and Crimea today).

Japan had risen to prominence in the mid-19th century (ending 200 years of self-imposed isolation) after the US, under Commodore Perry, forced Japan to open itsborders to the world (and US trade) by sailing a warship into Tokyo Bay (in a classic case of gunboat diplomacy).

The Japanese responded to the threat of modernity by deciding to go whole hog on westernization (including military systems and weapons) and rapidly changed the face of Japanese society by industrializing and adopting many western ideas and practices (like a parliament, a constitution, factories, electricity and some western cultural practices).

But it did not stop there as Japan decided to get into the colonial game as well (just like Europe and the US was doing around the world) and after Japan claimed Korea and Manchuria, by defeating Russia in the Russo/Japanese war of 1905 (the first time a western power was defeated by an Asian power), Japan then invaded China and by the 1930s had entered what the Japanese referred to as the Kurai Tanima or Dark Valley of militarism.

So with Japan occupying large parts of Asia, fighting in China and aggressively expanding its naval capacity the US took steps to stop it (trade sanctions etc) which lead to the Pacific War and split of Korea into two states between the US and the Russians (in much the same way that Germany was split by the occupying powers) when Japan was eventually defeated in 1945*.

Two Koreas One War

This artificial split of one nation into two was never going to go down well and in 1950, after five uneasy years North Korea (backed by the Russians) invaded the South and kicked off the Korean War (1950-1953).

The war was the first major conflict of the post World War Two era and the real large scale conventional war, as the US and Russia used the North and South as proxies to fight it out.

But there is more to this conflict than just the US and Russia as major players. In 1950, with the North Koreans almost beaten and the US close to Chinese border, China intervened on the side of the North and drove the US back, leading to two more years of bitter fighting before the armistice in 1953.

The reason the Chinese got involved has more than one factor but in short came down to being very unhappy about having US military forces right on its border which (if you know your Chinese history) had a lot to do with just having thrown off 100 years of European domination (including the Opium Wars where the British acted as the world’s first drug cartel by flooding China with Cheap opium), then battling the Japanese occupiers and finally ending its protracted civil war (caused in part by Western powers weakening an already fragile Chinese state) which had raged until 1949.

So from 1950 to 1953 the Korean War seesawed back and forth and ended in stalemate, no official peace treaty, no real peace, the world most heavily militarized border and two well-armed nations (supported by their Cold War backers) who hated each other and were now diametrically opposed to each other’s way of life (Communism vrs Capitalism).

And unlike that other famous Cold War border, between East and West Germany, this one was not always that cold, in fact it was often very hot with continual flare ups, shootings, shelling and occasional incursions, by the North, into the South (North Korean Death Commandos, midget submarines etc) just to keep things on edge.

The Korean War had devastated both Korea's (but specially the North which had been subjected to a US carpet bombing campaign that killed up to 20% of the population) and made China and the US bitter enemies, until Nixon started the thaw in relations in 1972. It also proved that the US high tech military machine could be stopped, if not beaten (it took the North Vietnamese to do that in the Vietnam War) and intensified Cold War hostility to the levels we all know and love (proxy wars, spies, defectors, espionage galore, spy planes and spy ships, military build-ups, client states, “we start bombing in five minutes” etc).

And that state of affairs continued after the rest of the Cold War ended, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down (bringing about the reunification of the two Germany's back into one) and continues to this day which is why the situation on the Korean peninsula remains so tense.

What did change in the last 50 years is that North Korea stopped being a client of the Russians and became a client state of China; South Korea was run by a military junta from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s** (that’s right the southern half) before finally converting to an east Asian style democracy. It’s also worth noting North Korea was economically and materially better off for the first 25 years following the end of the war before the South finally caught up and then surpassed it.

Then in the mid-90s North Korea nearly collapsed during a series of famines where, it has been estimated, that up to two million people starved to death and the survivors had to resort to measures like eating grass, bark and sometimes even each other and from which it has never really recovered (malnourishment and stunted growth of the North Koreans) and remains dependent on food aid to this very day.

Meanwhile South Korea thrived during the 1980s and 90s and emerged as one of the Tiger economies of Asia during the 2000s and now enjoys a high standards of living and food for all.

Pick your police state

But until South Korea became a full democracy there was little to distinguish between North Korea (ruled by absolute dictator Kim Il Sung) and South Korea (ruled by a succession of authoritarian Junta leaders***) and watching military parades in either country from the period look very similar, with lines of tanks, marching troops, rockets and those human LCD displays which look amazing but seem to have just a touch of police state conformity about them.

Also both countries had nuclear weapons programs and while the North eventually developed nuclear weapons the South conducted a range of research before deciding (or being pushed) to go under the US nuclear umbrella.

And while a lot is made of North Korea's nuclear weapons program few people know that it was begun in response to the US placing nuclear weapons in South Korea as a means of bolstering its troops stationed there as well as threats by the US to use them if the North ever invaded the South.

Meanwhile both states developed large military forces (with the North getting theirs from the Soviets and later the Chinese and the South primarily from the US) and which, to this day, both still retain military conscription which gives you an idea of exactly how serious both sides are about their current neighbor across the DMZ.

And while there have been attempts to patch things up with the Sunshine Policy (10 years of slightly less strained relations from 1998 to 2008) and cross border visits for separated families there is just too much history between them to really fix things and the positions too intractable to really make any progress.

People in power

Then there are the personalities and if there is anything which makes the whole North Korea/South Korea thing worse it’s the personalities.

In the North it’s been the dynastic family of the Kim’s**** with the current iteration of Kim Jong Un who is the grandson of the original North Korean crazy man Kim Jong Il and son of Kim Jong Il (he of Team America fame). All of the absolute dictators with the power of life and death over the citizenry, who have been indoctrinated to treat them like gods who can do no wrong and who protect the country from Imperialist America.

But the South has had its share of such behavior also, from the first leader of South Korea (the Authoritarian Syngman Rhee), to “President Park” (he of military junta fame) and the father of the recent President Park who was impeached and convicted for corruption as well as letting her astronomer run the country (just like Nancy Regan did in the 1980s for the US) as well as other strongman leaders.

With such leadership, and the US, Russia and China hovering in the background, it’s easy to see why things might have remained tense on the peninsula for the last 65 years.

So let’s recap the current history and situation before going onto the possible futures of the region.

Divided nation, superpower backers, military conflict and Cold War escalation, threats from both sides, devastating war, authoritarian governments, dictatorial leaders, heavily armed (and mined) border region, history of occupation as well as proud history of independence (check out this clip), nuclear weapons (or the threat thereof) and just a dash of crazy.

All of these factors is what has created the situation we have today and while North Korea is definitely the worse of the two now it has not always been so and as we now look at future options it pays to keep that in mind*5.

Media Histrionics

But first a brief word about the media coverage.

The current view of the media on the situation shows that either they don’t know the history of the region and situation, or more likely, are happy playing the panic card by trying to appear responsible journalists but instead write articles like this which just make the worry worse by feeding a stream of manipulative factoids (ala most mainstream US journalism on the issue) and say one thing on the surface but have another (more panicky message) underneath.

Which is why most coverage and commentary comes off like the previously mentioned “concern for the children” comment which is using one small part of the situation as justification for a whole lot more.

The net result is a rather sleazy replay of the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq with lots of diagrams of nuclear weapons, cruise missiles, damage tables and all the “technical” jargon one can handle before vomiting up the barium meal.

Risk and reward?

But North Korea is not Iraq and an invasion or any other form of military measure comes with an incredible range of risks.

But to fully understand those risks we have to understand the rationality or security stance of the players in the game and each has a different stance than the others.

North Korea, is an international pariah state, it’s also a dictatorship with a small ruling elite attached. For such an nation, leader and elite, maintaining its security (ie the security of the ruler and the elite) is paramount and given the fact that it still remembers what happened to it in the Korean War, as well as previous US threats of retaliation, it’s understandable that such a state would seek to build and maintain the ultimate deterrent (nuclear weapons).

But nuclear weapons only work as a deterrent if its backed by a credible threat (ie that of their use) but paradoxically that threat is useless if the North were ever to use them.

Why? Because if they did they know they would be starting a conflict they could not and would not win and that such use would invite their total and utter destruction as a response.

Therefore using nuclear weapons as a form of security only works if you are still in power and if you are pile of radioactive ash or have been forcefully invaded, deposed, tried and hung by the rest of the planet in response to your using nuclear weapons, then they have not done their job.

North Korea wants to be seen as a mad dog threat, this has been its position for the past 30 years or so and it remains that today. The threat of them having nukes and being just “craaaaazy” enough to use them means they can (and have in the past) wrought concessions out of the South Korea, The US and China.

Kim and Co want to maintain their lives and their lifestyles (because he and North Korean elite live very very well while the rest of the North lives in near starvation and poverty (as well as death camps, secret police knocking on your door in the middle of the night and all that fun police state stuff) and as such they are fully rational about what they are doing and why they do it.

What would not be rational would be them just handing over power and giving up their easy lives and as such they seek to protect that.

Imagine if Bill “why aren’t you John key” English and Co suddenly decided that they were socialists after all and were going to reverse all of their policies which were taking NZ down the dark road we are currently going as well as give up their cushy jobs in parliament and have to go out and do some real work and actually not just live off the rest of us.

You can imagine that situation all you like but it won’t happen because inside the framework of the power relations and situation that Bill and Co exist it would not be “rational” and in their minds simply not an option.

This is the same as how North Korea thinks. If they push the button and try and start the big one by lobbing a nuclear missile on anyone they will be gone and they know it BUT if they wave the missile around and keep up their aggressive stance they get things for their bad behavior. It’s not a nice way to behave but its works and in the context of the situation has been very profitable.

The Chinese Puzzle

Then there is China. If it was just North Korea they would probably have collapsed by now but China has propped them up and supported them for 50 plus years now, why?

Again go back to the security stance of the Chinese. Not fond of being invaded or foreign aggression, not happy with having the US military camped out on its borders (or its anti-missile missiles stationed in South Korea) and as such keeping North Korea as both a buffer state as well as a piece on the geo-political board is preferable to having the two Korea's become one and then being stuck with a US allied state right on its border (because if the two were ever to merge its hard to imagine anyone would be choosing the “lets live like the North” option).

And as in my South China Sea post the attempts by the US at containing a rising China require China to secure its position and North Korea is at that than a unified Korea.

Of course China has its limits and the behavior of the North Korea's has been both vexing and not always in line with China’s goals at times but again when viewed their the Chinese security lens it makes sense.

The one caveat here is that even China has its limits and if North Korea outlived its usefulness or pushed things too far then I do expect the Chinese to take action but the question is what action and what effect would it have. At the end of the day China has the most sway with the north and if any nation can get North Korea to ease off with its belligerent actions then it is China.

Price of reunification for the South

For the South Koreans, now a prosperous global economy a unified Korea looks good on paper but who is going to pay for all that modernization for the crappy third world derelict just across the border? What about all those economic refugees that would come flooding across looking for better jobs and lives? Who would pay for all of that? How would the South deal with it?

And given now that the two Korea's are now somewhat distinct (with even their language becoming different in dialect) could these two even reintegrate without further conflict and issue?

Another Quagmire for the US

Then there is the US of A. Ol Sherrif Donald and his military sure would like to take out the North but at what cost?

The odds of an invasion going any better than Iraq did is zero and probably worse. To be sure the US would definitely succeed in invading North Korea and probably even deposing Kim and the regime but, like Iraq, it’s winning the peace after that is the issue.

Then there is the fact that South Korea would very likely suffer some collateral damage not to mention god knows what kind of violent aftermath (or global economic dislocation) if the US was to go by the Iraq playbook (which by the way was an actual copy of the playbook from the invasion and occupation of Germany in 1945) and the US would certainly cop the blame.

Finally let’s not forget that while wars are fabulous for sagging presidential (or prime ministerial popularity) the US is still getting over the invasion and occupation of both Iraq and Afghanistan and Donald Trump may be crazy but the pentagon is not (it’s just evil, but rational).

Recently the US has been trying to get China to let it go in or at least for China to do the dirty work for the US but given the current climate between the two it’s hard to imagine that China is going to want a fractured North Korea or all those North Koreans pouring over its border (it has issues with North Koreans in China at the moment).

Also think about Pakistan (the US never wanted them to have nukes) and since they developed them the US has been forced to live with the fact that they do and that they have a belligerent relationship with India (a close second to the Korean peninsula when it comes to armed borders, hostilities and long running history of rancor) because the cost of doing anything to actually remove them would have higher costs than letting them keep them.

The costs of the US doing something to remove North Korea's nuclear capability are more than likely just as high if not higher than letting them keep them.

And this, in a nutshell, is the dynamic of the international security situation for two Korea's and their friends and while it’s easy to call for some sort of military action (if you like showing your ignorance) it’s akin to throwing a lighted match onto a bonfire (made with guns, explosives and all the hate you can imagine). In a word it would be the ultimate blowback.

Maybe, Maybe Not

But that’s not to say that someone won’t do something stupid or make a mistake but this is a high stakes game and as anyone who has ever played no limit poker can tell you an all in call has just as much risk as reward when you can’t see all the cards and as I have noted there is a rational thread connecting all the players and their actions.

Which is why calls for an invasion, or a targeted strike or anything else (such as a new leader*6) looks good on paper but when weighed up with all the facts and history a different picture emerges and it is one where barring a freak move we won’t have to worry about North Korean nuclear missiles raining down on us any time soon.

And on ANZAC day that’s a comforting thought because my own military history, family and background means that while I retain a lifelong fascination and interest in the study of all things war and military related I don’t have any wish to go off and die in a pointless conflict for any empire, king or country.

I pay my respects to those who fought and fell every year but I never have and never will support the wars they fought or the arguments that saw them go. Just wars are few and far between and the First World War was not one of them and nor would a further war on the Korean peninsula.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

*-This is obviously a gross simplification but unless someone really wants my “abridged” history of the Pacific War that is all your getting in this post.
**-And given that the first “democratically elected” president was a member of the previous military junta real democracy did not emerge until the early 90s.
***-Complete with dinner table assassinations of one junta leader in 1979
****-I would add a joke about she of the Kardashian fame but one family of monstrosities is enough for this post.
*5-Also, again, this is the abridged version of the history and the events of the region as I have omitted a range of people, events and situations for the sake of space.

*6-Which is why the North Koreans killed Kim Jong Un’s half-brother recently, so that there would be no other legitimate heirs to the throne.

NOTE: How do I know all this stuff? Studying Asian politics as an undergrad, living in and across Asia for 10 years, getting paid to watch North Korea (plus other countries) and doing counter proliferation while working at INZ, a Masters in Strat Studies and a lifelong interest in Asia and Asian cultures, that's how.

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