A Tale of Two Countries

Jonathan Choi, Co-Opinion/News Editor

On February 12th, just over a month ago, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) tested two separate nuclear warheads underground. Just a month before, Kim Jong-Un, Kim Jong Il’s successor, sent the go-ahead for the ‘peaceful’ launch of a ‘civilian’ satellite into space, a move widely condemned in the international community. And, now after several unanimous United Nations sanctions against the North’s banking and trade, the DPRK has reiterated its threats of war.

To those who have been watching events unfold in the peninsula for many years, this is nothing new. In the past the KCNA, Kim’s governmental propaganda arm, has aired bellicose rhetoric against the US, the “puppet government” of South Korea, and Japan. And, in the past, tensions have escalated to conditions tantamount to war. In 2012, the North bombed the island of Yeonpyeong with artillery, killing four. In 2010, the North sank the ROKS Cheonan with a torpedo, killing forty-six seamen. So, recent threats have been met with relative ease and unconcern.

However, unlike last time, Kim Jong-Un is in charge. And according to many analysts, that could make all the difference. Though many see him as a puppet of North Korea’s massive military industrial complex, others see his hand in recent nuclear talks with the U.S.

Last year, President Obama agreed to send food aid to the North in exchange for some disarmament of its nuclear program. Just two years before, the North “would shrewdly manipulate the enemy’s anxieties,” according to The Standard Examiner. This would cause the U.S. or Korea to offer a bribe for negotiations, forbear, then continues on its path for nuclear ICBMs. The recent break in tradition is cause for concern.

However, the situation is much more complicated; to get the heart of the conflict, one should look at the military culture of North Korea.

North’s Nuclear Nihilism

If the North’s threats reminds you of a Chihuahua barking up a tree, then you have an accurate picture of the North’s intentions: attention. The last time the North was a viable military threat in the world was over four decades ago. Though it spends over twenty five percent of its GDP on its army, fields the fourth largest army in the world, and has twice the armor its enemy, the South, has, most of the military equipment fielded are considered museum pieces in the rest of the world. On top of that, fuel, ammo, and food shortages would compound the problems they would face in a war scenario.

So, though the North’s army is impressive on paper, it is just a paper dragon, an illusion of power. Thus, their military is considered only as an effective bargaining chip, used only to posture threats against the United States. Even though the North’s army is weak, it still can do considerable damage to the South Korea (ROK). In the South, preparations that have been made for the past six decades have been still called inadequate. The North still outnumbers the South’s army and the South’s military culture entirely depends on its ace, the US Military. But recent budget cuts to missile defense programs and USROK may push the South to need to step up and do more to defend itself, a stance that is politically called upon for the new president to take up.

The North currently has several thousand artillery pieces aimed at Seoul, mere miles south of the DMZ. Rumors of underground tunnels and the powerfully large North Korean special forces only make the threat larger. But the only thing that gives the North its massive advantage is its nuclear program.

This is why the DPRK seems like a suicidal maniac chasing a pirate’s bounty. The North realizes that in a conventional war they will lose. Thus they seek to balance the odds by threatening MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction). They want to develop a viable means to deploy their nuclear option and threaten the United States with it in negotiations, providing leverage against a possible war. Though this is currently only a fantasy, the South, a key ally in the region for the US, is still incredibly in danger. A nuclear strike on Seoul could cause the death of millions.  Thus, that is why the North is continually threatening the destruction of the South. The question is whether they will follow through.

Despite a stoic façade and a massive national security complex, years of oppression could cause resistance to an invasion of the South if it means the destruction of the South. And this is the North’s real problem.

The Soviet Union’s Curse

Joseph Stalin that placed Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong Il’s father, in power in North Korea to counterbalance the United States’ influence over South Korea during World War Two. Ever since then, the North has been forced to use the same Stalinist tactics in order to maintain power over the people. They have built up a massive military bureaucracy, trained the world’s largest special forces based army, and built up a propaganda network Joseph Goebbels would have envied. But, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the aid that came along with its existence, the North has started a long spiral downward.

In recent times, cracks in the stoic façade of the north have started to show. In the months after New Years, satellite phots indicated that North Korea prison camps were indeed expanding under new demand. Also, reports just a month ago showed that the missile tests have cause the North to declare bankruptcy and figures indicated a hidden famine, as told by a defector, within the North’s agricultural provinces. The executions of cannibals and stories of extreme poverty have reached Seoul faster than it did Pyongyang, where the government still maintains Orwellian control. But, even the military, showed such trends as well.

In the days after the harsh rhetoric and the nullification of the armistice that ended the Korea War, frontline units at the DMZ, the world’s most heavily militarized border, in the North Korean side showed heavily losses due to attrition. The harsh authoritarian government has forced many of the troops to buckle and strain under pressure to perform with lack of incentive.

This does not mean the North’s army is going to be willing to leave the side of Kim Jong-Un. This may not mean anything at all. But this may be a symptom of a growing discontent in the DPRK with the regime.

A North Korea defector, who crossed the border with China to come to the South, reported that there was a hidden resistance within the North. Because of the proliferation of new technologies, broadcasts by South Korean radio, and the internet, a growing body of North Koreans are starting to see glimpses of the world, and the glaring contrast between the riches of the outside compared to the poverty of North Korea.

And here springs the ultimate conclusion: the North is threatening war against its own people. The North knows it is political and military suicide to attack the South with the US at its side. So, in order to continue surviving through the food shortages next month, they are using war rhetoric to increase their stranglehold on its people.

Historically, this tactic has been effective. The Nazis used the Jews as a scapegoat for the build-up of their military and the abuse of their people’s civil liberties. The people rage and fear about what they do not understand motivated them to group together and attack the Jews. Much in the same way, Kim’s propaganda is one of extreme group think, where hate of the United States causes extreme support for his dynastic policies, no matter the consequences.

It’s a matter of smoke and mirrors, a never-ending political dance of the North.