Why North Korea Scares the Hell Out of Me (And Should Probably Scare You, Too)

It’s been a strange month in North Korea. First there was this:

It was laughable. I laughed. And then there was this:

North Korea Armistice

Source: CNN

That was reason for pause. But then again, North Korea has thrown tantrums before. And then this:

North Korea Threatens US Bases

Source: Mirror (UK)

Ok, a little scarier. But still – no way they’d ever seriously consider attacking the U.S., right? And then this:

North Korea U.S. Target Map

Image Source: NKNews

That’s… not ok. BUT they had just released a photoshopped image of their numerous hovercrafts, and there are major doubts that they could hit anything anywhere near this far away from their borders. And then this:

Hagel North Korea Tweet

At this point, things get a little too real for my tastes. And then this:

North Korea Gets the Go-Ahead

WHAT?

The thing is, I’m not really scared about North Korea launching an attack on us. The technology isn’t there. But I am terrified of them trying. And if they try to hit someone within their range, like Japan or South Korea, then we’re really screwed. We’ve promised we’ll defend them. North Korea just moved some of their missiles to the Eastern coast; how do you think Japan is reacting to that?

But will North Korea even make that kind of strike? There was a time where we could have called it mere saber-rattling, but events over the past couple years draw that idea into question in a meaningful way. As Charles Jack Pritchard, former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea negotiations, put it yesterday:

If it were not for a precedent that was set in 2010 with the sinking of the Cheonan, the ship, South Korean ship, by the North Koreans and the artillery firing on the Yeonpyeong Island later in that year, you would say conventional wisdom says this will pass. There will be a return to normalcy.

But that precedent suggests that you must watch what’s going on. Will it turn worse?

There is reason to believe it might. North Korea has shut down the ever important Kaesong industrial complex – a source of substantial revenue for the government, and one of the last remaining vestiges of stable relations between the North and South. The ongoing framing of the decision as Kim Jong Un shooting the country in the foot misses the point; if he’s willing to make these kinds of moves, do you really think he’s approaching this situation from a survivalist/posturing to negotiate perspective?

External pressures aren’t helping. You have to remember that North Korea rules its people with an iron fist. It’s about control, and even in the past with Kim Jong Il, fear of losing that control has a habit of leading to reactionary demonstrations of power – transparent efforts to shore up confidence in leadership that can bring us dangerously close to the brink of something we can’t take back. As the Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday:

Defense analysts say that there are indeed some hints that Kim may be losing his hold on the military.

There have been defections of small units of North Korean soldiers to China – soldiers who were subsequently turned around and sent back to North Korea, says retired Brig. Gen. Russell Howard, former commander of the 1st Special Forces Group, which has an Asia Focus.

This may seem like a positive development, but it is a problem because it means that Kim may feel the need to reassert his control over the military, by beating the war drum and trying to get his troops to rally around it. The more he needs their support, the harder he might beat the drum.

Oh yeah, and this morning? Anonymous hacked the official North Korea social media accounts. Does that seem like something silly to get angry about? Keep in mind: we’re dealing with a silly person. He just happens to be a silly person with his finger on the trigger of what could potentially be the next major conflict of our time. With the U.S. moving missile defense systems into the region, the idea of backing North Korea into a corner is looking more like reality.

But even in a world where Kim Jong Un has zero intention of launching any kind of attack to push us over the edge, the situation is still very, very dangerous. Everyone is on high alert, which means one move in the wrong direction could tip everything into chaos. As reported in The Washington Times:

With North Korean rhetoric at such a high level, and given Pyongyang’s history of military provocations against its southern neighbor, Gen. James Thurman said his greatest fear is “a miscalculation. An impulsive decision that causes a kinetic provocation.”

Gen. Thurman, who leads the 28,500 American military troops based in South Korea and also serves as the commander of United Nations Command, granted an exclusive interview to ABC News on Tuesday.

He said he could not discount North Korean rhetoric as mere fist-shaking. Asked if he thought threats to attack the United States were empty, Gen. Thurman said: “No, I don’t think that they are. We’ve got to take every threat seriously.”

His response also indicated the dilemma that a small-scale North Korean military provocation, such as a cross- border exchange of fire, might pose for U.S. and South Korean commanders.

“We will defend ourselves,” he said. “We don’t want to respond to some type of deceptive move into a rapid escalation into a conflict. … My job is to prevent war.” […]

But with Pyongyang’s forces on a hair trigger, and changed rules of engagement and response south of the border, the danger of an accidental war is very real, military analysts agree.

“The potential for an escalatory spiral [into accidental war] is very real,” said Bruce Bennett, a scholar with the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank with historic ties to the U.S. military.

So there’s that. And let’s not pretend that the U.S. and North Korea are the only ones who could take a step in the wrong direction. If South Korea or Japan react to a perceived threat, such moves could trigger conflict just as easily. There’s a lot at stake.

And then there’s China. On one hand, they have ZERO desire to have a conflict that includes the U.S. in their backyard. On the other hand, there are treaties to consider. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) explains this very grey area:

Experts say China has also been ambivalent on the question of its commitment to intervene for the defense of North Korea in case of military conflict. The 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance says China is obliged to defend North Korea against unprovoked aggression. But Jaewoo Choo, assistant professor of Chinese foreign policy at Kyung Hee University in South Korea, writes in Asian Survey that “China conceives itself to have the right to make an authoritative interpretation of the “principle for intervention” in the treaty. As a result of changes in regional security in a post-Cold War world, he writes, “China now places more value on national interest, over alliances blinded by ideology.” But, he argues, Chinese ambiguity deters others from taking military action against Pyongyang.

There is good reason for doubt. It’s been a long history of mixed signals on the relationship status of China and North Korea, but one thing is very, very clear: it’s complicated. CFR continued:

Despite their long alliance, experts say Beijing does not control Pyongyang. “In general, Americans tend to overestimate the influence China has over North Korea,” says Daniel Pinkston, a Northeast Asia expert at the International Crisis Group. In March 2010, China refused to take a stance against North Korea, despite conclusive evidence that showed Pyongyang sank a South Korean naval vessel. But in meetings with then leader Kim Jong-Il following the incident, then Chinese President Hu Jintao asked the North Korean leader to refrain from future provocations, says John S. Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Hu also reportedly insisted on long overdue market reforms, notes Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea expert at Leeds University.

At the same time, China has too much at stake in North Korea to halt or withdraw its support entirely. “The idea that the Chinese would turn their backs on the North Koreans is clearly wrong,” says CFR Senior Fellow Adam Segal. Beijing only agreed to UN Resolution 1718 after revisions removed requirements for tough economic sanctions beyond those targeting luxury goods, and China’s trade with North Korea has steadily increased in recent years. Bilateral trade between China and North Korea reached nearly $6 billion in 2011, according to official Chinese data. Park writes that much of China’s economic interactions with North Korea are not actually prohibited by the current UN sanctions regime, as Beijing characterizes them as economic development and humanitarian activities. China’s enforcement of the UN sanctions is also unclear, says a January 2010 report (PDF) from the U.S. Congressional Research Service, which notes that Chinese exports of banned luxury goods averaged around $11 million per month in 2009.

Let’s also not pretend that this is just about dollar signs. It’s also a major security concern for China. In a world where the current regime in North Korea falls, China has a major refugee problem on its hands. Not helping concerns about the role China would play in a conflict between North Korea and the U.S. are the PLA (Chinese army) movements we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks. The Washington Free Beacon reports:

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troop and tank movements were reported in Daqing, located in northeastern Heilongjiang Province, and in the border city of Shenyang, in Liaoning Province.

Officials said one key military unit involved in the mobilization is the 190th Mechanized Infantry Brigade based in Benxi, Liaoning Province. The brigade is believed to be the PLA’s frontline combat unit that would respond to any regional conflict or refugee flows. Troops and tank movements also were reported in Dandong, in Liaoning Province.

Fighter jets were reported flying in larger numbers in Fucheng, Hebei Province, and in Zhangwu, in Liaoning Province, and Changchun, in Jilin Province.

Now, to be fair, it is entirely plausible that these movements will have more to do with stabilization in the event of North Korean collapse than supporting them militarily. And China HAS been critical of North Korea as of late. But again, we don’t have a lot of clarity, and it’s more about that whole hair-trigger concern. The worry is less that we’ll all march towards each other in a straight line, and more than someone’s going to accidentally knock over the wrong domino.

When we talk about North Korea, it’s easier (and far less frightening) to assume they’re just throwing another tantrum. But when we take a step back, and realize just how volatile the situation is… well, now you know where my nightmares came from last night.

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20 comments

  1. Forgive me because my politics are a bit rusty, but why has our government allowed North Korea to get this far? The government has practically made up evidence so we can invade other nations–Iraq– but the evidence here is pretty clear! When Cuba discussed missiles during Cold War we shut them down! Why not now? I may sound a little nieve here so again forgive me, but this is clearly serious and I am curious.

    1. Part of it likely has to do with the balancing act we have going on with China. This is quite literally their backyard. Any kind of contrived invasion would be ill-advised. That’s not to say that other invasions have NOT been ill-advised, but in this instance, an abundance of caution is appreciated.

      Further, it’s not exactly something we can afford. Our military resources are already stretched pretty thin with our other military engagements, and with recent sequester cuts, there’s even more strain.

      But the optimist in me hopes it’s because war sucks, and there are diplomatic options left. I hope. I hope. I hope.

  2. It would appear that Kim Jong Un was raised by a mentally ill father. In 2009, a team of scientists diagnosed Jong-il as sadist, paranoid, antisocial, narcissistic, schizoid and schizotypal. His personality type was on scale with Hitler and Stalin.

    http://www.uccs.edu/~faculty/fcoolidg/Kim%20Jong-il%202009%20Behavioral%20Sciences%20of%20Terrorism.pdf

    It is also possible that Jong Un has inherited severe mental illness from his father. I agree that we should be greatly concerned. Psychologists Coolidge and Segal make recommendations about how to engage in diplomatic talks with world ‘leaders’ who have this type of personality. They say that even ‘submitting to negotiations’ makes many antisocial individuals unwilling and hostile.

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2011/12/19/anatomy-of-a-megalomaniac-psychological-analysis-of-kim-jong-il-from-afar/

  3. I think you have one piece of information off. This will not be “The next great conflict”. North Korea has less military capability than NYC or LA. The LAPD, not the US military could invade and take over North Korea. The only question is China. As you point out to TKASSBA, China is not going to like the US in there back yard. We can’t initiate war or we have problems with China. We can defend ourselves. If North Korea attacks us, We will retaliate. China does not want us setting up military in there back yard, so they will join us in stomping out North Korea and take over peace keeping operations once the military and dictator are gone. So long as US leaders and Chinese leaders don’t turn this into a proxy war, It will be over in minuets, not days or weeks.

    1. It’s not about it being the “next great conflict.” It’s about it being a dangerous situation where miscalculation could have devastating consequences. Can NK hit NY? Probably not. Is it just as deplorable if they kill hundreds of thousands with a nuclear missile strike in SK? Absolutely. There are a lot of potentially bad paths ahead of us.

      1. Well in that case, I just misread your intent. It seemed like you where saying that NK was a threat to the US, that it was somehow going to spark WW3 or something. I fully agree that SK and Japan are in bad positions, and attacks on them would be very sad and tragic events. If NK does launch an missile at a target any further than SK, I expect that combined US/Chinese bombing/shelling/missiles will have NK a smoking crater before the first missile even lands. (lots of death, but no sustained conflict)

  4. Picture a crazed man-child who has grown up spoiled and twisted, who regards everything around him as his, who is madly posturing and playing with the tempers of the United States military – while his senior officials are sweating buckets and making meaningful eye contact but can’t say a thing for fear of immediate execution. I wonder what it’s like to be in those strategic meetings… a combination of completely brainwashed, crazed, trigger-happy men and some men who are in touch with reality and are constantly terrified. No outsider can really understand what’s going on over there, what it’s really like (which is why our government is so afraid of them). I think the best outcome for the world, when it comes to the North Korea issue, would be a swift and silent coup by these reasonable insider individuals (but it’s infinitely easier for me to sit here and type about it then it is for them to even think it). I hope for a day when the people of North Korea are happy and healthy.
    ——-
    If anyone’e interested in some background info on what it’s been like it N. Korea, I learned a lot from this post (below) from glimpse.org. I knew people were hungry, there was complete control, there was a lot of violence against dissenters, but I didn’t know how bad it could get in there. Its seems that no matter where you go in the world, the sickest side of people is unleashed when they become unaccountable.

    The individuals featured in this article lived under the reign of Un’s father, but I can’t imagine he passed on a very healthy mind to his son, let alone a style of ruling the masses.

    [BE ADIVSED – very graphic and disturbing]

    http://glimpse.org/north-korean-defectors-escaping-the-reign-of-kim-jong-il/

  5. From what I’ve read (though I may be wrong) North Korea don’t even have nuclear missile capabilities so I don’t think they’ll be nuking South Korea any time soon.

    1. #ProudDebateMamaMoment

      Yes, I would. For the moment. Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Un are both off their rockers. Maybe Ahmadinejad will feel the need to one up his North Korean competition. I don’t know. Guess time will tell…

      1. The speed of the way he is doing things is incredibly frightening, but I still think its a lot of sabre rattling. Gone are the days where China could afford economically or geopolitically defend them, so even if they did something unwise, the retribution would be so devastating that it would probably stop them and deter future adventurism.

  6. Eeehhh…I’m not that scared of North Korea cause they like to ruffle their feathers alot. Especially when they get new leadership. Creating a “Crisis” to get attention abroad and respect internally. He’ll go back to his cave….

    1. I certainly hope so. My concerns stem from the attack on the SK sub in 2010, the shut down of the factory, and the movement of weapons to more strategic locations; it makes me concerned that this Kim is a little crazier than the last, and that that might be a little too much. I hope I’m wrong. I genuinely hope there is zero to worry about in a couple of days.

  7. I’m an Int’l Rel student in Hawaii, so we talk about relations between the US and Asian countries (specifically Japan, China, and the Koreas) a lot. First off, I’ll say that all of the Korean, Chinese and Japanese people I have talked to (not ethnically, but nationality) are not currently worried about an attack from North Korea. It’s also not a top concern on the military bases there (I have several friends based in Japan and South Korea) or here in Hawaii, where we’d be a major target.

    That’s not to say that it’s not possible, but it’s not something they think is extremely likely to happen in the near future. For one thing, despite the weaponry that NK may or may not have, it is almost certain that they don’t have the basic necessities to use the weapons, like fuel for their fighter jets. North Korea also has a long history of bravado that isn’t followed through on (not that we want them to do so). Of course, a sane person wouldn’t usually go into a fight without a good chance of winning, which is where we come to the crux of the situation.

    The biggest issue is that we don’t have a lot of background for Kim Jong Un, so we don’t know how far is too far and when he’ll push the button. That’s why — at this point — we see it being said that we’re taking him seriously, but we don’t see much more than some response-posturing. We don’t want to push him to the point where he feels like he has to do something to save face.

    It’s a delicate balance, and one that is working thus far. As long as the US gov’t, in addition to South Korea, Japan, and China (and, to a lesser extent, other major powers), has enough information to be able to respond quickly to a (with the info we currently have, likely ineffective) attack, we should be all right.

    This isn’t a situation where we should go in guns blazing (at least not yet), but one where there’s a crazy guy with a gun and the best option is to have that one police officer try to get him to put it down with very soothing tones (while everyone else’s weapon is trained on him). Then again, people said similar things before past wars, and my optimism in this situation is definitely “cautious.” I hope I didn’t sound too pedantic for a comment.

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