Over the week, several friends have asked me, “Jerry, what do you think North Korea is going to do?” My response is usually, “How the bloody hell do I know? I’m no political expert!” But then I prognosticate anyway, for I’m fascinated with North Korea and have tried to learn as much as I can about it. That’s pretty much limited to reading the news, reading excellent memoirs of escapees like The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Choi-hwan Kang, who lived in the prison camps for many years—a fascinating book, and watching videos of people’s visits to North Korea. Those videos are depressingly similar since all visitors and film crews must go on virtually identical state-monitored tours, and aren’t allowed to wander freely.
It’s a terrible state—the worst dictatorship in the world—and the citizens are best described as “starved prisoners.” Brainwashed from birth, forbidden to access the internet or news from other countries, many must surely swallow the propaganda forced down their throats daily. They’re all conditioned to think that they are indeed a blessed people, that Kim Jong Un is a god, and that other countries, particularly the U.S., is constantly plotting to nuke them. The state is in many respects a theocracy, with its three leaders seen as gods. Indeed, Kim il-Sung, who died in 1994, is still considered the country’s “eternal president,” and there are many miracle stories attending his birth, like birds singing his praises.
Here’s a view of the Koreas from space, courtesy of reader Alex (comment #1 below). As he says, “It’s difficult to take a country seriously when it can’t keep its lights on.” The border between North and South Korea is clearly delineated, and the dot of light near the west coast is Pyongyang. This is the most graphic demonstration of how impoverished North Korea really is:
So what is going to happen? The North Koreans, unlike many Muslims, don’t want to die in glorious combat. They know that, although they can inflict grievous damage on South Korea (the north has the fifth largest army in the world, after China, the U.S., South Korea, and India, and Seoul is very close to the DMZ), they would surely be annihiliated in any serious conflict. Kim Jong Un and his fellow leaders want to live. Ergo, they won’t do anything that would clearly initiate a war.
The problem is that the North may not know how far they can go without provoking one. The last time they acted, sinking a South Korean navy ship in 2010 and killing 46 sailors, there was little reprisal from the South or the U.S. They may count on that happening again. Their periodic saber-rattling has two goals: to show the world that they won’t go gentle into that good night, and to extort goods and food from the U.S., China, and South Korea.
But it won’t take much to set off a conflict now, with the South Koreans increasingly nervous. I’m counting on the fact that South Korea won’t engage in unilateral action without U.S. approval, and heartened by observing that China is beginning to distance itself from Pyongyang.
In my email news bulletin today, CNN reports the imminent launch of missiles (non-nuclear) by North Korea:
A senior Pentagon official says there is intelligence information indicating North Korea could be planning “multiple missile launches” in the coming days.
The official did not have specifics on the numbers of missiles and launchers spotted by U.S. satellite imagery, but said the two intermediate-range mobile missiles North Korea has placed along its eastern coastline may have been feints to distract attention from the multiple launches that may be coming.
This is a tactic the North Koreans have used in the past, the official said.
So here’s my prediction:
1. If they do fire those missiles, they will fizzle out and land in the ocean, as usual
2. If missiles aren’t fired, or fired with no effect, the West will have no response, but nor will they (or China) give North Korea any goodies to stop further action.
3. Everything will go back to normal, with North Korea continuing to act aggressively but slowly ratcheting down its rhetoric.
4. The North Koreans will re-open the factory near the border, as they need the cash and can’t afford to sever relations with everyone.
I hope I’m right, but there’s a lot of wiggle room for miscalculation here, mainly on the side of the North. Nobody else is spoiling for war as avidly as they.
The best documentary on North Korea I’ve found (and they’re all a bit lacking since open filming is illegal) is “Welcome to North Korea,” which isn’t bad. It’s 53 minutes long, and well worth watching:
Directed by: Peter Tetteroo, Raymond Feddema PLOT DESCRIPTION The winner of the 2001 International Emmy award for Best Documentary, Welcome to North Korea is a grotesquely surreal look at the all-too-real conditions in modern-day North Korea. Dutch filmmaker Peter Tetteroo and his associate Raymond Feddema spent a week in and around the North Korean capital of Pyongyang — ample time to produce this outstanding film. Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs; from http://www.archive.org.
Let’s hear your predictions about what will happen in the Koreas over the next two months. Will there be any armed conflict?