Wednesday, October 01, 2003

North Korea: Questions and More Questions

Let's begin by noting a rather obnoxious turn in the SK-US dialogue: SK may tie the sending of combat troops to US concessions on the NK issue. This can be taken positively: SK is leaning toward sending troops, but is attaching a limp demand which the US will likely ignore. Or it can be taken negatively, if it indicates SK is becoming more obstreperous as it listens to the demands of its citizens. I think SK is caving, but still believe this is an obnoxious thing for it to do, linking SK troops to NK issues.

Either way, Joe Korean isn't happy with how things are turning out here. I should have brought along the September issue of Korea University's English-language monthly, The Granite Tower. In it, the editor expresses his disappointment with the Roh administration, and ends with a welcome observation about how current societal problems (at all levels of society, I think) are linked to "ignoring rule of law" issues. If I remember to, I'll bring the mag into the PC-bahng next time and provide you some quotes.

Oh, yeah: Hurray for moral decadence!

En avant...

I don't know how many posts this is going to take, but I've decided I need to think out loud about these NK questions.

And you need to help me. You've just been recruited.

I encourage comments: email me or post comments in the Vile Vituperation link (emailing is better; remember to put "Hairy Chasms" in the subject line). If you want to point out sources I'm missing, or problems with where I'm looking, I'll appreciate all that. If you have hot links to current NK topicality, send them my way. NK isn't my field; history and politics aren't, either. So if you're in the know (military, State, etc.), and have something substantive to contribute, please contribute! And commentary from Georgetown SFSers and incestuous amplifiers (etc.) is always welcome.

If your contribution will be based on NK experience consisting primarily of a "group tour" into NK, however... I don't know how useful your observations will be. Sorry, but you were on a heavily managed field trip. You didn't see any more than the Norks wanted you to see, and while you undoubtedly learned a lot, you don't have firsthand knowledge of anything relevant to what we're discussing here. If you're a relief worker who witnessed baby-eating and mass defections in the hinterlands, however, I want your testimony. Same if you've seen NK artillery, etc. up close (I'd love to know how you did this, and if you can't tell me, I won't trust you).

[BTW, that's the first time I've used the term "Norks" on this blog. I had to succumb to the trend at some point.]

There are two claims I want to examine.

1. The NK military is currently starving.

2. "It's all bluster."

The first view represents a particular school of thought, and it may be on to something. As food aid has been reduced, there is indeed a question of whether NK's starvation problem is reaching even into the military. I'm also curious whether it's directly affecting the lower echelons of the NK government.

The "it's all bluster" question can be taken several ways. Here are two angles.

First: are people who take this stance seriously contending there is nothing to fear from the North? If so, I find this contention spectacularly stupid (a commenter at Stavros the Wonderchicken's site offers a better adjective: "ass-flavored"), but am willing to examine the question of NK's supposed toothlessness.

Second: is the "bluster" claim actually more nuanced than it sounds-- in which it's agreed that NK won't be a pushover in a war, but is nonetheless so desperate that it will actually concede more (whoops-- I mean start making concessions) if we remain unflaggingly stubborn? In other words, have we (the US, SK, Japan, Russia, China, the UN, etc.) been backing down too often?

I think a lot of people, if not most, are at this point on the spectrum. There's little disagreement that NK has used and is still using bluster as a tactic to gain concessions. It speaks volumes that, despite being conscious of this, the US, SK, and other countries still respond to NK as if it were truly serious. There's a dysfunctional dynamic at work here, and this school of thought avocates more US stubbornness (and perhaps more unpredictability) to soften NK up. I don't deny it: I'm all for this. Up the pressure! And if Bush looks stupid and unstable to Kim, all the better! Give that plump little fucker a taste of his own medicine! After all, the world's current nightmare is an insane hyperpower, right?

RIGHT?? I'm talking to you, asshole!

Let Kim Jong Il live the nightmare!

The answer to both angles on the "bluster" question, gross and subtle, is a close examination of NK's current military capabilities and our best expert hypotheses on how a peninsular war would play itself out. This will involve covering old ground, but the point is for me to present facts and figures where possible, and the opinons of experts who've been watching the game for years. If you have counterarguments or contrary observations, I expect you to present more than your opinion. I will be linking heavily-- this is research (such as it is), after all, and I'm trying to educate myself as much as anyone else.

To be clear: if your responses/contributions are anecdotal or unsupported by expert sources I can access, they're garbage. Sorry, but consider this academic peer review. Provide links and be a fellow researcher!

The starvation question can be broken down into sub-questions (add more if you like):

1. What are the latest figures/expert guesses on NK starvation, in terms of rate and brute numbers? What's the general history of the starvation problem, and what projections, if any, are there about future starvation?

2. Who's currently giving food aid to NK? What percentage of NK's food supply is being domestically produced?

3. Can an overall picture of NK food production, delivery, and consumption be painted? How accurate will this picture be?

4. Corollary question: if a high percentage of NK's food is coming from outside, who (what countries, organizations, etc.) is currently providing it?

5. What measures, if any, are in place to verify where food goes (this question is crucial; if we can't answer it satisfactorily, we can't answer the "are the troops starving?" question satisfactorily, either)? Are military defectors from NK in a position to speak about diverted food?

6. If we get past question #5 and have at least some idea where food is going, how much is being routed to the military? How are the lower-echelon people in NK's government doing?

As I said previously, these kinds of questions require recent data, no more than two years old. Time-tinged remembrances from the mid-90s won't suffice. The current situation is changing rapidly.

The "it's all bluster" question is much wider in scope, and includes the troop starvation issue as a subset. If, from the above, we determine that NK troops are indeed starving, then we have a partial answer to the question of bluster: yes, the army's hurting for food, and this has military implications.

But we need to build a more complete picture, and as I think more about this, I really think that, if you're an expert reading this blog, your contribution would be golden. If other bloggers want to do research on these issues and send their results to me, I will compile and post.

Let's assume for the moment that a truly complete picture of NK military capability isn't possible. So let's define "complete" in terms of our aim, which is to determine, as I said in a previous post, whether a military victory over NK would be clean or pyrrhic. Plunging on in:

1. What would constitute a "clean" or "pyrrhic" victory? This question borders on the philosophical, but lucky for us, we have many historical precedents (i.e., previous wars we've fought) by which to set some concrete standards re: troop casualties, amount of time spent during the principal conflict, and material results of conflict-- not to mention well-publicized Democratic and Republican notions of "acceptable loss," that might actually be translatable into numbers.

Notice my choice of opposites-- clean vs. pyrrhic: I am not asking the question of whether a peninsular war would be "worth it." I unquestioningly assume that any military effort to overthrow Kim Jong Il, once begun, would be absolutely worth whatever costs are incurred. Others may not share this view, and maybe that's because they have no love or care for Korean culture. A lot of people, for example, don't bat an eye at the prospect of thousands or millions of civilian deaths here, if the trade-off is a North Korean nuke going off in L.A. I understand that.

Why, you ask, would any effort be worth it once the conflict has begun? Because it would have to be. I don't think there's a such animal as a "limited" military action on the peninsula, such as a pinpoint bombing of the Yongbyon reactor. While SK and NK constantly provoke each other with shots and incursions (and US troops do get involved now & again), this is to my mind a completely different kind of engagement. Once we engage on a larger scale than a few random potshots, we are in the shit. This dovetails with my belief that NK's whole gamble is to see how long it can continue the status quo. A slide toward war, which will lead inevitably to the defeat of the NK military and the overthrow of the NK government, means the game was lost (by NK) the moment diplomacy failed. A "win" for NK is "that which does not lead to war." By this standard, NK has had nothing but a string of victories. A win for the US, I think, would be either through a decisive military victory or the rapid collapse of the NK government-- by coup, by simple cascade failure, or whatever.

2. What do the experts, military and otherwise, have to say about how a war on the peninsula would go? If you, as a blogger/talking head, think you have an angle the experts don't have (you lone voice in the wilderness, you), what's your angle?

3. What kind of military equipment does NK have in terms of weaponry, transports, etc.? What's the best-guess rundown on the military's strength, overall? How are experts evaluating "strength"?

4. What is the current state of NK troop training? (Many contend it's poor.) How will this be relevant in war?

5. Where are the NK troops positioned?

6. Would China get militarily involved? I found it interesting that some Chinabloggers think China would indeed get involved. I'd love for them to weigh in on this.

7. When all is said and done, what do experts feel would be the effect of a peninsular war on the South Korean population (i.e., numbers killed & in what space of time), infrastructure, economy, political future, etc.? This question is directly relevant to the larger issue of whether SK citizens are justified in fearing a war, and it's also relevant to our judgement that a victory will be clean or pyrrhic. What frustrates me about the SK position is the insistence on the "one people" rhetoric, which on its face is contradicted by fear of NK attack. So perhaps an interesting side issue is: what's going on in the "average" SK citizen's psyche that allows them to reconcile these two apparently contradictory convictions?

I'm going to stop with the questions here, except to take dibs on researching questions #1-6 of the starvation issue. Do I have any takers for other questions? Don't worry if there's "dib overlap"-- the more info on a given question, the better. So if someone else wants to work on the starvation issue, go for it (but TELL me!). And if any history majors or geopolitical eggheads want to help me out by suggesting new questions (or a better methodology, or a better way to frame the issues), I'm all... eyes? I don't know methodology in this area; history majors and SFSers in particular might view my approach as too slipshod and maybe unproductive. So critique away.

Here's hoping for some responses. If you've never gone digging for info on North Korea, this might be an interesting experience for you.

I have a link to a list of think tanks on my sidebar, in the references section.

Kevin at IA has some great links:

1. Pyongyang Square
2. Pyongyang News
3. The above provides a link to North Korea Crisis News.
4. A 2002 US State Dept. report on human rights in NK, through Korean Media Watch.
5. CanKor
6. NK Government

Seeing Eye Blog has this link: an overview of NK.

Kyungnam to Kyunggi Journal has a link to the Pyongyang Times. This wasn't working when I tried it... did I hear they pulled the plug on this? I'm somewhat behind the Times. Pun intended.

Drambuie Man has an interesting and possibly relevant link: Global Security.

I also recommend the Free North Korea! site.

Enough to get started? Then what are you waiting for?

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