Saturday, October 08, 2011


So I saw two pictures from recently-published articles that offer a striking contrast between North and South Korea. The South Korean picture was linked by The Marmot's Hole; it shows actress Oh In-hye in a very, very revealing dress as she walks the red carpet during the Busan International Film Festival (sample photo here). My first thought was, Korea's finally catching up to Europe! Congratulations!

The North Korean picture comes from this MSNBC article about starvation. Warning: click that link only if you're ready to see a frighteningly disease-ravaged child.

In South Korea, they're altering their eyes, noses, and boobs. In North Korea, by contrast, they're barely getting by.

The MSNBC article says that South Korea claims the North often exaggerates the extent of its various crises. There's truth to this. The peninsular situation is so shot through with irony and meta-irony that it's hard to know what to think or what to do. The North boldly proclaims its "self-reliance" while playing up domestic starvation to demand global aid. We in the West see these horrifying pictures and want to do something, but we know the North will, after displaying pictures of suffering citizens, shunt any food to its soldiers and political cadres first, leaving only scraps for the desperate populace.

I'm of the opinion that the best we can do is starve the NK government out. But there's no denying that this strategy comes at a horrible, horrible price.



SJHoneywell said...

And yet, really, what other option is there? Attack?

Kevin Kim said...

Exactly, which is why I opt for a starve-them-out strategy as the best of a set of bad solutions (most South Koreans would disagree with me; the younger generation sees appeasement as the way to go).

The problem, though, is that it's really a matter of violence now or violence later. When the regime finally enters the cascade-failure phase, we can expect it to lash out, and on a narrow strip of land like the Korean peninsula, this will inevitably mean lashing out at the South.

A second Korean War is in the cards; it's just a matter of time. It'd be nice if NK collapsed the way East Germany did, but comparing European history and culture to Asian history and culture is like comparing apples to asymptotes.

Charles said...

Not that I can offer a better alternative, but the starve-them-out strategy is based on the premise that the North Korean people will eventually rise up and overthrow their oppressors. As long as the regime controls the military, this is not going to happen.

There are really only two "successful" outcomes to a starve-them-out strategy (that does not include external intervention): 1) the military decides it can no longer bear the suffering of the people and performs a coup, or 2) literally everyone starves, with the key members of the regime being the last to be affected.

The coup outcome doesn't guarantee that the new bosses will be any better than the old bosses, and the starvation outcome... well, are we as a global community really willing to pay that price?

Sometimes I think the best thing to happen to North Korea would be if they struck oil. That would at least speed up the process leading to the inevitable war. I agree with you that a war is coming some day, but I don't think it will begin with a North Korean attack on the South. The North would stand to gain absolutely nothing from such a move, and they would most likely lose everything--and they know this. They will push things as far as they possibly can (like with the occasional shelling of a West Sea island), but such actions are for internal consumption (i.e., to convince hard-liners that the regime is still in control). An all-out strike is out of the question.

Kevin Kim said...

I'm not sure the NK military would initiate a coup on behalf of the starving. To me, it's more likely the military would stage a coup simply to usurp power.

The way I see it, attacking NK is an invitation to catastrophe, and if the US does this, it'll be even more anathema to SK (the younger generation, anyway) than it already is. Sending food to NK simply prolongs the problem, since the regime diverts food aid and won't allow proper supervision of its distribution. That's why I figure that it's best to starve the NK government out. The government is bigger than just Kim Jong-il's inner circle; it's thousands of mid-level cadres who'll feel the squeeze from lack of food.

I agree that a coup by the military doesn't guarantee the new regime will be any better than the old. But the new regime will face massive problems, such as the need to rework the Kimist mythology to justify the junta's rise to power (can the populace be reprogrammed that fast?), the inherent instability of being the new rulers in town, and the need to stifle its own bellicose intentions: these are generals, after all, and they'll be thinking about resources. The South will be a tempting target for them, especially with Seoul just over the border.

I think that, if a rebellion is going to start, it'll be at the level of the military, not the populace. The generals' loyalty will disappear once the Kim Dynasty shows itself to be too weak to hold on to power.

As for whether an all-out strike is out of the question: I think that, right now, it is. But if things become too desperate, if the Kims realize they're about to go down in flames, I'd say all bets are off, especially if the generals are themselves divided into loyalist and reformist camps. Collapse is going to be sudden, as it always is with this sort of regime, and there's going to be unpleasant spillover, both north into China and south into SK.

Charles said...

"I'm not sure the NK military would initiate a coup on behalf of the starving. To me, it's more likely the military would stage a coup simply to usurp power."

I agree... but I'm confused as to how a starve-them-out strategy would lead to this. Like you said, if the ruling regime fails to convince the military that they have control, things could change, but from what we have seen so far a starving populace does not seem to factor into that equation.

"The government is bigger than just Kim Jong-il's inner circle; it's thousands of mid-level cadres who'll feel the squeeze from lack of food."

Perhaps, but with the way the North works, these mid-level cadres will likely not feel much of a squeeze until every last North Korean peasant has died from starvation or been eaten by their starving neighbors. Am I being too pessimistic?

By the way, that photo of Oh In-hye pretty much made my eyes fall out of my head. Not sure why she bothered with the top at all.

Charles said...

Forgot to post this:

This is a fuller collection of the NK photos from that MSNBC article.

Kevin Kim said...


"I agree... but I'm confused as to how a starve-them-out strategy would lead to this."

Well, there's no way to guarantee anything where NK is concerned, but I find it more than conceivable that the NK military, whose relationship with the Kim Dynasty seems uneasy, might be open to an opportunity that presents itself, especially if the Kim family betrays significant weakness.

I don't think KJI has ruled NK with quite the loyalty-generating, power-consolidating charisma of his father, and KJI's chosen successor is still too young to be taken seriously by the old hawks in the military. This is going to be problematic, I think.

A starvation strategy (i.e., NK's usual food donors refusing to send any aid) would mean starving much of the military along with the populace. Food aid goes to the military first, per the seongun policy, so if we cut off the pipeline, the military will feel the squeeze. There's already a squeeze, as you know: you've seen the photos of short, scrawny NK soldiers who are too small for their uniforms. How far up the chain of command does that problem go? Probably not all the way up to the generals, but surely the generals feel some pressure because of this problem.

I really can't see what else to do. Because of the way NK has rigged the game, sending food is unethical, and it would be equally unethical to start a preemptive war. NK needs to collapse under the weight of its bad decisions, and we've little choice but to help it along passively.

On a different note-- I could tell that Oh In-hye was wearing those two-sided nipple-sticky thingies to keep the fabric in place. Wise move.