Sunday, March 23, 2014

North Korea: endgame meditation

People who live outside of the Korean peninsula often ask questions of us peninsular types—questions that sound rather naive and silly, despite the questioner's best intentions.

Isn't it dangerous there? is probably one of the most common questions, but it's also one that requires a bit of unpacking, a Gandalfesque stepping-back and grousing, "What do you mean?" When I try to imagine what's going on in the questioner's mind—why this particular question is being posed—the image I get is one of living in an urban gangland: like people who live in ganglands, Seoulites must be paralyzed with fear because, with a single misstep, war could erupt at any moment, destroying everything that South Koreans have built. South Korea is a Mexican standoff writ large, a scene from a Quentin Tarantino movie, with three fear-maddened guys pointing their guns at each other, frightened fingers poised on triggers. Or so these questioners reason when they think about how dangerous Korea must be.

There's a sense in which this non-peninsular perception of Korea is correct: it is a Mexican standoff of sorts, and things could very easily go to hell once that first domino falls. But here's the rub: it would take a lot to make that first domino fall. You see, that's the thing that most non-peninsular folks don't get: the situation in Korea is tense but stable. Very stable. The other thing that might not be obvious is that there are rational actors on both sides of the Panmunjeom negotiating table. Yes, Virginia: North Korea's leadership isn't crazy. It knows quite well what it's doing, and has been playing this game, now, for several decades.

Let's grant that the North's supreme leadership has been declining in quality and competence with each successive generation; despite this deterioration, each Kim has been steady at the helm and has followed pretty much the same playbook since North Korea's inception. North Korea was remarkably stupid about its own economy, having squandered Chinese and Soviet help in the 1950s and 1960s (the North's economy was rated more robust than the South's back then), but it's been a master of statecraft, playing nations against each other, conjuring nightmare scenarios that paralyze potential enemies with fear. In 2010, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing a handful of South Koreans; that same year, it sank the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan, killing nearly fifty military personnel. South Korea offered not a single substantive response. Why? Fear of war, of course.* The North knows it can bloody and re-bloody South Korea's nose for eternity, and therein lies one of the major reasons for the current situation's stability: the North understands the minds of its opponents only too well.

My own frustration has been that the South is equally capable of bloodying the North's nose repeatedly, too, if only it had the cojones to do so. Neither side wants, or can afford, a full-scale war. Both sides shrink from the prospect of one. Why not destroy a major North Korean building or monument—one for each South Korean killed by a North Korean attack? North Korea would undoubtedly mass troops at its border and appear to make ready to attack, but I'd bet the attack would never come, and with the attack off the table, we'd have a new understanding: you bloody my nose, I bloody yours—exactly what you say to a bully. South Korea has the technology to attack targets of symbolic (and therefore psychological) importance to North Korea. North Koreans would learn that the South can attack North Korean targets at will, and with impunity—a humbling lesson that would demonstrate the truth of how little North Korea actually controls. This realization could finally lead to the spark that ignites a rebellion.

Unfortunately, that's not the world we live in. The South—and the South's allies, including the United States—isn't that courageous. What we have instead is a tense equipoise, a situation with little potential to dissolve into chaos. No one knows how long the current state of affairs can last; much depends on the resolve of those imposing sanctions on North Korea, and on whether China complies with UN wishes or, instead, secretly supplies the North with food, weapons, and other necessaries.

So let's fast-forward to the endgame, since there's little more that can be said about the too-stable present. What scenarios can we expect to play out?

The worst possible scenario would be a replay of the 1950-1953 war, with the possible addition of nuclear weapons. In this scenario, China drops all pretense of helping the UN, declares itself a true friend and ally of North Korea, and commits massive numbers of troops to a long and drawn-out war against South Korean and US-led United Nations soldiers. Such a war would likely start suddenly and flare immensely, like a cascade failure swamping a computer system. I expect that the war would end similarly to how the 1950 war ended, but would hope the South would press hard to unify the peninsula under its banner. China is against this, of course, so we could see two Koreas, again facing off across a redrawn DMZ, their habitable areas reduced thanks to the presence of high-radiation zones.

The best possible scenario would be something like the 2003 invasion of Iraq: we discover that sanctions have been eroding the North's economy, that the North Korean military is embarrassingly backward despite all of its blustery, Baghdad Bob rhetoric, and that capturing Pyongyang and dismantling major emplacements are a breeze. China, meanwhile, drops its North Korean burden with relief and allows other powers to swoop in and clean up the clutter. The war ends within two or three short weeks, completely on the South's terms, and the messy business of reunification begins.

Very likely, however, the real scenario will be something in between these two pictures. North Korea's military is indeed antiquated and undernourished, but it's also ubiquitous, indoctrinated, and well-entrenched. Fighting to take the northern half of the peninsula will be reminiscent of the US Navy's "island-hopping" campaign when it went after the Japanese in the Pacific theater, literally burning the Japanese out hole by hole, losing men the entire way. It wouldn't surprise me if nukes were used, although I'd pray they weren't used effectively. It also wouldn't be realistic to think that China would simply wash its hands of North Korea: even if China were not to support North Korea during a hypothetical war, it would still have a great interest in not seeing a US-style democracy that came up all the way to its border. But what, then, would China want in the face of a US/UN/Southern victory? A Korea that was still divided? I hope not: South Korea should assert its rights as a sovereign, unified nation to decide how best to handle the situation. There should be no repeats of the recent and distant past—a past in which Korea was treated as a vassal state and/or as a plaything or beachhead for greater powers.

Another, darker possibility might be that China would assert certain ancient claims about Koguryo and take over North Korea for itself, thereby creating a situation that, in some ways, echoes what's happening in Ukraine. Chinese imperialism always works the same way, whether we're talking about Taiwan, Tibet, or Korea: "Land X was originally Chinese: we are one people." That's how it always starts. This would leave South Korea right where it is, but China would now have forced itself onto the peninsula, and the slow process of assimilating North Koreans into Chinese culture will have begun.

All of these scenarios rest on the assumptions that (1) things now are tense but very stable; (2) the stability is such that it will break suddenly and catastrophically if too much pressure is put on it; and (3) Chinese and South Korean actions will be the primary determining factors for the peninsula's future. Which scenario will come to pass? Only time will tell.

*As fellow tweeter Barry White pointed out, it's very likely that, in 2010, South Korea was persuaded by the United States not to retaliate because the situation would not have been in the US's best interests. It's therefore possible that the South—or at least its military—was in a warring mood. Still, if South Korea was, in fact, persuaded not to attack, this was a matter of choice, not coercion: it allowed itself to be persuaded. The country could have ignored US warnings and still have launched its air strikes. Korea remains responsible for its own fate.



John McCrarey said...

This was some of the best analysis on the dynamics of the Korean stalemate that I've read. My only real quibble was the scenario of replaying the 1950 war. I just don't see China engaged in a shooting war solely on behalf of North Korea. I think if China brings out the guns it will be for goals much broader in scope--regaining Taiwan, settling some scores with Japan, and removing the USA as a player in Asia.

I don't see China ever acquiescing to a reunified Korea unless it is as a vassal state. Just like in olden times, right? China's outright annexation of the North also seems plausible.

Whatever happens I don't see it ending particularly well for the Korean people.

John McCrarey said...

I shared a link to this post on my Facebook page. I get the "danger" question a lot and yours is the best answer I've heard.