What’s up with North Korea?

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:

korea

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?

103 Comments

  1. Posted April 10, 2013 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    Of course you’re right. They simply cannot afford to go any other way.
    Sabre rattling is a natural part of how these regimes function. Up to the end Gaddafi was telling the world how he would crush the ‘terrorists’.

  2. Alex Shuffell
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    Have you seen <a href="http://wordpress.mrreid.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/korea.jpg"Korea from space? You can only see Pyongyang lit up, China and South Korea seem to be fine. It’s difficult to take a country seriously when it can’t keep it’s lights on.

  3. ChrisKG
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    The Vice Documentaries are very good as well, including the one where they seek out the labor camps in Siberia.

    • gluonspring
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      …vice.com/the-vice-guide-to-travel/vice-guide-to-north-korea-1-of-3

  4. Dominic
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    Do take a look at the environmental destruction
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/nature/inside-north-koreas-environmental-collapse/

    • Dawn Oz
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      I wept reading this article. A whole country is like a concentration camp. I knew about the conditions, however, a country without birdsong seems inconceivable – Orwellian plus.

  5. Dave
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    We have to hope that the people in power in NK (whether it’s Kim-Jong-Un, or whoever might be pulling his strings)are rational actors who know full well how inferior and rudimentary their military hardware really is, and are indulging in brinkmanship purely as a tactic to wring concessions out of the rest of the world. The really worrying thing would be if they start to believe their own propaganda, and think they really can take on and defeat South Korea and the US. A serious shooting war would have the positive benefit of destroying the Kim regime, but probably at an appalling cost in lives in both halves of Korea.

  6. neil
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    SK’s advanced development over NK gives NK an enormous advantage. The best deterrent is the ability to bomb an aggressor back to the dark ages. But that threat doesn’t work against NK–it is already in the dark ages.

    • Dave
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

      Well, in some ways perhaps, but their armed forces still need food, fuel, spare parts, command and communications etc etc, all of which can be destroyed or disrupted by the overwhelming air power of the US. In some ways, the kind of WW2-style tanks/planes/infantry assault that NK has the capacity to launch would be easier for the US to defeat than the guerilla insurgency that it’s battling in Afghanistan. Saddam Hussein’s army didn’t last very long in either of the Gulf Wars, but the Taliban are still on their feet.

      • neil
        Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

        Any conventional ground war plan against NK has to deal with the fact that NK can easily lob a nuke into Seoul before its over.

        • gluonspring
          Posted April 10, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

          Lob? They can carry one there.

        • David Duncan
          Posted April 10, 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

          Delivery by aircraft would be NK’s best bet to nuke something significant. But I wouldn’t care to be the pilot.

          I think the North knows better than to rely on their missiles or to nuke someone. They know that would bring ruin to the elite’s lifestyle.

          • madscientist
            Posted April 11, 2013 at 2:21 am | Permalink

            Aircraft wouldn’t be a good option; it’s far too easy to detect and shoot down with modern tools. Going by truck would be a better option – if people start shooting, someone else can detonate the device. Assuming the truck gets to ~1km of the border, that’d be bad news for Seoul.

            • GluonSpring
              Posted April 11, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

              Submarine might be the best option. Either surface near Seoul and detonate or deliver to agent somewhere on vast coast who loads it on a truck and drives it to Seoul.

              Truck, plane,sub, or tunnel, it is clear the north doesn’to need their missiles to work to threaten Seoul with nukes.

      • gluonspring
        Posted April 10, 2013 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

        I found this [1] to be an interesting read on how a new war would play out. Maybe twenty years ago SK had some credible conventional threat, but not now. The capabilities gap is just too large. The insane nuke card is all they have.

        [1] http://akarlin.com/2010/03/28/korean-war-2/

  7. David Appell
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    Maybe North Korea has just chosen to give its astronomers a great nighttime sky, and its citizens our forgotten glory of starlight, by installing efficient, downward-directed lighting…(?)

    • Dominic
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:53 am | Permalink

      I thought the same!

  8. Dela
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    I grow tired of these religious regimes ..But the US need to ease tension by lifting all sanctions on Nk . It is easy to play God like US does becoz of their military power .. LEAVE NK DEVELOP THEIR NUCLEAR CENTRES AND PROMOTE PEACE WITH SK .. I AM ONLY AGAINST MUSLIM COUNTRIES DEVEVELOPING NUCLEAR WEAPONs .. THEY WOULD BOMB ANY ON WHO THEY SUSPECT INFIDELS BUT NK WOULD NOT.. USA IS GUILTY FOR NK HOSTILITY TOWARDS SK … CHINA N JAPAN R GOOD FRIENDS THINK ABOUT THEIR PAST .. STOP DIVIDING PEOPLE..

    • Dave
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:28 am | Permalink

      Yes, the last 50 years have shown just how keen North Korea is on promoting peace with the South!

      The US is guilty for NK hostility towards the South? Funny, I thought the problem originated when the North launched an unprovoked attack on the South in 1950 with the blessing of the USSR. If the US and other members of the UN hadn’t intervened, the entire peninsula would now be a starving , terrorised Stalinist hellhole rather than just the northern half of it.

    • David Duncan
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 8:35 am | Permalink

      Which religious regimes?

      The rest of the world should stop aiding them, but keep an eye on them.bthey’ve broken so many agreements. The right place to apply pressure is China.

      • gluonspring
        Posted April 10, 2013 at 8:49 am | Permalink

        And how does one pressure your major creditor and supplier of consumer goods?

        • David Duncan
          Posted April 10, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

          It’s in China’s interests too. Japan and SK are important to China, they don’t unpleasant thins to happen to them. And, as you say, the US is an important market for China. There may be some enjoyment in Bejing of the North’s posturing but a war would be bad for business. I think China is concerned about the potential fate of their ally.

          • gluonspring
            Posted April 10, 2013 at 9:14 am | Permalink

            I agree that China is concerned and that it is in their interest to cool down the situation in Korea. And, I think it is actually good for us that our fates are more and more entangled. I’m just not sure how you pressure them, per say, beyond the pressure that comes from the nature of the situation itself.

            • David Duncan
              Posted April 10, 2013 at 10:16 am | Permalink

              When I say to pressure them I don’t mean heavy arm twisting. I pressure my friend and they pressure me. I’ve done things I would rather not have done, but have acquiesced because they are friends and I hope they will return the favour one day.

              • gluonspring
                Posted April 10, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

                Good point.

                Let us hope that whatever pressure is available, it is being applied.

  9. Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    I would say that North Korea isn’t just similar to a theocracy, it is a theocracy. Actually it’s worse than, say, Iran. Iranians can at least leave their country if they wish so and their government isn’t starving them. No, I am not an apologist for Iran (in fact I hope that there will be a secular regime there as soon as possible).

    • David Duncan
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

      Pleeeeeease!

      NK isn’t a theocracy, although there are similarities.

      • gbjames
        Posted April 10, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

        Hitchens’ term for NK was “necrocracy”.

        • darrelle
          Posted April 10, 2013 at 9:38 am | Permalink

          One of my favorite Hitchens coined terms. Seems very appropriate to me.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted April 11, 2013 at 12:55 am | Permalink

            And, in response to Mordanicus’ comment (‘at least Iranians can leave their country’) I just have to repeat my favourite Hitchens quote –
            “At least you can fucking DIE and leave North Korea.”

      • Posted April 10, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

        Well, the official ideology of North Korea, juche, has all characteristics of a religion, complete with the worship of god-like figures. Therefore I would say that NK is a theocracy.

        • David Duncan
          Posted April 10, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

          There are some similarities but plenty of differences. The NK god does not require the eye of faith. He’s there for all to see, and laugh at.

          • darrelle
            Posted April 10, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

            Outsiders can laugh at him, but it would be unhealthy for a North Korean to do so.

            Many ancient cultures deified their leaders, such as ancient Egypt. Were they not theocracies?

            • David Duncan
              Posted April 10, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

              Was Rome a theocracy? I would say no but religion and the state were highly integrated. That is not the same as a theocracy IMHO. Iran and Saudi Arabia are theocracies, Israel and NK are not, even though Israel pays too much heed to the ultra orthodox.

              If I lived in NK I would either genuinely idolise the regime leaders or do my best to seem to do so.

              • John Scanlon, FCD
                Posted April 19, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink

                Because being a dissident is too much to expect of anybody, right?

                So much easier to lie and eat shit for a lifetime. And when they order you to inform on others, or kill them, it’s not like it matters what you do – right?

        • Posted April 30, 2013 at 6:45 am | Permalink

          No true scotsman lives in a theocracy

      • gluonspring
        Posted April 10, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

        It sounds for all the world like the perfect embodiment of Orwell’s 1984, every bit as nightmarish and even more so, given the starvation and general hardship.

        I can only weep for those people.

        • David Duncan
          Posted April 10, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

          The Proles in 1984 were better fed. I don’t know how people in NK who aren’t favoured or in the army can live on so few calories.

          • lisa
            Posted April 19, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

            I don’t think a lot of them do.

  10. Kevin
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    I’ve heard the “nuke them back to the Stone Age” strategy invoked by some.

    But how do you do that, when they’re already in the Stone Age?

    • Dave
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      But they’re not. They may be tecnologically far behind the west, but the reason the world is worried about them is because they have workable nuclear weapons and (possibly) rockets able to deliver them.

      If they were threatening us with stone-tipped spears I don’t think they’d be of much concern!

  11. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    North Korea has been utilizing the latest in high tech weaponry: Photoshop.

  12. Jon Bagge
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    I think you’re _probably_ right that after some sabre rattling everything will eventually go back to ‘normal’.

    But what scares me is that it’s not really clear who’s in charge of North Korea, and we can’t assume they’re being rational. The long years of navel gazing may have created a volatile internal power structure in the military leadership where nobody is really in charge and everybody just does what they think everybody else thinks they should do. With that almost anything can happen.

    Hopefully though some good old basic survival instinct will kick in and prevent a potential disaster. At least to my knowledge there is no promise of ‘eternal reward’ for being heroic.

  13. still learning
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    I’ve read Kang’s book and feel so damn sorry for the people in NK. Whatever the outcome is in this episode of sabre-rattling, the citizens will suffer even more.

  14. Veroxitatis
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    These sorts of display are pretty classical when a leader is insecure. North Korea is now one of the few places where it can still be a successful strategy. My guess is that the population will soon be told to celebrate the brave stance of the Leader which has caused the Americans to back down from invasion.
    My question however is this – What could be making Kim Jong un feel insecure?

    • gluonspring
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      Being a young new guy surrounded by old experienced guys? Just a guess.

    • Suri
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      Well, he is just a boy, inexperienced, immature …. A boy with new toys …dangerous toys .

  15. MKray
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    You remark that: `many must surely swallow the propaganda forced down their throats daily’ yes, almost all will, completely. I had a friend and colleague from Poland in the seventies. He was absolutely against the regime and assured me that he believed nothing the regime said. But… when I asked him how gay people were treated in Poland, he replied that there weren’t any because homosexuality was a western disease. You see, being skeptical is no protection against total immersion in propaganda.

    • darrelle
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      I wouldn’t say it is no protection, but it certainly isn’t perfect protection.

  16. gbjames
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Seems to me that North Korea has a great opportunity to dominate the astronomy viewing tourism industry. No light pollution. They could build some space-themed parks with big telescopes and make a fortune!

  17. NoAstronomer
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    “…the worst dictatorship in the world…”

    Actually for a number of key dictatorship metrics I think it’s the best dictatorship.

    What do I think will actually happen? Damned if I know. It’s on a knife edge and we really don’t have much idea what the DPRK is planning.

    I am very concerned that Kim III (or whoever is actually in power now) doesn’t recognize that the South Koreans and the US have significantly hardened their stance since the Cheonan incident. In the past the Kims have often capped off their rhetoric with a military attack, such as the sinking of the Cheonan. That’s not going to be meekly accepted this time around.

    If the DPRK is planning a similar attack or, FSM forbid, an attack on Guam or another US base by missiles or special forces the immediate result will almost certainly be a prolonged series of strikes by US cruise missiles and bombers against DPRK military facilities. We’re simply not going to put up with it any more.

    Kim has the script, but for many reasons the second act may not go the way he thinks.

    Mike

  18. Occam
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    George W. Bush, the master of the “talk loud and carry a soft stick” attitude that passed for global anti-terror strategy, deserves some of the blame.

    Like Iran, the North Korean leadership gang has drawn the crudest lesson from the Saddam Hussein WMD farce: if you’re a becoming a target because you say you’re building up a nuclear arsenal threatening your neighbours, and no one stops you, you might as well go ahead and build one for real. Especially if your only opponent capable of keeping you in check is looking elsewhere, going after the soft targets and the cheap kills. The current strategic nightmare is another legacy of the Iraqi debacle: raise the dissuasive threshold while you can, before being invaded. This works in the short term, even if it means painting yourself even further into a corner. If there was a window of opportunity for preventive action against North Korea, it was a decade ago. The Iraq extravaganza jeopardised any realistic option of that.

    One faint hope is that North Korea’s military leaders might be engaging in a calculated exercise in brinkmanship patterned on Anwar as-Sadat’s Yom Kippur war: provoking a military confrontation they know they can’t win, in order to be bailed out by their enemies. Nothing in their past indicates that they have even a modicum of Sadat’s cunning and strategic sweep: viz. the deft sleight of hand with which he forced a renversement des alliances upon the US.
    The cultural importance of face-saving may also thwart last-ditch efforts to avert the worst. In the past, it has done so in the case of Japan, with tragic consequences.

    • lisa
      Posted April 19, 2013 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      I’m really hoping the whole ‘The Mouse that Roared’ plan is very far in the Past. But then so is NK.

  19. Chris
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    I’m pretty much convinced that NK is China’s idea of a joke – or, rather, as an annoyance to wind up the US, UN and Japan. If I was in their position (and absolutely unconcerned about the value of human life) then it’s an ideal situation. Keeps the opposition off-balance.

    The thing that’s a bit of a concern is the new kid in charge. I have a feeling that China hasn’t slapped him down yet – and if US/SK have hardened their line then they had better do it soon.

  20. David Duncan
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that this is posturing for two different audiences.

    One, it’s part of the internal power struggle. It often takes years for a new guy at the top to consolidate power.

    Two, it’s about getting more aid. Squeaky wheels get the most oil. Just watch them but ignore their posturing. They will come around.

  21. Posted April 10, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    More importantly, where’s the Kim Jong Un marionette?

  22. darrelle
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    The thing that worries me the most is Kim III’s relationship with reality. Given the environment he was raised in it is very likely that it is tenuous, at best.

    NK may be behind the curve technologically, but they nevertheless have the capability of causing very serious damage. An unstable, or flat out insane, leader may not understand, care or believe that starting a war is not in their best interests.

    If Kim III is just a puppet then it is probably less likely that the leadership would think starting a war is survivable, but still a concern.

    I think the two biggest questions are, 1) is Kim III sane, and 2) is he really in charge?

    • Hempenstein
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

      The answer to one question is not in doubt – has Kim ever missed a meal?

  23. E.A. Blair
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    I don’t see much difference between a country where the state controls all means of production and a country where corporations control the state. In both, the environment suffers and the good of the people, including health care, education, resources and the justice system are all suborned to serve the interests of the ones in power, be they a political oligarchy or a corporate cartel.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      I see. So would you prefer to live in the U.S. or in North Korea given that there is no “difference” between them?

      Seriously, are you kidding? You don’t see a difference between living in the U.S. and living in North Korea?

      I seriously doubt it’s a matter of indifference to you which of those two countries you live in. And if you said it was, I wouldn’t believe you,

      Freedom of expression, enough to eat, access to the world press and internet, etc.

      This comment is a gross exaggeration of the “equality” of such countries.

      • E.A. Blair
        Posted April 10, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

        No, what I mean is that, taken to their extremes, both capitalism and communism end up indistinguishable from one another from the common person’s perspective. While I hope it never happens, the trend towards privatization, concentration of wealth and power and social inequality makes such a lack of distinction enough of a conceivable future for this country that I feel sorry for any of my descendents who may one day face it.

        I also figured that someone who has been posting on this non-blog for a couple years would have been given credit for a modicum of rationality but I guess I had you wrong.

        • Kevin
          Posted April 10, 2013 at 10:37 am | Permalink

          Except that they’re not.

          Bad ideas leading to bad comments won’t get you thrown in prison here. Or worse.

        • David Duncan
          Posted April 10, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

          I think EAB is partly right in that we in the West are being screwed by our betters in government and the corporate world, and that that does need to change, but I’d rather be a well fed Westerner than a starving North Korean dreading a knock at the door.

        • Veroxitatis
          Posted April 10, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

          Your apologia seems at variance with the use of the present tense in your original post.
          I have to say I was surprised to read here what is more usually heard after having a few in the pub.

        • Gary W
          Posted April 10, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

          While I hope it never happens, the trend towards privatization, concentration of wealth and power and social inequality makes such a lack of distinction enough of a conceivable future for this country

          Americans are richer, healthier, longer-lived, better-educated and more free today than they’ve ever been. We have made huge advances over the past 50 years towards social equality for formerly oppressed groups — women, racial minorities, sexual minorities, religious minorities. The supposedly more equal society of the past never existed in the first place.

        • Chris
          Posted April 11, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

          Remembering my old history lessons, extreme left & extreme right were placed pretty close together – both used similar authoritarian tactics but left divided by class, right (usually) by nationality.

          Which goes a long way to explain why Hitler’s* party self-described as socialist and the USSR’s regime was pretty nationalistic/racist in reality.

          * No Godwinning!

    • Brad
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Wow. I guess the differences tend to expand or contract in tandem with the individual’s ability to grasp “difference” itself.

    • Suri
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      Many westerners just don’t know how fortunate they are.

  24. Sines
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    The minds of the leaders are inscrutable. Power hungry, but also buying into their own propaganda, sheltered from anything vaguely resembling the truth, and no doubt at least partially mad. To know what they are thinking is a job that could keep many political analysts and psychologists busy for life.

    But the people… a possibly more easy approach. That military tourguide, the one who spoke of the death of his grandfather in the korean war. He did not seem to be hateful. Looking at the Japanese, he said he would only hate them so much as they did not hate the actions of their ancestors. He did not seem to bear a grudge against modern people, as long as those people had changed.

    It was a comforting bit of rationality in the madness of the tour. He seemed to just be a man who wanted peace, and knew that the visitors wanted peace as well. Is he representative? I can’t really say. But if he is representative of the attitudes of the people towards other nations, perhaps there is hope. The leaders are past salvation, but if the common people have not been warped into the violent madness present in the Middle East, then there is hope for change.

    Compared to the Middle East, with it’s bloodlust for mere insults, I think the people of North Korea can be saved. Perhaps we’ll end up with some weird left-over Kim Jong Sun cult, but even that may decrease down to harmless moderate levels, after some time.

    Whatever North Koreas next big change will be, I’ll probably live to see it. And there’s enough reason to hold out at least some hope that it will be a (relatively, of course) peaceful one.

  25. John J. Fitzgerald
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    From Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago. He is the chair of the History Department.

    http://www.thenation.com/article/173657/korean-war-games

    [JAC: edited to removed text that is found at the link.]

    • Posted April 10, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      I have eliminated all your text which duplicates the article. A link is sufficiently, so please just leave that and don’t paste the whole article or even a lengthy excerpt into the comments. Thank you.

      • David Appell
        Posted April 10, 2013 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

        A link is not just “sufficient,” it’s all that is allowed by law.

        Unless you think writers should produce such great content for free.

        Do you work for free?

        • Adam M.
          Posted April 11, 2013 at 12:06 am | Permalink

          That’s not true. Copyright is limited by fair use provisions, which allow excerpts, among other things. Presumably John’s excerpt was too long, but excerpts in general are perfectly fine.

    • Matthew
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      Rarely has any Korea commentator been so wrong, so frequently, as Bruce Cumings.

      It’s telling that he bills himself as a specialist in Korean affairs, but doesn’t speak Korean.

    • David Appell
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for removing text that is protected by copyright law.

  26. Posted April 10, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    NK is what I call the triple oxymoron: a confucian stalinist theocracy.

    That said, it is interesting to hear what they say for themselves:

    http://www.zcommunications.org/an-interview-with-north-koreans-by-stansfield-smith

    • Paul S
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      If you read that interview without watching the video, you might think that those are actually the views of the NK population. However, as the documentary explained and the interview states, those are the views expressed by the tour guides who are the only ones who have government permission to talk with tourists and are not allowed to express personal views. I cannot imagine being that oppressed, but I can imagine a NK not caring if it receives foreign aid.

  27. Allautin@gmail.com
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    People willing die for god and country — same immortality ideologies.

    • Allautin@gmail.com
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      That should read, of course, willingly — willingly die for the love of god or their country. Look at the graveyards of all the world wars, our own Civil War. For the sake and sanctity of union!?

  28. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    “Their periodic saber-rattling has two goals: ”

    I would add a third: by creating a sense of crisis and threat Kim surely hopes to cement the loyalty of the North Korean people to his regime. Without a devilish foreign threat to believe in the people could not be relied on to tolerate the awful privations of life in NK indefinitely.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      If you aren’t aware your life is less desirable than others, how are you to “rise up” and demand better?

      And it seems to me there is plenty of privation outside of North Korea. About half the world’s population doesn’t use toilet paper. Nor have they ever made a telephone call.

      No. We’ve got plenty of poverty and misery to go around.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 10, 2013 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

        That is odd, seeing that since -09 over half the world population is middle class, having “roughly a third of their income left for discretionary spending after paying for basic food and shelter”. I’m sure they can spend their surplus on paper and phones. [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_class ]

        Note that “the middle class has not grown incrementally, but explosively”. This is because the earlier bimodal distribution in national gross products have merged a couple of decades ago (cf Rosling’s statistics), meaning there is now little ” poverty and misery to go around”. By definition, less than 10 % AFAIK.

    • DrDroid
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      +1
      What I was going to say

  29. Posted April 10, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I highly recommend the National Geographic documentary Inside North Korea (2006), which is streaming on Netflix: http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/National_Geographic_Inside_North_Korea/70061970?trkid=2361637&leid=534

    It’s pretty unsettling, to say the least. I’ll plan on watching Welcome to North Korea at some point.

  30. eveysolara
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    I think that you are right about this not really being about wanting to go out in a blaze of glory like the muslims.

    It’s all about wanting free help without politely asking for it and losing face.

    I hope this will end with everyone being content with North Korea firing some duds at the atlantic ocean, but secretly making some reasonable agreements behind the scenes.

    • eveysolara
      Posted April 10, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      err pacific

  31. Diane G.
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    This may be too appalling to satirize; but that doesn’t stop The Onion:

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/kim-jongun-wonders-if-nuclear-threats-distracting,31998/?ref=auto

    Kim added he was happy, however, with the job he’s done juggling insane, warmongering rhetoric with gross human rights abuses.

  32. madscientist
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    The problem of course is that we have no way of knowing how delusional the current leaders are. How long can we pretend that these are nothing but empty threats? Even relations with China have been strained for many years. Do we pretend those nuts are just grandstanding until they nuke Tokyo? It has gone on far too long; it’s time to liberate the north and reintegrate Korea. I’m not one for wars, but of Saddam, Osama Bin Laden, and the Kims, the Kims are the greatest threat to the world and the ones everyone seems too afraid to confront.

  33. ebonmuse
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    There was a very good editorial today on Bloomberg News about the future of North Korea:

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-04-09/why-capitalism-won-t-change-north-korea-s-regime.html

    The best explanation to what’s going on with North Korea right now, I’ve read, is that it’s probably a combination of things. Kim Jong Un, who’s still a young and untested leader, is staging a show of force to win over the military and the hardliners in his own government; in addition to that, there’s North Korea’s time-tested strategy of acting belligerent and irrational to win aid concessions from the West. Of course, for this strategy to work, you have to ratchet up the level of tension every time you do it.

    The question that gives me the most pause, even if the current standoff is defused and the Kim regime peacefully collapses, is how on earth we’re ever going to integrate the North Koreans into the rest of the world. As the Bloomberg editorial says, the income difference between West Germany and East Germany was only 3-to-1. Between the Koreas, it’s more like 30-to-1. If it happens, it’s going to be a colossal, multi-generational project.

  34. Hempenstein
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Since nobody else has posted the 60Min piece about the escapee from one of their gulags, I will. He wasn’t there for life for anything HE had done, it was for one of his parents – they were there for THREE GENERATIONS of life sentence. Call me ethnocentric, but that takes criminal insanity to unheard-of heights.

    Otherwise, I heard they only have a 30day supply of fuel. How do you say chutzpah in Korean?

  35. John
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Well, Jerry, I hope your predictions are correct. And that about sums it up. If you are not correct, there is no to predict the direction of the consequences. That’s the scary part.

  36. Gridiron
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    For anyone wishing to have a better understanding of North Korea, and looking to do so via reading, I cannot recommend the following two books strongly enough:

    “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick.
    This book is extraordinary. It weaves together half a dozen individuals/families from different North Korean social and political positions/backgrounds who eventually defect to South Korea (thereby coming into contact with the author) and tells the stories of what their lives were like in North Korea. All of their experiences in the North were heartbreaking in some way, and their adaptations to the South were fascinating and varied. A quicker read, 300-some pages.

    “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty” by Bradley Martin

    A more straight-forward historical narrative. The author, a journalist, was amongst one of the earliest groups of Americans to officially visit North Korea (in the late 1970s), and includes many personal interviews from that trip, plus later interviews with defectors in the South, plus the “official” North Korean version of history – always carefully “quoted”, plus verifiable accounts of what actually occurred where possible. This account shows the real, deeply disgusting and inhumane depravity of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. But in a way, it’s more cold and clinical and objective than “Nothing to Envy”. 700-some pages, a longer read.

    And while I can personally vouch for the above titles, a trusted friend has recommended to me “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters” by B. R. Myers. It traces, briefly, the history of North Korea in respect to the state propaganda and the Kims’ personality cult.

  37. Ross Burnett
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    In case no one else has pointed this out, correction on the post Dr. J, it’s European Union in second, US in 3rd, because Wiki.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_number_of_military_and_paramilitary_personnel

    Does the US really need 1.4m active duty? I guess if they all were engaged in constructive activities… and if half were let go tomorrow, many would no doubt be on unemployment.

    I wonder what Red China does with their 2.2m active.

    Highest active duty per 1k civilians is SK with 45, and if you count their 8.2m reserves, a whopping 386, or more than a third.

    • Posted April 11, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      Well, as has been mentioned, the Korean war is still on, technically, IIRC. They just stopped fighting it.

  38. Scott Reilly
    Posted April 11, 2013 at 2:37 am | Permalink

    I live in South Korea and the noise coming from the North is hardly making the news here. Seriously, it’s all just gas and air. I often ask them about it and they just don’t care anymore. They are so used to it and know pretty much what will happen. The North will make their noise to get the world’s attention, hopefully easing sanctions so they can get some more aid, and then quieten down again for another year.

    Actually, here’s a really interesting podcast from NPR about the illegal economy from the North.

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2013/03/29/175708549/episode-290-north-koreas-illegal-economy

  39. Posted April 11, 2013 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    “Inside North Korea,” as Cereal posted above, is excellent. My other favorite is “A State of Mind,” which follows 2 North Korean schoolgirls as they train as gymnasts for the Mass Games production. It definitely gives only a tiny sliver of insight into life- of the extremely privileged living in the capital, but the footage and interviews are astounding.

    I’d also recommend “Seoul Train,” which tells the story of North Korean escapees, attempted escapees, and those who help them travel to freedom. It’s depressing, but also insightful. All of these are on Netflix streaming, last I checked (a few weeks ago).

  40. truthspeaker
    Posted April 11, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    There’s the question of why North Korea is sabre-rattling, and there’s the question of why the US media is hyping it up. The answer to the latter question is that Congress is about to debate various budget proposals, and in a time of large deficits and debt, people might start proposing cutting the defense budget. When that happens, politicians have to hype up an enemy to be defended against to justify sustained or increase defense spending.

  41. Scott Reilly
    Posted April 12, 2013 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    Oh dear!

    For anybody familiar with George Galloway, you’ve really got to read this piece from the Huff Po where he lavishes praise on North Korea. Also, check out the little God comment at the end. Wise enough, I suppose, considering he’s reporting for Iranian TV

    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/04/10/george-galloway-north-korea-has-innocent-culture_n_3050682.html?utm_hp_ref=mostpopular

  42. Susan Robinson
    Posted April 12, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    It is dissapointing that almost everyone here seems to want things to just die down and go back to “normal” in North Korea. Everyone thinks the cost of rescuing the North Korean people from lifetimes of nothing but suffering will cost the rest of us too much. The world tolerates the existence of this giant death camp as long as it doesn’t interfere with our comfortable lives. Are we so lacking in creativity and compassion that we cannot come up with a way to free those people? They would certainly be better off being part of China even. No one seems to even spend time brainstorming ways to free these suffering people. How can we in good conscience keep tolerating the existence of such a state?

  43. lisa
    Posted April 12, 2013 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    I have always been a pacifist, even though it has been very clearly shone that humans are, have always been and probably always be warmongers. I find it really stupid to settle political differences by spending millions on military arms and armies, destroying valuable resources and decimating the gene pool. Having said that, I think the answer to the North Koreans is a few WMD’s and making South Korea into an island.


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