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What the new Fat Controller might now do

Mick Hartley, who has been watching North Korea closely for years, senses that things may be about to explode, sooner rather than later:

Under the departed Dear Leader, there was at least some measure of balance. The Songun military-first principle held sway then as now, of course, and the level of vitriolic rhetoric aimed at South Korea and the US and Japan was constant and unrelenting, but there was some sense of a cunning plan; of a canny political operator at work.

Now, though, with the new Fat Controller Kim Jong-Un, there’s a strong feeling that it’s all getting out of control. As a sign of his weakness and insecurity, and doubtless under all kinds of internal pressures, and in-fighting within the top brass which we don’t know about, he just keeps pressing the same buttons that worked for his father, but he has to press them harder and harder. Up with the militarisation; up with the vicious rhetoric; up with the provocations and the bluster. He doesn’t know what else to do. Now the whole country’s on a war footing, the economy – such as it was – is imploding, and maybe for the first time in the history of the DPRK there’s a sense that the suffering people may not be prepared to tolerate this increased hardship much longer.

The logic of his position, then, may force him into some reckless action. He’s backed himself into a corner. South Korea’s western islands are looking increasingly vulnerable. If he doesn’t do something he’s going to look weak, and all that hardship is going to look like it was all for nothing to the wretched populace. And, as the economy tanks, he has to do something sooner rather than later….

I recommend also reading Hartley’s earlier piece, linked back to there, which does indeed link in its turn to reports about the vulnerability of some South Korean islands, but which is itself a copy-and-paste posting about what China is preparing to do about all this. Preparing to invade North Korea, basically, and racing against time. As always, when states like China build railways (in fact when almost any state has ever built a railway), the thinking is not just economic; it is also military.

China was and remains content to sponsor a North Korea that is vicious and strong. But a North Korea that is vicious and weak, to the point of recklessness, is a serious threat to China’s interests.

It says everything about the state of life for regular people in North Korea that if and when the Chinese do invade, the Chinese may well be greeted as liberators rather than as another bunch of predators.

19 comments to What the new Fat Controller might now do

  • It says everything about the state of life for regular people in North Korea that if and when the Chinese do invade, the Chinese may well be greeted as liberators rather than as another bunch of predators.

    For the first month or two, maybe. But how often have we seen a down-trodden population kick back against the foreigners who rid them of the jack boot on their necks?

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I never saw China as likely invading – maybe I’m looking at it all wrong.

    What I did think was likely is that China would get so sick of the Kim dynasty that they would stand back and let America run a steamroller over N. Korea. N. Korea didn’t win the Korean war, China did. If China doesn’t intervene this time America still has the power to flatten the N. Korean military like a pancake.

    Unfortunately to do so may require the use of nuclear weapons, particularly if they hope to prevent N. Korea from using any nukes they may have. Despite their starving population and out of date weaponry, the followers of Juche are dug-in pretty damn well and a nuclear strike is probably going to be the only way to stop this turning into Vietnam 2.0.

    I don’t see this ending well.

  • JV, maybe it’s just me, but that is the most unlikely scenario. China is way too suspicious – if not outright hostile – towards the US to allow such an eventuality. I think Brian has it just about right.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Tim, yes, if you read some of the recent media stuff on the 10th anniversary of the operation, the Iraqis all want SD back in power.

  • It says everything about the state of life for regular people in North Korea that if and when the Chinese do invade, the Chinese may well be greeted as liberators rather than as another bunch of predators.

    I think that after invading, they would managed to continue to be viewed that way for about a week, perhaps. Or is that an optimistically long time? My confidence in the ability of the Chinese to be anything but another bunch of violent oppressors is low. (I have just looked at the other comments and Tim Newman has said much the same thing).

    My hunch is that Chinese are unlikely to invade though. They would simply make it clear that their support has been withdrawn, and it would be left to South Korea, America, and Japan to clean up this mess. (Which is roughly what JV said).

    One possible redeeming feature is that a North Korean occupation by South Korea would not be seen as *foreign* occupation, either by North Koreans or South Koreans. There is a reunification of a long divided people aspect of this from which some positives could conceivably be drawn.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    Talking about “The Iraqis” as a group is not terribly helpful, I think, given the sectarian divisions of that country. Saddam Hussein was removed from power, sectarian divisions reared their heads, and bad stuff ensued. The Americans were seen to take sides, and they were (and are) resented far more by some groups than others. Korea at least does not have this particular problem.

  • Andrew Zalotocky

    If Korea was re-unified as a result of a war involving the United States, the US would be able to base troops anywhere on the peninsula. It would be able to put forward bases right on the Chinese border. Beijing would not like that one bit. But it’s not likely that the politburo would fancy the cost of a full-scale invasion and occupation either. So the most likely outcome is that Kim Jong-Un would get overthrown by a Chinese-backed coup from within the ruling elite if it looked like he was about to start a war. Of course, a small-scale attack on the South meant only as a gesture might escalate into war too quickly for the Chinese to do anything about it.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    A Chinese backed coup from within the ruling elite that doesn’t really work, followed by collapse of that ruling elite or factionalism, followed by internal war in North Korea. What do you do then?

    China does not lack for internal tensions, either. Their keenness to act in Korea might depend on the state of their own problems. So, a crisis in China automatically flows over into raising tensions in Korea. I think the Chinese leadership really doesn’t want to occupy North Korea, and would do a lot to avoid it though. I also think that if Korea could be reunified short of a war involving direct involvement of the United States, the US would be willing to commit to keeping its forces to the territory of the present South Korea and leave occupying the north to the South Koreans, and would probably keep to that commitment, at least up to the moment when World War 3 appeared imminent. This would probably be desirable anyway, given you are playing the “This is not a foreign invasion, but is Koreans helping other Koreans” line. China might or might not believe such a commitment, though, and in a situation where the Americans and the Japanese are providing a lot of the resources, and in which the South Korean military already contains American trained units under American command, it may not in practice make a lot of difference.

    There are simply too many possibilities about what might happen to have much chance of making any accurate predictions, alas. Most of the possibilities are bad, unfortunately.

  • Julie near Chicago

    The possible volatility and definite (or so it seems to us peons) unpredictability of the situation is STILL, after nearly 60 years, the reason why the U.S. keeps a military presence in S.K.

    No, we are NOT automatically Bad Guys because of it!

    Now with our own Dear Leader “in charge,” sort of, all bets are off as to what the Great Satan will do.

    Grazie, Michael Jennings, for comments on Iraq. Much appreciated.

  • veryretired

    NK is a Chinese cat’s paw and always has been. If NK is making noises, it’s because the Chinese told them to make some trouble and see what the pushover in the white house does about it. The Iranians, the Russians, the chavistas in Latin America, and our other dear friends in Europe and the middle east, are all jockeying for position and advantage in a world without any leadership.

    We’ve seen this before, in the 1930’s and the 1970’s especially, and there’s some real fun in store for all. The burglars have figured out the night watchman fell asleep, and it’s time to look for goodies.

    Good luck when all that’s between you and the latest tyrant’s new idea for world order is a conference room full of chattering tranzis.

    We’ve been hearing for decades that the big, mean Americans and their heavy handed, imperialist policies were the cause of all the problems in the world. Well, the rest of the world is going to get a full course meal, from soup to pudding, of a world minus the big bully.

    Best wishes, be sure to write and let us know how you’re all doing.

  • Rich Rostrom

    There are a number of variously bad scenarios.

    One is that North Korea demands tribute from South Korea under threat of bombarding Seoul or other attacks. North Korea has thousands of artillery barrels that can reach Seoul, plus chemical and bacterial weapons that could be directed further.

    Even if these attacks could be deflected, South Korea would much rather pay a Danegeld than have to deal with the collapse of the DPRK. It seems shocking, but South Koreans are largely indifferent to the suffering of the people of North Korea, and very much worried that they would have to pay a lot. The immense cost to Germany of re-unification was noted.

    As to any military solutions: North Korea’s military is a scarecrow, but one with deadly claws – its ability to strike at the South.

    However, U.S. involvement would be bitterly resented by a large block of South Koreans. North Korea’s juche ideology has mutated into “national Bolshevism”, and attracted sympathy in South Korea. The U.S. military presence is an irritant, and many South Koreans now blame the U.S. for the 1950-53 war.

    If the NorK regime can avoid actually starting a war, the most probable outcome is increased South Korean “aid”.

    Just about everyone wants to “kick the can down the road”. (Except for those who would like to see this miserable country freed from appalling tyranny – which of course is evil neo-conism.)

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Look, the way to successfully invade North Korea is to start a war between India and China, and then China will be too busy to worry about the Korean Peninsula, and it can be unified, and the Korean War finally ended, by Seoul, and China will just have to accept the new reality.
    Gee, solving world problems is easy! You just need to think outside the box! Any other ‘intractible’ trouble spots/

  • Julie near Chicago

    VR: Exactly.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    This story about an alleged cyber-attack by the north on the south is interesting.

  • Ed Snack

    Rich is more correct, IMHO, than most. Any military action from the South, whether by the Koreans alone or with the US, would be immensely destructive to South Korea, Seoul would be devastated very rapidly and the South Korean economy would implode. I rather doubt that the US could prevent any assault on Seoul although there is no doubt that they could win if competently lead.

    No, I would see this as part of an internal struggle, and I don’t think it is part of China rattling Obama’s cage, though who knows, it might be. The Chinese way if they suspect that the current leading cabal is getting out of control would be an internal coup and a new leader who would be an orthodox military man more amenable to Chinese direction.

  • Laird

    Julie, I agree that the US military presence in SK doesn’t automatically make us Bad Guys. But it does make us Stupid Guys. Thirty years ago SK was an economic basket case; now it’s a powerhouse, fully capable of attending to its own defense. Good thing, too, as we can no longer afford it. Plus there’s the small detail that they actually have an interest in the outcome (they really do have a dog in that fight, as it were), whereas our interest is, if not entirely nonexistent, at least far less immediate or significant. They’re big boys now; let them fight their own wars.

  • Julie near Chicago

    That would be fine, Laird, if you could guarantee that “their” wars wouldn’t slop over and end up embroiling us and the rest of the West as well.

    Mind you, I think at this point it’s an academic discussion. The Sith has no interest whatsoever in acting in America’s best interest in any area of political life, whether foreign affairs or domestic. So we stay in SK or not depending solely on His Illness’s judgment of whether it will advance his Cause and his self-image more to go or to stay.

    Anyway, Very’s point is that the Bad Guys are doing a little saber-rattling to see whether we’re still alive and kicking or have snoozed off and are happily dreaming of the Peace Dividend. The argument (at least, my argument) being that better we should hang around, even though there are excuses for leaving, because if we don’t, they’ll take it that we’ve once again abandoned the field–just as we did in V-N.

    In the end, it’s not defending S. Korea that’s the issue–it’s defending us. :)

  • Laird

    “In the end, it’s not defending S. Korea that’s the issue–it’s defending us.”

    I agree with that, Julie. Where we differ is that I don’t see that defending SK is rationally related to defending “us”. Leaving aside the small detail that SK is now quite capable of defending itself without our shouldering any of the burden (which we can no longer afford), in a (highly unlikely) worst-case scenario where The Dark Side conquers the whole Korean peninsula, the world economy would be somewhat worse off but the direct effect on us would be small. And I don’t see that NK has broader designs than that, so I’m not buying any Domino Effect theory.

    As to us “abandoning the field”, well, we’ve been guarding that particular field for over 60 years now, and during that time helped the locals grow up and become capable of guarding it themselves. Not exactly “abandoning” anything, in my book. I agree that the way we slunk out of Vietnam was shameful (just about everything we did in that miserable little war was incompetent or embarassing), but Korea is entirely different. It’s time to go home.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Nuts. I just spent a bunch of time replying, Laird, and the computer ate my reply. (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the dog–she’s snoozing in the other room.)

    1. I understand your point, but when the cat’s away, or the rats think it is, they will play. Not necessarily with Sork, but simply maintaining a presence has to be a “calming” influence.

    2. ObL was right: People like the strong horse. Better to be weak but be seen as strong than to be strong but absent. Usually.

    And “Friends” and potential allies have been, or been considering, turning to Russia instead of us as being the stronger horse.

    3. There are other potential hot spots in SE Asia, and we have treaty allies as well as informal interests there. Better to be nearby (relatively) if there should be trouble. Also, better not to further the impression that the U.S. is pretty easy to intimidate, or that the govt is in too much trouble with its people already to risk p***ing them off over a little kerfuffle in Asia.

    4. Military spending last year was reportedly (yes, sigh, by the Foot of All Knowledge) 20% of the Federal non-budget. Not that much. And I’m told that that probably includes a lot of non-military stuff.

    And now, you may have the last word, if you like. :)