North Korea: When tiny dictators attack

November 23, 2010

He’s just ronery

North Korea’s Psychotic in Chief Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il has thrown another temper tantrum and, just as with the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, this one has turned deadly:

North Korea launched a massive artillery barrage on a South Korean island Tuesday, killing two South Korean marines, wounding at least 19 other people and setting more than 60 buildings ablaze in the most serious confrontation since the North’s sinking of a South Korean warship in March.

South Korea immediately responded with its own artillery fire and put its fighter jets on high alert, bringing the two sides – which technically have remained in a state of war since the Korean armistice in 1953 – close to the brink of a major conflagration.


South Korea called the shelling of the civilian-inhabited island of Yeonpyeong, which lies near the disputed maritime border separating North and South Korea, a breach of the 57-year-old armistice that halted the Korean War without a peace agreement.

The North fired an estimated 200 artillery shells onto the island, and the South returned fire with about 80 shells from its own howitzers. The attack began just after 2:30 p.m.

Naturally, the usual suspects around the world have condemned the attack with the usual words, from President Obama to the Secretary-General of the United Nations to Kim’s patrons in Beijing. And, like all the other times he’s acted out, nothing will be done other than perhaps a sternly worded expression of concern and maybe a meaningless sanction or two — followed by offers of foreign aid.

Despite the breathless invocation of a “major conflagration” in the Post article, what this is not is a restart of the Korean War. Artillery exchanges aside, there have been no major troop movements in the North (which would be very hard to hide in this day and age) or any other observable preparations to invade the South.  And, were this the start of an invasion, the North would certainly open up with the thousands of artillery tubes they have pointed squarely at South Korea’s capital, Seoul. And, if the first goal of any regime is survival, then invading a country guarded by 28,000 US soldiers is tantamount to suicide, even under a President as weak as Barack Obama. So, no, this is not the start of round two.

But, if not, then what is it?

The first key to understanding North Korea is the aforementioned survival imperative and the need for dynastic continuation. Kim not only wants to ensure that his regime survives, but, like any good monarch (even if dressed in Stalinist clothes), he wants to pass it along to his son and heir, Kim Jong-Eun. Since a democratic opening, market economy, free trade, and the attendant prosperity is out of the question for the proprietor of the worlds largest prison camp disguised as a nation, how else does Pyongyang go about meeting these two goals?

That brings us to the second key, the nature of the regime itself: North Korea is best described as a mountain-bandit state, extorting what it can from the world by occasionally acting crazy and scaring everyone else with the prospect of devastation if the bandits are not appeased.  It’s all an incredibly cynical act, put on because North Korea simply cannot produce what it needs to survive. As Aidan Foster-Carter wrote in a great article at the Asia Times:

Importantly, “mountain bandit” is not just an insult (like James Cagney saying “you doity rat”). Rather, like “guerrilla” or “partisan”, it’s a concept – but a different and less forgiving one. Whereas the guerrilla may have had a noble cause, bandits are cynics: they’re just in it for the money. And they are parasites: unable to produce anything of their own, they prey instead upon the productive and law-abiding.

This, I must say, seems a highly apt analogy for North Korea today. Pyongyang’s militant mendicancy over its nuclear and missile activities is basically bandit behavior, demanding money with menaces. Pay up, or else: that’s the subtext. (The unspoken rider: And we’ll be back for more in due course.)

And, sure enough, they’re back. Consider what’s happened in recent months:

  • The sinking of the Cheonan.
  • Kim’s illness and the need to assure his son’s ascension to the throne.
  • Barack Obama’s humiliating performance at the G-20 summit and the bilateral trade negotiations with South Korea.
  • The sudden revelation of North Korea’s new nuclear facility, which should have surprised no one. (“North Korea? Cheating? No way!”)
  • And now the artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong island.

All this is standard operating procedure for bandits: they need goods other people have, and the great protector of those people (the USA) is in a weakened state, averse to actually taking strong action. Time to rattle some sabers and demand tribute.

So, the combat at Yeonpyeong has two purposes: first, to scare the rest of the world into giving North Korea what it needs to survive, food and fuel. Second, the threat of war with America keeps Kim’s generals busy, so they don’t have as much time to plot an “unfortunate accident” for the Dear Leader’s heir apparent. Kim may be powerful, but other players in the regime are surely not happy with his family’s apparent lock on the top job.

So, what should Seoul, Washington, Tokyo, Beijing, and other concerned parties do? The Chinese, naturally, want a return to the six-party talks that, so far, have produced nothing. The last thing they want is for the West to take actions that might finally precipitate their ally’s collapse, with the inevitable political, security, and humanitarian crises.

On the other hand, doing nothing (or issuing statements of concern that would amount to the same thing) will only lead to further obstreperous behavior, as the Bandit King turns the screws a bit more to get what he wants. Kim and his buddies have to be shown there is a price, and not just another round of meaningless sanctions. Whether this means a retaliatory attack on North Korean military assets, a full-scale blockade, or something else, I don’t know. It’s possible that any action would trigger the war everyone wants to avoid – or the regime failure so many fear. Yet passively submitting to Kim’s aggressions, whether by ignoring them or giving him what he wants, seems unacceptable, too.

As with anything dealing with North Korea, it seems the only choices are bad ones.

LINKS: More from Claudia Rosett, who writes about Pyongyang’s extortionate diplomacy. Richard Fernandez reminds us of Secretary Clinton’s meaningless stern warning  during the Cheonan incident. Hot Air, where Ed also thinks this does not mean war (we hope). I wrote earlier about the Korea problem. Allahpundit muses on the risk of war. Finally, if war is afoot, would Dear Leader really be touring a soy sauce factory?

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)

Tell me again why we give the UN any money?

July 12, 2010

Just when you think that body couldn’t be any more useless and corrupt, they do something like this:

UN Fails to Condemn North Korea for Killing Over 40 South Korean Sailors

When the results of the international investigation into the sinking of the South Korean ship the Cheonan were released in May, the U.S. State Department was adamant that it believed North Korea was responsible — and that the country would have to face some actual punishment for killing 46 innocent South Korea sailors.

“I think it is important to send a clear message to North Korea that provocative actions have consequences,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said May 21 while visiting her Japanese counterpart in Tokyo.

Fast forward to today, when the United Nations released a presidential statement which not only does not specify any consequences for the Kim Jong Il regime, but doesn’t even conclude that North Korea was responsible for the attack in the first place.

The statement acknowledges that the South Korean investigation, which included broad international participation, blamed North Korea, and then “takes note of the responses from other relevant parties, including from the DPRK, which has stated that it had nothing to do with the incident.”

“Therefore, the Security Council condemns the attack which led to the sinking of the Cheonan,” the statement reads.

Isn’t diplomacy-speak wonderful? Not only does the UN issue the weakest form of statement, the “presidential statement,” but it can’t even name the party behind the attack. I bet the families of those 40 dead sailors feel oh-so-comforted, knowing Turtle Bay has their backs.

As Daniel Halper asks,

“…how long did it take for the UN to issue a condemnation of Israel’s action against pro-terrorist flotilla members?”

A perfectly legal action, bear in mind, as opposed to North Korea’s act of war.

Tell me again, does the United Nations do any good, and is there any reason for us to remain a part of it?

Really, just try to convince me. I love fantasy stories.

(via Jeff Emanuel)

What’s “gird your loins” in Korean?

April 22, 2010

I haven’t written about the sinking last month of the South Korean naval corvette Cheonan, because, while it looked and smelled like something North Korea would do to provoke an incident and grab the world’s attention, the South Korean and US militaries were being very cautious. Besides, I just couldn’t imagine that even Kim Jong-Il, dictator of the world’s largest prison camp, could be this crazy.

I may have been wrong:

South Korean ship sunk by crack squad of ‘human torpedoes’

A South Korean warship was destroyed by an elite North Korean suicide squad of ‘human torpedoes’ on the express orders of the regime’s leader, Kim Jong-il, according to military intelligence reports.

The attack on the 1,220-ton Cheonan, which sank on March 26 with the loss of 46 of its 104 crew, was carried out in retaliation for a skirmish between warships of the two nations’ navies in November of last year, South Korea claims.

The South Korean government has refused to comment officially on the reports but Defence Minister Kim Tae Young told a parliamentary session that the military believed that the sinking was a deliberate act by North Korea.

Officials in military intelligence say they warned the government earlier this year that North Korea was preparing a suicide-squad submarine attack on a South Korean ship.

“Military intelligence made the report to the Blue House [the presidential office] and to the Defence Ministry immediately after the sinking of the Cheonan that it was clearly the work of North Korea’s military,” a military source said.

According to the article, this may have been a suicide mission launched by commandos in specially modified midget submarines, rather than from a leftover naval mine from the Korean War. The explosion clearly took place outside the vessel’s hull.

Whether it was an attack by a normal torpedo or the human kind, this puts both Seoul and Washington in a very difficult situation. Lee Myung Bak, the South Korean president, was elected on a platform that included getting tough with North Korea and ending the accomodationist policies of his predecessor. Now that it’s clear that one of his country’s naval ships was sunk and sailors killed in an act of war, he can’t do nothing for fear of appearing craven and pusillanimous, something sure to weaken him at home and encourage a psychotic predator like L’il Kim. Yet, striking back too hard risks full-scale war; South Korea’s capital, Seoul, is near the border and very exposed to the thousands of artillery pieces the North has placed there.

For President Obama, this could turn into a nightmare. Already under heavy (and deserved) criticism for a weak foreign policy of appeasement, pressuring our allies in Seoul to overlook this, or worse, equivocate in our support of Seoul, would invite a furious political assault. Yet a reopening of the Korean War would be a huge expense on top of all the debt he’s accumulated already, not to mention the strain it would put on the military both from likely heavy casualties and from being stretched thin already.

(And, don’t forget: much of the Obama debt is funded by China, North Korea’s patron. This is a good example of how massive foreign debt limits our actions and makes us vulnerable.)

So, what to do? Contra the analysts quoted in the article, President Bak almost has to retaliate, but he cannot go overboard. My guess would be some sort of forward mobilization near the DMZ as a sign of resolve toward the North and the eventual sinking of a North Korean vessel in a tit-for-tat response. Economic punishment is possible, too, but the loss of life aboard the ship makes it difficult to present that to the South Korean public as sufficient.

The other question is why would Kim do something so mad, so rife with potentially disastrous consequences? The Telegraph article speculates that this was payback for an earlier skirmish in which a North Korean boat was sunk, but there’s another possibility: there are signs of growing unrest in North Korean, and Pyongyang’s grip may be slipping. Could it be that Kim ordered this to scare his population into obedience by the threat of war with the “hated imperialist aggressors?” Or maybe he’s just ronery?

Who knows what goes on in that warped little man’s mind?

LINKS: More from Hot Air and the Times.

POSTSCRIPT: To answer the question in the subject line, Joe Biden’s warning to “gird your loins” renders in Korean as, according to Google Translate, Jolong saengsig!