Dissecting North Korean Madness .
A Word From Afar – By Paul G. Buchanan
One of the most impenetrable mysteries of contemporary comparative politics is discerning the rationale behind the behaviour of the North Korean regime. In
its bellicosity, backwardness, eccentricity, fierce adherence to Stalinist governing principles and lack of regard for
international norms as well as the plight of its citizens, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) is virtually sui generis. The latest evidence of its aberrant nature is provided by the March 26 torpedo attack on the South Korean frigate Cheonan.
Forensic evidence examined by three independent experts and the South Korean government confirms what was suspected all
along: the 1200-ton Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo while cruising in South Korean waters near their common maritime border, with the
loss of 48 lives. Not only were traces of RDX (a military grade explosive whose chemical signature can identify its
source) found in the salvaged wreak. Pieces of the torpedo itself have been recovered, including the propeller assembly
and housing. The finger of guilt points heavily in Pyongyang’s direction. A secretive commando unit with direct links to
Kim Jung-il, unit 586, is suspected of staging the attack using a mini-submarine as the launching platform (since such
platforms would be harder to detect using standard anti-submarine detection methods). Some analysts see the fact that
Mr. Kim awarded the commander of Unit 586 with his fourth generals’ star in a ceremony held shortly after the attack as
proof of its involvement as well as Mr. Kim’s direct authorisation of the attack.
The question is why would the North Koreans do such a thing? Admittedly, they have a track record of unprovoked attacks
on South Korean targets, including a 1967 attack on a South Korean navy vessel that killed 39 sailors, a 1987 bombing of
a South Korean airliner that killed 118 people, an attempted assassination of the South Korean president during a state
visit to Burma in 1983, plus a series of bloody naval skirmishes dating back to 1999, including an incident last year
when a North Korean gunboat was heavily damaged, with loss of life, in a confrontation with South Korean naval forces.
Some argue that the torpedoing was simply an act of revenge over this last incident, and that it merely continues a long
pattern of behaviour whereby the Kim regime uses military aggression as a means of propping up support. But in this
instance there appears to be more at play than what the historical record suggests, if nothing else because there was no
increased external threat or cross-border event to justify the attack.
The North Korean torpedo attack is alarming because the two Koreas technically remain at war. To explain: the 1953
armistice is not a peace treaty, so a state of war continues to exist between the two countries in spite of the episodic
thawing in relations between them. That serves as both the justification for the attack as well as a major source of
concern. Usually a cross-border raid into a sovereign nation’s territorial waters during peace time that results in an
unprovoked attack on a military vessel would be construed as an act of war deserving of commensurate, if not
overwhelming response. But since the two countries are already in a state of war, each is free to pursue aggression as
it sees fit. That has resulted in a (mostly one-sided) low intensity conflict between the two states for the last 57
years, and is why US forces are stationed in and around the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that constitutes their common land
border (US troops in the DMZ serve as a “trip wire” in which an attack on them will trigger the US security guarantee
for the South Koreans, meaning direct US military involvement in the response). Thus the North Korean torpedo attack is
just a continuation of an on-going limited war rather than an outright declaration of war. Even so, it is an outrageous
provocation and therefore runs the risk of escalating into something bigger.
South Korean public outrage demands blood in revenge, yet in practice South Korea has few options at its disposal. North
Korea has already declared, with its usual bluster, that any military response will be met with “all-out war.” Although
North Korea does not have the capability to launch a nuclear strike in spite of its efforts to build an effective
nuclear arsenal, it does have ample capability to launch significant missile attacks on Seoul and other parts of South
Korea as well as beyond (to include Japan and US bases in Okinawa and the Western Pacific). It also has a Chinese
security guarantee to match the American compact with its southern neighbour. That means that a South Korean military
response runs the risk of escalation into high intensity conflict that could lead to both security guarantees being
invoked, thereby forcing a US-China confrontation.
Beyond the unsettling prospects of direct US-Chinese fighting, it is not in either great power’s broader interests to
see this happen (among other things, China is worried about major migrant flows from North Korea and a reduction of
demand for its exports in the event of a war, while the US fears involvement in another costly conflict when it is
already engaged in two protracted deployments at a time of economic recession), so pressure is on South Korea to not
call North Korea’s bluff and retaliate in kind.
Yet, most analysts agree that no response will only embolden the North Koreans and result in further incidents with a
greater potential for escalation. Hounded by this dilemma, South Korea has so far limited its response to moving to
reduce its economic ties to the DPRK and calling for UN Security Council condemnation of the attack, something that so
far has not occurred.
Shadow warriors and covert operations specialists point out that more discrete means of retaliation are available that
can make the South Koreans’ point just as effectively. All that is needed is patience and planning in the execution of a
discrete mission against a select target. But even this approach needs to factor in the motivations of the North Korean
regime in staging the attack, because understanding of its rationale can better inform the response not only of South
Korea, but of its allies and international community as well.
Although it is impossible to know with certainty what was the exact rationale behind the attack due to the hermetic
nature of the DPRK regime, it appears that it was staged as a result of divisions within the North Korean hierarchy over
the issue of leadership succession. It was more than an unfortunate incident resultant from miscommunication or
misreading of intent. There was deliberation behind the attack, and that is because of the context in which it occurred.
Kim Jung-il is clearly on his last legs after a series of strokes and other ailments. Thus the jockeying for position as
heir to the Kim throne is now reaching fever pitch, with hard-liners and soft-liners attempting to out-maneuver each
other in the run-up to his death (hard-liners are regime defenders, soft-liners are regime reformers). Some intelligence
analysts believe that Mr. Kim authorised the attack in order to shore up hard-line support for his son, Kim Jong-un.
That could be true. The younger Kim has no power base outside of his father’s closest associates. He has no
administrative or military command experience as far as is known. This leaves him vulnerable to the machinations of
veteran Communist Party (i.e., the Workers Party of Korea) and military authorities that may have leadership ambitions
of their own.
But there are other scenarios as well. Some of these regime heavyweights may accept a power-sharing arrangement where
the Kim dynastic line is continued more or less along the lines presently operative. Others may prefer that the younger
Mr. Kim serve as a figurehead while real power is distributed among a broader array of bureaucratic cadres, thereby
decentralising policy-making authority (and power) in a slow process of regime reform. Still others may prefer to
dispense with the Kims entirely and assume power directly, in coalition or as part of a small cadre, either as part of a
reformist or retrenchment project. All of these factions are hard-line in the views of the world, which means that
whatever happens democracy and major liberalisation of the regime will not be on the menu.
On the other hand, there are soft-line factions with the DPRK regime. These are drawn from elements in the Communist
party and civilian bureaucracy who have had to wrestle with the deterioration of North Korea’s infrastructure, living
standards and health during the last twenty years. These people are well aware that North Korea is an economic basket
case that feeds and arms its military at the expense of its people, who have been subject to famine, starvation, an
array of diseases, homelessness and unemployment as they eke out what for all purposes is a Dickensian existence. It is
these people who know that there are two North Koreas, one for the elites and one for the masses (as a Stalinist version
of the “dual society” thesis that has been used to explain comparative underdevelopment), and it is these people who are
most acutely aware of how far behind North Korea has fallen behind its ethnic kin to the South under the vainglorious
and rigid Kim dictatorship. It is these people who understand that Kim Jung-il’s death provides an opportunity to open
up the regime, if not immediately on the political front, then certainly on the economic front. After all, even after
the Russian, Vietnamese and Chinese abandoned communism as the major organising tenet of society, the DRPK dinosaurs
cling to it as an insurance policy against threats to their rule. Hence the soft-liners are working to persuade
leadership contenders that their support depends on a major opening of the regime, even if still under one party
authoritarian aegis. In fact, for the soft-liners, their continued support for one party rule is contingent on economic
liberalisation. Whatever the succession scenario (and there will be others as well as what is listed here), the point is
that it is the struggle for leadership succession that is the root cause of the latest manifestation of North Korea’s
In other words, that is why the torpedo attack was carried out. It had to do with internal dynamics in the Kim regime
rather than the war with South Korea itself, which merely served as an excuse (by hard-liners) to launch the attack. A
tried and true authoritarian method of shoring up elite unity and public support is to stage a militaristic diversion
that rallies the public along nationalistic grounds (some might argue that this happens in democratic regimes as
well–witness, say, the US and UK attack on Iraq in 2003). The torpedo attack was a sucker ploy designed to incite a
South Korean response that would help consolidate the position of one of the North Korean leadership factions. But
therein lies the rub, because history also shows that diversionary attacks staged by dictatorships often end in defeat
and regime collapse, either immediately or in time. The Greek colonel’s regime collapsed after its defeat in the 1973
Cyprus War, a war that it started at a time when it was facing rising domestic discontent and increased disunity within
the armed ranks. The Argentine junta collapsed in 1982 after its defeat in the Malvinas/Falklands campaign, a war that
it also started in order to divert public attention from pressing economic problems at a time when, again, political
infighting amongst military and civilian elites was increasing. The fall of Saddam Hussein had its origins in his
invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and even if eventual rather than immediate, the end of the Iraqi Ba’ath regime was
predictable from that point on.
To this can be added the problem of succession in authoritarian regimes. It is considered the Achilles Heel of
authoritarianism, especially in heavily personalised, dynastic or military-dominated regimes (North Korea is all three).
Because power is so tightly centralised in such regimes, even where institutionalised under one party aegis, the
benefits of leadership are virtually unfettered and unlimited. There are little or no checks and balances or separation
of powers in such regimes, so the material and political rewards of leadership are astronomical when compared with even
bureaucratic authoritarian regimes such as Singapore or (now) the PRC. Hence the stakes of the succession game in places
like North Korea are extremely high for all contenders, and the competition for leadership succession gets, to put it
mildly, quite rough.
All of which is to say that the response to the North Korean attack should be subtle rather than overt. Devoid of a
militaristic opportunity to engage in jingoistic stirring of popular fervor that can help solidify the position of the
regime as well as any one faction within it, the decadent Kim dynasty will turn inwards as the leadership succession
issue gets more factionalised and hostile. As the knives come out into the open, the regime will enter into its terminal
phase. That will likely lead to more attempts to use the military diversion option, perhaps as a desperate last resort
by a losing faction in the internecine battles over leadership in the post Kim Jung-il era. But it is only a matter of
time before the DRPK enters into intractable crisis, which is why it is best to not respond to this latest provocation
with force. That time may well come, but first the nature and course of the North Korean leadership succession must
become apparent, and that is a matter of internal dynamics that are best left uninfluenced by the overt intervention of
Understanding this, it is best for the South Koreans to move in shadows rather than in light, using a scalpel rather
than a hammer, when countering North Korean aggression.
Paul G. Buchanan studies comparative, international and strategic politics. An earlier version of this essay appeared in www.kiwipolitico.com
weblog collective on May 23, 2010.
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