Saturday, 6 April 2013


Well, not long ago, I got quoted by "The Voice Of Russia" in an article about how unaffected many expats are about North Korean posturing.

And my family might well be worried about what's going on over here, so it's time for a few comments. Buckle up. This might get lengthy.

I came to Korea in 2003, shortly after NK expelled UN Nuke inspectors from North Korea (leading to this great satire of UN impotency in the Team America World Police movie). Since then, we've had regular threats, missile tests (including one the Monday after I returned from a weekend trip to Geumgang Mountain Resort in North Korea), more missile tests, even a successful missile test, a disputed nuclear test, and then a pretty successful one.

And every single time, the western media does this.

How far out of the norm is this?

You know how if your friend who never calls you in distress, buzzes you up and goes "Hey. I'm not sure who to call, but I need someone to help me talk my way through something." ... well, you drop everything, because it's really unusual for your stable friend to be batty like that.

But you know that other friend who sends you two text messages a day saying "I can't take it anymore. Call me please before I do something rash!" ... you know how after a while you start ignoring those messages, because they're coming twice a day, and they're always something dumb like "My shoes came untied during my morning jog" and when your friend DOES have a serious incident, they show up at your door looking like a mess and forego the messages anyway? Those messages get easier and easier to ignore, don't they?

Well that's where South Korea is with North Korea. And maybe your attention-starved friend starts jacking up the intensity of those meaningless text messages -- saying "I swear I'm going to kill someone" rather than just "FML This is too much" ... you know it's the same song and dance, just with slightly different steps... so it remains easy to hit that "ignore" button. Because North Korea doesn't announce it when they ARE going to attack. Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the Cheonan came without warning.

So is this an abnormally provocative bit of bellicosity? Yeah. It is. And the reason is because nobody's biting, and giving North Korea the kind of attention it wants. And by attention I mean unconditional  aid. They keep having to come up with more and more meaningless bluffing gestures to show how serious they are.

But when North Korea talks tough, the image in the South's mind is more like this:

Than this:

Because South Korea knows they and the US military could reduce North Korea to this

if they wanted to.

Fact: Reddit is more excited/upset about North Korea than South Korea put together.

So you're Saying This Happens More Often?

Here are the times when North Korea threatens annihilation on South Korea and its allies:

1. Every time a new president comes in (in order to get them to back down and show who's boss)
2. Every time USA and Korea do the Eagle Foal Joint Military exercises
3. Pretty much every spring, when there's a bit of dead time before planting season
4. Whenever the UN, or some other country or group of countries, or an important world leader criticizes them (my favorite of these incidents)
5. When the presiding Kim's balls get itchy
6. When things are getting a bit unstable at home, an the leadership needs to galvanize the people against an external threat, in order to distract them from being inadequately provided for by their leader

Now, 1, 2, 3, and 4 definitely apply, I'm going to take the liberty of saying 5 does, and it's hard to know just what's happening in North Korea, so number six might apply, too. The North Korea histrionics cycle is a bit worrisome the first few times, but then after realizing it's just noise... it stops being so worrisome.

Point three: The Dog and Pony Show

Because we can't see what's going on inside North Korea, it's easy to forget this important fact:

A country's foreign policy is a performance for several audiences, including the international political community, the international business community, and domestic publics.

Leaders and populations of countries that are allies and rivals, as well as international watchdog groups and institutions, watch how a country's leadership behaves. Things like human rights, UN contributions, and goodwill or aid efforts are performances for the international community.

The performance might be calculated and cynical, for example the HIV testing case currently before the Commission for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (read more here) makes it look like South Korea never had intentions of following the convention. Other examples are strings-attached aid or the kinds of interventions that impinge on another country's sovereignty. (Hey everybody! Let's bring freedom to a country with shit-tons of oil!)

FTAs and certain types of regulations and measures are performances for international finance markets. They mean to attract international investment, and can also be a mere performance. For example, signing a Free Trade Agreement, but stirring up a national health panic in order to poison the market for a certain country's beef, before it arrives in stores, is one way a country can cynically go through the motions of opening up economically, while still protecting their markets. (Not naming any names.)

Another, perhaps the most important audience, is the domestic population: they're the ones voting for or against you, and the ones who could take to the streets and Gaddafi your ass if they're mad enough about the way you've been leading them. Most of the stupid nationalism undermining relationships across east Asia (every land claim dispute, Yasukuni Shrine, history book controversies, demands for apologies) passes for politicking in East Asia because it's a certain type of performance for a domestic audience of voters who want to feel like their leaders will vigorously defend their country's interests and national pride (not in that order). Every country suffers from a little frog-in-a-well myopia.

When domestic populations have a problem with their leader, the best way to get people to stop shit-talking their leaders, is to find someone else for them to shit-talk. Domestic groups are a bad target because they're within voting and striking distance. But a foreign baddie probably won't overthrow you, because most countries don't like going to war. And a foreign baddie can't vote against you. And if you speak a language the foreign baddie doesn't speak, you can say a lot of stuff and count on most of it not getting translated, or pick and choose what gets translated in order to enhance the performance for the home crowd.

A foreign baddie is the perfect way to deflect discontent, when you're not keeping your promises to the people you're trying to lead.

So North Korea continues to play the part of global internet troll, saying inflammatory shit to get a reaction (aid). And like a troll, if you ignore it, they'll stop trying.

And no matter what the world does, NK's propaganda machine can spin it.

  • World gives aid: world pays tribute to Kim Jong Un, in fear of his power
  • World doesn't give aid: Kim Jong Un is trying to help his people, but the baddies are being so mean to North Korea that your spring food rations won't be coming.
  • World doesn't go to war with NK: world fears us
  • World does a few surgical and devastating attacks to key NK targets: guess why your spring food rations have been diverted to the military...

By controlling all the information within the country (to some degree) the Tubby One (or the generals pulling his strings) can spin this sequence of provocations and responses however he want, and they're getting lots of footage of really famous world leaders talking about North Korea, which can be edited to tell whatever story they like.

So What are they Doing/Saying in South Korea?

Well, they're not rushing supermarkets and buying up all the non-perishables they can find. Canned goods are still available. They're going on picnics and commuting to work and looking for the best place to catch spring blossoms, which are just now reaching Seoul.

Meanwhile, South Koreans don't talk much about North Korea at all. They're aware of what goes on, but they're about as interested in talking about it as your family's interested in talking about the alcoholic uncle who gets drunk and wrecks every family event.

When Koreans do talk about North Korea, it's messy.

North Korea is a wedge issue in South Korean politics, like gun control or abortion in the USA: as with discussions about gun control, you might have an edifying conversation about it, but in many cases, discussing North Korea is like discussing certain events and characters in Korea's history: the way you talk about it is more a way of signaling your political alignment than an attempt to really hash out the nuances of the situation.

When North Korea comes up, both sides fall into the truisms, slogans and commonplaces of their political party, if it’s discussed at all in South Korea’s politically partisan media. Because Park Geun-hye is a newly inaugurated president, what I’ve seen of the media in South Korea is presenting this ongoing story with a strong angle of “How is the new president going to respond?” (so far, with more tough talk). The local media usually reports on North Korea with a jaded “here we go again” tone. The international media is the group that gets excited and worked up at every repeat of the cycle, not the local media. Locals don’t find the story new or exciting - it doesn’t sell papers here the way it does internationally - because it’s been the same story so many times before.

So what happens next?

North Korean leadership has backed itself into a corner with all this tough talk... but the leadership knows it's hopelessly outgunned. Problem is, North Korea's people don't necessarily know that, which makes the situation a bit less predictable. The world response -- censure and bloviation -- is probably encouraging North Korea to posture more, in order to gather more footage of world leaders talking about North Korea, for propaganda purposes. North Korea will eventually run out of symbolic gestures -- moving military vehicles around, fueling and moving them, making statements, cutting the few remaining points of contact between North and South, and coming up with more and more bellicose ways of saying "No this time we're serious! Nobody better mess with us!"

The stakes are higher because of North Korea's successful nuclear and satellite tests, but the basic outline of the relationship is unchanged, and the fact of China's fading support for its erstwhile ally, means that North Korea's on a weaker footing than ever before.

Until now, China benefited from having North Korea kicking up dust in East Asia, because every eyeball fixed on the Kim dynasty, was an eyeball not fixed on China's human rights record, its political prisoners, its newly aggressive, bullying brand of foreign relations, or its epic housing bubble. However, North Korea's behavior has gotten so indefensible, that the cost of backing the Kim dynasty is finally, truly outweighing the benefits. That's bad for North Korea.

Where should I get information about North Korea?

A few things:
1. don't trust any foreign "expert" who doesn't speak and read Korean (including me) very far
2. don't wholly take the word of South Korean experts or (especially) politicians, who were raised and trained inside South Korea, or speaking to a Korean audience, because of the way North Korea is a wedge issue here, so many South Koreans aren't really talking about North Korea when they're talking about North Korea -- in the same way U.S. Americans often aren't actually talking about abortion when they're talking about abortion.

My favorite North Korea commentator is Andrei Lankov, and if there's one Must-Watch North Korea video, it's this one, which actually has the expertise and the perspective other commentators usually lack. If Andrei Lankov is worried, I'll get worried. Till then...

So if you only click on one link, make it this one.

What Will Happen Next?

Kim Jong-un has painted himself into a corner, and something will happen before he can ratchet down the tension he jacked up. It'll probably be some shells dropped on an evacuated village, or a bit of posturing somewhere along the DMZ, or a boat wandering across the Southern Limit Line and shooting a few rounds across the bow of a Korean warship and scampering away. I hope South Korean leadership keeps a back door open for Kim Jong-un not to go to war, when he does something he now pretty much HAS to do, to save face, while also not looking like a wimp.

Long run time: What should South Korea, USA, and the World Do about North Korea?

In the longer term, belligerence and standoffishness have two effects:
1. estrangement and unpredictability
2. increase in Chinese influence in North Korea

That doesn't get us anywhere we haven't been multiple times before.

The fact is, as long as the Kim regime is in charge, we're probably going to see the same blackmail-for-aid thing continue. And North Korea will keep playing the same game, counting on the four (in USA) and five (in Korea)-year election cycle to bring in a whole new set of chumps for them to manipulate.

If North Korea is to change, it will be because North Korea's people demand it, and gather up the mobilizing strength to back up their demand. We might be closer to that than we think... but until the revolution, the thing that will speeds it up will not be belligerence and estrangement, which more likely causes them to band together in support of The Tubby One.

Contact and engagement, meaningful interaction with North Korea, until affinity, trust, and even kinship develops between North and South Korean publics, will help North Koreans become receptive to other ways of imagining their country. Increase of contact across the border, even if it's expensive, even if we have nothing to show for it, for a while, will increase the rest of the world's ability to reach, and mobilize, the people in North Korea who could become leaders of a sea change in that country.

Until the Kim dynasty is dislodged, I don't think they're abandoning the military first policy. And some aid will be diverted to the military. Can't be helped for now. However, if contact between ordinary North and South Koreans increases, communication will lead to new ideas being introduced to younger generations of North Koreans, new truths about how things are in the south. A different point of view.

As of now, those ideas are impossible to plant, because there's so little of any kind of contact. An Arab Spring type uprising can't happen in North Korea, because not enough of them have enough access to modes of communication and contact with the outside world. That's no good. Anything that increases that access is a good thing. And if increasing contact leads to accusations of being Kim Jong-un's running dog, so be it: it's become clear that the Kims are only interested in Threat/Aid/Thread/Aid, and regime preservation, so may as well try to open other venues for contact that will outlast the Kim dynasty and might be a catalyst for change. Get satellite cellphones into the country, and radios that pick up other stations. Invite North Korean students to institutes of higher education around the world. Push for more ways to tour North Korea and make contact (however meager) with North Korean people. Blanket the country with radio signals, not just with psychological warfare messages about the inevitable doom of the Kim dynasty, but with music and entertainment and stuff from the world outside, that makes North Koreans start thinking the world outside might not be a bad place.

North Korean leaders are going to break promises. Some of the aid money and materiel will not go where we want it to go. But more of it WILL go to the right place. Even if the trust building exercise only goes one direction, if that allows us to make more contact, with more North Koreans, and further break the stranglehold the Kim family has on what information North Koreans take in, the sooner North Koreans will start thinking about different ways they might be led, and start thinking about the choices they can make to make their country become what THEY want it to be. There are cracks in the machines of the North Korean state -- Korean drama dvds and news are leaking across the border, and people are starting to realize what a shit condition their country's in.

From here, some patience, and a commitment to engagement, even when it seems unhelpful, will, in MY opinion, lead to an actual change in North Korean society, if not leadership, eventually. It's a long game, that takes more patience than a four-year or five-year election cycle allows in US and Korean politics, and that's one of the reasons North Korea's survived this long: because every new president changes course, and North Korea has been manipulating that inconsistency expertly, so far.

More reading: "Will Seoul Go Nuclear?" (North Korea's saner than you think, and other misconceptions) (how NK manipulates its own image)

K. I'm going to bed.


Roboseyo said...

There are more people than you think stocking up on supplies here at the local Costco over that last couple of weeks. Well, at least according to my girlfriend, water and certain prepackaged goods are selling better than ever. She's been getting home progressively later and later (well after the normal quitting time), and now has to go in even earlier than usual to work the Saturday crush today. My boss also said Emart Traders has been just as busy recently as he shops there pretty much daily for school supplies. I know I definitely won't be going to either place this weekend.

I do wonder if the fat dud to the north has stock in either company. It'd probably be a good way for him to earn a decent bit of money for his slush fund by just rattling markets every spring. Maybe he sold his South Korean won when it was strong and is waiting for it to hit rock bottom before buying up a bunch more once it is weak again. Damn, could he actually be a financial genius?

Roboseyo said...


People seriously underestimate just how strong an influence things like "self preservation" can be. KJU and the party cadres aren't stupid; they know what going to war (REAL war, not Photoshop war) would mean for the country at large as well as the regime in particular. American news reporting on this really fails to grasp this extremely important fact.

Roboseyo said...

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North Korea: Nuclear genie comes out of the bunker

Roboseyo said...

Speaking as an American, it's amusing to me that for all of my country's willingness to wage un-winnable wars at the cost of tens of thousands of innocent lives we're also basically hysterical drama queens of the worst sort. The US media is pretty much CAPSLOCKING anything about North Korea these days.

Dude, this shit's been going down since 1953. Chill the fuck out.