North Korea attacks

24 November 2010

The unpredictable state

North Korea, one of the least predictable and also one of the most dangerous countries on the planet, has become even more reckless. It has shelled an island in South Korea, killing South Korean troops and causing civilian damage. Exchanges of fire between the North and the South have occurred before, and North Korea was behind the sinking of a South Korean navy vessel, however this kind of attack takes North Korean aggression to another level.

What do they want?

An all-out war is unlikely to be in North Korea’s interests, since such a war is likely to end in the defeat of the North. However bombastic the language employed by the North Korean regime and media may be, the North Korean military is no match to the combined South Korean and US forces it will have to face.

Assuming that there is a rationale behind North Korea’s decision, and it doesn’t want a war, then what does it want? One of its main and consistent aims has been recognition from the international community, and that means the US. North Korea wants to hold direct talks, one-to-one with the United States, and be recognized and respected as a nuclear state. North Korea must be feeling a bit lonely. It also wants aid and economic help. After all, the people are starving.

It may seem strange, but the North Korean leadership seems to have decided that a show of force and blackmail are the best way to negotiate with and win concessions from the US and other countries. By showing off their capability and resolution to inflict damage on South Korea, the North seems to be demonstrating that the human and financial costs of an armed conflict would be too much for others to bear. In other words: if you don’t listen to us and give us what we want, then we’ll shoot you.

Why now?

North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme is well-known, and it already has an arsenal of long-range missiles, but why the flare-up now? North Korea does not have military superiority over the South, nor a huge stack of nuclear weapons ready to be fired across the oceans. Perhaps, the economic situation has turned even worse, and there is an added urgency. However, reading media reports, North Korea’s actions seem to be determined by what is happening within the regime. There is a succession from Mr Kim Jong-il to Mr Kim Jong-un at the moment, and it is said that the young leader must demonstrate generalship by organizing a military attack.

Given the dire economic situation, the monarchic succession from one generation to another is reported to be unpopular among the populace and some of the people who matter. In North Korea, the people who matter are basically the military, and keeping it fed and happy is absolutely essential for the current form of regime to survive. So, all this belligerency seems to be aimed to shore up the support among the military, and to gain concessions from the outside. Such ‘successes’ would lead to a consolidation of power in the hands of Mr Kim Jong-un, and they are much needed at the moment to guarantee the regime’s existence.

What can be done?

There isn’t much that outside powers can do. A war is not really a feasible option. The rest of the world cannot be easily blackmailed into negotiation, which would mean that as long as a country actually possesses weapons of mass destruction, then the world will negotiate with it. On the other hand, waiting for the North Korean regime to collapse hasn’t worked so far, despite the sanctions and the deteriorating situation within North Korea. And if it were to collapse precipitately, it will cause huge disruptions to the North Korean society and will affect the neighbouring states. Therefore a gradual process of change is what most states, except North Korea, wants to see, which would involve abandonment of the weapons programmes on the part of the North Koreans, and an integration into the international order as well as improvement of the economic situation.

There are no concerted or clear policies at the moment, and the ‘international community’ is trying to find a way out of the impasse. The short-term priority must be containment: North Korea must be prevented from building up a cache of weapons. The medium-term policy will have to be some sort of agreement about what North Korea’s place in the world order should be. And in the long term, nudging North Korea towards liberalization in politics and economy will be important.

Containing North Korea

The world now needs to contain North Korea. This cannot be easily achieved, since not many countries have leverage over North Korea, with the exception of China. A strong co-operation between the neighbouring countries, including China and Russia, and the US will be crucial. An unstable and unpredictable North Korea is a danger for China and Russia, as well as for the US, South Korea and Japan, so this action may unify the rest of the world against North Korea. Yet it remains unclear which sticks the international community can wield, and what kind of carrots should be offered to North Korea.

There are tense days ahead. Whatever happens, hopefully there will be no further incident that leads to a full-scale war.