Page 1 of 2 Are Kaesong curtains drawn for good?
By Aidan Foster-Carter
In a triumph of hope over experience, our last report ended with the cautious thought that new leaders in the two Koreas, each with a dynastic background, might have "a tacit basis for understanding".
It is early days yet, but so far 2013 has gone in the opposite direction. This was one of those regular periods when storms on the peninsula make headlines around the world, so few readers will need informing of the broad contours of the past few months. The tensions fomented by Pyongyang, which seem to have died down for now (though one can never be quite sure), lasted longer - two months - and used more extreme rhetoric than usual. As so
often, inter-Korean relations were more a victim than a main driver in all this. But they have suffered tangible damage with the closure, at least for now, of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), which had been the last remaining North-South joint venture.
Not for the first time, and doubtless not for the last, Pyongyang's recent behavior has been hard to explain. This view is not universally shared. Experts as diverse in their perspectives as Japan's Michishita Narushige and my UK compatriot Hazel Smith have argued in the past that the DPRK is a rational actor, despite appearances. Andrei Lankov is of the same mind, declaring on the first page of his new book that "North Korea is not irrational".
Of course, rationality is context-dependent. But as Ralph Cossa has said, North Korea never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The latest chance lost came on February 25 with the inauguration of Park Geun-hye as president of South Korea. Though the daughter of the dictator Park Chung-hee and a conservative like the man she succeeded, Lee Myung-bak, Park had
visited Pyongyang a decade ago as a private citizen; she dined with Kim Jong-il.
Moreover, since at least 2011, starting with an article in the US journal Foreign Affairs, Park had been at pains to distance herself from Lee's hard line, advocating then as now what she calls "Trustpolitik". So far this is more slogan than policy.
But those in Pyongyang who track such things had no reason to doubt that, with Park in the Blue House, relations could improve - without Lee's insistence that the North must first denuclearize. Even if cynically, they could have chosen to play her along and, as during the decade of the former "Sunshine" policy (1998-2007), enjoyed renewed flows of aid and investment.
If indeed as reported the DPRK is worried about Chinese domination of its economy since "Sunshine" was eclipsed by Lee, what better remedy than to let the South back in and play off the two rivals in time-honored DPRK fashion? Even Southern rightists are keen to see that North Korea does not become economically a fourth province of Manchuria, as the daily Chosun Ilbo has put it.
But this was the road not taken - and which will now be much harder to take in future, even if a way is found to row back from recent tensions. Instead, using the same malign playbook honed by his father and grandfather before him, Kim Jong-eun chose to embark on and then escalate another cycle of provocation and reaction, of a drearily familiar kind.
A familiar one-two
This began last year, with the successful launch - after April's embarrassing failure - of a satellite on December 12. After over a decade of experience and (in the past) negotiations, not to mention previous UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions, the North Korean regime knew perfectly well that the global community would regard this as tantamount to a banned long-range missile test - and punish it accordingly. The response took time, owing partly to the holiday break and the usual backstage negotiations between the US and China as to how strong a form of words and scope of actions the latter was prepared to countenance.
When it finally came on January 22, UNSC Resolution 2087 was stronger than some - that may include North Korea - expected. Basically, it extended existing sanctions under earlier UNSC resolutions (1695 and 1718 in 2006, then 1874 in 2009) to six further organizations and four individuals. As always, Pyongyang at once rejected this as a US plot - despite the fact that,like all previous UN censure of the DPRK, the resolution was passed unanimously, including support from both Russia and China as permanent UNSC members - and vowed that it would not be cowed. Fears at once arose that the same sequence would unfold as in 2006 and 2009; namely that, like his late father Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-eun would follow up a de facto missile test with the much more serious provocation of a nuclear test.
And so it proved. North Korea's third nuclear test took place on February 12. DPRK media boasted that this involved a miniaturized device, but that cannot be independently confirmed. Nor can the all-important question of whether it used plutonium, as in previous tests, or for the first time the North's newer, largely unknown program based on highly enriched uranium.
UNSC reaction was quicker this time. Resolution 2094 of March 7, 2013, once again unanimous, further tightened existing sanctions to include more monitoring of cargoes, diplomats and banks - especially bulk cash transfers. Banned luxury items were itemized for the first time, having hitherto been left to member states to decide. North Korea once again angrily dismissed this censure. (It cannot have helped Pyongyang's temper that South Korea is currently a UNSC member state, having been elected in October to serve for the two calendar years 2013-2014.)
War games: taking umbrage
This oft-repeated cycle of tests, censure, sanctions, and defiance was not the only pretext that North Korea used to foment a sense of crisis. Pyongyang also took violent exception to what are in fact routine joint US-ROK military exercises held on the peninsula every spring: the computer-based Key Resolve, and the larger-scale Foal Eagle. (The DPRK is even informed of
their starting dates, so its annual claims that these are a prelude to imperialist invasion cannot be taken seriously.)
This year such shrieks were even louder than usual. North Korean rhetoric has always been fierce, but this spring it reached new heights (or plumbed new depths), including for the first time threats of pre-emptive nuclear strikes. The rhetorical target here was as much the US as South Korea. In one much-publicized picture, Kim Jong-eun was seen pondering documents, surrounded by KPA officers, against a background of a map of the Pacific showing flight paths to various named US cities - including Austin, which caused no little headscratching in that inoffensive corner of Texas. (Editor's note: Some later speculated that the target might have actually been Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, which at least makes more sense given it is home to a B-52 wing.)
Fortunately, North Korea as yet lacks any such capacity, so this all had a staged and cartoonish character. That did not make it any less unsettling. Though little remarked, there may be a parallel here with last spring's vicious and highly personalized propaganda campaign against South Korea's then President Lee Myung-bak, including vile cartoons of him as a rat being bloodily done to death in a variety of ways. We covered this here in detail at the time.
These cartoons can no longer be found on KCNA, but Jeffrey Lewis has usefully preserved some for posterity. One comment there is worth quoting for its wider resonance: "How do you negotiate with a government that presents propaganda posters showing your president's gory dismemberment?"
This year's campaign lacked the cartoons' visual nastiness and personal animus, but was no less extreme in its language. Quoting this in extenso would be tedious. Any reader - except in South Korea; will President Park end this needless ban? - has only to turn to KCNA.kp, which helpfully files its main diatribes under the telling sidebar "DPRK in All-Out Action Against Enemies," and scroll back over the past two months. Of late they have toned this down, but only slightly.
As recently as May 10, party daily Rodong Sinmun could still write: "The DPRK remains steadfast in its attitude to meet any challenge of the hostile forces for aggression through an all-out action based on nuclear deterrent of justice, bring earlier the day of the final victory in the great war for national reunification (emphasis added) and guarantee the prosperity of a reunified country and the independent dignity of the nation for all ages."
Leaving aside the bizarre idea of nuclear "all-out action" as a way to "guarantee prosperity" - guarantee poverty, more like - taken literally what can this mean except that North Korea would welcome a "unification" achieved by the nuclear defeat (as if!) of South Korea, with all the catastrophic material and human loss of innocent lives that would entail? Or if they don't really
mean it, why do they say it? To adapt the question above, how can you talk usefully to a regime which purports to gleefully contemplate nuking you into submission?
True, most such threats including this one are formally posed as conditionals. If the enemy attacks - or in this case, merely "challenges" - then we strike. Richard Lloyd Parry in a review in the London Review of Books stresses this point in a useful recent overview, tellingly titled "Advantage Pyongyang", "The noises from the North are widely misunderstood. They are not unilateral threats of war, but promises of retaliation in the event of US and South Korean attack.
(This gets lost in much of the reporting because of the famous verbosity of North Korea's official communiques: the threat is quoted, while the balls-aching conditional preamble is cut.)".
Amen to that striking adjective, but I would make less of this. The fact is, Pyongyang cranks up the war talk relentlessly - as though itching to be given an excuse to attack. The tone, if by no means the eloquence, is essentially as in Clint Eastwood's famous "Make my day".
One more example, from late April when tensions were starting to subside. One could expect Army Day, April 25, to spawn some bombastic and bellicose speeches. But they were never quite like this before. KCNA reported DPRK Air Force Commander Ri Pyong-chol as boasting that "Stalwart pilots, once given a sortie order, will load nuclear bombs, instead of fuel for return, and storm enemy strongholds to blow them up."
Not to be outdone, "Strategic Rocket Force Commander Kim Rak-gyom said that the DPRK's inter-continental ballistic missiles have already set the dens of the brigandish US imperialists as their first target and officers and men of the Strategic Rocket Force are one click away from pushing the launch button".
A "state of war"
Regarding South Korea specifically, on March 30 KCNA issued what it termed a "special statement" of "the government, political parties and organizations of the DPRK". This was headlined: "North-South Relations Have Been Put at State of War". Inter alia, it warned that the "time when words could work has passed", hence "the Supreme Command of the KPA was just when it made the judgment and decision to decisively settle accounts with the US imperialists and south Korean puppets by dint of the arms of Songun [military-first policy]".
Accordingly, "the dear respected Marshal Kim Jong-eun, brilliant commander of Mt Paektu, convened an urgent operation meeting on the performance of duty of the Strategic Rocket Force of the Korean People's Army ... and finally examined and ratified a plan for firepower strike".
And so on and so on: "the strong will of the army and people of the DPRK to annihilate the enemies"; "Time has come to stage a do-or-die final battle". And this, notably: "[Enemies] should clearly know that in the era of Marshal Kim Jong-eun, the greatest-ever commander, all things are different from what they used to be in the past. ... The hostile forces will clearly realize
the iron will, matchless grit and extraordinary mettle of the brilliant commander of Mt Paktia that the earth cannot exist without Songun Korea".
Greatest-ever? Compared even to his grandfather, a genuine guerrilla against Japan who also really did take on the US in battle (a disastrous error, though Pyongyang calls it a victory)? No doubt Kim Jong-eun has to establish a pedigree, but this is arrogance indeed by a wholly untried youth. Yet the warning that "all things are different" now may prove only too true.
Importantly, this was not provoked by anything South Korea or the US had done. True, the March 30 statement singled out Foal Eagle's unprecedented use of B-52 and B-2 bombers as "an unpardonable and heinous provocation". Lloyd Parry calls this deployment "a very stupid thing to do", since it "sprinkle[d] gunpowder on the North's indignation". Maybe so; but given the
lurid threats that North Korea was issuing, the US faced a very difficult choice. The new US defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, was frank about his dilemma: "It only takes being wrong once, and I don't want to be the secretary of defense that was wrong once".
Nor did all this remain at the level of rhetoric. Fortunately, Kim Jong-eun had more sense than to actually attempt a military provocation. The judgment that he was never going to do so has thus turned out to be correct, so far. Yet the airy view quoted by Yonhap on March 12 of an unnamed ROK defense spokesman, saying that "Barking dogs don't bite", might easily have proved too sanguine. They sure bit in 2010, twice: sinking the Cheonan and shelling Yeonpyeong. (We discussed both of these attacks at length at the time: see all four issues of Comparative Connections for that year (Volume 12).
While Austin, Texas proved safe from North Korea's non-existent ICBMs, a softer target lay closer to home. As Pyongyang's rhetoric mounted, some in Seoul called their bluff. How can you be in a state of war, even while running a joint venture with the enemy where everything is normal and calm? Not for long, it turned out. Though Pyongyang predictably professed to be outraged by such comments, the sad sequence of events which unfolded at Kaesong was almost certainly something it had planned well in advance. As discussed below, one does not shut down a resource that was bringing in $90 million a year on a whim or out of pique.