Koreas set to avert a 2012 apocalypse
By Andrei Lankov
SEOUL - New year is a good excuse for dubious predictions. It makes sense then
to join the game on what will happen in North and South Korea relations in
Right now, things are not clear. On the one hand, in late November, the North
followed a long established tradition and once again promised to transform
Seoul (or rather its government quarters and adjacent areas) into a "sea of
fire". At the same time, however, the South Korean government reported that the
frequency of clashes on the Northern Limit Line (NLL) - sea border between the
two Koreas - had decreased dramatically in 2011 compared to 2010.
The future is not clear, but the present author would dare to predict that the
next year will be relatively quiet, that North Korea
is unlikely to stage a provocation - at least in the immediate future.
North Korea’s leadership is often described as "irrational" and
"unpredictable", but this is manifestly false. If you look at the communist
regimes that were compared to the seemingly "grotesque" land that Kim Il-sung
built, the brilliant survival skills of the Kim family become clear.
Where are the supposedly "wise" Hungarian communists of the 1970s and their
leader Janos Kadar? What has happened to East Germany, which thanks to the
"rational stewardship" of the East German communist leadership became the "10th
largest economy in the world"? We know what happened to them, and the Kim
family does too.
The supposedly rational East European communist regimes are history while the
Kims are still in control of their personal fiefdom, enjoying almost unlimited
power and a life of luxury. The conclusion is inescapable: North Korea is led
by people who are actually very smart, they know what they want and they
usually know how to get it too.
What do they want? Above all, their goal is regime stability. They don't mind
economic growth, to be sure. But for the time being, their overriding ambition
is to stay in power and with some luck, to ensure that their children will
enjoy the same highly privileged lifestyle they enjoyed themselves (we should
forget that not only North Korea's top leaders, but the entire decision making
elite is of a hereditary nature).
In their efforts - successful, thus far - to stay on top, the North Korean
elite has had to deal with a number of challenges. The chronically bad economic
conditions are chief among these. The North Korean economy could theoretically
be revived through Chinese-style reforms, but the North Korean leadership has
good reason to believe that such reforms are likely to be politically and
socially destabilizing. Therefore they are stuck with an outdated and
hopelessly inefficient economic model, which cannot even provide their
population with a sufficient amount of calories.
In this sorry situation, the only way for the Kim family regime to stay afloat
is aid from foreign donors. Indeed, over the past 20 years, North Korean
foreign policy has been, above all, aimed at squeezing unconditional aid from
potential donor countries. Nicolas Eberstadt has described North Korean foreign
policy as "a chain of aid maximizing strategies" and this is indeed, a highly
Over the past two decades, aid to North Korea has been supplied principally by
three major donors - the United States, China and South Korea. Since the 2008
election of Lee Myung-bak as president, the South has taken a much harsher
stance on aid to North Korea and has begun to attach conditions.
The North has refused to accept these conditions and the quantity of aid has
fallen dramatically. Soon after Lee's election, the second nuclear test (May
2009) led to a similarly dramatic fall in the level of US aid. This has meant
that North Korea has now just one sponsor - China.
North Korea's leadership of course do not like this turn of events. Loud
tributes to the "unbreakable" Sino-Korean friendship notwithstanding, Pyongyang
has never trusted Beijing (admittedly this feeling is mutual). It is true that
China would prefer to see the continued division of the Korean peninsula, and
China's goals and interests by no means coincide with those of the North Korean
But China seems to be the only foreign country which has both the means and
reason to intervene in North Korean politics, if it considers such intervention
necessary. The Kim family has never forgotten how in 1956, Moscow and Beijing
co-sponsored a conspiracy of disgruntled officials who wanted to replace Kim
Il-sung with another leader. This distrust means that North Korea's decision
makers see excessive dependence on China as threatening to their interests.
To counter the threat, they need other sponsors whom they would be able to use
as counterweights to China. Since the late 1950s, the Kim family regime has
never relied on one sponsor alone. Rather they have preferred to deal with two
or more providers of aid, so the patrons' competition and rivalry has given
Pyongyang ample opportunity to get aid on its own terms.
This is how North Korea treated the Soviet Union and China in the 1960s and
1970s, and this is also how North Korea sought to treat South Korea, the United
States and China from the mid-1990s.
This urgent need to extract aid was the major reason for the military
provocations in 2010. By torpedoing a South Korean warship in March and
shelling a South Korean island in November 2010, the North wanted to remind
South Korea's electorate and political leadership that Pyongyang is in a
position to inflict damage on the South with almost complete impunity.
They probably did not expect the South to resume the delivery of unconditional
unilateral aid, but they clearly hoped to give the South Korean political class
and the general populous a subject lesson. They wanted to show that it is
cheaper to provide aid (or if you like, to pay protection money) to the North,
than to ignore their demands and face the unpleasant consequences.
The 2010 exercise, however, produced mixed results. On the one hand, it led to
an unexpected outbreak of anti-North sentiment in the South, not seem for
decades. The long-term impact is of course unclear, but nonetheless it seems
that in the long run the strategy that the North has hitherto used will to work
- outraged or not, South Korea's electorate does not want more torpedo attacks
Recent events in the South probably do look encouraging for North Korean policy
planners. The pendulum of South Korean domestic politics has seemingly begun
its slow move leftward. This was clearly demonstrated by the South Korean
nationalist left's victories in by-elections in April and especially in the
outcome of the Seoul Mayoral elections in October.
It seems that South Korean voters are at least ready to consider voting for
left-leaning candidates, the South Korean left actually has fairly good chances
of winning the next presidential and/or parliamentary elections.
This shift has nothing to do with the North Korean question. Contrary to what
most foreign observers believe, the North plays a very marginal role in South
Korean electoral politics. South Korean voters merely want their government to
handle the North, defusing tension. The decisive reason for changes in the
political climate in Seoul is growing dissatisfaction with the local economic
Nonetheless, the South Korean left has always been far more ready to adopt a
conciliatory line to the North. Therefore, it is widely assumed that once in
power, the left will revert to the "Sunshine" policy era line of large-scale,
This is exactly what the North Korean elite hope to get. They need this aid in
order to reduce their dangerously high dependence on China, whilst still
keeping their economy above the water. They surely welcome the current shift in
South Korea's domestic political landscape and they will surely do all they can
to increase the likelihood of the left's electoral victory next year.
One of the things the North Korean decision makers might do is simply to be
quiet - to refrain from staging clashes on the border. A year or two ago, such
clashes could be seen as punitive response to the uncooperative stance of the
ruling right. But now, such clashes are likely to produce undesirable outcomes.
It might lead to a rise in anti-Pyongyang sentiments among the South Korean
electorate, who could then become more likely to vote for right-wing
hardliners. This is clearly not what Pyongyang wants.
In the current political climate, it probably makes sense for North Korea to
behave cautiously, waiting for the results of the elections which are scheduled
later next year. In the unlikely event of South Korea's electorate choosing to
move back to the right in large numbers, Pyongyang may decide to stage further
provocations in order to remind the South Korean public that a hardline stance
will bring tensions, bloodshed and economically damaging consequences.
If the South Korean political pendulum however continues its left-ward swing,
North Korea might encourage it by limiting themselves to the verbal reminders
of how irrational, dangerous and unpredictable they can be.
There might be other reasons to stage a provocation, say the internal politics
of succession or some individual rivalry among Pyongyang's elite. But, it seems
that recent events - a combination of the "sea of fire" threat and the actual
decline in the number of small-scale provocations - indicates what we are
likely to see next year.
So, the present author dares predict that the next year is likely to see a
reduction in tensions on the Korean Peninsula. But this temporary relaxation
should not be misinterpreted as a major improvement. The Korean issue has no
easy solutions and the North is likely to continue to remind of its continued
existence in a number of ways. Most of which are unpleasant for its neighbors.
Andrei Lankov is an associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul,
and adjunct research fellow at the Research School of Pacific and Asian
Studies, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State
University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea.
He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia.
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