North Korea and the dilemma without end

Posted on: 26 November 2010 by Alexander Hay

The world has no choice but to appease North Korea at this point - but a reckoning of one sort or another is inevitable.

As Yeonpyeong island recovers from Tuesday's attack, what does the future bode for the two Koreas?

North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong island this week has caused outrage, fears of war and prompted an ominous question to be asked - what happens next? One need not be a psychic to know what will happen. After the fallout, the USA and South Korea will make concessions and appease the North Korean regime like they always do.

Again, we will see the dismal spectacle of Stalinist dictator Kim Jong Il receiving the aid he needs to keep his country alive from people he despises. To an outsider, this seems grotesque, but ultimately no one has a choice.

After all, what can the Americans and South Koreans do? To attack North Korea is out of the question, as this is a war that can be won, but at terrible cost. Not only will the South receive heavy casualties (its capital Seoul is within range of thousands of North Korean field guns), but America's main ally in the area, Japan, may be attacked by the North Koreans as well. 

There would also be the aftermath of any war: How does the South rebuild and at the same time accommodate so many North Korean refugees? China will not be happy in any case, and Washington will look very, very inept at maintaining the Pax Americana, so in the aid will flow once more.

The Chinese can hardly do anything either. Another Korean war would be very bad for business. Yet it has to allow its North Korean ally to cause trouble or risk losing its influence. Moreover, the last thing China wants is American or Japanese forces waging war in its backyard. Chinese memories are long. They too also fear waves of North Korean refugees streaming into their territory. So they too are content to turn a blind eye to the aggression of the North Koreans. 

Therefore passing judgement on the South Koreans, Chinese and Americans is missing the point - none of them can do anything but what they are doing at the moment. The tragedy is that this merely delays the inevitable for better or worse.

North Korea, militarised as it is, is not a modern mechanised nation. A vast famine in the 1990s saw one million people die of starvation. An entire generation has grown up bearing the tell-tale signs of malnutrition. And even today North Korea's exhausted farmland is simply not up to the task of feeding 24 million people. 

The North is also in the midst of a full-on dynastic squabble. As befits the world's only Stalinist-Confucian Absolute Monarchy, Kim Jong Il wants his son Kim Jong-un to succeed him. It seems not everyone else in the Kim clan wants this to happen. Moreover, will Kim Jong-Un be able to run the country with the iron fist and poker-faced trickery of his father? 

Complicating matters further is the Korean People's Army. 1.2 million strong, it would be a force to be reckoned with. But it grows restless and is every bit as aware of its nation's parlous state as Kim Il Sung. They may in the end force his hand and embark on one last military adventure, or risk collapse. 

This is, after all, a demonstrably brutal regime which cannot hope to survive for long. The bizarre rituals and public acts of sycophancy only draw attention to how vulnerable North Korea really is. Strong states do not need to impose behaviour or crush dissent or act like a crazed pantomime villain. That its leadership is so willing to do so does suggests how very vulnerable it really is. These pressures may ultimately force a resolution.

The deaths on Yeonpyeong and the sinking of the Cheonan are proof of what happens when brinkmanship nears its limits. North Korea may in the end push its luck too far.

There seems only to be three possible outcomes. The first, and best for all concerned, would be transition - North Korea liberalising much as China has done. More likely, however, is collapse: the regime disintegrates, forcing all the powers in the area, perhaps even Russia, to step in. Finally, and worst of all, would be war.

One thing is clear - the status quo is unsustainable. A Stalinist dictatorship on the brink of oblivion can either pull the trigger or drop the gun. It cannot keep it aimed at its southern neighbour indefinitely. Ultimately someone will have to make a very hard decision.

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Alexander Hay

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