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The Weary Kind

How Seoul handles Washington and Pyongyang's war games

PAJU, South Korea — On April 5, the North Korean foreign affairs ministry delivered a sinister circular to embassies and non-governmental organizations. After next Wednesday, it reportedly read, the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea cannot guarantee the safety of international personnel. Please do not hesitate to evacuate your staff, it said.

In diplomatic parlance, the eviction of embassies is often code that war is imminent. But North Korea, as usual, was playing mind games with its international guests: The British foreign ministry called the bluff and did not make plans to evacuate, while the Russian government admitted that all appears calm on the streets of Pyongyang. In the five-day window that the regime offered for the departure of diplomats, Pyongyang didn’t even have enough scheduled flights that could accommodate all of them, the national security newsletter NightWatch pointed out.

The other side of the border gives off a similar languor. Here in Paju, a city just south of the demilitarized zone near the North Korean border, some residents are on edge. But for those who’ve grown up with the Cold War-style division, the bluster is business as usual. “The American news is reporting that there could be a war?” asks Hong Seok-joon, a bewildered university student who recently finished two years of mandatory army service. “What? Do you really think they’re serious?”

The torpor reveals much about one of the world’s most volatile regions. North Korea is home to a sclerotic regime that loves to pretend the world lives in fear of its might. Its leaders feed on the military exercises and bold public statements of American and South Korean policymakers, eagerly delivering reports to its people of imminent doom from American warplanes and missiles.

The government line reminds older citizens of the devastation, partially from American warplanes and tanks, of the Korean War. The unending state of emergency keeps the elites from the ruling Korean Workers’ Party in power, painting its autocrats as the only hope for the nation’s survival. While rural villagers survive on meager rice rations, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un pours resources into the country’s nuclear and missile programs. Don’t complain, his government tells the peasants. Nukes are the ultimate defense against the coming American invasion, and you would be wise to support them.

It is a desperate strategy of self-preservation ever since the collapse of Soviet food and fuel subsidies hurled the country into a famine in the mid-1990s—leaving up to a million people dead and bringing the regime close to disintegration. Even with nuclear weapons and a million-man army, the so-called “hermit state” is in fact a paper tiger seeking to prolong its existence. So why does Washington keep feeding into North Korea’s war machine?

To be fair, the Obama administration is in a knotty position. Since the mid-1990s, three presidential administrations have toiled through tactics of engagement and intimidation (think George Bush’s “Axis of Evil”) to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear program and join the community of nations. Policy wonks use the old cliché “carrots and sticks” to describe a diplomatic process that has become dithering.

The problem is, no matter which analogies experts use for their denuclearization projects, all of them have failed so far. While North Korean negotiators smile and nod politely to their Western guests, regime inner circles have almost always reneged on agreements and continued to pursue their militant ambitions regardless of what they state in public. Throughout all the bargaining, Pyongyang has made it clear that its nuclear program is non-negotiable. It is the ultimate symbol of national glory—exactly what the government needs to stay in power.

Even as the Obama administration has embraced “strategic patience,” the pattern continues. Quickly approaching a postmortem, that catchphrase essentially means the White House will avoid the negotiating table until North Korea cleans up its act. But that thinking is useless as long as the U.S. pursues a conflicting mission: attempting to strangle the regime by expanding sanctions, and therefore acknowledging the menacing tactics that North Korea hopes will make it feared worldwide.

If anything, sanctions have made the bluster worse. North Korea dove into its latest bout of saber-rattling precisely because the United Nations Security Council passed its third round of sanctions on March 7, in response to North Korea’s third nuclear test. Diplomats thought the embargo would quickly choke the state financial bank and make any militant plans difficult for the leadership. "These sanctions will bite, and bite hard," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said in a common reprise after the vote.

Understanding that he will only face more of the same from the international community, Kim is defiant, and ever more determined to blackmail the world into acceding to demands for aid, concessions, and recognition as a nuclear state. Ever since February, he has nullified the 1953 armistice that halted the Korean War, announced that he would restart the mothballed nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, and blocked entry to South Korean managers who oversee factories that employ Northern laborers at the Kaesong industrial zone.

On the west coast, Kim supervised live-fire artillery exercises and beach landings, even threatening an artillery strike on a nearby South Korean island. Near the opposite eastern shore, North Korea's army has reportedly deployed two medium-range Musudan missiles capable of hitting American army bases in Japan. It’s more likely that North Korea will test the devices on or around two auspicious dates this month: the first anniversary of Kim's inauguration on April 11, and the birthday of his grandfather, the “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung, on April 15.

Onlookers can be forgiven for assuming that North Korea is suicidal, and that it is purposely setting Asia on the path to a second Korean War in a repeat of diabolical, Fascist expansionism. But contrary to Western perceptions, North Korea is not crazy, writes the historian Andrei Lankov in his upcoming book, The Real North Korea. Its chief decision-makers make carefully planned chess moves, designed to instill the most effective haranguing possible without provoking an all-out war.

The Kim clan, Lankov says, places survival above all else. It needs money, especially in the form of foreign currency, from the outside world.

In late March, the Obama administration’s public relations-driven strategy of flying stealth B-2s, nuclear-capable B-52s, and F-22 Raptors only added powder to the keg. Deep into the tit-for-tat escalation, the White House possibly realized that, yes, the North Korean regime enjoys popular support, and that a country devastated by American air raids in the Korean War does not take kindly to the sight of nuclear-capable American aircraft near its borders. So it comes as no surprise that Pentagon officials announced last Wednesday that the White House has dialed back its “playbook” of military spectacles.

Because the enigmatic state is interested in survival and not regional domination, its leaders will avoid any collision that would provoke an American-led invasion north of the DMZ. But a military skirmish could come “before the end of the year,” said Robert Kelly, a political science professor at Pusan National University in South Korea. “North Korea has painted itself into something of a corner with its recent extreme rhetoric. It may have to act just for credibility’s sake, but it will be something minimal, something containable. They do not want a major attack to spiral into a war they cannot win.”

The South usually takes the blunt end of those attacks because Kim understands that Seoul is unwilling, or unable, to launch a full retaliation that would lead to unification, said Leonid Petrov, a North Korea researcher at the Australian National University in Sydney. “Many South Koreans don’t want unification because it will bring them many social and economic challenges,” he said. “Kim Jong Un knows this. That’s why he’s is so bold.”

The Supreme Leader’s father, Kim Jong-il, mastered the axiom. In March 2010, North Korea allegedly torpedoed and sank a South Korean naval corvette; eight months later, the aggressor bombarded a South Korean island with artillery shells. The episodes together killed 50 South Koreans. “The disputed sea border of the Yellow Sea is always convenient for provoking South Korea,” Kelly said. “The point is to bully South Korea into aid, assistance, fuel, and other transfers, with few conditions, by threatening it,” he added.

As a high-tech powerhouse that is home to 50 million people, South Korea is in an odd position having to put up with nonsense from an erratic and crumbling neighbor. But Seoul is ensconced in a crescent of powers all pursuing their own geopolitical agendas: China, Japan, Russia, and ranks of American military bases. The boisterous democracy sadly has a fraction of the say over what happens, at least militarily, in its corner of the Pacific. Or, to use an old Korean proverb, “A shrimp’s back breaks in a fight among whales.” Wise words for understanding how some Koreans see their place in history.

So it goes with the latest fiery rhetoric, and the understandable indifference many South Koreans have towards their northern neighbor even if there is some anxiety this month. The older generation has seen the Cold War come and go, and today all sorts of Koreans don’t see the relevance of the unending chatter from Washington and Pyongyang. Should they care about what either side thinks is important, they would be feeding into the cycle of war threats that usually leads to nothing. For them, the status quo is just fine.

Geoffrey Cain is the GlobalPost senior correspondent in Seoul.