26.5.10

The North-South Divide


Before I arrived in South Korea, just over 2 years ago in May 2008, I knew next to nothing about the country or their neighbours to the north. My knowledge was limited to the Manchester United midfielder Park Ji Sung, the 2002 shared World Cup Finals with Japan and the fact that the residents of the Korean peninsula have been known to consume dog. I knew nothing of the history.

Since I became settled, gained Korean friends and work colleagues, and became ever more assimilated into the culture, my curiosity as to how this country came to be how it is grew steadily. I began to read studies on the history, analyses of the people and online news articles on the region with increased regularity. There was much for me to get my teeth into.

I arrived in Korea over 50 years after the end of the Korean war which left the formally unified nation split between the Communist, Russian-backed north and the Capitalist, USA and Allied-led south. Since the war ended in 1953, the two countries have taken drastically different paths with the south growing into a major world player with a top ten global economy, and the north cutting itself off from the outside world and becoming one of the world's most isolated countries.

Little is known about the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il and his country, and what is known by yours truly has been gleaned from the work of others much smarter and more eloquent than I. A lot of what has been written is simply conjecture; when visits to the country are so strictly supervised that your camera's memory card has to be checked or confiscated on departure, how can the average man ever truly learn the full story? What can be said with some certainty, however, is that the Kim dynasty, preceded by Jong Il's father, Il-Sung, are masters of manipulation and fear-mongering, and have succeeded in becoming a feared and strangely powerful nation, despite what is believed to be abject poverty and a severe lack of allies.

It is presumed, from North Korean defectors and South Korean intelligence, that a huge percentage of the population are below the poverty line. A famine in the 90s led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people and even the army - a huge force consisting of some 20% of North Korean adult men - are existing on a few hundred grams of rice a day. Media is strictly regulated, mobile phones are illegal save for a select few and information is so closely controlled that the 1988 Seoul Olympics, which took place only 100 miles or so from the capital in Pyongyang, were a mystery to all regular North Korea citizens. North Korean propaganda ranges from the dangerous to the downright ridiculous and raises questions about how a sane person could even consider it to be true. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are believed to have supernatural powers - their births were heralded by double rainbows and Kim Jong Il is capable of 11 hole-in-ones every time he steps on a golf course, for example - and their people are forever reminded that they live in the most wonderful country on Earth. Impossible to believe for us, of course, but imagine you'd been kept captive for over 50 years - many people for their entire lives - and had this drilled into you every single day. You might well start to believe it yourself.

My arrival on the peninsula came a few months after the election of President Lee Myung-Bak, leader of South Korea's conservative Grand National Party who, among a number of other controversial acts during his early months in power, declared an end to the previous leader's 'Sunshine Policy' towards the North. Kim Jong Il saw a massive reduction to the billions of dollars worth of aid provided by the previous regime and so declared President Lee, among other things, a traitor under the control of the US, North Korea's greatest enemy. Since then, there have been a number of events that have threatened the fragile peace in the region, climaxing in the bloodshed and consequent unease of the last few weeks.

North Korea have always been regarded as the ROK's 'unruly neighbours' who have maintained a policy whereby they misbehave so that they can be rewarded for not doing so. Whenever they felt that attention was not being paid to them, and financial aid was required, then they would test an underground nuclear weapon or refuse to join the 6-party talks on denuclearisation. Suddenly, attention was again paid to them, and Japan and South Korea provided aid so that no further escalation would take place. Because North Korea hold 2 very valuable bargaining tools - nuclear weapons and China.

It is widely suspected that North Korea hold 8 or 9 nuclear warheads, none of which are yet small enough to attach to the head of a missile (this doesn't make them a great deal less dangerous though, just ask the residents of Hiroshima, Japan) and shares it's largest border with China. The Chinese have been their only superpower ally over the decades and have essentially propped up the Kim regime. An aggressive North Korea and a retaliatory South Korea - when nuclear arms and Chinese involvement are added to the equation - makes for a very scary prospect. This would effectively be the United States against China, a confrontation that would be impossible to contain.

So North Korea has always been placated. Their misbehaviour has never brought anything other than stern rhetoric from the UN and others, and the sanctions that have been placed on them in the past leave little room for expansion. Besides, as it is already one of the least trading countries in the world and still maintains an annual military budget of $6 billion, it has been suggested that the regime is not in fact funded by the paltry sales of goods to China and South Korea, but more by sales of illegal arms and drugs to Iran and South East Asia. There is little Kim Jong Il is afraid of, because there is little anybody can do to punish him.

On the 26th March this year, a North Korean submarine fired a missile at a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, tearing the ship into two pieces and killing 46 young Korean navymen in the process. This was, without question, the most aggressive act of violence between the Koreas in decades and a great threat to an increasingly fragile peace. The north have denied any involvement, but the evidence is cut and dry. Like I read somewhere the other day, I'm sure the guy who left 1번 (number 1) written on the side of the torpedo isn't exactly being wined and dined back in Pyongyang right now.

As with the nuclear testing, the missile firing and the general "we will raise an ungodly war if you fuck with us" type of posturing that has gone on over the 2 years since I arrived, I was ready to dismiss these latest events as simply another - admittedly large - speed bump in the peace process and, after some more sanctions and harsh words, the whole thing would die down again. But this feels a little different. 46 soldiers were killed that day. The torpedo was fired by an underwater submarine, unprovoked, to cause mass death and destruction. That it is an incredibly aggressive act. It couldn't realistically go unpunished. And it hasn't.

Lee Myung Bak announced on Monday that the south would be responding in the harshest possible way besides a retaliatory attack. They have ceased all trade with the north. They have banned North Korean ships from its waters. They have resumed 'psychological warfare' (essentially they will transmit propaganda across the DMZ and drop leaflets into the north informing the people of the Cheonan incident), begun joint anti-submarine exercises with the US and have stated that any further attacks will be treated with a military response. These are the public statements. Less well known - and I have only heard these things through word of mouth and Internet gossip, might I add - is the fact that military presence along each side of the land border has tripled, the North Korean army is being prepared for defence and that it is known within the US Army base in Yongsan that this situation is only just getting started.

I'm not really one to panic. But there are a number of issues that have got me slightly on edge. Firstly, Kim Jong Il is an old, reportedly sick - perhaps dying - man. He is an egomaniac beyond comprehension who has developed an almost religious worship from his people despite leaving them to die of hunger and repressing their freedom. There has been a power struggle to find his successor with none of his sons considered strong enough to take over the role of Leader. An unstable Government is far more dangerous than a stable, deluded Government. There are rumours that the military were behind the Cheonan incident and fired the torpedo without an order from the very top. An unstable military is even more dangerous than an unstable Government.

Secondly, I live in central Seoul. And I mean central Seoul. If you drop a pin into the centre of a map of Seoul, you'd pierce my apartment. Or, in other words, if you drop a nuke into the centre of Seoul, it might land in my toilet. I would have no chance of getting away from an attack on Seoul.

Thirdly, I am being paid less and less every day. The won is tumbling, and whilst I have a very slender understanding of economics, I can get my head around the fact that ₩1200-$1 is bad and the predicted ₩1400-$1 by the end of June is very bad. I may have to leave my money in Korea when I go home and hope it recovers. It will certainly get worse before it gets better.

Finally, Koreans are talking about this. In all the time I have been here and all the many times I have asked a local about North Korea, I have been laughed at, told not to worry and that this sort of thing happens all the time. Not this time. People are, if not worried, then certainly curious as to how this is going to play out. It was being discussed in the lunch room today, in fact. This doesn't feel the same as all the other times. There will be some reaction.

But what reaction will there be? Well, since I have a rather flawless record of predicting current events, let me tell you how this is going to play out. It is extremely unlikely that there will be an attack on Seoul and there will be no invasion of South Korea. The North Korean army, large though it is, does not have the weaponry, the strength or the skill to fight a war with the ROK and the US. It will never happen. I think there will be a breach of the DMZ in recent months, with shots being fired either way, perhaps in retaliation to the rather petty South Korean tactic of blasting propaganda across the border. Besides a few pot shots, there will be no damage caused.

Look to the ocean for the real drama. The disputed maritime border is a major reason why everyone waited so long for a reaction to the Cheonan incident. It occurred in a grey area which, under North Korean reasoning, were their waters. This type of misunderstanding will happen often over the coming months - particularly with US/ROK paranoia about North Korean submarines. This will not lead to war, however.

At some point, the Chinese Government will realise that no good can come from continuing to prop up a flailing, unstable and volatile North Korean government and will distance themselves from future relations with Pyongyang. At that point, either the UN will offer money to North Korea in exchange for regime-change and we may even see reunification, or North Korea will back down, apologise for the Cheonan in exchange for continued Chinese backing, and things will go back to the way they were.

The alternative to these scenarios, and the one which I - and the rest of the world - must fear the most, is a dying Kim Jong Il who realises that the end is inevitably near and wants to go out with a bang, sticking it once and for all to America, South Korea and the rest of the world that he perceives to have wronged him. He then takes one of his nukes, loads it up into one of his shitty Soviet bombers and aims it at Seoul. He wouldn't even have to get very close to cause the most horrific amount of damage. More than 20 million people live in the Seoul Metropolitan area. That's about 50% of the country's population.

There is no way of knowing how the next few days, weeks and months will pan out. But I won't be surprised if we're witnessing the end of the last 50+ years of extended armistice. Things are about to change on the Korean peninsula and hopefully it can be done without any more lives being lost. But despite all the chest-beating and political posturing, and Hillary Clinton arriving to put her thing down, the fate of these two fascinating countries lies in the hands of the Chinese Government. And a 5'2" maniac with a bouffant.

Love, Smithy x

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

True... this is the first time i've ever had a Korean bring up "the north" in conversation, it helps to drive home the fact that maybe it is serious... especially when they usually end the conversation with someting like,"this is very serious."

Or perhaps disorganization on a mass level will thwart the war effort... or maybe thats why the Korean War has never officailly ended?

~ Mat-chu

Chris F said...

Yeah i get the feeling to that this time might be different and that's the vibe in the western press too. You can't let that sort of aggression unanswered and it'll be interesting to see if the Chinese can get away with playing the incident down like they normally do. Hope it doesn't kick off while you're still there.
To be honest mate the Won is still a hell of a lot stronger than it was when I left last year and stronger than when you first arrived in Geoje. That said, get your cash out of there ASAP as the pound is going to get stronger now the deficit is being tackled.

Lindsay said...

Have you thought about coming home? I dont want you to be 'nuked'. :-( xxxxxx

smorphie said...

One word for you: Elections

The other theory from US intelligence that I read is that Kim Jong Il issued the torpedo as attack as a way of building support for his son to take the throne. I wouldn't be surprised, as most of the North's actions recently seemed to be geared toward building local support for a misfit son and forcing the population to accept his divinity.

Finally, it's comforting to know that none of NK's nukes can fit on a missile. More likely than reaching Seoul is that the old Russian plane would crash after taking off and end up nuking Pyongyang. That would be a fitting end to the NK regime, wouldn't it? At the very least, I don't imagine that US and ROK forces would overlook a lumbering old flying whale and let it reach Seoul airspace before they shot it down.

Postman said...

Scary thought indeed. I remember how baffled I was that the South Koreans didn't talk about all the posturing and grandstanding and threats that were going on. If they're talking about it now...

I'm all for Kim Jong-Il being out of the picture, but you're damn right about unstable governments. I think you've made some sensible predictions here. The only one I can't see is China realizing that there's no profit in buoying up South Korea. If they haven't realized it by now, they're not going to. They still think Communism is a good idea.