Recent reports indicate that North’s population is losing what little confidence it may once have had in the regime. The combination of food shortages and evident corruption have made it obvious that the government is neither competent nor honest. In the long term this may fatal. Sadly, history shows that Western governments have an unfortunate tendency to bail out failing Communist states in exchange for illusory promises of good behavior. This happened in Korea in the 1990s, just as it happened with the Dirge regime in Ethiopia in the mid 1980s, and in the USSR in the 1970s, when Nixon agreed to sell gigantic amounts of grain to Moscow at bargain basement prices.

At first, the loss of the South Korean Navy’s corvette Cheonan in the waters off South Korea on March 26th raised tensions world wide. For a moment it seemed like a classic case of North Korean violent provocation. Stock markets fell, and the dollar rose against the Won. The North immediately issued a blood-curdling threat to use nuclear weapons if the South dared to retaliate. This time however the South Korean government chose to play it cool. They announced that they would conduct a careful investigation to determine the cause of the explosion. They also leaked word that "North Korea did not appear to be to blame."

The Cheonan was commissioned in 1989 as part of the Pohang class, boats essentially for coastal escort and patrol. They are most emphatically not the kind of up-to-date powerful, open-ocean, multi-purpose ships that have recently been added to the South Korean fleet. Seoul has, over the past twenty years, been building a large and effective navy. This is a sign of just how little the South Koreans fear an all out offensive across the demilitarized zone. If they were truly worried about that kind of attack, they would be putting their effort into building up their land forces. Instead, their Navy represents South Korea’s emergence as a major regional power.

Whether or not the the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was or was not to blame, the South Korean reaction shows that their government is trying to avoid the classic trap set by the North, whose traditional tactic was explained by veteran observer Michael Dunn, CEO of the Air Force Association is an eight step process:

  • Cause the "appearance" of tension.
  • Blame the United Nations Command (UNC), South Korea and the US for the tense situation.
  • Quickly agree "in principal" to a major improvement in relations. Publicize the "Breakthrough."
  • Set artificial deadlines to pressure the other side
  • Politicize and draw out negotiations front-loading the agenda and demanding preconditions (the preconditions are often the true objectives)
  • Blame the (UNC) South Korea and the US for the protracted talks
  • Demand compensation or a major concession before attending future meetings
  • Go back to step one.

For decades the North has used this basic pattern of behavior to get at least some of what it wants, particularly food and economic aid as well as symbolic concessions to bolster the regimes image at home. Recently the new South Korean government lead by President Lee Myung Bak has shown signs that it no longer feels obliged to play along with this charade. They have cut back on the generous subsidies the previous leaders in Seoul offered the North and show no signs of bending to the will of the North’s ailing dictator Kim Jong Il. In this context their refusal to take the bait and behave as if this incident were a major crisis may be a sign of their strength and the North’s weakness.

The DPRK’s conventional military force is, as far as we know, a deteriorating force. For a long time they have lacked enough fuel and ammunition to conduct intensive training. There is now some evidence that the troops are not being properly fed. The only effective military assets they have is their extensive arsenal of medium- and long-range ballistic missiles. Most US experts do not believe that they have been able to produce a reliable nuclear warhead for these missiles, but that day may not be far off. Meanwhile, they may have equipped at least some of these rockets with chemical weapons. A large scale attack using these missiles against targets in South Korea, Japan, and even Guam, Alaska and Hawaii is not out of the question.

The spectacular failure of the DPRK’s attempted currency reform is a sign that not all is well. The reform was aimed at undermining the small free markets which have sprung up to compensate for the inevitable shortages caused by the socialist economic system. They radically devalued the currency, introduced new bills, restricted the amount of old bills that could be exchanged and banned the holding of foreign currency. This was intended to impoverish the operators of the free markets, as well as the black market traders and smugglers who have been thriving, especially in the areas near the Chinese border.

The result was a disaster for Kim Jong Il’s image. In the face of widespread discontent, soaring food prices, economic dislocation and quiet, but apparently with intense Chinese pressure, the government backed down. The finance minister who took the blame for the fiasco was executed. For a regime which has long presented itself to its people as infallible, this was a powerful blow to its prestige.

Last year, South Korean-based US scholar, B.R. Myers, published a study of Pyongyang’s propaganda: "The Cleanest Race - How North Koreans see themselves and why it matters." He makes the case that it may be a mistake to see the North as being a hard-line communist regime along the lines of the former East Germany. He writes that, instead, they have copied parts of the racial ideologies of Imperial Japan and even Nazi Germany. Certainly the constantly repeated portrayal of the Dear Leader (Kim Jong Il) as a quasi-divine protector of the sacred Korean race, is not without 20th century precedent.

Myers points out that "Praising a leader as the perfect embodiment of of ethnic virtues is less extravagant than praising him, as Stalin was praised, as the highest authority in every science." It is this claim to ethnic perfection that allows the North to continue to legitimize its struggle for control of the whole of Korea -- in spite of the fact that its citizenry knows full well that the South has a far higher standard of living.

American diplomats and foreign policy experts, as Myers points out, have deluded themselves into thinking that with the right incentives it is possible to cut a deal with Pyongyang. "The louder the Text call for a "blood reckoning" with the Yankee enemy, the more firmly Washington believes that the DPRK wants better relations." After the total and humiliating failure of the previous South Korean "Sunshine" policy, Seoul is now determined quietly, firmly and without a lot of drama, to face down the North. The big question in Asia is: "Will the Obama administration support its ally?"

The US position in the region is far less solid than it was a couple of years ago. The US-Japan relationship is now far less friendly than it was under the previous Japanese government. The China-US and Russia-US relationships involve complex trade, diplomatic and strategic issues; these leave little room for high-level talks about the worrisome North Koreans. Japan wants to know what happened to its citizens who were kidnapped by the DPRK in the 1970s and 1980s. China has some influence in Pyongyang: they are afraid of the results of a total collapse of the regime. Russia has a lucrative relationship with the North: thousands of North Koreans work for minimal wages in Siberia.

No one really knows if the North will soon collapse, and, if it does, will it lash out ? What appears to be a prolonged succession-crisis simply adds to the uncertainty. All we know for sure is that President Lee’s government has chosen not to treat this incident as a crisis. Perhaps they want to buy time and prepare themselves for what might be a far more dangerous situation just around the corner?

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