So Kim (not so) Jung and (clearly very) il has kicked the bucket. Reports are that he had a heart attack, although my suspicion is that he simply falling over in his platform shoes, or caught his Bouffant wig in something! :>> Few will mourn his passing, even in his home country. Indeed it was interesting to see the stage managed grief with everyone standing to attention in neatly regimented rows! Sort of reminded me of the two minute hate in 1984!
Indeed the parallels to 1984 are baffling. North Korea is one of those places that it seems difficult to believe exists. if I were to write a book about North Korea and label it as fiction, it would probably be rejected on the grounds that it was too implausible and clearly a rip off of Orwells work! From the capital in Pyongyang the Politburo of the (don’t laugh!) Democratic People’s Republic of Korea run a hermit like like anthill, whose head of state (Kim il Sung) has been dead for 17 years, and which boasts levels of oppression that would have Joe Stalin calling for Amnesty International to do something.
While outside observers have long noted that North Korean food production is going down year on year, the party instead reports increases. People are regimented, even forced to wear uniforms depending on their role. The citizenry are split into three groups, depending on their perceived loyalty to the state. Only the most loyal group may live in the capital city, where loud speakers constantly blare out patriotic slogans and music. Every home has a radio inside the kitchen that cannot be turned off (which rattles off the usual long list of Newspeak from the ministry of truth) and can only be tuned to approved channels. The internet is also banned as well as mobile phones. Conditions are such that many escapees into South Korea have to be taken away send to special training camps, so that they can cope with the inevitably culture shock! The Beeb did a nice piece on Newsnight about life in North Korea a while ago, a video of which can be viewed here.
The Crazy Gang
If theres one thing that sums up North Korea perfectly its the nickname that the Pyongyang communist party have picked up from the CIA analysts in Langley. Apparently they refer to the DPRK government as the crazy gang :crazy:. Or failing that they use the acronym CFC: Crippled, Fearsome, Crazy. Crippled in that North Korea is essentially destitute and forever on the bring of starvation and economic meltdown, fearsome in that they have the world’s 5th largest army and now (more than likely) nuclear weapons to boot, and Crazy in that…well I dont think I need to explain that one!
It seems likely that Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-ils…yongun :)) (Im wondering if the North Koreans know that a yongun is an Irish expression of a kid! when I first heard his name on Irish radio I thought that they didnt actually know his name and were taking the piss! :DD) is taking over the reigns of office. His transition to power has been on the cards for years, but its taking place a little earlier than many, both inside and outside the country, had planned. Consequently its questionable whether this plump twenty something can manage the running of a country like North Korea. Indeed, they dont seem to have even had time to sort out his totalitarian dictators stage name yet (all dictators have a stage name, such as il Duce or the Fuhrer or Dear Leader…sort of like how WWF wrestlers call themselves the Rock or the Hitman). A couple of months ago his stage name was reported as being the Young General, yet now hes apparently being called the Great Successor…I presume the great refers to his waistline ;D!
Of course we should note at this point that strictly speaking North Korea is not a communist state. They are more a Feudal Confucius monarchy that uses the language and tools of communism to maintain their grip on power. Communist governments for example, do not have hereditary rulers, nor do they turn their dead leaders into demi-god like figures or rely on fanciful creation myths such as those surrounding the Kim family. They also at least try to maintain at least the illusion that all the farm animals are equal…even when some are more equal than others!
The fear is that if Jong-un cant hold things together that there will be a power struggle inside the country, either for the post of power behind the throne, or that hell be ousted and someone else put in his place. Its this instability that has people worried, could it see a war start with the NK army pushing South and restart the Korean war? We could see the regime implode and collapse? Or could it be that (the) Jong-un could try and bring about reform to the country and turn it into an factory for cheap crap for Walmart (as the Chinese did across the border). Lets pick these options apart and see how likely they are.
The Crazy Gang goes South
Clearly another Korean war would be the worse case scenario, but its also Id argue a pretty unlike one. Why? Because while the Politburo in Pyongyang might be crazy, but I doubt that they are that stupid!
While the North Korean army might looks scary on paper, with its million soldiers (goose stepping in perfect formation), 4,000 tanks, fighter aircraft and tens of thousands of artillery pieces, most of that gear is poorly maintained and hopelessly obsolete…and I mean in any other part of the world it would be in museums! Air power will figure highly in any war and while the backbone of the South Korean Airforce are F-15s and F-16s, the bulk of the CPAF is MIG-21s and MIG-23s. What few modern planes they have (about 40 MIG-29s although its unknown how many are in flying condition) probably lack the hardware (missiles and radar) to take on modern western jets. Fuel shortages probably mean the pilots likely lack sufficient flying hours to survive long in combat against a modern airforce. As one CIA officer commented on this topic “theres a world of a difference between an army with 4,000 tanks if half of them dont work”…or the regime lacks the fuel reserves to drive them all any more than a few miles!
By contrast the South Korean Army is well equipped with the latest in western weaponry, including several systems designed locally, specifically for use in a Korean theatre of operations (most notably the K1 MBT and the recently intorduced K2, rated by some as the best tank in the world). As recent conflicts have shown, third world countries with obsolete weapons cannot hope to last long against a modern well equipped western army. In the first gulf war, even in situations where the Iraqi Republican guard could engage the Americans ground forces on something approaching a level playing field (i.e. without the US airforce bombing them into the stone age), they found their T-72 and Type-69 tanks hopelessly outclassed. And thats not even a fair comparison to the situation in Korea, as the Republican guards had some prior combat experience (Iran/Iraq war), were better equipped, no fuel shortages (chronic fuel and power shortages are a serious issue for the DPRK) and the Republican guards werent half starved and malnourished like the DPRK…indeed maybe thats the solution, rather than lining their border with tanks, the South Koreans should line it with Mc Donalds and Burger King outlets :>>. If the NK invades, they just hold a special offer, a free big mac and fries in exchange for a Kalashnikov ;D! I doubt the NK troops, used to black bread and straw, will be able to resist!
Jokes aside, in all the balance of probability is that if a war did kick off, even if the North Koreans achieved the element of surprise (which is unlikely) and the Americans stayed neutral (which they wont), while the North Koreans could do a lot of damage, and possibly advance some distance into the South (hence why the South Koreans dont want to provoke a war) such success would be short lived. Inevitably once the South began to counter attack, and their airforce gained air supremacy (which would take either days or more than likely hours!) any North Korean advance would be swiftly halted. Indeed probably within a matter of a week or two (or again maybe even days or hours!) what was left of the North Korean army would be retreating back across the border in disarray with the South Korean army in hot pursuit. And I doubt the South Koreans would stop this time until they reach the Yalu River.
The time has come to push the button
I suspect that the regime in Pyongyang are well aware of this reality, indeed the very fact they went to all that trouble to develop nuclear weapons, suggests to me that they are resigned to the reality (at least in private) that their vast army is little more than a paper tiger. Of course its the fear of nuclear retaliation that keeps the South, or the Americans, from attacking the North (again CFC) not to mention the thousands of artillery pieces aimed at Seoul.
But what if Jong-un decides to push the button? Well first of all, he and the crazy gang have to contemplate the reality that theyd be effectively committing suicide by such an action, as the retaliation from the west (whether it comes in the form of a Trident missile or a swarm of smart bombs in the front window of his palace) will be swift and brutal. Also theres the thorny issue of delivery. While its probable they North Koreans have a nuclear weapon, theres a world of a difference between a crude first generation nuclear bomb thats the size of a small car and one small enough to be put on the top of a missile. Americas Fat Man weapon for example weighted about 4 tons, well above the 1 ton payload limit of North Koreas most advanced missile. And a missile that actually works would be an additional bonus too! The Kims have a big problem you see with their Dongs, as they are small and take ages to get fuelled, erected upright and ready for action, plus they have a habit of exploding within seconds of starting off :))
Jokes aside, it would be deeply embarrassing, to say the least, if the North Koreans launched a nuclear missile at America (or Japan), only for it to blow up after it barely got off the ground and scatter radioactive waste over their own country. The only risk posed to America is that Obama laughs so hard at this he might crack a rib or something! Also the crude liquid fuelled rockets the North Koreans use take many hours to prep for launch, which leaves them vulnerable to being destroyed by air strikes before they can be fired.
Using an aircraft? More plausible, but as noted, their Air force is obsolete and its highly unlikely they could get a bomber close enough to an allied city without being shot from the sky. So short of them putting a nuke in a fishing boat and sailing it into Tokyo or San Francisco bay, its fairly improbable that theyll be nuking anybody but themselves any time soon.
War is peace
Of course Im not suggesting that the NK politburo have turned into a bunch of make-love-not-war hippies. Far from it! The constant fear of an enemy is a key crutch that the state relies on, in order to maintain control…much like America under Bush with his constant terror alerts. Peace is the last thing on their minds! Recent events such as the sinking of a South Korean destroyer and the shelling of a small Island, the equivalent of a trapped animals rattling the bars of its cage (the only difference being the Politburo put themselves in the cage!), will I fear continue purely for reasons of domestic politics. And if Jong-un does turn out to be little more than a puppet, then there will be a strong incentive for various factions within the politburo to regularly launch attacks to gain favour within the army and to distract the public from the regimes failings. Of course the risk is that eventually the South Koreans will tire of such provocation and strike back. This does bring the slight risk of escalation. But given that the DPRK government knows they can always spin a crushing defeat into a major propaganda victory (like how they won the world cup against Brazil a few years ago!) its not a huge risk.
For North Korea to reform there needs to be a strong incentive to the regime to do so. Given the tight grip on power they possess, and that any loosening of the reigns could run the risk of they loosing control completely. Thus, I suspect they Politburo in Pyongyang has long concluded that this is a risky option and theyll be unwilling to pursue such a policy. And again, the comparison with Chinas economic policy isnt accurate, as the North Koreans arent strictly speaking a communist country to begin with (they are actually a form of Feudalism).
The all important army would be very fearful that any reform could see an end to the Military First rule which means they would suffer and its not the number of tanks or guns the army brass would be worried about, no its the Cognac bottles and good food that might stop arriving that would make them oppose such a move. Given Jong uns relative weakness (at least in the early days) and the competing forces with DPRK, any such reform either wont happen or will be implemented very slowly.
A revolt against the current regime, again this seems unlikely, regardless of how badly Jong-un screws up or the cronies who will inevitably run the country on his behalf! Control by the state in North Korea is simply too rigid for any movement to get started. In Cold war Europe for example, the seeds of revolution was the trade unions movement. Indeed interesting aside there, yes those Trotskyists in the unions did more to bring about the downfall of communism than the CIA, MI6, Thatcher, Reagan and the western military combined! Unfortunately, the North Koreans have already adopted policies advocated by Clarkson and Boris Johnson and banned any such unions, as we dont want the people standing up for their rights or anything do we!
But I digress again! Unfortunately there is simply no obvious way for a revolution, peaceful or otherwise, to get going within North Korea. The only possibility is a palace coup. But thats more likely to be just another power hungry dwarf in platform shoes or hardliners from the military, than any reformer.
Collapse and Chinas syndrome
So in conclusion, North Korea will almost certainly continue its hermit like existence under Kim Jong-un, or whoever else takes over the role of Dear Leader/Emperor…when theyve finished stuffing his father and putting him on the mantelpiece! Event if he doesnt retain control, his replacement will follow a relatively similar line. The DPRK politburo has little to gain from either a proper war, a revolution or reform.
Of course the fundamental problem for them is that their regime isnt stable in the long term. So eventually if they dont reform, it will simply keel over and collapse. Like the euro right now, its merely a question of when and how. Indeed if it werent for the support of China the DPRK government would have collapsed along time ago.
China is often described as North Koreas only ally. I doubt the Chinese would agree with this one! Our ally? With friends like this who needs enemies! Wikileaks have notably revealed that the Chinese regard the North Koreans as being a liability rather than an ally. No, to the Chinese, North Korea is like some sort of crazy old grandfather who they are nursing at home, who keeps going on about what he did during the war (even though they knew we was merely a shipping clerk), running over the flowers with his wheelchair or shouting racist slurs at the nice Indian couple next door.
If the Chinese could get shot of the North Koreans tomorrow, I suspect they would. Indeed in the event of a war with the South, far from the Chinese coming across the Yalu to save the country from the west I suspect the opposite would happen (the Chinese would either make clear they planned to sit on their hands and do nothing, or make the offer to the West that if they stayed South of the parallel then China would send in its own army to take care of the crazy gang once and for all). The only thing stopping China from turning off the life support and hold a pillow over North Koreas face is some form of communist nostalgia among the old guard in Beijing and an unwillingness to deal with millions of refugees. But inevitably, I suspect the day will dawn where they decide they have to bite the bullet and that spells collapse for the DPRKs. With the Chinese either accepting a soft landing and a smooth transition to democracy and reunification…or with them trying to arrange for a more pro-Beijing administration to take power!
The last Emperor
So if I were Kim Jong-un Id stay off the lobster and cut back on the Cognac, as I doubt hell be getting either in the Chinese/South Korean prison where hell likely be seeing out the last of his days. He may well be the last emperor of his country.