A South Korean naval ship sank on March 26 after an explosion ripped the vessel into two. Suspicion of the source of the explosion immediately focused on North Korea, although South Korean and American officials emphasized that there was no proof that the incident was an attack and that it could have resulted from a collision with a mine planted decades ago. If North Korea is behind the explosion, the reason may lie in reports about the country’s population becoming more aware of the oppression they are being subjected to.
Initially, South Korea and the U.S. downplayed notions that the ship was sunk by Kim Jong-Il’s military. The location of the sinking was in the Yellow Sea near the North Korean coast in disputed waters that have previously been the scene of naval clashes as recently as November. The South Korean defense minister is now stating that he thinks the explosion was caused by a torpedo, but he isn’t ruling out the possibility of an accidental explosion from a Korean War-era mine or the deliberate targeting of the ship with a mine.
The chairman of the South Korean National Assembly’s Defense Committee says that two North Korean Shark-class submarines under surveillance disappeared between March 23 and 27, and they have been unable to determine the location of one of them on March 26, the day of the explosion. The South Korean defense minister initially noted that the vessel did not detect an incoming torpedo on its radar, but this official says that doesn’t matter. North Korea has advanced acoustic torpedoes that slowly stalk their targets so their sound blends in with the engine to escape detection.
High-ranking South Korean officials are voicing their increasing belief that the sinking was the result of hostile activity, but the U.S., eager to avoid a dramatic escalation, is doing the opposite. The commander of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula says there is no evidence of North Korean involvement in the incident and recommends waiting for a joint U.S.-South Korean probe to figure out exactly what happened.
North Korea has remained eerily silent about the entire affair. They have not denied involvement. On April 4, they actually ratcheted up the crisis by accusing the South Korean military of crossing into the demilitarized zone and shooting at one of their posts, which has been denied.
If North Korea is behind the ship’s sinking and is provoking a heated confrontation that would require some form of retaliation, the question is why. The answer may lie in the fact that the population of North Korea is becoming more aware of their destitute situation, threatening the stability of the regime and the succession process.
In June 2009, Kim Jong-Il officially chose his third son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. In 2008, Kim Jong-Il suffered a stroke, and rumors about his declining health have been constant ever since. He is believed to be partially paralyzed and suffering from kidney failure.
Kim Jong-Il’s poor health makes it important for the regime to stifle dissent so that leadership can be handed over as smoothly as possible. A major confrontation may be seen as the way to hold the military and country together and to show off his son as a strong, capable leader. However, Kim Jong-Il has used almost all of his tricks to create such a confrontation and catch the attention of the world. More extreme measures would be necessary to achieve this goal.
Jon Herskovitz of Reuters wrote on March 17 that “he [Kim Jong-Il] lacks a game-changing ace to play that would seriously rattle the international community or spook markets long used to his grandstanding. Unless he is prepared to sail dangerously close to provoking a suicidal war.” This analysis was prescient. Building nuclear weapons and threatening to sell them and the use of frightening rhetoric have already been used, so something new and even more dramatic would be needed to give North Korea the center stage. Attacking a South Korean vessel would suffice, as Kim Jong-Il knows the West would not be willing to start a major war in retaliation.
There is no organized opposition movement in North Korea like has been seen in Iran, but the population is becoming more aware of their problems and more angry at their government. The regime had an unprecedented crisis recently when they issued a new currency and banned the use of old bank notes and foreign currency. This resulted in shortages, starvation, and even expressing their anger, something the regime has never had to face before.
The outside world only saw a glimpse of the backlash, but it was so frightening to the regime that they reversed its stance on foreign currency and even apologized. This is a truly remarkable event considering the personality cult and unfathomable oppression in that country.
The government’s top finance chief was executed following the blunder.
The East-West Center has a new report showing that over half of the population is following foreign news outlets, weakening the information blockade that is most vital to the regime’s stability. A poll of refugees showed that large portions of the population now blame the regime for their economic crisis and view it as corrupt. Refugees say that now people are actually voicing their complaints, and there is a network of citizens helping get information out to refugees and defectors outside of the country through China. Cell phones are being smuggled into the country so activists can call and text news to websites.
This is very encouraging news. North Korea, however, does not have civil institutions that would allow the opposition to coordinate. Marcus Noland writes, “There are no trade unions such as Solidarity in Poland, no churches to play the role that the Roman Catholic Church did in the ‘people power’ revolution in the Philippines, and no forum of intellectuals such as the Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia.” Hwang Jang-yop, the highest ranking defector from North Korea, agrees that the regime will not fall internally unless the military switches sides, and there are no signs that is happening. He says that the West needs to begin “ideological warfare,” such as by utilizing refugees in South Korea.
The North Korean regime is not about to be overthrown, but the West can and should help create the conditions so that one day the opposition can accomplish this. Providing cell phones and funding the networks getting information in and out of the country is a good start. Instability will cause the regime to lash out aggressively, as it may just have with the sinking of the South Korean ship. However, such instability will inevitably grow and that scenario cannot be avoided. The West would be wise to speed up the process.