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What Does Korea's Chaos Portend for the United States?

Recent Events:

On March 26 North Korea sank the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan southwest of the island of Baeknyeong-do just south of the contested sea border with North Korea. It resulted in the loss of forty-six lives. North Korea denied all responsibility. On November 23 North Korea attacked the populated island of Yeonpyeong-do close to similarly contested waters. This resulted in the loss of four lives, two military and two civilian. North Korea acknowledged that it had fired artillery at the island, but blamed its action on South Korean provocations.

The North Korean attack on Yeonpyenong-do came soon after North Korea had revealed “its shiny new uranium-based nuclear program to the world.” That revelation may well have been seen by North Korea as insurance against significant retaliation. Following the attack on Yeonpyenong-do, North Korean state media said that Pyongyang “will wage second and even third rounds of attacks without any hesitation, if warmongers in South Korea make reckless military provocations again.”

Following the Yeonpyeong-do incident, the North Korean economy — already a disaster — worsened dramatically. Inflation, already high, spiked. “One hundred yuan [Chinese currency], which before the shelling went for 2,000 won, is now worth 35,000 won.” Local manufacturers, uncertain about their supplies of Chinese goods, have been exchanging their won for Chinese currency while they still can and conserving their increasingly scarce Chinese supplies. Domestic prices have increased substantially, the price of a kilogram of rice increasing from 900 won to 1,600 won. Corn climbed from 4,000 won per kilogram to 6,000 won.

The United States and South Korea held brief and uneventful naval exercises in the South China Sea from November 28 through December 1, and later the United States held similarly uneventful naval exercises with Japan. Both were held against a background of efforts by China to resurrect wide ranging six-party talks allegedly to cool down military ardor and to obtain economic assistance for North Korea. The further activities and rhetoric of North Korea negated these efforts and China seems to be increasingly concerned with the escalating tensions. China’s efforts are likely motivated more by her own domestic concerns, including inflation, than anything else; this article and this support the thesis that China may be in for a rough ride economically and domestically. The United States has substantial economic concerns about China’s economy.

This analysis seems to read the tea leaves pretty well. North Korea demands copious aid, including sources of hard currency and food, and respect. Prior to the attack on Yeonpyeong-do, North Korea had demanded those things:

Half the nation’s children are malnourished, some starving. North Korea’s leaders obviously don’t care much about that. But if the people are starving, then the “Great Leader” Kim Jong Il and his mandarins probably don’t have everything they want, either.

However, the North was rebuffed. So, like a very spoiled and self-destructive brat North Korea threw a tantrum:

What could North Korea do next? No one was showing respect. No one was offering aid. So the military opened fire. After that, the world did suddenly pay attention again, and at first it followed the script. Everyone urged China, North Korea’s only ally, to restrain its neighbor. President Obama made his call on Monday [December 6, fourteen days after the attack on Yeonpyenong-do]. China, as usual, refused and instead invited the United States and other nations to Beijing for talks — just what North Korea had wanted.

Around the table, the North Koreans could once again demand bounteous aid in exchange for a promise of no further attacks.

Well, this time was different. The United States, Japan and South Korea refused to attend. By now, they knew the game. When a North Korean official showed up for the talks last Friday, nobody else was there.

The author of the linked article predicted in consequence “a stronger, more deadly attack” to follow that on Yeonpyeong-do.

South Korea clearly envisions some form of military action as well. On December 6 new South Korean rules of engagement were announced, under which “the South Korean military will exercise self-defense based on an “act first, report later” principle”:

“The commanders of each military service will give orders for self-defense,” said Jang Gwang-il, head of defense policy at the ministry. “Self-defense will be exercised until the origin of the provocation is hit, and [the retaliation] will not be bound by the Korean War cease-fire agreement or rules of battle.” Jang said that the U.S. and South Korea had a mutual understanding on the issue.

Jang also called for the preparing of more troops for battle on the field. He also ordered higher-ranking officials to simplify orders for those lower on the chain of command to give them more leeway to act quickly and creatively in an emergency.

Catch and release are probably not part of the new rules of engagement. Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the United States military Chiefs of Staff, on December 6 announced plans to visit South Korea during the week of December 6 to reassure the South Korean military that the United States “stands by” them. According to this article, his departure the same day as the announcement was “swift.” Once he arrived:

Mullen warned that North Korea should not mistake South Korean restraint as a lack of resolve. “Nor should they interpret it as willingness to accept continued attacks,” Mullen said at a joint news conference with his South Korean counterpart, Gen. Han Min-koo, after the two met in Seoul.

“Your readiness to defend your territory and your citizens is unmistakable, and my country’s commitment to helping you do that is unquestioned,” Mullen said.

Defense Secretary Gates, contemporaneously but quite less dramatically than Admiral Mullen, told “U.S. sailors aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea” on December 6 that:

I think this is a difficult and potentially dangerous time. … The North Koreans have engaged in some very provocative actions. They get everyone upset, then they volunteer to come back to talks, and we basically end up buying the same horse twice.

So I think we need to figure out the way ahead with North Korea. … Nobody wants a war on the Korean peninsula. And I think we just have to work with the Chinese and with others to see if we can’t bring some greater stability, some greater predictability to the regime in Pyongyang.”

Secretary Gates appears to attribute to the North more rationality and perceptions shared with the United States and others than do either Admiral Mullen or some unidentified “senior government official(s)” mentioned below. If, as reported here, North Korea has the world’s largest artillery force, it seems imprudent for the Secretary of Defense to make such assumptions; they have generally turned out to be wrong in the past.

Following a December 6 meeting in Washington of South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, Secretary Clinton and Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, a “senior government official speaking on condition of anonymity” (it is unclear of which government) said:

“There can be no difference of opinions between them over the fact that the North should pay the price if it launches additional provocations. The U.S. and Japan say they fully respect South Korea’s military response to the North’s attack,” he said. “We can’t accept arguments that we should sit idly if the North kills civilians or attacks with submarines. We have the right to fight back.”

Asked if South Korea can mobilize fighters and bomb the North on its own in response to any additional provocation, he said the South Korean and U.S. militaries “have already discussed this issue.”

According to a (different?) “senior administration official also speaking on condition of anonymity, “the Chinese embrace of North Korea in the last eight months has served to convince North Korea that China has its back and has encouraged it to behave with impunity.” China characterized such remarks as irresponsible. Meanwhile, United States relations with China have “plunged into a freeze. This year has witnessed the longest period of tension between the two capitals in a decade. And if anything, both sides appear to be hardening their positions.” In extremis, North Korea might conceivably be dissuaded by China from attacking South Korea, perhaps Seoul, massively; she might not be. North Korea has an A Bomb. Whether she has the capability of dropping it in Seoul is unclear, but she probably does not.

On December 11, North Korean media characterized the December 6 Mullen meeting as “little short of a declaration of an all-out war” and announced that in the event of an attack the North would “deal merciless retaliatory blows at the provocateurs and aggressors and blow up their citadels and bases and thus honorably defend the dignity and security of the nation. … The warmongers of South Korea and the U.S. imperialists had better behave themselves.” It was also stated that an all out war would not be limited to the Korean peninsula.

It has been suggested and that the Kim regime is “cracking.” The transition of power to “Kim Jong-un is going badly,” Kim Jong-Il is very ill and maybe no longer in control. His youngest son, Kim Jong-un, is far from established. There is a possibility that his sister and her husband could take over the Kim dynasty. However:

Given the parlous economic condition of the country, the ruling elites have an ever-shrinking share of the spoils to divide between them, and there is always the chance that other powerful blocs, particularly within the military, [may] try to make a power grab.

To put it mildly, things are up in the air.

Following a meeting with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang on December 12, State Councilor Dai Bingguo (the top Chinese foreign policy official) accused Admiral Mullen of increasing tensions in the region rather than defusing them. According to Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Jiang, “those persons making accusations against China, I ask what kind of efforts has he done to promote regional stability and peace … Military threats cannot solve problems and can only increase tensions.” North Korean sources stated that:

Bingguo conveyed a greeting from President Hu Jintao and presented Kim with a gift, reinforcing the cozy Pyongyang-Beijing relationship that has drawn recent criticism from the United States and other nations involved in the six-party talks about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

On December 13, United States and South Korean officials began “systematic” discussion of extended deterrence:

The U.S. can provide tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, conventional strike and missile defense capabilities to defend South Korea in case of an attack from North Korea. It is the first time for the U.S. to create such a committee with a non-NATO ally.

Looking to the near future:

It was argued in a December 12 Ria Novosti article by a Leading Research Fellow, Institute of International Security Studies of RAS, Russian Academy of Sciences, that:

North Korea no longer takes American security guarantees seriously. … Now that the Obama administration has shown that, unlike the previous Republican administration, it does not necessarily take so robust stance on defending its allies, North Korea has begun to “vet” the United States to see if, under certain circumstances, they would be prepared to abandon their allies in the Pacific, especially since the United States already has serious ongoing commitments to two theaters of conflict: Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite the assurances given by Admiral Mullen on December 6 and at the State Department meeting on the same day, and in part because of an arguably inconsistent contemporaneous message from Secretary Gates, significant reasons for concern remain.

In November, Secretary Clinton had made what then appeared to be U.S. commitments to Israel in exchange for a further freeze on settlements. The deal was said to include guarantees that there would be no further demands for freezes and that Jerusalem would be excluded from the freeze. A November 16 Israeli request that the commitments be put in writing was rejected and the settlement freeze may well be dead. President Obama apparently declined to back up Secretary Clinton and the deal was never reduced to writing. As noted here:

It is nearly inconceivable that the Israelis at this point would invest much trust in either Clinton (whose tentative deal with Israel on the 90-day freeze was undercut by the White House) or in George Mitchell (who over the last few weeks was sidelined for fear of further aggravating the parties).

Following his telephone conversation with Chinese President Hu on December 6 or on December 5 (China and Korea are fourteen hours or more ahead of Washington as to time, so at 3:00 PM December 6 in Washington it would be 5:00 AM December 7 in Seoul; this may account for some chronological confusion), President Obama has been rather reticent about the Korean situation. One would normally expect the President to have had substantial input into promises of United States support to be provided by Admiral Mullen in Seoul and by State Department officials in Washington to high level South Korean and Japanese officials. Similarly, one would normally expect the President to ensure consistency in the messages given by Admiral Mullen, the State Department and Secretary Gates. The latter seems to have been different from the former two. The State Department meeting, the Mullen meeting with South Korean officials, and the Gates comments occurred nearly contemporaneously with President Obama’s telephone conversation with President Hu. President Obama should have authorized the Mullen meeting beforehand, fully understood and approved what Admiral Mullen and Secretary Gates intended to do, and been fully briefed on the results as well as of the then new South Korean rules of engagement before his conversation with President Hu. Ditto the State Department meeting.

Did he and was he? Does he care about such things, or is he overwhelmed by a job well beyond him? It’s now within his pay grade, but is he up to earning that pay?

These concerns are highlighted by President Obama’s recent relinquishing to former President Clinton of the podium at a press briefing on the tax compromise and his departure soon after Clinton began to speak, to keep Mrs. Obama from having to wait longer for him to accompany her to a White House Christmas party. Has he lost it? A very capable campaigner, is he overwhelmed by actually being the president?

We still remember a messianic Barack Obama criss-crossing all 57 states promising “millions of new green jobs” and to “close Guantanamo.” Those pre-September 15, 2008, days were heady times, the apex of doctrinaire postmodern liberalism without the responsibility of governance. Most of us then had never really heard of a teleprompter and were mesmerized by someone who could look out at us with instant impromptu recall of fact after fact — and in such eloquent fashion.

War on terror? Easy, just shut down Guantanamo, end renditions and tribunals, pull out of Iraq, and prune back predator drones and other anti-constitutional and unnecessary Bush transgressions. Hadn’t we seen Redacted or Rendition? Wanting something to end, and being the right sort to want something to end, surely were to be synonymous with something ending.

Roger L. Simon says that we should not gloat over President Obama’s childish behavior.

We are stuck with this odd duck for another two years at minimum and now everyone, the entire world really, knows what he is like. They also know, if they have been paying the slightest attention, the etiology of his behavior: the man never had to face serious adversity until he was elected POTUS. And now he can’t deal with it. He’s the very model of Harry Truman’s famous advice about getting out of the kitchen if you can’t stand the heat. Obama was out of the White House briefing room the second he realized he was being outclassed by Clinton. And, boy, was he ever!

We need a leader and don’t have one. This is extremely bad news for our country, especially now.

Amen, but what about the Koreas, China, Japan and the rest of the world? They are certainly not in a position to gloat either. Instead, they are very likely worried, and seriously, about whether they can have confidence in representations made to them should President Obama decide to vacillate or to take a different tack. Will they be left high and dry in midstream? How high and dry and where in the stream? We are likely to find some answers within the next few days.

UPDATED: Things are happening quickly.
On December 16, South Korea announced a live-fire naval exercise to be held in the seas southwest of Yeonpyeong-do between December 18 and December 21; the exact date has not been announced. According to the South Korean military chiefs of staff:

The drills will be carried out in the presence of officials from the Military Armistice Committee and representatives from U.N. party members to ensure that the exercise is lawful and follows rules of the armistice.

The shelling will be of waters to the south of the island, away from North Korean land. Nevertheless, North Korea has promised a vigorous military response and “North Korea Thursday accused the South’s new defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, of ‘going reckless like a puppy knowing no fear of a tiger,’ state-run KCNA reported.”

On December 16, an impressive civil defense drill was held in Seoul:

“Such a large-scale drill was the first of its kind since 1975,” said the mayor of Seoul, Oh Se-hoon, shortly after the exercise ended. “During previous drills, people were not forced to head to shelters or underground facilities. They were just encouraged to do so.”

This article states that “A full 2/3 of the United States Navy attack submarine force is at sea today, and 4 attack submarines have deployed over the last 10 days. I’m sure it is a Christmas coincidence.” In connection with Christmas:

South Korea will allow a local church to turn a 30-meter (100 foot) tower at its border with North Korea into a brightly lit Christmas tree as part of “psychological warfare” between the two countries, the JoongAng Ilbo reported.

The tower hasn’t been lit up since 2004, according to the Korean-language newspaper report. North Korea, which suffers from energy shortages and relies on outside handouts to feed its 24 million people, had demanded the tower be demolished, JoongAng said.

South Korea in May began radio broadcasts that can be heard in North Korea, ending a six-year moratorium on propaganda, after an international panel concluded the North torpedoed the warship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors.

There have been some interesting developments along the China/North Korea border. China is planning to lease two North Korean islands in the Yalu River border area:

… to establish free-trade zones and tourism, Japan’s Asahi Daily reported on Friday.

China said it would build factories to make beverages and other products, while North Korea would vacate the islands on the Yalu River and relocate the 1,000 households there, but would then provide workers for the factories.

In another development elsewhere along the North Korean/Chinese border, North Korea is enhancing its military presence. According to “an inside source”:

“There is significance in the foundation of the 10th Corps, in that defense of a strategic position has been reinforced, and moreover may have the effect of coping with possible Chinese military moves which actually could occur.”

In a related or perhaps unrelated development:

A source from Yangkang Province reported today, “On November 18th, an order from Kim Jong Eun came down and the guarding of the border region has been strengthened,” predicting, “Since Kim Jong Eun’s order said, ‘Sound a horn at the border as a demonstration’, now, just like at the time of the late 1990s’ inspections by the Defense Security Command, it seems that there may be the sound of gunfire.”

According to the source, inspection units consisting of National Security Agency (NSA) and People’s Safety Ministry (PSM) personnel and cadres from the Central Committee of the Party have been dispatched to the border regions, and border guards have been reinforced with agents from the provincial NSA and PSM charged with tracking down people trying to cross the border illegally or attempting to defect to China.

In addition, the monitoring of residents in the border regions has also been reinforced, according to the source.

Another source from North Hamkyung Province reported to The Daily NK on the 12th, “In an Onsung people’s unit meeting, the chairwoman said, ‘Since the maneuvers of the reactionaries and spies are getting so serious in this area, comrade Kim Jong Eun’s decree has been handed down, instructing us that, ‘Three households as a team have to set up a tight system to monitor each other and report any strange things to the authorities.’”

Apparently, the chairwoman of the people’s unit continued to say that “although ten years have passed since the March of Tribulation, there are still more defectors than deaths among the missing people. Therefore, comrade Kim Jong Eun’s decree has been issued.”

The chairwoman explained the details of the three-household monitoring system; in a three-household team, residents must watch for whether or not there are any strangers in other member’s houses, or if someone goes missing or they note any changes to other homes’ family members, they should report them immediately to the NSA, PSM, or the people’s unit chairwoman.

There does seem to be a bit of dissent there and probably elsewhere. There have been reports of complaints about Kim Jong-un. Stories mocking his inability are circulating. … “If he is more incompetent than his father, how can Chosun go on?” or “Looking at history, in the moments immediately before the end, they tend to be more terrible than ever.”

I have found no estimates of the numbers of North Korean defectors in China. However, at the end of October of this year, it was estimated that there were about twenty thousand North Korean defectors in South Korea. They do not live well:

The employment rate among defectors aged 15 or more stands at a mere 39.9 percent and they make on average only W1.26 million (US$1=W1,155) a month, and 54.4 percent rely on welfare to make ends meet. Even if they used to be in high-level positions back in the North, they have to start from scratch in the South.

This is a very tense period of transition from Kim Jong-il to his twenty-seven-year-old son, Kim Jong-un, and the peninsula remains a powder keg; some of the powder may have been provided to demonize the Kim regime’s enemies and to stir up what patriotic sentiment is possible. There seems, however, to be a possibility that too much powder may have been added and that the results may be counterproductive for the regime. Whether too much powder has been provided and whether something will ignite it to produce an explosion of undesired magnitude remains to be seen.

The United States continues to be publicly supportive of South Korea and China continues to urge six-party talks, rejected by South Korea, Japan, and the United States.