Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Eastern Asia’s Really Bad Boy

Like most geopolitical issues, this one is very complicated. North Korea. We all know that dictator Kim Jong-un (above) is nuts. He brings new meaning to the word “paranoid,” even offing an uncle he felt was getting too big for his britches. Military commanders who raise his suspicions often face the same fate. Early “retirement” for senior officials often isn’t his first choice. He also has well over 100,000 political prisoners (offenders plus their families) in brutal concentration camps where rape, torture, starvation, untreated disease and random executions are routine.
With the ability to raise a standing army, including full-time soldiers, police and reservists, of 9 million (in a nation of 24.5 million people), clear nuclear weapons capacity (more on this later), Kim fields an awesome military. With a rather strong ability to control virtually every piece of information his people ever see or hear, he has managed to paint a fearsome picture of the world and North Korea’s place in it. His people believe that Kim can defeat any foe, including the United States, that the West is dedicated to its destruction and that his people must continue to sacrifice to survive against this hostile world. To so many in the North, Kim has been deified.
He rattles sabers, voices threats, and on more than one occasion finds a way to mount a real attack against some regional target – from quick incursions into South Korea’s side of the DMZ, attacks on South seem unable stop his ability to supply favored personnel with luxury goods, and trade across the border with China remains brisk despites the sanctions. In spite of the fact that Kim is a continuing embarrassment to Beijing, the thought of South Korea taking over a collapsing North is completely unacceptable to China. That would place a pro-American country directly on China’s border, an intolerable possibility.
From the South’s perspective, taking over the North is seemingly their natural mandate – much like the post-Soviet merger of East and West Germany – but the realities in the North make that prospect seriously unappetizing. Not only is the North laced with vast stretches of land (including waterways) where toxic waste has been dumped for decades, but its people remain significantly brainwashed into their own “Communist manifesto” and are likely to carry a strong anti-Western, anti-Southern sentiments into a merged world.
North Koreans also lack 21st century skills and sufficient modern commercial operations to support its people in a truly competitive world. Infrastructure is almost non-existent, and what is there is woefully inadequate for a 21st century reality. China could easily step in to the North, should it fall, to maintain a safe distance from a U.S. ally. And maybe the South, while mouthing some protests, wouldn’t really mind. North Korea would be a huge burden, particularly financial, to anyone charged with bringing that country into the modern era.
So Kim clings to power by convincing his people their destiny, their very survival, depends on his rigid control of the nation. He caters to their fear and appeals to their pride, sounding a lot like more than one current presidential candidate here in the U.S. But one has to ask, if killing senior military leaders who arouse even the slightest suspicion is standard operating procedure, will that military act to “terminate” Kim before he can terminate them? There is a growing belief among military experts that Kim will not live a full and natural life, but his potential demise raises all kinds of complex succession/control issues.
Kim’s embracing of military parades, flashing his military technology to the world (with an occasional “false front” or a doctored photograph) and fiery/threatening speeches are usually as much a show for his own people as an attention-grabber to the rest of the world. The West believes that the North has missile range (via its Taepodong-2) just shy of 3,000 miles, although Kim claims his missiles can reach U.S. territory (Guam, Hawaii, and Alaska) today. Whatever the actual numbers, that technology is growing fast. In 2012, North Korea launched Unha-3 rocket that placed its first satellite into space. The North also claims that has the ability to launch missiles from submerged submarines, although Western experts remain skeptical believing the 2015 evidentiary photographs to have been photo shopped.
Korea has successfully exploded nuclear weapons underground at its northeastern Korean testing site in 2006, 2009, 2013 and very recently in 2015. It is that last, January 5th explosion, that has the world more concerned than ever. The U.S. Geological Survey reported a 5.1 magnitude artificial earthquake about 20 miles from the country’s main nuclear site at Punggye-Ri. The North is claiming that this explosion was not a mere atomic blast; instead, they are telling the world that this test was of a vastly more powerful hydrogen nuclear weapon. If this is indeed accurate, North Korea just became infinitely more dangerous.
The U.N Security Council called an emergency session to address this test explosion, and while the magnitude of the blast is more consistent with the lower-capacity atomic bomb capacity than a hydrogen bomb, no one is completely certain that the North’s claims might not be accurate. “While we cannot confirm these claims at this time, we condemn any violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions and again call on North Korea to abide by its international obligations and commitments,” said U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was a tad more skeptical: “[The] initial analysis is not consistent with the claims that the regime has made of a successful hydrogen-bomb test."
Why now? A coordinated “gift” to Kim in celebration of his upcoming 32nd or 33rd birthday (yeah, we’re not sure)? A blast at the West as relations between most of the world and the North continue to deteriorate? The North focused on U.S. “hostility” as an explanation, but Kim-watchers are detecting a new undercurrent: the North’s withering ties with the People’s Republic of China itself. Korea appears equally needful of a clear statement of powerful independence from its longstanding Chinese ally as well. “‘In a way, this is a protest against Beijing,’ said Bo Zhiyue, director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at the Victoria University of Wellington. ‘They are saying: ‘We can do whatever we want. This shows our independence, and we don’t need your approval.’ ’…
“On [January 6th], China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said North Korea had ‘ignored’ objections from the international community. ‘China firmly opposes this,’ it said in a statement. ‘We urge North Korea to fulfill its promise of denuclearization, and stop any actions that would worsen the situation.’
“Spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news conference that Beijing had not been warned in advance of the test and would summon the North Korean ambassador in Beijing to lodge a protest… But experts say Beijing’s influence over Pyongyang has waned since Kim Jong Un took over in North Korea at the end of 2011 and Xi Jinping became president of China in 2013. The two men have not met since then, with Xi even snubbing his counterpart by visiting South Korea first in 2014.” Washington Post, January 6th.
The situation is volatile, Kim is a global outlaw with few supporters outside his own country, but with the world staring at evil forces in the Middle East, perhaps Kim feels the need to refocus that global spotlight on himself again. If his military is fearful of the next high level execution that Kim will order, perhaps it is time to get that assassination plot to its implementation phase. Nothing good will happen as long as Kim keeps reaching for the military technological stars.
I’m Peter Dekom, and with all these malevolent moving pieces around the world, it is often hard to generate the kind of overall picture we need to plot our own clear global political policies… if we can just stop bickering amongst ourselves to the delight of our true enemies.

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