ZUERST! Magazine’s Manuel Ochsenreiter recently spoke with Nile Bowie, an Asia Pacific-based political analyst with experience working in North Korea, to discuss the current situation on the Korean Peninsula and the shape of things to come.
The situation on the Korean peninsula is intensifying and becoming more and more dramatic and Pyonyang’s rhetoric is notably more aggressive. Why is all of this happening now and how did the situation come to be this way?
Since the formal end of the Korean War in the early 1950s, the North has often ratcheted up tension through tough talk when they saw the need. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea was relatively well off and they were in fact economically ahead of the South – the regime had a stronger sense of security and its rhetoric reflected that. Once the Socialist bloc countries came down, North Korea became quite alarmed. Kim Jong-il was reportedly quite shaken up by the execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was a friend of North Korea and oversaw a similar regime. Kim Jong-il succeeded his father in 1994 and initially first sought to improve relations with the US as a means to ensure the security of his regime. During the Clinton administration, relations were moving in a better direction – former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang and met with the leadership, the US agreed to provide two light-water nuclear reactors to meet the energy needs of the North, and South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung visited Pyongyang in 2000 for the historic inter-Korean summit.Some analysts say that the new leader Kim Jong-un is differentiating the style of his regime from that of his father and grandfather to claim authority among the elite generals and to consolidate his power. Is this what is happening?
Things were notably optimistic at that time, but when Bush came to power and declared Pyongyang a member of the Axis of Evil, he infuriated the Koreans and it soon became evident that North Korea could no longer rely on its strategy of seeking security assurances and better relations with the US. Since that time, the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been the number one priority because they believe no foreign powers would dare invade a nuclear-capable state. The root objective under their nuclear rhetoric is to scare the world into fearing a conflict with the North so as to protect the regime from being toppled. Also, in the current scenario, Kim Jong-un is keen to consolidate power and solidify his image as a capable and tough leader. There are many reasons why the North is pushing so hard at the moment, but the core reason is to keep the world on its toes and to secure food aid and concessions once it tones down its rhetoric.
It must be acknowledged that the current scenario is where it is today because of a fundamental failure of US policy in the Korean peninsula. I think its also worth noting that North Korea is less interested in peace with the United States, it has seen how the US turned on Muammar Gaddafi after he agreed to denuclearize and seek normal relations – they witnessed the destruction of Iraq and today it sees US policy in Syria and the way Iran is treated. It has much less faith and trust in the United States than it did during the Clinton administration, and thus, we see the kind of muscle flexing so characteristic of Kim Jong-un’s young regime. I can’t imagine that Pyongyang would behave any differently unless the United States drastically changed its approach.
Its definitely true for the upper echelons of leadership in North Korea that having the backing of military generals is crucial to maintain power and authority. When Kim Jong-il took the helm, he realized that keeping the military happy was key to maintaining his authority, so as to quell the possibility of an ambitious general staging a military coup while Kim was in ill health, etc. Kim Jong-il introduced ‘Songun’ Policy, which is a military-first policy that gave members of the army preferential treatment in rations and there is no doubt that hardline generals also exercised more authority than ever before. Its clear to seasoned observers that Kim Jong-un is ultimately a figurehead and that the elite generals are making much of the tough decisions.How serious are the war drums from Pyonyang? Does Kim Jong-un really plan to attack South Korea and throw East Asia into chaos?
Kim Jong-un is only 28 and its clear that he does not possess all the knowledge needed to govern the country, so I believe his advisers are governing through him. Kim is important because of his hereditary credentials – he is the grandson of the great leaders and North Koreans are told that he is the modern incarnation of Kim il-Sung, his grandfather and founder of North Korea. If anything, the ruling elite is more satisfied under Kim Jong-un because they exert more control than before. Any military coup is highly unlikely and it would ultimately fail because the population identifies with the Kim dynasty and reveres them in a religious way, much like how citizens of Imperial Japan worshipped Emperor Hirohito. Much of the old guard is indeed elderly, and once they die off, Kim will be left to his own devices. That will be the make or break period for Kim where he will either mismanage the country and bring out its collapse or invasion, or pursue cautious reforms. The stakes are much higher in that kind of scenario and it's a bit scary to think about.
I think the purpose of much of this rhetoric is simply to intimidate the South and US into not striking Pyongyang first. South Korea recently elected Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the former military dictator Park Chung-hee, and I think the North is definitely testing her. Her administration appears to be increasingly out of touch with the situation; she has more or less insisted that North Korea’s denuclearization is a prerequisite for dialogue and the normalization of relations. She can’t expect the North to commit political suicide by disarming; they would never do such a thing. As far as the North is concerned, they will probably not preemptively strike the South because they fear being militarily defeated by joint US-ROK forces, but they would definitely attack in retaliation or if they are provoked to such an extent. Pentagon estimates claim that over one million civilian casualties could perish in the first twenty-four hours of a new Korean war. The stakes are really too high for any one side to be provoking the other. The US-ROK understand why the North is behaving this way, and still they refuse to play from different sheet music, contributing to more instability – this is rooted in national pride and not wanting to look weak. The lack of dialogue and the positions of all sides are absolutely silly, reckless and counterproductive.
You have visited North Korea yourself. What is your impression about the country, the people and the political elite?
One of my part-time jobs is with a tourism agency in Malaysia that specializes in exotic locations, so I focus on sending people to North Korea. I have visited the country several times in the capacity of a tourist and it is a very special destination. Socialism collapsed shortly after I was born, so going to North Korea is very much like walking through the pages of history in some way. Central planning is evident in everything. You walk down sweeping boulevards filled with monuments and statues embodying the state mythology, you can hear speakers playing revolutionary songs and propaganda messages, you can see brigades of young people in Mao-jackets carrying party flags, you pass-by shop windows that sell products of an era long past; traveling there really gives one the feeling of being in a different time. I haven’t been as lucky as Dennis Rodman when it comes to mingling with the political elite, but I have been fortunate enough to establish some meaningful people-to-people connections with North Korean civilians, most of whom are humored by my poor Korean language skills, quirky antics, and unquenchable appetite for kimchi and rice wine.Russian and Chinese analysts have accused the US of adding fuel to the fire in the way they approach North Korea. What do you make of this?
The people there are very pure and unspoiled – they have no idea about the Internet, pop culture, consumerism, and what have you. North Korean people have been kept in an intellectual bubble since the 1950s and they are initially a little standoffish among foreigners from the onset, but they are genuinely very gentle and conservative people and if you have the basic ability to communicate with them in their language, you’ll get nothing but big smiles from them and they will soon become very interested in you. North Koreans are highly communal people; I visited Pyongyang in December 2012 and what looked like the entire civilian population were on the streets manually clearing snow and ice from the roads with crude tools, even up and down large stretches of highway. Although North Koreans are not exposed to the outside world, they are highly skilled and intelligent; many of them speak numerous languages and play several musical instruments with incredible skill and they share a passion for studying, music and education with their Southern brethren. They possess admirable levels of personal discipline. I’ve met so many beautiful people in that country and it would be such a deep tragedy if their lives were destroyed in this conflict.
Washington’s recent deployment of two nuclear-capable US B-2 stealth bombers to South Korea illustrates everything that is wrong with US policy toward the North. There is no doubt that both Beijing and Moscow are deeply unhappy with the ceaseless annual war-games that the US and South Korea carry out on North Korea’s doorstep. These moves increase tensions, raise antagonisms and in the case of the B-2 flyover, it in fact legitimizes Pyongyang’s rhetoric of the US coaxing nuclear war on the peninsula. The majority of the world is calling for a dialogue-based approach to this conflict, and the political left in South Korea is calling for a revival of the Sunshine policy; they want to see reestablished inter-Korean tourism projects and economic cooperation, in addition to expanding the joint industrial zones and the opening of new Special Economic Zones. There are a number of approaches in which the South and US can approach the North that would be mutually beneficial for all parties, but at the moment, they are unwilling to do so.Who benefits from the crisis on the Korean peninsula?
At the moment, the biggest beneficiary is the US military industrial complex and the defense industry. It’s more obvious than ever that the US policy toward North Korea is really designed to preserve the situation as best it can without having it topple over into war. Obama’s administration is interested in pivoting its military muscle to the Asia-Pacific region, a part of the world that is relatively peaceful in contrast to Africa and the Middle East. North Korea is the regional madman, and having such a country – one that is all bark and very little bite – is extremely useful for the Pentagon. The regime in North Korea legitimizes American presence in South Korea and Japan, and gives the US a strong pretext to increase its military muscle on China’s doorstep – as long as the situation doesn't deteriorate and force Washington into an ugly war it doesn't want to fight, the US will continue to manipulate the North Korean threat to suit their objectives. I believe South Korea is interested in reconciliation, but the current administration is unwilling to think out of the box. To their credit, North Korea’s rhetoric has made it very politically difficult for Park Geun-hye to take a soft-line on North Korea without alienating her main conservative support base. The South moves firmly in step with the United States and there is little indication that they will embark on any meaningful shift in foreign policy anytime soon. If the Obama administration is not careful, it will provoke Pyongyang into doing something rash and by then, it will already be too late to rectify the situation.Nile Bowie is an independent political analyst and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He has travelled North and South Korea extensively and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org