Tuesday, August 16, 2011


From the most recent fizzled flashpoint in November 2010.
It is once again the most wonderful time of the year:
The US and South Korea have begun a joint military drill to improve combat readiness on the Korean peninsula.  The annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise brings together 530,000 forces in Korea and abroad, using computer programmes to simulate war situations.  North Korea has reacted furiously to the exercises, which run for 10 days.
For the uninitiated, this happens every year in August or September and has for decades, although the name of the exercise has changed.  Every year, South Korea and the United States perform large-scale exercises.  Every year, North Korea responds like a seven-year-old would.  Is this year any different, or is there something else here?

The North Korea situation is in fact quite complicated at the moment.  No one is really a hundred percent sure what North Korea's leadership situation actually is right now, for starters.  Kim Jong-il might still have a lot of influence, or he may not.  Kim Jong-un, his son, might already have de facto control, or he may not - all we know for sure is he is probably the chosen successor.  

Things are tense in North Korea right now.  The economic and food situation is frighteningly bad.  Flooding and other environmental disasters have murdered an already-crippled agricultural industry, and North Korea simply doesn't have much else to hang its hat on.  In fact, they might not even have hats.  They have tried in recent years to generate a significant tourism economy, interestingly.  It isn't the move you'd expect from a closed society like theirs.  It also isn't working, because, let's face it - given the choice to travel to most places, where are you really going to decide to go?
Honey, I like my vacations to be somewhere with electricity, okay?
Inter-Korean tensions are a problem too.  The two states exchanged artillery fire in November near a disputed island, and March 2010 saw the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, a South Korean warship.  While neither of these incidents have turned out to be the flashpoint many fear, it is still worrisome.

It isn't all bad news, of course.  North Korea wants to rejoin the six-party talks regarding its nuclear program, which is a good thing.  And they haven't broken the world yet.  They are, however, still a nuclear-capable state with high profile territorial and diplomatic disputes, and need to be watched to some extent.

So are things different this time?  Is this the year where our annual exercise lights the match that burns up to war?  Probably not.  North Korea is in a fairly fragile position given the recent famines.  But presenting a threat has worked fairly well for them - or at least for the regime - for quite some time, so they will continue to do so as long as it is to their advantage.  Kim Jong-il is not truly crazy, more than likely; his apparent insanity makes him seem less frightening and allows him to get away with things.

Also, on the matter of keeping the peace, the cult of personality Kim Jong-il (and his father before him) has built helps.  He is smart enough to know that outright war would result in outright annihilation.  He and his line would lose power.  The statues, murals, paintings, all of the glorious monuments to his reign would disappear.  That is something it seems he is very unwilling to risk.

Fear not, then.  It is summer, and North Korea is pitching a fit.  Really, nothing is out of the ordinary.  But it's always a good idea to keep tabs on them...just in case.

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