By Alexander Mercouris
One of the difficulties in discussing North Korea is that knowledge of the so-called ‘hermit kingdom’ is so limited.
No Western leader has ever met with Kim Jong-un, and nor at the highest level have the Chinese and Russian leaderships. There is scarcely any knowledge of the institutional frame-work within which he works. We do not know who his top advisers are and how he consults them. We do not know how well-informed he is about the world or even about North Korea itself. We do not know how intelligent he is, or if there is any institution like a Politburo or a cabinet or a Security Council which he consults. We do not know what his exact relationship with his top civilian and military officials is.
The West’s extraordinary ignorance of the most basic facts about North Korea is shown by the fact that there is even uncertainty about the identity of the institution or institutions which control North Korea’s secret police.
Consider for example these astonishing comments in the Wikipedia article on the subject:
Some defectors and sources have suggested that unlike its Eastern Bloc Counterparts, State Security functions are actually conducted by several larger and different security bodies that operate under the Party or the Army, each with its own unique responsibilities and classified names that are referred to by code (i.e. Room 39), and that the Agency is little more than a hollow shell used by the elite to coordinate their activities and provide cover for them…..
It is clear however that the North Korean government, however it is organised, is efficient or at least effective, that it is in complete control of the country, and that it both makes decisions regularly and is able to enforce them across the whole country.
Just as we know next to nothing about North Korea’s government, we are similarly profoundly ill-informed about North Korea’s economy.
North Korea’s success in pursuing a ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme shows North Korea must have a significant industrial and technology base, which must encompass fields like advanced chemistry and nuclear physics. North Korea’s success in making its own smart phones and tablets and in developing its own apparently extensive intranet (the “Kwangmyong“) suggests it must have a reasonably sophisticated computer and IT industry it can draw upon. Pictures of Pyongyang, which appear from time to time in the Western media, show it to be a highly modern even futuristic city, a significant fact in itself even if Pyongyang is a show-case which is not representative of the whole country.
Nonetheless despite these obvious signs of industrial and technological strength and modernity there remains a widespread view that North Korea is a primitive basket-case of a country, with its people struggling in conditions barely above subsistence.
Frankly that doesn’t seem fully consistent with the known facts.
Lastly, we remain supremely ignorant of North Korea’s actual military capabilities. Though North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests no-one outside North Korea knows how many nuclear weapons it has, or whether it possesses the means to deliver those nuclear weapons it does have.
However despite our ignorance what we know about North Korea shows that however bizarre and outlandish North Korea may appear to us to be, it is a functioning state with a real government, not a cartoon country, and the decisions it makes must therefore have some purpose to them.
What purpose then does the North Korean nuclear weapons programme have?
An obvious starting point in any discussion of this issue ought to be what the North Korean government itself says.
There is a difficulty here because the political language North Korea uses comes across to a foreign ear as so rhetorically inflated and bombastic that it is sometimes difficult to take it seriously. However this commentary in Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of North Korea’s Workers Party, explains the motivation behind North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme clearly enough:
Recently, the U.S. representative to the UN, faulting the DPRK’s just measure for bolstering the nuclear deterrence, said that it may pose threat to the U.S. and several other countries and that “countries doing bad acts” like the DPRK would not sign the convention on banning nuclear weapons nor would be willing to implement it.
(bold italics added)
In other words North Korea decided to acquire nuclear weapons not out of some fanatical desire to attack the US, or because it wants to use its nuclear weapons to conquer South Korea or to hold the entire world hostage – all of them suicidal acts of no conceivable benefit to itself – but because it feels threatened by the US.
This is both clear and logical and is in line with what is known of the recent historical record.
Before the 1990s North Korea – because of its alliance with the USSR – was able to maintain a rough parity in its conventional military forces against those of South Korea. It also had a security guarantee from the USSR to prevent it being attacked by the US.
After the USSR collapsed North Korea lost its former superpower ally, losing access to sophisticated equipment for its army, and also losing the Soviet guarantee against attack by the US.
As a result North Korea’s army, though large and – apparently – highly motivated and disciplined, has stagnated technologically, and has fallen ever farther behind that of South Korea, which now has a significant conventional military superiority over it. This has happened at exactly the same time that North Korea has felt increasingly exposed to possible attack by the US.
As to the last, in the 1990s – at a time when North Korea was struggling with an existential economic crisis caused by the cut-off of Soviet aid – the US openly gloated that the North Korean regime was about to collapse, and in the late 1990s it also embraced a policy of regime change around the world, which was first and foremost targeted at a group of countries lumped together by the George W. Bush administration as the so-called “Axis of Evil” which included North Korea.
It is completely understandable therefore that the North Korean government felt threatened by the US, and that in the absence of a reliable superpower protector like the USSR it should have sought to protect itself from the US and South Korea by developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.
The commentary in the Rodong Sinmun which I have just quoted therefore makes complete sense, and since it makes sense, it is almost certainly the truth.
What this means is that it is the US, not North Korea, whose actions are propelling the crisis in the Korean Peninsula.
What that means in turn is that the approach proposed by China – an ending of US joint exercises with South Korea in return for a suspension of further North Korean nuclear tests – also makes complete sense.
If North Korea were to cease feeling threatened by the US it would have no further reason to continue with its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme. At that point it would refocus its energies towards developing its economy, whilst possibly also working towards some sort of long term reconciliation with South Korea, presumably relying on the help of the two great regional powers traditionally allied to it: China and Russia.
This is not a guess. Some years ago, when tensions in the Korean Peninsula appeared to have gone into remission, North Korean officials toured Beijing and Moscow to talk up prospects of a $180 billion programme to refurbish North Korea’s economic infrastructure. There was also talk at about that time of road and rail links and a gas pipeline being built to link South Korea to Russia and China via North Korea. There was even talk of road and rail links being built from South Korea and extending across North Korea, China and Russia all the way to western Europe.
If tensions in the Korean Peninsula were to end these projects would doubtless be revived, in which case it is not inconceivable that despite all the eccentricities of its political system North Korea, with its educated and disciplined workforce and its obviously significant industrial and technology base, would boom.
Indeed it is surely not inconceivable that it was precisely in order to prevent these things happening and to stop Russia, China and the two Koreas linking up together that tensions in the Korean Peninsula were revived and cranked up so spectacularly in the first place.
None of this is to suggest that the situation in the Korean Peninsula is not potentially extremely dangerous. Another commentary in Rodong Sinmun makes it clear that North Korea is prepared to retaliate with nuclear weapons if there is a US or South Korean military strike against itself, and given North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons that threat has to be taken seriously, even if no one outside North Korea knows how large or effective the North Korean nuclear arsenal is.
However since North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme is intended to be defensive and is not intended as a means of aggression, there is no cause or justification for the current hysteria and panic about it. Provided North Korea is left alone there is no danger of an attack by North Korea on anyone.
Since North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme is defensive, a political settlement of the Korean crisis should in theory also be possible. I have already discussed the outline of what such a settlement might be.
Given that it is fear of the US which is driving the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme, it is also obvious what the first step to defuse the Korean crisis should be.
This should not be more threats against North Korea, which can only make the crisis worse. It should be an immediate start of a dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang as proposed by China following upon a suspension of the joint military exercises the US conducts regularly with South Korea.
Since the US would not want to appear to accept the linkage between these exercises and the North Korean nuclear programme that the Chinese and the Russians – because of the US’s own ham-fisted actions – are now making, it should announce their suspension unilaterally, relying on the Chinese and the Russians to ensure that the North Koreans suspend their nuclear tests in response, which they would almost certainly do.
Direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang could then follow, in which case a way might finally be found out of a crisis, which because of thoughtlessness and bombast, first and foremost in Washington, has over many years been driven into a dangerous impasse.
This article was originally published at The Duran.