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Power struggle in North Korea

June 5, 2009

Despite speculation in the Western media about recent developments in the DPRK — in particular the nuclear test announced by the North Korean government on May 25 —we know little of what goes on in the leadership of the country. The information we get is unreliable and we hear little from the North Korean side.

Recent conversations with experts who have some direct access to the discussions in the DPRK leadership suggest that the power centers in the country may be more fractured than most of us realize, and that this may actually increase the dangers in an already dangerous region.

There is an ongoing fight between the military leaders and certain politicians and diplomats, especially those in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During the past year, the military has, in general, made the decisions regarding foreign policy. Yet these same military leaders have little information, experience, or understanding of the world outside the DPRK. They not only believe they can win a war against South Korea, but they even talk of the need for a war against the “archenemy” Japan.

Many politicians in Pyongyang, we are told, understand and regret that recent actions by the DPRK have contributed to an increased tension in the area. Their influence in relation to an unyielding military, however, may be too slight to fend off war in response to a mistake or a provocation.

Little is known — inside or outside the DPRK — about the health and status of President Kim Jong-Il, and the recent naming of his successor has only fueled speculation.

During the Korean conflict in the 1950s, US General Douglas MacArthur threatened to use nuclear weapons against the North. Korean prisoners of war who had experienced the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came back telling of this terrifying weapon. North Koreans say these two facts spurred Kim Il Sung to start a nuclear weapons program .

The DPRK chose to build a plutonium bomb. This fitted with the concept of “self-reliance” in the Juche philosophy of Kim Il Sung. The research reactor in Yongbyon, after some initial assistance from the Soviet Union, was built and run without foreign help. Enough plutonium has reportedly been extracted for four to eight charges.

Building a plutonium bomb, however, is difficult. The first DPRK test, conducted in October 2006 after decades of work, was essentially a dud, with a yield of less than one kiloton. The second test explosion, on May 25, 2009 (Memorial Day in the US) seems to have worked perfectly. While the first test was publicized in advance, no notice was given before the second test; had it failed, we may never have known.

We do not know how many bombs are in the DPRK’s arsenal (though the number must be quite small) or whether they would detonate as intended. That the North has no reliable missiles able to carry these warheads to Japan or further does not matter. The bombs are political weapons intended to deter a possible aggressor, and they give more confidence to the military. As long as the DPRK generals believe that the US and the South Korean generals believe that the bombs may work, that is enough. The successful nuclear weapons test has, therefore, also achieved its second objective — to strengthen the influence of the generals in Pyongyang.

Negotiations regarding the nuclear program have been going on — or on and off — for at least 15 years. They have brought status to the DPRK and its leader, domestically and abroad. They have been used to extort oil and rice, and have been interrupted whenever the DPRK has felt that its negotiating partners — particularly the US — have not kept their part of the agreements. Inclusion by the Bush administration in the “axis of evil” stopped the cooperation for some time.

President Obama offered North Korea a fresh start. Soon after the beginning of his presidency, however, there was a very large military exercise in South Korea with US forces in mighty display. The DPRK protested, then tested a missile. The UN Security Council condemned the test and threatened more sanctions. North Korea, in turn, threatened that sanctions would lead to a strong reaction from Pyongyang. Pyongyang asked why the DPRK had been singled out and prohibited from launching a satellite.

The Security Council condemned the May 25 test and added new sanctions. South Korea joined the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and signaled its intention  to board DPRK ships on international waters if it suspects that the ship might contain “weapons of mass destruction.” (An incident in the disputed waters along the 38th parallel, where military actions have occurred in the past, may be more likely.) The North predictably declared that such an action by the South would constitute an infraction of the Armistice Agreement and would be an act of war. Less predictably, the DPRK declared the Armistice void! They have tested more missiles and are preparing a test of a long-range missile.

Why, we asked the experts, has the DPRK taken this road rather than accept the invitation from President Obama to bilateral negotiations?  The military exercise was a holdover from the previous administration;  the Security Council sanctions could have been negotiated away. Instead you have chosen a road that leads to increased tension, and an increased risk of war.

According to our sources, many politicians in the DPRK, particularly in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wanted to resume negotiations, but the military leaders — arguing that negotiations had failed time and again and that only military strength counts — prevailed.  They believe that the South does not want a conflict and could not handle millions of refugees; and that with nuclear weapons as a deterrent, the USA and South Korea will go out of their way to avoid a serious confrontation..

The generals say (and believe!) they can win a war. They have talked of their invincible forces for so long that they have come to believe their own words. The situation is very tense and dangerous. Generals who believe they are invincible are always dangerous. They might decide to provoke an incident to show their strength, and maybe impress the “Dear Leader.”

US and South Korean politicians and military leaders should tread cautiously.

  1. xanthehall permalink
    June 11, 2009 10:20 am

    Without wanting to add to Ken’s suspician that we are a Communist front organisation or to justify North Korea’sparanoia and aggressive behaviour in any way, one should look at their history and try to understand their perceptions in order to find a way of resolving the present crisis.

    More napalm was dropped on the DPRK during the short Korean War (1950-1953) than on North Vietnam. Incendiary blanket bombing on the DPRK resembled the US air attacks on Japan in the closing phase of the Second World War. Millions of civilians were killed and most cities destroyed in just three years. Professor Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago writes:
    “In a major strike on the industrial city of Hungnam on 31 July 1950, 500 tons of ordnance was delivered through clouds by radar; the flames rose 200-300 feet into the air. The air force dropped 625 tons of bombs over North Korea on 12 August, a tonnage that would have required a fleet of 250 B-17s in the second world war. By late August B-29 formations were dropping 800 tons a day on the North. Much of it was pure napalm. From June to late October 1950, B-29s unloaded 866,914 gallons of napalm.”

    North Korea was threatened during the Korean war by US President Truman with a nuclear attack . Remember, Truman is the only man in history to have ordered the actual use of nuclear weapons, so the threat was credible. The Koreans already had first-hand experience of what that meant because many had witnessed the bombing of Hiroshima as Japanese prisoners of war. Macarthur stated in interviews later that we was prepared to use 30 atomic bombs to win the war. On March 10, 1951, Macarthur asked for a “D-Day atomic capability”. This was the closest the US came to a nuclear attack.

    The Korean war was ended through a truce in 1953. South Korea never signed the armistice and there was no peace treaty, leaving North Korea in the position of believing that the war was only suspended. The DPRK has consistently called for a peace agreement to end the Korean war, but this has still not yet come about.

    Hundreds of US nuclear weapons were based in South Korea and targetted on North Korea from 1958 to 1991. The US openly continues to speak of “extended deterrence” and a “nuclear umbrella” for South Korea and Japan as their allies, so that North Korea has been led to believe that the US is still prepared to attack them with nuclear weapons.

    The United States has a policy of first strike and President Bush named North Korea as one of an “axis of evil” in 2001. In 2003, he declared war on Iraq after trumping up a litany of false evidence against the dictator Saddam Hussein, who was captured and put to death. North Korea is also named as one of the countries that is targetted with US nuclear weapons in the last Nuclear Posture Review, and is consistently referred to as a “rogue state”. Up until June 2008, it was on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism.

    Now of course, North Korea has also behaved badly and is a state that none of us would willingly choose to live in, given its human rights and starvation record. It is a dictatorship and should be therefore held in contempt as such. But constantly threatening a paranoid dictator is simply a very bad idea. Look at Stalin. Just about every single person that didn’t look him in the eye got shot for looking shifty.

    The point I am making here is that, from Kim Jong Il’s and the more radical elements in North Korea’s point of view, it made sense to develop nuclear weapons. Even if they did not intend to use them, they could be used to force the US and their allies to treat them with more respect. And the minute they began to feel that that respect was lessening, because they were disarming, the military hawks won the day, tested another nuclear weapon and shot up a few more missiles to put the fear of God into Japan and South Korea.

    We don’t need yet another UN Security Council resolution condemning the DPRK, we need to make peace with them.

  2. June 5, 2009 2:19 pm

    Ken, did you even read this piece? It’s entirely about how bad the situation is inside North Korea right now, and says nothing critical about US policy other than one incidental remark that the DPRK objected to being included by Bush in the “axis of evil” which is…well…just a fact. Dr. Westberg (a Swede, by the way, who is very fond of the US) even suggests that the DPRK overreacted to a military exercise that had been long planned by the previous US administration. How about commenting on the piece that was actually written, instead of just ranting?

    You’re right about one thing: we renounce all nuclear weapons. All of them. That includes the ones North Korea has. Our solution is not unilateral disarmament — a myth the right loves to perpetuate along with the whole “communist front” canard — but a Nuclear Weapons Convention that would require everyone who has them to eliminate them at the same time. The only US example we hope for is a willingness to get those negotiations started.

  3. ken permalink
    June 5, 2009 12:53 pm

    No comment on the reported sinking by russia of the chinese ship leaving north korea on a 12 hr chase, then sinking by hundreds of shells and maybe finally torpedo? Wonder what the cargo was and the destination? North Korea involvement in both reported nuclear and biological/chemical weapons in the mid-east (syria/iran) might also be worthy of notice. Not by you fools, though.

    Your slant of blaming the US for lack of ??? (since it’s the US, it has to be our fault) merely reinforces your reputation as a communist front organization. Perhaps you can join hands with Obama and Kim, sing Kum Bye Ah and renounce all nuclear weapons, let’s be first to destroy them all. After all, Russia and China have no history of aggression, and will surely follow our example.


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