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Update No: 116 - (26/03/13)

North Korea: Ever wilder words – and a deed?
Tensions on the Korean peninsula grew further in March, relentlessly stoked by the North. Pyongyang is no stranger to fierce rhetoric, but this time it seems to have burst all bounds – including explicit threats of pre-emptive nuclear strikes on all and sundry: the US, South Korea and Japan. Obviously that will not happen, but the sheer ferocity and intensity are unsettling. The US magazine Foreign Policy provides a helpful detailed list, with links, at

At the same time North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un was reported making numerous tours to front-line military units. These can be followed on the official, or in the useful summaries (the photos are revealing) at

In the past such bellicose episodes were usually calculated, but this one seems to lack either a convincing cause or any clear purpose. Like the North’s ever more frenzied media attacks a year ago on South Korea’s then president Lee Myung-bak, including grisly cartoons of him as a rat being violently done to death – see NewNations’ updates for April and May 2012 – the sense one has is of raving out of control; or perhaps a nasty, silly juvenile shooting his mouth off. The rat insults stopped eventually; no doubt this wider wildness will do as well.

Two unpersuasive pretexts
Meanwhile our job is to parse it for any trace of meaning. North Korea gives two pretexts for its anger at this time; neither adds up. One is what it claims to regard as a US-orchestrated witch-hunt by the UN Security Council. The UNSC has indeed been on the DPRK’s case of late: issuing two resolutions in quick succession, each tightening already existing sanctions. As noted in last month’s update, UNSCR 2087 of 22 January 2013 condemned December’s rocket launch and extended sanctions to six further organisations and four individuals. Hard on its heels, UNSCR 2094 (7 March 2013), in response to 12 February’s nuclear test, further tightened what is in fact quite a loose noose, with more monitoring of cargoes, diplomats and banks (especially bulk cash transfers). Banned luxury items were itemised for the first time.

In claiming persecution, North Korea has the causality back to front. If Kim Jong-un is too ignorant to know (which is doubtful: such righteous indignation should not for a moment be taken at face value), experienced diplomats and nuclear negotiators among his advisers such as Kim Kye-gwan or Kang Sok-ju could instruct him. If you test either a nuclear bomb or a long-range missile, even if the latter comes in dual-use disguise as a satellite launch, then the UN is going to condemn and sanction you, as surely as night follows day. Moreover, these like all previous UNSC sanctions condemning North Korea were unanimous. Neither China nor Russia, both of which still fight the DPRK’s corner in limiting the scope of sanctions to matters weapons-related (the US and its allies would want them wider), will appreciate being dismissed as puppets who dance to Washington’s tune. Pyongyang doth protest too much.

Its second pretext is no more persuasive. Each year at this time the US and South Korea hold two joint war games: Foal Eagle, a large field training exercise throughout March and April; and Key Resolve, a shorter computer simulation which this year ran from 11-21 March. Both are regular annual events, which the allies insist are defensive in nature. The UN Command duly notifies the North’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) of the dates. Yet every year without fail Pyongyang claims that this is a rehearsal for invasion, or even the real thing. It did the same with Foal Eagle’s predecessor Team Spirit, held from 1976-1993. Of course the KPA conducts its own war games too, without allies and without informing the other side.

Team Spirit was, and Foal Eagle is, one of the world’s largest military exercises, mobilising some 200,000 troops. One can argue the political pros and cons. There have been years, such as 1994-96, when Team Spirit was suspended in hopes of inducing the DPRK into a peace process. Still, North Korea had no reason to fear anything unusual this time; at least until its own shrill threats elicited a response. US press reports claimed that B-52 bombers, which were part of Foal Eagle in any case, had simulated practice nuclear strikes on North Korea

Tearing up agreements
This time Pyongyang’s fiercer than usual reaction included specific threats to abrogate both the Armistice which ended the 1950-53 Korean War (there was never a peace treaty) and inter-Korean non-aggression pacts. Not a few outside media got these two muddled up. In fact South Korea never signed the Armistice, since its then President Syngman Rhee, ever a thorn in the flesh of his US ally, was all for continuing the war. The North has since made propaganda use of this, arguing when it suits it that Seoul has no place in peace discussions which are a bilateral matter between the DPRK and US (note the elision of China too here).

North Korea long ago sabotaged some of the Armistice’s key institutions, like the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC). When Poland and Czechoslovakia ceased to be communist, Pyongyang expelled their delegations – while denying entry to the Swedes and Swiss, the other two member states. (All four are meant to be able to move freely across the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), as indeed they used to, uniquely.) Pyongyang has also abjured the Armistice as such before, several times. Yet legally this is meaningless. The pact was duly signed, and it is simply not open to one party to walk away and repudiate it.

What inter-Korean treaties, then, is Pyongyang ripping up? It named none, so this is unclear. 1991’s Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression and Cooperation and Exchange seems a likely candidate, but that was never implemented. A Joint Declaration on Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula followed in 1992, but already in May 2003 the North called this a “dead letter” – while in practice systematically breaking it, including by three nuclear tests.

Then there are the joint statements issued at the two North-South summits in 2000 and 2007. But the North values these and accuses the South of breaching them, so that seems unlikely.

One hot line cut, but two more remain
Another threat was to cut the North-South hotline at the border village of Panmunjom. But this too was unclear, for there is more than one. What North said it would cut, and did so on March 11, is a civilian Red Cross phone link. That still leaves at least two further lines. The Red Cross one is specifically inter-Korean and newer, but the Armistice system has long had its own separate channels of communication. The US/UN side tests the line daily, but press reports in mid-March said the North had not been answering – but that this was not unusual. Meanwhile the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential office, revealed on March 13 that a separate North-South military hotline remained open. Hopefully this revelation did not pique Pyongyang into pulling that plug as well. But there may well exist yet other secret hotlines.

In yet another case of media muddle, some initial reports said that the North had closed the main border crossing point. That is a misdescription of Panmunjom, where nobody crosses. However, slightly further west at Dorasan hundreds of South Koreans cross the once-sealed DMZ every day: commuting to a joint venture industrial park near the ancient capital city of Kaesong, close to the border, to supervise 55,000 Northern workers making goods for 123 Southern (mainly small) companies. At this writing the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) continues to operate normally, as it has done before despite political tensions. For a canary in the mine – so to say – to monitor the real risk on the peninsula, the KIC is the place to watch.

Might barking dogs bite?
Despite all this war talk, the old adage about sticks and stones applies; or does it? On March 11 Yonhap, South Korea’s semi-official news agency, quoted an unnamed defence ministry spokesman as saying: “Barking dogs don’t bite”. As a generalisation that seemed doubtful, even before an event on March 20 gave pause for thought. At 2pm local time, three major ROK broadcasters and the same number of banks were hit by a cyber-attack which knocked out some 32,000 computers and servers in total. The damage was serious, though not lasting.

Nothing has yet been proven. Korea Communications Commission (KCC) – whose future has recently been a political football in Seoul, which can’t have helped – hastily identified an internet protocol (IP) address in China as the source; only to have to admit embarrassingly that it was actually domestic. Either way the suspicion is that the ultimate source was North Korea, which in the past has used both Chinese IP addresses and agents in the South. Seoul is sure the North was behind several previous cyber-attacks, which are cheap and deniable.

In so heated an atmosphere, a regime one of whose websites features a video of a three-day scenario to unify the South by all-out attack (see , with translation below) would hardly scruple to take down a few computers.

Let us grasp for hope amid the gloom. In South Korea a new President, Park Geun-hye, took office on February 25. Her oft-expressed hopes of building ‘trustpolitik’ with the North may be on hold for the time being, but she appointed the architect of that policy – Ryoo Kihl-jae, an academic – as her minister for unification. Despite the current tension, Ryoo was quick to reiterate his hope of resuming humanitarian aid to the North in due course. Making his first visit as minister to Panmunjom on March 22, he also visited the border crossing at Dorasan and stressed its important role in building trust with the North. This is a very different note from the Lee Myung-bak era, though the same conservative Saenuri party remains in power.

Parts of the Seoul press criticised Ryoo’s language and timing as signalling weakness. But surely keeping calm, emphasising goodwill and taking a long-term view is a better idea than just countering the North’s threats with more threats. Vigilance is of course essential, but at some point Pyongyang will stop shrieking. The hope must be that it will then start listening.


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