Pyongyang’s Quandary

Image courtesy: KCNA

The provocative rhetoric coming from North Korea could hide a faint sense of desperation.


By Gulshan Roy, 3rd April, 2013

On Saturday 30th March, a statement released by the highest North Korean command warned that it was entering “a state of war” with its feuding southern neighbour. As Koreans on both sides watched the unfolding drama being broadcast on every major international television news channel, Mr Kim Jong-un managed to conjure an even more spectacular artifice by releasing photographs of him discussing with his senior commanders under the backdrop of a ‘Plan to Hit the U.S Mainland’ written in bold. News channels are not often presented with opportunities for such great TV. Yet, Mr Kim’s moment of teeth-showing turned into bathos once it reached its intended audience: instead of injecting any sense of panic on the other side of the Pacific, the images received in Washington were swiftly turned into material fit for some banter over bourbon.

The escalation of tensions between North Korea and the Seoul-Washington axis tends to occur each time the South elects a new chief of government. So when Madame Park Geun-hye was recently inaugurated South Korea’s new president, the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) ensured that tradition was duly respected. Furthermore, the situation was not helped by the fact that her inauguration came just before the annual US- South Korea joint military exercise which also triggers the North’s fuming fits.

President Obama’s administration would have half-expected this flourish from the hermit kingdom. Since the scenes showing the overzealous emotion with which North-Koreans wept over the death of the ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-il, his son has had to work out a way of asserting himself as the new Supreme Leader, one that would at least emulate the isolationist achievements of his lineage. In other words, he has needed a way of rallying his people behind him. Mr Kim (Junior) did not need to seek the counsel of Iran’s president to understand that the most effective way to achieve that aim was to openly display some petulance towards everybody’s favourite old foe- the United States. By showing some verbal muscle this weekend, he might think his ploy will pay dividends at home but he has in fact taken an unnecessary gamble, for the last vestiges supporting his regime outside his half of the peninsula are beginning to disappear.

After the United Nations brokered an armistice between the two halves of Korea in 1953, the South rested on firm U.S support. In the decades that followed, it adopted a model of economic growth that favoured trade and openness to foreign investment, penetrating notoriously impervious markets with aplomb (the automobile industry for instance). Seoul’s diplomats quickly mastered international geo-political subtleties through its economic success and its show of good faith towards the said universal values enshrined in the UN Charter.

In contrast, its neighbour made of isolationism its leitmotif, with the exception of the relations it cultivated with its allies of the communist bloc. Mr Kim Junior’s father in particular had carefully woven a close tie with Beijing over the years. After the fall of the Soviet bloc, and more recently in 2002 since it began having nuclear aspirations (earning itself a place in Monsieur George Bush Junior’s ‘Axis of Evil’- Star Wars stuff), North Korea has had to increasingly rely on Chinese support to the point that it would today crumble without it: 32% of its population is undernourished and its per capita GDP is at par with some of the lowest in the world. Without China as its éminence grise, the Pyongyang model would end in tragedy, highlighting why Mr Kim Junior may have committed a blunder by affording himself a little too much wit.

In an article in the East Asia Forum, Professor Kia Qingguo of the School of International Studies, Peking University, argues that there are several reasons why China might be tempted to unplug its life-saving drip to its long-term protégé. Until now, Beijing’s policy has been to find a delicate balancing act between North Korea’s denuclearization (as no one enjoys the sight of a nuke in the neighbour’s backyard) and its stability (as Pyongyang’s collapse would lead to a considerable influx of refugees coming into Chinese territory), while ensuring that its relationship with a state with a 1.2million-strong army remains a serene one. Until now, the emphasis for Beijing had been on North Korea’s stability but the tables have turned. The inauguration of China’s new president Xi Jinping marks a radical departure from its traditional Pyongyang policy, as the North Korean Ambassador would best know, having received a stern telling-off from the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi following the most recent nuclear test coming from the peninsula.

Yet, China’s fading support for Kim Jong-un is by no means the main reason behind America’s humorous reception of his masquerade. On 28th March, after North Korea had cut off its hotline with the South, the United States conducted air drills with stealth B-2 bombers on a close-by island stating they could conduct long-range strikes (including nuclear ones) swiftly and with precision. Since the end of the Second World War, nobody has quite matched Uncle Sam’s polished military biceps and Mr Kim’s arsenal still looks faintly plump and rotund in comparison: he has plans to strike the U.S mainland but his long-range ballistic missiles can only reach Alaska (and even that is questionable). Should he intend to further escalate into conflict, rest assured even the first U.S president to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize would not hesitate one second to press the red button inside his nuclear suitcase (remember Hiroshima).

In a sense, the Supreme Leader could scarce have afforded not to riposte to America’s stealthy B-2 quip. He would have appeared weak while his people would have reminisced on past days of supposed glory under his father and grandfather and would have more importantly felt that the foundations of their model were being shaken. But we outside the DPRK know just how fragile these bases really are. With the freshest round of UN sanctions and China’s hand stroking the plug, the young leader is facing what are probably the most testing times in his country’s history. Thus, the thunderous roar from the north of the Korean peninsula that should have made the calm Pacific tremble and Mr Obama shiver sounds more like a weak squealing plea of help.


Sparing a thought for the victims of the 30th March Floods in Mauritius.


Gulshan Roy has pursued economics and international studies in university, most recently at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. He regularly writes for publications in Mauritius, which is his country of origin. He can be followed on twitter here.

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