Monday, March 25, 2013

This Time Is Different - Six Decades of North Korean Follies (The Umpteenth Final Countdown)


Nuclear threats, cyberattacks, rumors of coups and collapse up North, the end is nigher than ever, repent, and don't forget to update your V3 antivirus before their V2 rockets rain down... We've seen that drama before, particularly in KOR/US military drill season.

Yet at the same time, and to anti-paraphrase the Reinhart-Rogoff post-Lehman bestseller "This time is different: eight centuries of financial folly", we're as always tempted to think "this time, that's it", the gimchi will really hit the fan, the North Korean regime is done.

Now China joining the US and South Korea in a united front, that could be a game changer.


1) KIM Jong-un has achieved little more than using up the arsenal of war premilinaries....:

There's not much he can do to top himself, except pushing the red button:
  • Rethoric-wise, KIM The Third has already reached Armageddon territories: the ceasefire is already over (almost), the Red Telephone is already cut (but still working), and America is already going up in flames (on YouTube videos). Now KIM The Third seems prisoner of his own PR, supported by a zimbabwean inflation in provocations and an almost constant red alert mode even his daddy didn't need. And it took KIM The Second four years to claim all key powers, he a much more trained and legitimate heir who'd been around long before the founder of the dynasty passed away.
  • Military-wise, Jong-un has already bombed South Korean land (see "We need to talk about KIM"). To top that, he needs either a bigger target, or bigger bombs...
  • Nuclear-wise, Junior went beyond dad's "Jucheterrence" by betting all on the missile and nuclear programs. He announced more trials but basically, the message has already been transmitted. And if he doesn't show spectacular improvements next time, local supporters might cool down. Considering the country's limited resources, "if the North Korean regime doesn't renounce the program, North Korean elites will eventually renounce the regime - unless one of the regime's last friends steps in and does it all by itself" (see "Hell is other Democratic People's Republic of Korea").
  • Cyberwar-wise, there's still room for manoeuvre. Whoever carried out last week's attacks*, they delivered a clear warning about how far they could reach: we can disrupt your media and finance sectors, we used your security system to do that, and we even left a message to let you know that it was just a small IED left by the weakest elements of our infantry, nothing compared to the waves that will follow (the "Hastati" reference). It works and it's cheap, but unless a full-fledged cyber attack is lauched, that truly cripples the South ahead of a real offensive, these operations will appear like recurrent drills to train response teams.
  • A Nukie Monster for Baby Kim?
  • More conventional asymetric warfare? Abductions, sabotage, terror, guerilla? Not very expensive either, but been there, done that. And North Korea would somehow lose its standing as a rogue nuclear nation. Furthermore, maintaining sleeping cells below radar surface isn't that easy with fake defectors actually defecting to the South (or to China).

2) ... and alienating his last allies:

The regim seems weaker than ever at home:
  • Compared to North Korea's doomsday arsenal, the international community's rudimentary weapons seem to have significantly hurt the regime. Pyongyang has more trouble funnelling illegal funds into the country, and the nasty business model of North Korea Inc, or rather North Korea Offshore Unlimited, has been fully exposed in South Korean media, including the way "diplomats" spend their time traveling or visiting casinos to get rid of counterfeit money by small bundles**. 
  • That money is paramount for a regime that needs to corrupt at home as well, to keep full support from the military and a nomenclatura... and they have learned how to develop their own illegal sources of income. Recurrent purges or calls for denounciations cannot solve everything now that almost two million individuals have a cellphone. Even foreigners can use one now.
  • Like his dad, KIM Jong-un is rumored to have survived at least one assassination attempt. If repression and fear remains, full containment and trust belong to the past.
And NK's top sponsor Beijing is moving closer to the rest of the international community:
  • China does continues to provide food and energy, to allow transfers from friendly banks, and to send defectors back to the North (particularly when they're soldiers, like recently), but it supported significant UN sanctions, along with Russia***.
  • China also started to control closely North Korean restaurants in the country. This may seem trivial, but restaurants are a key entry point for illegal workers and imports, and a steady source of undeclared currencies. NB: I presume propaganda is not threatened by the crack down - the closest thing to a trip to North Korea I ever experienced was not in the DMZ, but in a restaurant where patrons fully dressed in NK army uniforms karaoked on a song to the Dear Leader before the dinner.
  • XI Jinping seems definitely more open to collaboration with the South and the West than HU Jintao, a hardliner I considered more sympathetic to Northeastern Project / "Hanschluss"**** approaches. XI's past in the US is well documented, but we only recently learned that he'd met PARK Geun-hye back in 2005, a meeting that wouldn't have happened hadn't a PARK aide told her this Zhejiang official was likely to become the next top guy. XI wanted to know more about the Saemaeul movement, but PARK seized the opportunity to raise the North Korean issue, saying China should reconsider its position versus the regime.

3) A united front, now - a game changer?

In a perfectly orchestrated way, key messages have just been issued by China, South Korea, and the US:
  • For the first time, China agreed to join multinational maritime drill next year, along with the US, South Korea, or Japan. In spite of all other geopolitical and territorial tensions in the region. Sixty years after the Korean War, that's really big.
  • For the first time, South Korea and the US have exposed their counterattack plan. Korea would lead, and the US add their forces only if needed. They've been very specific when they mentioned the "provocations" that would lead to a full-fledged response: "violation of the Northern Limit Line, the de facto inter-Korean maritime border; shelling the northernmost islands in South Korea’s Yellow Sea; infiltration by low-flying fighter jets into the South’s territory; infiltration by special forces of North Korea through the front-line units; surgical clashes between the two Koreas near the Military Demarcation Line; and torpedoing South Korean submarines" (see "U.S., South agree on joint counterattack" - Korea JoongAng Daily 20130325). IMHO that's too specific: technically, NK can still harpoon South Korean submarines. Likewise, now that KOR/US have pledged to destroy statues of KIM Il-sung and KIM Jong-il across the nation as priority targets to send the message to the population that regime change has come, you can be sure flocks of human shields will "spontaneously" wrap themselves around the effigies of their "beloved" tyrants.

More than ever, China holds the key. And KIM Jong-un has no choice but to negociate. He shot his last dud with his last nuclear trial ("Release the NKraken"), but the more he waits, the more surely he'll fall.

Time for the Nukie Monster to consider an exile from the Kermit Kingdom to Rodmanistan?


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* presumably from North Korea, following a supposed "false flag": Pyongyang claimed to be victim of a cyber attack from Seoul and Washington.
** see for instance "How N.Korean Diplomats Launder Counterfeit Money"
*** Note that neither Russia nor China had their say in the recent creation of a human rights commission, which will build the case against North Korea abuses, a potential first step towards the International Criminal Court which may help members of the elite up North distance themselves from the most rotten apples.
**** see for instance "China-North Korea : the Great Hanschluss still the base case scenario"

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