Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Headhunters' Guide to North Korea

You've probably noticed that pesky North Korea's been in the news lately, with its young leader declaring a state of war on the South and even threatening to nuke the United States. But are you feeling a little shaky on the history of the Koreas? Chris Wright is here to get you up to speed and describe the lay of the land as he sees it.
'Whatever happened to crazy?' Chris Rock once wondered. In world leaders, it seems to have had its heyday; the Arab spring might have taken out a few, and in the west you have to go back a couple of hundred years to find a good old fashioned fits of lunacy sort of head of state. The good news for insanity fans though is that it seems to be alive and kicking in North Korea.

Yep, it looks like we're going to have to accept it, Kim Jong Un has a full blown case of the wackadoodles. I had high hopes for North Korea's new leader; educated in Europe, maybe he would more open to gentle reform and less inclined to present himself as one of the less believable James Bond villains. It's a hope he seems to have dashed in his declaration of 'a state of war' between his nation and South Korea; a rather odd pronouncement given that a state of war has actually been in effect for over sixty years. I guess it's nice to remind people now and again.

While currently (and hopefully going forward) the Korean War consists largely of soldiers glaring at each other over a painted line and the occasional rude gesticulation between leaders, there was a time when it was very much hot. As the Second World War came to a close, Winston Churchill put forward to his Western allies a proposal for the ominously entitled 'Operation Unthinkable'. It was a plan for an attack on the Soviet Union and could potentially have kickstarted a war yet more apocalyptic than the one that preceded it. The plan, thankfully, was dismissed, and in its place an ideological 'Cold War' developed between the communist nations, headed largely by the USSR and China, and the democracies under the leadership of the United States.

The origins of the Korean War arrived in the form of an unnatural divide of the country along the 38th parallel in 1945. The north fell under the Soviet and Chinese sphere of influence, while the South fell to the western allies, most notably the USA. Things tootled along then for about five years as tensions brewed and mounted and other verbs until the North launched an invasion of the south in 1950. The US and allies intervened and pushed the communists up and beyond the border until China, in turn, intervened to push the democrats (small d) back down again. Things to and fro-ed for some time until, after three years and millions of deaths, the border was back where it began at the 38th parallel. An armistice (ceasefire) was agreed but a surrender was never given nor a peace treaty ever signed, so the war, in name at least, continues to this day.

Since then, the two Koreas have followed vastly different paths. While the South has prospered into a modern, liberal democracy, the North has closed its borders and, under a totalitarian, communist regime, has become one of the poorest, harshest, most militarised nations on earth. A demilitarised zone was set up along the border, and for the sixty years since a regional cold war has been established, pocked by occasional bursts of rhetoric and violence. Rocket attacks from the North are not uncommon and sporadic naval clashes have threatened to set a spark to the tinder box once more, though as yet it has not reignited.

Over recent years, the North Korean nuclear weapons programme has stumbled and shuffled its way into becoming a legitimate threat to the region and has poured a vat of metaphoric liquid nitrogen upon relations between the countries. The recent statement by Kim Jong Un has ratcheted things up another couple of notches and the world must hold its breath to see what, if anything, comes of it. Personally, I think (and hope) the answer will be nothing.

Somewhere in the crazed halls of power of the North Korean government there must be an adviser with some semblance of common sense, who knows an attack on the South can only go one way. South Korea has a modern, well-equipped armed forces that wouldn't hesitate to respond with force to renewed acts of war and would likely triumph even if left alone. But they wouldn't be alone. The US and NATO would again come running and help push through the communist lines, and this time no aid would be coming North Korea's way. Though they give some lip service of support to their old ally, neither Russia nor China would intervene. Both have liberalised enough not to be drawn in to a Cold War era proxy war on the side of an aggressor. They might complain, they might block resolutions, but they would not lend true support, and the triumph of the South would be inevitable.

Deep down, even Kim Jong Un must know this and I think we'll find this to be just another speech to assuage the military elite and convince them of his dedication to a united, communist Korea, while enhancing his own credentials as a strong leader. All will go on as usual; the South will keep progressing and, with a bit of luck, perhaps the North will continue its baby steps toward opening up to the outside world. And Kim Jong Un will continue to be crazy.

By Chris Wright


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