North Korea – what’s going on?!

It’s hard to work out exactly what’s happening in North Korea sometimes. It seems  it takes an advanced degree in psychology to figure out what wild schemes the leadership will think up next. From randomly sinking ships to shelling an island, for no apparent reason, the North Korean Central Military Commission, headed by Kim Jong-Il have only one predictable trait: complete unpredictability.

Right, hands up who thinks they know what’s going on? Anyone? No. I didn’t think so. The actions of the North Korean state lack a central theme, something we’re so used to when looking at the behaviour of a country. Their actions lack rationales, their words seem to be unrelated to anything they’re doing. It’s very confusing. We just put our heads in our hands and moan ‘oh what next?’. We can’t rely on them not to do it again or even raise the stakes and go nuclear. There is nothing stopping them, they’ve everything to gain and seem blissfully unaware of everything they have to lose – that one day they might cross a line and the USA and S.Korea will have had enough, and this time China won’t be there to save them.

I’m going to use this post to do a little analysis of the situation in N.Korea, bust some myths and perhaps set up people’s critical eye for when this inevitably happens again.

Before that, let’s have some background, some people are still surprised when they learn about the conditions the North Koreans live under.

North Korea is the most oppressive state on earth. It’s inhabitants are barely aware the outside world exists. They are dimly cogniscent of South Korea (the enemy) America (definitely the enemy) Japan (also the enemy) China (sometimes a friend) and Russia (unpredictable, just like us!). It is also one of the poorest. The people live in desperate poverty. However the regime has a magic trick up it’s sleeve. Because it is in complete control of all media and communications and has blacked out the outside world, it is able to convince the population that in fact they are gloriously wealthy. It has told the North Koreans that their standard of living is far superior to that of the Americans and that they are lucky to live the way they do. Clever eh?

So, the last few days:

Why have they been shelling each other? What is going on?

There a number of factors at play here. Most important is the succession going on in North Korea. Kim Jong-Il is sick, we think he’s had a stroke, and he’s dying and there isn’t really anyone to take his place. He’s got a few sons but he’s a bit of a lunatic so he isn’t sure he trusts them. He’s decided to select the most pliable of his progeny, Kim Jong-un, to succeed him. This Jong-un chap is quite young, maybe 30 at most (we don’t even know how old he is, that’s the sort of secrecy we’re dealing with) and he’s had no experience of running a horrible socialist autocracy. Jong-Il wants him to take over and command the respect of the army who are huge and powerful and quite likely run the place. So what do they do? They want to it to appear that the recent decision to shell South Korea came from Jong-un, to make it seem like he is in control, knows what he is doing and has some military successes under his belt (bizarre I know, bear with me).

But… it’s not that simple. North Korea is a centrally run state, when I say centrally run I mean that, it’s all run by one person, or a small group of people. So when the person running the state has a stroke, what do you do? Nothing! Panic! But luckily for the North Koreans the army was there to assume more control. The army are even less bright than the leadership, they don’t have the limited international relations savvy that Jong-Il has. They are either unaware or do not care what impact their actions have. It is more than possible that the shelling was simply because they were bored!

A final reason they may have started shelling this island is because North Korea is a spoilt child. It has been given money and food and guns for the best part of half a century. Not just by China, it’s friend, but by America and South Korea, in an effort to change it’s behaviour. Since the negotiations to end it’s nuclear programme broke down a few years ago this stream of luxuries and money has been cut off by and large. The North Korean state is now throwing it’s toys out of the pram and having a tantrum. Why? To get attention. They want to appear scary so that people will want to tame them and bring them to the negotiating table. They think if they cause a fuss they will zip to the top of everyone’s agendas and that might mean they can lie and fib until the aid tap gets turned back on.

So that’s a brief(ish) analysis of the situation. This post was precipitated by the frightening goings on around the Korean border, I think it’s very important to challenge preconceptions about situations. It’s also important to make things a little clearer from our perspective, there are no countries in the world we know less about and the little we do know about North Korea should be talked about, if only because it means we can’t be frightened by them into aiding and abetting the criminal negligence of their people or demented military plans.

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2 thoughts on “North Korea – what’s going on?!”

  1. Great precis. The whole North Korea vs South Korea is like a protracted game of chess. Totally acquiesce with you in saying that NK is unpredictable. Interested to see what Kim Jong-un does going forward…

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