Among the first lessons aspiring journalists are taught is that “Dog Bites Man” is not newsworthy. One might wonder if this lecture is still in the curriculum. The last few months have been full of commentary about North Korea huffing and puffing and threatening to blow our houses down while news stories about the bloody dictatorship of Iran have been equally common. Dogs biting men, as they commonly do.
If the dog analogy about North Korea hurts their feelings, that is just too bad. Besides, the analogy of a bad dog is singularly appropriate.
Who has not encountered a misbehaving dog that has learned that aggression can result in treats to mollify its behaviour? Owners who reward bad behaviour are distressingly common. North Korea is very much like a dog that has learned if it barks and growls enough, somebody will throw them a biscuit to keep them quiet.
In the last twenty years, despite – or more probably because of – North Korea’s strategy of Juche (self-reliance), the quality of life there has gone from very bad to foul. Juche is a variation of hard-line Stalinist and Maoist thinking suffused with Korean nationalism which holds that the North Koreans should do things for themselves. Unfortunately, centrally planned economies seldom work, especially when former partners that indirectly subsidized the regime’s antics have all changed. Moreover, North Korea’s habit of never paying bills dried up their credit even with their best friends years ago.
The Kim Dynasty has ruled North Korea since 1945. Kim Il Sung (aka “The Great Leader”) used the usual tricks of Stalin and Mao to cement his personal leadership over the Party apparatus through the 1950s, and established a personality cult to protect his throne. His son Kim Jung Il (aka “The Dear Leader”) emerged from the pack of would-be successors by further polishing his father’s reputation and slowly inserting himself as the new model of the old man. When the Great Leader died in 1994, the Dear Leader seamlessly stepped into his shoes.
The Dear Leader seems to be preparing his third son, Kim Jung On, to be ready to succeed him when the time comes. Footage of Kim Jung Il from a rare recent public appearance in July 2009 suggests that time is coming soon. The once plump dictator has lost considerable weight and may be losing a battle with some form of cancer.
In the last twenty years, North Korea’s economy has nose-dived. In the 1990s, a series of severe famines took the lives of at least a million people – around 5% of their total population at the time. Other estimates for famine related deaths in North Korea during the 1990s range as high as 3,000,000. Continuing food shortages have plagued the country and an even more severe famine is beckoning with bony fingers now.
One noticeable aspect of the chronic food shortages in North Korea is that the stature of its people is diminishing. Judging from a sample of defectors alone, North Koreans are an average of 7.6cm shorter than their Southern neighbors. This probably reflects the status of things in Pyongyang, where the country’s technical and political elites reside. One should also remember that Stalinist states habitually under-report bad news.
Out in the countryside, things are probably worse. Years of endemic malnourishment do frightening things to a population, especially to its children. Moreover, children grow up in North Korea to become conscripts in its huge army.
In the usual Soviet/PRC practice, conscripts are sifted so that the most reliable end up in security forces; the fittest are competed for by security forces and elite military formations, while the navy and air force skim off the most intelligent and best educated. This means infantry, tank crews and artillery gunners are not the pick of the litter… In 2006, North Korea evidently waived its minimum height requirements for military service – a telling indicator.
The Kim Dynasty’s Juche ideology would forbid North Korea from being seen – either by the international community or its own domestic audience – to be asking for help. To preserve the dignity of the leader and the country, they appear to have found an indirect way of asking for support… by behaving badly.
Since the initial Clinton Administration, the World has seen a repeated pattern of growling and snarling out of North Korea. The usual crises result in some high-level diplomacy, usually with North Korea insisting it deal directly with the United States (letting Pyongyang act like it was on co-terms with the big powers) and avoid recognizing the ‘other’ Korean entity whose existence and legitimacy Pyongyang has long denied.
The issue at hand was always to do with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, ballistic missile development, or occasionally more conventional sabre rattling. Once or twice, to underscore the seriousness of their display of belligerency, there might be an incursion or a minor clash with South Korea. The crisis would abate with the promise of fuel, food supplies or financial support to the regime, in return for it putting a stop to its nuclear or ballistic missile programs.
Growl, growl. Here, have a biscuit. End of growling… North Korea has learned to ask for help without being seen to be asking at all. Thus we come to the present pass.
In recent months, North Korea has dusted off its nuclear weapons program; fired salvoes of ballistic missiles (choosing July 4th, particularly, to fire seven of them), threatened war if the outside world interfered with it and openly shipped missiles to some of the world’s other bad dogs. Why are they being so aggressive now?
Think of food, finance, and fuel. Think of the legitimacy of a Family dynasty in a supposedly Marxist state.
North Korea is on the edge of famine again… which is not unusual nowadays. The fundamentals behind the 2008 Global Food Crisis have largely gone unaddressed and mankind is still consuming more than we grow in any given year. To compound matters, the current cooling associated with the latest sun spot cycle is already having an effect. The weakness of the North Korean economy and the decay of their physical infrastructure will not allow them to survive food shortages for much longer.
Last year’s spectacular financial crisis is a long, long way from being resolved – no matter how much indebtedness Western governments care to ring up. This means that financial largess for North Korea is not in the cards. While oil prices have dropped (and look to remain low for a while), Peak Oil has been reached. Our annual consumption is now outstripping the discovery of new sources.
Facing another famine and with an empty treasure chest, the Kim Dynasty has other troubles. Kim Il Sung had been a long-time leader of the Korean Communist Party and certainly appeared to have backing from both China and the USSR. Kim Jong Il’s bona fides were not so solid, and one might wonder if he hasn’t ducked an assassination attempt or two in recent years (the mysterious train explosion of April 2004 certainly caused much speculation). The Dear Leader also firmly made sure he was affixed to his father’s coat-tails since the early 1960s.
Kim Jung Il is now 67 and appears to be in extremely poor health. If the rumour about a losing battle with pancreatic cancer is true (and recent footage strongly that this diagnosis is correct), he may be dead within a year or two. Securing his succession is an urgent matter.
Kim Jung On is Kim Jung Il’s third son, not his oldest. Kim Jung Nam, his 38 year old son by one mistress, was caught travelling in Japan under a Panamanian passport and claimed to be trying to visit a Disney theme park. Kim Jung Chul is 28 (by the same mistress who birthed Kim Jung On) and is apparently thought ineffectual by his father. By default, Kim Jung On is the strongest claimant to the Dynasty’s power, but as a compromise candidate and undoubtedly with less of the luster of Kim Il Sung clinging to him.
So what is an ailing dynast with an unsecured succession to do? Pick a quarrel with the external world and hope that this stifles internal dissent among his courtiers? Why not? This tactic has worked many times before throughout history.
North Korea’s main income derives from the export of ‘machine parts’… or more specifically, of parts of machines that go BOOM! There are countries that pay cash on the barrel head for North Korea’s ballistic missiles, small arms ammunition and its simple old fashioned weapons. Another money maker has been its nuclear engineers, most of who are versed in nuclear weapons production. These are the sort of commodities that make other countries nervous, especially as North Korea doesn’t bother to observe the niceties of conventional maritime practices like putting flags on non-descript merchant vessels or registering them with Lloyd’s.
Some nations get nervous about shabby unregistered cargo ships turning up with radioactive materials on the territory of their disturbing neighbors. Ergo, when the first country bombs a strange site on the territory of the second country, why should anyone be surprised when North Koreans turn up among the dead? This is precisely what happened in September of 2007 when Israeli jets flattened a target in Northern Syria.
Pyongyang has recently – and forcibly – stated that any particular countries that would like to inspect their non-descript vessels on the high seas will incur its wrath. Bark, growl. Where’s my biscuit?
Just how dangerous is this dog?
North Korea is a nuclear power. They’ve twice tested a nuclear warhead of their own production (in October 2006 and May 2009), although the first test may have been a fizzle and the second test may have only had a yield of less than 5 kilotons. These do not make North Korea into an embryonic superpower. Moreover, they probably do not have the technical expertise to make a warhead small enough to fit on one of their ballistic missiles – yet. Building a bomb is one thing, making them smaller and more powerful is something else again.
The only bombers North Korea has that might be able to carry a larger atomic bomb are their ancient Il-28 Beagle bombers… a design that first flew in 1949 and would last about as long in a modern air battle as a moth in a flame thrower festival.
North Korea does have a large quantity of ballistic missiles. Most of these are home built versions of the obsolete Soviet Frog and Scud short range ballistic missiles that first appeared in 1965. The Scud has an undeserved reputation dating back to the 1991 Gulf War – when it already was an aged weapons system – with a low reliability rate and an accuracy that usually let it come within 900m of its target, 50% of the time.
It must be remembered that North Korea has never had the wealth and technology to significantly improve much upon the basic Scud missile design ever since, nor to engineer a rocket with anything approaching the capabilities of Soviet and American designs that appeared after the mid-1960s. While North Korea had produced new ballistic missiles with longer ranges, like the Taepo Dong 1 and Taepo Dong 2, these are over-built versions of the Scud. Essentially, they were arrived at by lengthening Scud missiles, adding stages (e.g. stacking a Scud on top of another Scud), etc.
Ballistic missiles introduced since the 1960s use a gimbaled exhaust to steer the rocket in flight; which yields much more precise results. The US Pershing II missiles (introduced in 1979 and now long since dismantled) were designed to land within 40m of their target 50% of the time and had six times the range of the Scud. Steering arrangements on the old Scud came directly from the German V2 designs of the Second World War, vanes within the exhaust plume of the rocket engine steer the missile.
In the 1960s, both the USSR and the US abandoned liquid fuel designs for their ballistic missiles. Liquid fueled missiles have to be filled with fuel just before they are fired, which introduces complexities to the firing calculations that seriously affect accuracy and reliability, never mind safety (as if this was a priority in North Korea). A solid fueled rocket is reliable and ready to be fired on very short notice. Even the newest Taepo Dong 2 North Korean missile is liquid fueled.
If targeted by a Scud missile, or one of its Pyongyang jury-rigged descendants, one of the safest places to probably be is right atop its target. A Taepo Dong 2 aimed at Seattle Washington, might just hit somewhere within 56 km of the city centre (50% of the time); but only if it is not carrying a warhead larger than 500kg in size. It may be some years before North Korea can manage to build a nuclear warhead that small.
The Army that North Korea used to invade South Korea in June 1950 caught the South Koreans and a handful of American regiments completely by surprise. The North Korean blitzkrieg swiftly forced the surviving South Korean and US troops into a small pocket around Pusan in the southeast corner of the Peninsula. Four months later, most of that Army was gone and the main effort that sustained North Korea for the rest of the 1950-53 war consisted of Chinese Communist troops. However, the Korean War accounted for over 1.6 million deaths in three years, and the World remains uneager to see a rematch.
On paper, the North Korean military looks formidable enough until one looks more closely. South Korea has 1,000 K1A1 tanks (a home produced version of the American Abrams) and one of its new K2 tanks could destroy a company of North Korea’s vintage tanks in 40 seconds – without exaggeration. North Korea’s tanks, like almost all its aircraft, ships, and artillery are versions of standard Soviet and Chinese equipment from the mid-1960s, though much of it is even older. The blitz of 1950 was led by T-34/85 tanks (first fielded in 1944), and North Korea still has hundreds of these museum pieces in stock.
The principle of Juche also extends to self-education and judging from the deployment of North Korea’s army, navy, and air force, one can get the ready impression its military leaders still base much of their concepts on operations on the Korean War of 1950-53. The elderly generals clustered around Kim Jung Il on state occasions haven’t fought a real war in over half a century. North Korea also spent a massive amount of time, money and effort building underground bunkers, storage sites and even the occasional airstrip in the 1960s. It is not clear whether its geriatric military leaders truly understand what modern smart bombs can do to these Maginot-Line style fortifications.
If North Korea’s generals are possibly ossified, their privates might be in even worse shape. Modern soldiers have to be fit, healthy and intelligent. Considering that the North Korean conscripts of 2009 have mostly been undernourished all of their lives, one wonders how many of them are truly capable of executing their tasks if called upon to fight. A recent US report suggests that between 17-29% of North Korea’s conscript classes for 2009 to 2013 suffer from famine-induced cognitive deficiencies that would invalidate them for military service.
The North Korean dog snarling and growling at the rest of the world is in bad shape… Mark Twain famously observed that what mattered was “Not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.” North Korea might be a deadly dangerous dog for a few days, but a long war is just not in them.
But even sick, wheezy, and arthritic dogs with behavioral problems can still bite; and this is the problem with North Korea. To mix analogies, considering what modern handguns are like it might seem hard to feel threatened by a man with a flintlock pistol… unless the lock is cocked and the muzzle is jammed in one’s stomach.
Nobody within 2,000 kilometers of North Korea would care to see dozens of Scud-type missiles splattering – however inaccurately – all around their cities. Worse still, much of South Korea’s capital city Seoul lies within artillery range of North Korea; and the guns that could deluge parts of the city with hundreds of tons of shells are already deployed in hardened positions that were built over 40 years ago.
Even worse, while North Korea might not yet be capable of designing a nuclear weapon that can fit on a ballistic missile, filling artillery shells with Phosgene, Hydrogen Cyanide, Ypresite or VX nerve gas is a much less technologically-demanding chore. North Korea does have a large inventory of chemical weapons. If this dog decided to bite, hundreds of thousands of civilians would be in deadly peril of their lives, quite literally within a very few minutes if Pyongyang decided to attack.
This bad dog has one good bite in it; but is a bad dog insane enough to use it? Most aren’t.
North Korea has a 60 year history of eccentricity (if their cruel and depraved conduct towards their own citizens can be so described); but they’ve not ever been insane. Putting the bite on the neighbors would swiftly bring the Kim Dynasty to an end, and there would be no pity or mercy offered. If the regime slowly crumbles – as it deserves to – then perhaps some of the Kim Il Sung’s descendants might be given a chance to live in exile elsewhere.
In Korean cuisine, dog is occasionally on the menu and is reputed to be delicious braised in garlic and ginger. Dear Leader et fils, be warned.