Published in the 호주동아일보
It appears that the dust is beginning to settle in Northeast Asia. The birthday of Kim Il-sung came and went without the expected rocket launch, Seoul is yet to be turned into a sea of fire and locusts are yet to descend upon Gangwondo. Things appear to be quieting down. However, before we all break into our nuclear winter supply of canned peaches, let us take a moment to reflect on the last three or so months and try and find some sense in it all.
Let us for brevity’s sake begin last year in December, when North Korea launched a rocket which it claimed was for satellite purposes. After several attempts over the years, this was deemed a great success. For the rest of the world, however, it was proclaimed a violation of international law and a great threat. The inevitable condemnations sprang forth, followed not long after by more – dare I say it, ineffectual – sanctions.
Christmas came and went, the bitter cold of the Korean winter only surpassed by the chilling of the relations between North Korea and, well, everyone else. February, much hoped to bring the first signs of spring, instead was marked by North Korea’s third underground nuclear test. More vitriol followed and it was felt by North Korea watchers of all stripes that, for the first time, the wicket was becoming a little stickier than in the past. Scrambling to show the world that they mean business, the U.S. and her allies promised more sanctions would be forthcoming. In the meantime, the annual U.S.-South Korean military drills were launched, this year operation “Key Resolve” involving 10,000 South Korean and about 3,000 American troops. Interestingly, Operation “Foal Eagle”, an exercise that combined with “Key Resolve”, for the first time included Australian troops, for many an unwanted flashback to the days of the Korean War (1950-53).
March was another turbulent month as the U.S., flexing its muscles further, flew B-52 nuclear capable bombers over the Korean peninsula. This was followed by B-2 stealth bombers that flew 37.5 hours from the U.S. to drop dummy bombs on targets in South Korea, before flying back home again. North Korea countered by cutting the military hotline between itself and Seoul and deciding that the armistice, which had held since the end of the Korean War, would be declared void. North Korea was officially, it was stated, “entering a state of war”. The media, for its part, did not seem to be entirely sure what this meant and reports continued to roll out the “Tensions ratcheted up” sound bite, while everyone contemplated what to do next. Seoul, meanwhile, took the lead in the common sense game, announcing the armistice could not be dissolved unilaterally. March thus ended with a splutter.
April has been a busy time. On April 2nd, North Korea declared it would be restarting the Yongbyon reactor, closed in 2007 as part of a deal made to secure aid for the North. News that Yongbyon, believed to be the source of much of the materials utilized in the three nuclear tests since 2006, was to be brought out of retirement, was not taken lightly, as both South Korea and the U.S. deployed warships off the south of the peninsula. North Korea followed suit in the tit-for-tat game of brinkmanship, blocking workers from entering the Kaesong industrial zone in North Korea and shortly thereafter pulling out its entire workforce. If there was a sign that North Korea was playing hard ball, it was the fact that it was now willing to shoot itself in the foot in killing the golden cash cow of Kaesong. Analysts began, perhaps for the first time, to show concern.
We approach the end of our saga as on April 5th, North Korea announced it could not guarantee the safety of foreign embassies in Pyongyang. This was followed by a warning to foreigners in South Korea that they should leave immediately. The majority of expats in Seoul, well accustomed to the chest beating of both Koreas, stayed put. Finally, on April 8th, North Korea announced that it “could be” preparing for a further nuclear test. What this meant, no one was entirely sure.
If we are to reflect on the events of the last few months, what have we learnt? What was the point of it all? The answer, and this will probably disappoint most, is that we appear to have learnt very little. The back and forth that has unfolded since last December, if nothing else, has been incredibly expensive for all sides involved and we are back at the beginning – North Korea buried under the weight of international sanctions which only serve to hurt the people, and announcing another nuclear test. Seoul on the other hand, seems to have maneuvered the ship a little more masterfully than in the past. In contrast to former President Lee, President Park Geun-hye has not backed herself into a corner, demanding apologies from her Northern counterparts that will never come. There is still room to move forward, this has to be something positive we can take from this.
We then ask ourselves why? What was it all for, aside to help the flagging media industry sell newspapers? In the April 9th opinion pages of the New York Times, North Korea analyst and Kookmin University history professor Andrei Lankov explained,
NORTH KOREA is a tiny dictatorship with a bankrupt economy, but its leaders are remarkably adept at manipulating global public opinion. In recent weeks, we have been exposed to yet another brilliant example of their skill.
If history is any guide, in a few weeks’ time things will calm down. North Korea’s media will tell its people that the might of the People’s Army and the strategic genius of their new young leader made the terrified American imperialists cancel their plans to invade the North.
In other words, it is business as usual on the Korean Peninsula.
In a few simple lines, Lankov has captured the situation nicely. North Korea has been playing the same game for many years now. They are highly predictable and they are also not suicidal, fanning the flames of each ‘crisis’ for their own purpose but always counting on the fact that it will never quite become a towering inferno. This time, above all else, events have contributed to the writing of quite a nice resume for the young Kim Jung-un. What other world leaders can say they had the world on the edge of its seat and forced the American warmongers and the South Korean puppets to put aside their invasion plans – again!? While this is a dangerous game the young leader and his inner circle play, it is important to keep in mind, when the global media starts predicting nuclear holocaust and the stores run dry of canned peaches, that this is business as usual on the Korean peninsula, not the end of the world.