The crisis with North Korea is escalating and will continue to escalate for as long as the regime is in power. Kim Jong-Il made a calculated decision that he needed a dramatic confrontation in order to appear strong, set the stage for his youngest son to take over, and to create a pretext with which to stop Western influence from reaching the country’s increasingly knowledgeable population. Until the regime collapses under the weight of its failures, it will need to periodically up the ante with a series of increasingly frightening provocations.
There was a much bigger purpose behind the North’s sinking of the Cheonan and that was to stir up the biggest clash since the Korean War. Shortly after the attack, the South Korean army was accused by the North of crossing into the Demilitarized Zone and opening fire. Five properties at the jointly-operated Mt. Kumgang resort were seized, and two North Korean agents were arrested in South Korea as they plotted to assassinate the highest-level defector living there. This was a campaign to make certain that a crisis was sparked.
Since South Korea has formally accused the Kim Jong-Il regime of sinking their ship, the U.S. and South Korea have planned joint military exercises, the South Koreans have pledged to bring the case to the United Nations and they have cut off almost all trade with North Korea. The South’s sea lanes are also being closed to North Korean ships and they are re-labeling the North as their “principal enemy.”
The North Korean government believes it has to retaliate and appear strong in the face of this retaliation. They have reacted by cutting off economic and political ties, and promising to close the Kaesong factory complex where South Korean businesses were allowed to invest, and South Koreans are now beginning to be kicked out from the site. The military is on alert, and the telephone line between the two countries used to avert naval clashes has been cut off. The “puppet authorities” of the South will not be allowed to travel to the North, and none of the South’s air or naval vessels can enter their territory.
Four of North Korea’s submarines have left their base and their location is unknown. It is possible they have been deployed for an attack. Colonel Gordon Cucullu, author of Separated at Birth: How North Korea Became the Evil Twin, told FrontPage that it is also possible that the submarines are hidden in caves along the coast as a security measure. This movement may be because of the North Korean military’s “war footing,” but it is hard to know for sure given how erratic their behavior has been.
Another startling development is that the South has arrested a spy who transmitted classified information about their subway system to the Kim Jong-Il regime. This is a strong indication that North Korea is still preparing for potential sabotage operations. The North has the world’s largest number of special forces, which they have been training to carry out guerilla-type attacks. It is also known that the North has commandos willing to go on suicide missions. Should the North Korean government view the upcoming military exercises as something they must respond aggressively to in order to maintain credibility, the use of such saboteurs cannot be ruled out.
The biggest reason North Korea has started and continued the crisis is to maintain a hold on its population. It provides an excuse for dramatic security measures and a reason to crack down on things like joint ventures with the South that expose the people to Western influence. This has become an increasing problem for Kim Jong-Il, as over half of the population now accesses foreign news, polls of refugees show increasing anger towards the government for their economic catastrophe, and public expressions of dissent when the government issued a new currency and banned old bank notes and foreign currency.
Suzanne Scholte, the leader of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, told FrontPage that now is the time to aggressively “reach out to the North Korean people through all means possible” and to focus on the human rights situation under Kim Jong-Il, which she described as a “holocaust.” She provided FrontPage with the text of a speech she gave in April, outlining the weaknesses of the regime.
Two of the most important methods the regime uses to stay in power have collapsed. The system to distribute food and goods has collapsed, and so private markets have arisen that are decreasing the population’s reliance upon the government for survival.
The second major method was isolating the population from outside influence, which is also failing.
“One could argue that capitalism is alive and well and thriving in North Korea as the people cope the best they can by trading and selling the markets,” she said in her speech.
“In fact, the film Titanic became so widely watched in North Korea that the regime felt compelled to inform the people that the movie was a depiction of the failure of capitalism,” she said.
The fear of the Kim Jong-Il regime became evident when it said it will destroy any loudspeakers set up by the South to broadcast into the North. That is a line that he cannot allow to be crossed. The North Koreans have vowed to begin “merciless counteractions” against the South’s “psychological warfare against the North.” The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has made new 300-strong police units in each province to stamp out opposition and to try to prevent the flow of information into the country.
The West faces a dilemma. The North Korean government feels it needs a crisis in order to survive, and therefore, ignoring them will only result in greater provocations. At the same time, Kim Jong-Il must react to the retaliation by appearing stronger than his enemies by heating things up further. The result is an inevitable series of increasing crises with unforeseen consequences. The solution is to hasten the day when the regime falls, but the weaker the regime becomes, the more likely it is to lash out as it has this year. The unfortunate conclusion is that further clashes are unavoidable.
There are multiple ways that the West can weaken the regime’s grip. Colonel Cucullu said that the North expects to “be rewarded by Western nations once again.” This behavior cannot be encouraged through appeasement. He also raised the point that Japan is also fearful and will not rely on the U.S. for its safety. The possibility of chaos on the Korean Peninsula and the potential for Japan to rapidly rearm can be used to pressure China into reigning in its partner.
Joshua Stanton makes a wise suggestion that cell phones be smuggled into North Korea’s markets and towers erected in the South so they have reception. Scholte said that there are 17,000 North Koreans who left their country for the South that can be used to send information into their original homeland. Refugees can be mobilized for similar efforts.
The U.S. should place North Korea back on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, and push for sanctions in the United Nations. International measures to freeze the assets of North Korean officials and institutions involved in criminal activity and human rights abuses should also be taken.
There will be those who oppose such measures out of a fear of provoking North Korea. The sad truth is that the current government will set out to instigate major confrontations as a matter of survival. The West has two options: Ignore the misery of the North Korean people and hope that this pattern will not spiral down into armed conflict, or actively welcome the day that Korea can be united and free.