The New Korean War

Kim Jong-il puts his tyranny's armed forces on war footing.

President Obama may soon discover his predecessor, George Bush, was more than correct in designating North Korea an “Axis of Evil” state.

As the United States announced on Monday it would conduct joint naval exercises with the South Korean navy in response to the sinking of a South Korean warship two months ago, North Korea, the nation deemed responsible for the disaster that cost 46 lives, raised tensions by putting its military forces on a war footing.

Asia Times reported yesterday that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, in a military broadcast, placed his million plus armed forces on “combat readiness,” causing concern worldwide about North Korean intentions as well as a drop in major stock markets.

“We do not hope for war but if South Korea, with the United States and Japan on its back, tries to attack us, Kim Jong-il has ordered us to finish the task of unification left undone during the…(Korean) war (in 1953),” the military broadcast stated.

North Korea, of course, denies that it sank the South Korean corvette, Cheonan, on March 26, but the evidence states otherwise. An international commission made up of experts from Australia, America and Sweden investigated the sinking and concluded North Korea was guilty of the atrocity after finding North Korean torpedo parts in the wreckage raised from the sea bottom.

“The evidence is quite compelling,” said Ban Ki-moon, United Nations secretary general. “There is no controversy.”

North Korea also has a long history of committing terrorist acts against South Korea. In 1983, North Korean agents bombed a South Korean delegation in Burma, killing several members. In 1987, North Korea was also blamed for blowing up a South Korean airliner in flight. In another naval incident in 2002, four South Korean sailors were killed in an exchange of gunfire with North Korean patrol boats.

Besides joint naval exercises with the United States, the South Korean government has responded with punitive measures. All trade with North Korea will be cut off as well as access to shipping lanes through South Korean waters that North Korean ships use to shorten voyages to China.

South Korea will also again name North Korea as its “principal enemy”, a designation dropped in 2004 during a warming of relations. According to a New York Times story, North Korea was first named a “principal enemy” in 1994 after threatening “to turn Seoul into a ‘sea of fire’ ” during the crisis over its nuclear weapons program.” After the Cheonan incident, Kim Jong-il has threatened South Korea with “all-out war” if sanctions are applied.

The world is now waiting to see whether Kim Jong-il will actually carry out his threat to engulf the two countries in war or whether he is simply staging a tantrum to extort aid from Western countries as he has done in the past.

Although the two Koreas are still technically at war, outwardly, the war scenario appears the most unlikely one. Both North and South Korea know the latter is not going to initiate any military action against the North over the Cheonan incident. As columnist Donald Kirk states, South Korea is doing so well economically, possessing one of the world’s fastest growing economies, it does not want to risk its hard-earned prosperity and high living standards in a destructive war. Kirk and other military analysts have pointed out a further reason for South Korea’s avoiding war over North Korean provocations like the Cheonan: Seoul would bear the brunt of any North Korean attack due to its location close to the North Korean border.

“The North still has thousands of artillery pieces within range of metropolitan Seoul and the nearby port of Inchon as well as missiles with the range to reach anywhere in the South, and nobody in South Korea really wants to challenge that,” Kirk writes.

For North Korea’s part, war also does not appear to be an option. Its army is in a very dilapidated condition. Years of sanctions and a ramshackle economy have left the North Korean armed forces with no money for training, maintenance or for purchasing new equipment. North Korea’s biggest military threat is its 60,000 commando troops, many of whom have been moved close to the border. In case of war, it is thought the North Koreans’ plan, due to their army’s movement limitations, would be to occupy Seoul and then seek a ceasefire.

Analysts, like the military news publication Strategy Page, state that the modern, well-equipped South Korean army, which produces many of its own weapons and is supported by a strong economy, has a plan to throw back such an invasion and then move into the North. Such a plan to cross the border would also be implemented if the North Korean state ever collapsed. American forces in South Korea, which numbered 42,000 before 9/11, now stand at about 30,000 and would come under South Korean command in case of a conflict.

But common sense may play no part in a Stalinist dictatorship’s decision to go to war, especially one struggling to survive. Reports have been coming out of North Korea that the people are again facing starvation like in the 1990s when an estimated two million died. A poor harvest this year, the failure of a currency reform scheme last year and the repressing of private farmer’s markets have again left the long-suffering North Koreans destitute.

North Korea also cannot look to China, its main ally, for help. China, like other countries, has refused food aid as long as North Korea refuses to give up its nuclear weapons program. Not wishing to support an economic cripple, China also vainly wanted North Korea to adopt free market reforms and become self-sufficient like it did. Like South Korea, China fears a North Korean collapse and the millions of hungry Korean refugees that would flood over its border seeking food.

Unlike in the 1990s though, North Korean citizens are reported to be more restless regarding their cruel, state-sponsored fate. The underground black market is reported as thriving, indicating a disregard for the government, as the people are becoming more aware of what is happening outside their country, especially on the North Korean-Chinese border, where smuggling and Chinese cell phones, although illegal, have connected North Koreans with the modern world.

To block this unrest from becoming a popular uprising and detract people’s attention from their misery, the North Korean government may do what the Argentinean military junta did in 1982 when faced with a similar disastrous economic situation and restless population: launch a military adventure. And with the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War next month, Kim Jong-il may see that as a sign to “finish the task” of reuniting the Koreas, especially while his government still controls the population.