PSEUDO-WAR: Theatre of the absurd?

Peter Sylvestre's picture

DOES Pyongyang’s bellicosity represent the politics of mass distraction – reflecting an ongoing shake-up in the upper circles of North Korea’s military establishment . . .

SEOUL — On the surface, the security situation on the Korean peninsula has all but melted  down since North Korea conducted its third nuclear test on February 12, just weeks after the successful launch of its 10,000 km Tapodong-2 missile on December 12. In early February, North Korean videos depicting the destruction of US cities suddenly appeared.

On March 8, following approval by the United Nations Security Council of new sanctions (Resolution 2094) on the DPRK (even China and Russia agreed), North Korea announced it was annulling the 1953 Armistice Agreement that effectively ended the Korean War. Pyongyang shut off regular contacts with the South (apart from Gaeseong).

In a ‘perfect storm’ for North Korea, the perennial ROK-USA joint military exercises code-named Foal Eagle (involving 40,000 US and ROK personnel), kicked off on March 11 and is scheduled to continue until late April. More ‘attacks’ on the DPRK’s ‘dignity’ came with the UN General Assembly-affiliated Human Rights Council’s authorisation on March 21 of a Commission of Inquiry (COI) into human rights abuses in North Korea.
North Korean bellicose rhetoric that flows during every Foal Eagle season has this time become a tsunami.

When increasingly strident threats to target US bases in the Pacific and to conduct preventive war induced counteractions that escalated with the inclusion of B-52 and B-2 bombers into Foal Eagle by late March, the North went verbally ‘ballistic’.

On March 26, Kim Jon-eun ordered his missile and artillery forces readied (the hitherto unheard of Combat Posture No. 1) to strike US and South Korean targets in the Pacific region, and severed the North-South hotline the next day.

Verbal bellicosity reached its ultimate on March 30 when the DPRK declared it had entered a “state of war” with South Korea (although its military posture seems not to have actually changed).

On March 30, North Korea, miffed that its threats were not being taken seriously because the joint Gaeseong Industrial Complex was operating normally (ostensibly because it produced precious foreign exchange for the DPRK elite), threatened to close Gaeseong as well. Three days later it announced that it would restart all facilities at its Yonbyon nuclear facility, which had been closed since 2007.

Despite the bellicosity radiating from Pyongyang, scenes of military exercises coming out of Pyongyang seem to be a mishmash of scenes from Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg (masses of charging cannon-fodder led by a clearly visible, flag waving target) or Patton (rows of tanks blasting away with everything they’ve got before one US B-2 with a fuel air explosive takes the whole lot out). If these scenes are truly North Koreans training for imminent combat, the ROK-USA alliance should have little trouble dispensing with a force displaying, at best, a World War 2 era mentality.

Even a potentially unnerving photo of the young marshal authorising his high command to go on alert status had a ludicrous map in the background depicting North Korean targetting four US locations (Washington DC, Los Angeles, Hawaii, and … Austin? Why Austin, Texas?). A far-fetched mission widely believed to be beyond the ability of the DPRK’s current missile technology (not to mention US counterstrike potential).
Added to scenes of virtually every element of society marching en masse in uniforms more reminiscent of May Day parades in Red Square than a proper mobilisation that actually deploys fully-prepared units to battle positions, the overall impression is one of yet another vast theatre being performed.

The question now: “Who is the intended audience?”

Almost all sources cite three objectives for the DPRK’s Rhetorical War: (1) Force cancellation of Foal Eagle and ultimately a bilateral US-North Korean treaty that excludes South Korea; (2) Extort more international aid; and (3) Bolster domestic support behind the young leader. North Korean behaviour and pronouncements have clearly backfired as to the first two, yet the DPRK shows no sign of backing off.
The best guess is that what we are seeing represents the politics of mass distraction, especially for a military that has seen significant shake-ups since last summer.  As reported in ATI (September 2012), Chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, was summarily relieved of all posts on July 16, 2012, less than six months after Kim Jong-eun assumed his father’s mantle (on December 28, 2011).

Ri was replaced by Vice Marshal Hyon Yong-chol, who in turn was apparently demoted to General by October. Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, a party careerist despite his military rank, was named Director of the General Political Department of the KPA. Two days after Ri’s abrupt dismissal, Kim Jong-eun assumed the rank of Marshal of the DPRK. 

By the end of November, the Defence Minister, Kim Jong-gak, was dismissed after serving only seven months, and replaced by Kim Kyok-sik, who was credited with conducting the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010.

Also, Kim Yong-chol, head of the Reconnaissance General Bureau (essentially military intelligence) involved in both the shelling of Yeonpyeong and the sinking of the ROK corvette Cheonam, was rehabilitated after being demoted in the fall, when at least 10 other senior commanders were either demoted or dismissed.

Apart from the yo-yo career swings of the military elite, and private rankling that Kim Jong-eun, at age 28 or so, has a string of august military titles, the military has even more substantial gripes.

The military (which control’s 70% of enterprises generating foreign currency) reportedly had many of these enterprises wrestled away and transferred to the Korean Workers’ Party last year. To distract them, and bolster his own military ‘credentials’ before an increasingly restless military and incredulous populace, Kim Jong-eun has presumably embarked on this pseudo-war.

Another possibility is raised by the appointment of Pak Pong Ju as premier by the Supreme People’s Assembly. This was announced (ironically?) on April 1. Having served previously in the post from 2003 to 2007, he has the reputation of being a reformer, as that period witnessed the first glimmers of official attempts to develop along the lines of China and Vietnam.

Is this war rhetoric a smokescreen to distract ‘hardliners’ (are there softliners?) while the Kimist regime attempts reform? Then again, some have speculated that Pak Pong Ju could be the designated scapegoat should the economy collapse yet again.

Whatever the reason for this ‘State of War’, the extended mobilisation of the citizenry seems to be counter-productive, because it has increased grumbling at the local level and reduced output at the Statewide level.

I’ll believe this war when I see it—not that I’m looking forward to it.

* Peter Sylvestre is the Seoul correspondent of ATI.