The CIA director predicts that North Korea will cease to exist within three years. Some dramatic change is due. But how? There are three scenarios: peaceful co-existence with South Korea, explosion or implosion
There are three potential trouble spots in Far-East Asia: (i) China-Taiwan, (ii) the Spratly islands, claimed by China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and Malaysia, and (iii) the imminent collapse of North Korea. The potential for crisis of the first two depends on the attitude of the Chinese Communist bosses and whether they will give more importance to emotional territorial issues than to the economy.
It is the third issue over which neither the regional superpower, China, nor the world's only superpower, the U.S., has control. In the very near future, the world's last Stalinists and most reclusive country, North Korea, are going to create a big crisis in the Far East which may have devastating and long term effects in that region.
The countries which will be most affected - South Korea, Japan, the U.S. and China - have no say in the hermit country and have opted for a day-to-day reactive approach. This contrasts with Iraq, where the U.S. has been able to call the shots by manipulating post-Gulf War U.N. trade restrictions. But because its 37,000 soldiers at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) are heavily outnumbered, the U.S. has been dancing to the tunes of North Korea. According to U.S. defense experts, U.S. troops would be wiped out within a few hours of attack by North Korea's biological and chemical missiles.
After its win over regional power Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), Japan made Korea a Japanese protectorate by forcing the Korean Emperor to sign a treaty. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945 at the end of World War II, U.S. President Roosevelt and Soviet dictator Stalin agreed to a four-power trusteeship for Korea shared amongst the U.S., the U.S.S.R., Great Britain and China. But they never formally agreed on the future of Korea.
When the U.S.S.R. opened its eastern war front against Japan on August 8, 1945, it reached the northern part of Korea. Under the terms and conditions of Japanese surrender set by the U.S., Japanese forces north of the 38th parallel were asked to surrender to the Soviet commander and Japanese forces south of the line were asked to surrender to the U.S. commander. During a U.S.-Soviet commission conference in Seoul from March to May 1946 to decide the future of Korea, the Soviets demanded the exclusion of Korean political groups who had opposed the trusteeship from consultation. The U.S. refused, and the meeting accomplished nothing. They met again from May to August 1947 with the same fate.
In the meantime, the U.S. took the case to the U.N. in September 1946. The U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution in favor of the U.S. position. The resolution called for the election of a National Assembly under the observation of a U.N. Temporary Commission on Korea and for the establishment of a government that would arrange the withdrawal of the occupying powers from Korea.
The U.S.S.R. refused to allow the Commission into North Korea. On the other hand, elections in South Korea were held on May 10, 1948 under the supervision of the Commission. The National Assembly met on May 31. On July 20, Syngman Rhee, former president of the exiled Korean government (during the Japanese occupation), was elected president. On August 15, the Republic of Korea was inaugurated and military rule ended. On December 12, the U.N. General Assembly declared the republic to be the only lawful government in Korea.
In the Soviet-occupied Northern region, the Supreme People's Assembly of North Korea formed a committee to draft a constitution, which it adopted in April. Elections for the Assembly were held on August 25, 1948 with a single list of candidates. On September 9, the Democratic People s Republic (DPR) of Korea was inaugurated with Kim Il-sung, a Stalin proteg and father of the current ruler, as premier. The U.S.S.R. recognized the DPR Korea as the only lawful government in Korea in October, 1948.
The U.S.S.R. withdrew its forces in December 1948, leaving behind a couple hundred advisors to train the Korean People's Army. The Soviets had been giving military training to thousands of Koreans in the U.S.S.R. since 1946 as well as supplying heavy military equipment to the Korean army. During 1949-50, the People's Republic of China transferred about 12,000 Korean troops from its army to the North Korean Army. By June 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea, the North Korean army had about 135,000 troops trained by the Soviets and a tank brigade.
The South Korean army was poorly prepared when compared to its Northern counterpart. The U.S. withdrew its troops from South Korea in June 1949, leaving behind about 500 advisors to train the South Korean army. In June 1950, South Korea had about 98,000 troops equipped only with small guns. Heavy military equipment obtained under the U.S. military aid plan were still en route when North Korea invaded. South Korea was completely unprepared.
According to confidential documents uncovered in Russia after the end of the Cold War, Kim was afraid of an attack by the U.S.-backed South Korean regime and pleaded with both Stalin and Mao for a preemptive strike as well as the reunification of Korea. The strike was approved and Mao promised to send Chinese troops if required.
North Korea launched a full scale invasion on June 25th. At that time the U.S.S.R. was boycotting the U.N. on the issue of the membership of mainland China in the Security Council and other U.N. forums. This allowed the U.S. to obtain an U.N. resolution to send an international army to defend South Korea. Had the U.S.S.R. not been boycotting the U.N., it would have certainly vetoed the resolution, perhaps preventing the U.S. from getting a mandate for international action.
In October 1950, the U.S.-led international force not only drove the North Korean army out of South Korea, it was able to capture a substantial chunk of North Korea also. Stalin pleaded with Mao to send five or six Chinese brigades to stop the U.N. troops. Stalin also told Mao that if the result was WWIII, that was acceptable. Mao assented. With Chinese troops thrown into the conflict, about four million people lost their lives, including Mao's son and more than 150,000 U.S. troops. The political result however was a stalemate, which led to an armistice in 1953. Technically the war is not over, as the parties have not signed a peace treaty. The demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas is the world's most heavily armed border with more than two million battle-ready troops. About 37,000 U.S. troops are stationed there.
The "Great Leader", Kim Il-sung, ruled over North Korea from 1948 till his death in 1994 and made North Korea the most reclusive country in the world. Until the mid-1970s, the North Korean economy outperformed both the South Korean and the Chinese economies. Its per capita income was higher than South Korea's.
This situation changed when Deng Xiaoping made drastic changes in Chinese economic policy in the late 1970s and South Korea became a source of cheap consumer items for the U.S., making it one of the four "Asian Tigers". After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., which was one of North Korea's major trading partners and the main source of subsidized petroleum, food and arms, and because of declining trade with China due to drastic changes in Chinese economic policy and increasing Chinese trade with South Korea, North Korea's economy has virtually collapsed in the 1990s. For the last six to seven years the North Korean economy has declined by an average of five percent yearly, and shrunk by one-third from its 1991 level. Table 1 shows a comparison of the armies and economies of the two Koreas.
|North Korea||South Korea|
|Population||23.9 million||43.5 million|
|Area||122,795 sq. km||99,417 sq. km|
|GDP (1994)||$21.3 billion||$508 billion|
|GDP per capita (1994)||$920||$11,270|
|Imports (1994)||$1.6 billion||$78.9 billion|
|Exports (1994)||$1.0 billion||$81 billion|
|Televisions||1 per 11.5 persons||1 per 4.3 persons|
|Telephones||1 per 21 persons||1 per 2.6 persons|
|Infant mortality rate (per 1,000 live births)||26||8|
|Military Expenditure (1994)||$5.66 billion||$13.03 billion|
|Military Expenditure (1994, percent of GNP)||25||3.6|
|Regular armed forces||1.2 million||633,000|
North Korea's total 1995 trade was less than a week's worth of South Korea's exports that year (Washington Post, April 17, 1997).
"Great Leader" Kim, the father of present leader Kim Jong Il, created a personality cult in North Korea around himself. North Koreans used to regard him as a god-like figure. His photographs could be found in all public places and even in a majority of homes. School children sang his praises every day. After his death, photos of his son, called "Dear Leader", have either replaced photos of his father or sit alongside.
According to an article published in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition (January 27, 1997), "Kim has followed his father's blueprint for myth-making, using the state's radio and print propaganda tools to take credit for amazing feats. Construction engineers stymied about where and how to build a dam are said to be enlightened by Kim; fighter pilots improve their prowess with instruction on takeoffs and landings from Generalissimo Kim in the control towers. Kim clings to his father's practice of providing "on-the-spot guidance to his people, a phenomenon in which the national leader visits soldiers, farmers, scientists, journalists, film makers and anyone else to impart instant wisdom that solves their most complex problems."
People in North Korea have no idea about the outside world, including the riches of its brother South Korea. North Korean radios and televisions are manufactured to receive only one channel, which broadcasts government programming. The government media paints a negative picture about the rest of world - North Korea is a heaven and other countries are worse. Listening to foreign broadcasts is punishable by execution. International calls are not allowed. Mail is censored. All North Koreans wear the same style shirts. People are required to get travel passes to visit another village.
The U.S. puts North Korea on its list of "rogue" nations, along with Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya. Unlike the other four rogue nations, it possesses nuclear bombs in its arsenal. In 1994, the U.S. and North Korea came close to war over the issue of North Korea's secret plan to build nuclear bombs. But, finally the countries made a deal in which North Korea promised to suspend its nuclear program in exchange for two less dangerous nuclear power plants and fuel oil worth $5 billion, mainly financed by South Korea. But, till now, North Korea has not allowed any inspection of the nuclear plants to enforce the 1994 treaty.
North Korea has about 1,700 Scud missiles. The U.S. has accused North Korea of selling long-range Scud missiles to Iran and Syria, and has helped them set up domestic plants to manufacture its Scud-C missiles. According to U.S. intelligence sources, Iran keeps its Scud missiles in several deep tunnels along its coast line, including on some of its islands in the Straits of Hormuz. This gives Iran the capacity to block the strait, which is a conduit for more than one-third of the world's oil. It is said that North Korea also has developed and is deploying a long-range missile, named Rodong-I, with a range of 1000 km. This makes it capable of reaching all of South Korea and much of Japan. According to the London-based Jane's defense report, North Korea is also trying to develop missiles with a range of 3,500 km that could reach the U.S. territory of Guam.
For the last several years the U.S., Japan and South Korea have been accusing North Korea of drug trafficking and counterfeiting $100 bills. This forced the U.S. to redesign its $100 bills last year and phase out earlier notes designed in the 1920s. In April this year, Japanese police seized $100 million worth of illegal drugs labeled as honey from a North Korean cargo ship. Early this year, in order to raise hard currency, North Korea signed a deal with Taiwan to accept about 200,000 barrels of nuclear waste for tens of millions of dollars. South Korea has lodged a protest to Taiwan as the waste would be disposed of in an area less than 40 miles from its border; if North Korea collapses, South Korea would inherit the problem.
North Korea now faces large-scale starvation because of a steep decline in food grain production due to floods in 1995 and 1996. Recently declassified U.S. military photos show that mountains had been stripped of trees, resulting in devastating floods which destroyed crops on a large scale. Trees on mountains could no longer perform their function of holding water during the rainy period. The government had ordered trees and forests cut down for firewood and in order to increase the arable land.
People compare North Korea's starvation with the early 1960s Chinese famine created due to Mao Zedong's faulty agriculture policies, which killed more than 30 million people. It is said that in the countryside food rations are below survival level - 200 grams per day. Only soldiers get sufficient food, as the totalitarian government can not afford to antagonize them. People are too weak to plant crops, which the army is doing for them in several areas.
Acute starvation has forced the North Korean government to beg for food from the outside world. South Korea delivered a shipload of food grain to North Korea last year. While the ship was at sea the North Korean navy boarded it and forced it to fly the North Korean flag because it did not want to show its people that South Korea was their benefactor, which would have given it a propaganda advantage. They also arrested a crew on spying charges, causing South Korea to stop food grain aid. But in May this year, due to deteriorating conditions, it has agreed to except South Korean food grains, and the sacks of grains will have marks showing their origin. Another condition however is that the grains will not come through DMZ. They will instead come through China on three rail lines and from two seaports. There is scepticism that the conditions of this agreement will work out as it would be a humiliation for North Korea.
After visiting North Korea, Han S. Park, University of Georgia political scientist, said that the entire population was in the process of slow death. North Korean defectors have been narrating the acute famine in North. According to them, some parents are so desperate that they kill their children rather than see them die slowly, after which the parents commit suicide. Children and old people are most malnourished. Almost all defectors narrate similar stories. The government has banned public funerals because there are too many. People have been dying of tuberculosis, rickets and pneumonia. In 1995-96, according to one estimate, there were more than 100,000 deaths due to starvation.
The economy is also doing poorly. State-run factories are running at 20-25 percent of capacity. Many factories and mines are closed. According to an article published in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition (March 17, 1997), a comparison of two photographs taken by the U.S. satellites of the same region, one in 1986 and another in 1996, showed that electrical production had dropped to nil. In the 1986 photograph there was a glow of lights in every section of the country; now the whole country is dark except for a single small area of light from the capital Pyongyang. Early this year a U.S. Senate delegation went to North Korea on a fact-finding mission. Although they found no shortage of food in the capital Pyongyang, they did not see any livestock. There was not a single pig, chicken or duck. Most of the buildings had no heat.
Japan was once a major contributor of food grains to North Korea. But after a report early this year about the 1970s kidnapping of several Japanese, including a 13-year-old girl, by North Korea to teach North Korean spies the Japanese language, Japan has stopped humanitarian food aid despite having a large amount of surplus rice in its stores that it will discard. This stockpiled rice, renewed regularly, is enough to feed Japan's population of 125 million for about four months, and could wipe out the scarcity of food in North Korea. In negotiations with the U.S., until recently the North Koreans demanded food grains first and talk later. But, the U.S. and other countries are reluctant to send food as it could be diverted to feed North Korean troops and not needy people. They are also saying that if North Korea cut down its military budget, which is more than 25 percent of its GDP, it could manage to feed its people.
Although some political scientists relate the current starvation in North Korea to the death of millions due to starvation in Stalin's Russia in the 1930s and during Mao's Great Leap Forward in China in the early 1960s, which both regimes survived, there has been a sea-change in the world situation. Previously, people had no option but to die in their own countries. But now North Koreans can cross borders to China and South Korea, and both countries are afraid of floods of refugees. China has made it a policy to return any North Korean crossing the border to North Korea despite the knowledge that s/he will be summarily executed.
Last December the CIA director predicted that North Korea would disappear in three years, and he mentioned three possible scenarios - peaceful existence with South Korea, disintegration similar to the U.S.S.R. s, or an invasion of South Korea. Every country in this game wants a different outcome.
Peaceful transition to a stable state - Due to the need for food, North Korea has come to the bargaining table and started talks with the U.S. and South Korea. If the result is peace, it might lead to massive economic aid and investment by South Korea and Japan, making North Korea peaceful and happy - and separate from South Korea. This would suit the other countries involved.
Neither China nor Japan want an unified Korea with a nuclear capability and a vibrant economy like South Korea's. Japan in particular would not like to see an unified Korea under Chinese influence. The Koreans have not forgotten Japanese atrocities during its colonial rule earlier in the century.
China does not want the collapse of North Korea also because it is afraid that a democratic unified Korea at its border would be troublesome. It has been urging overseas Chinese businessmen to invest in North Korea in return for favors from the mainland.
The U.S. would be happy to get 37,000 troops as well as state-of-the-art arms and ammunition worth billions of dollars brought home.
Implosion - Due to food shortage and other economic problems, North Korea disintegrates like the U.S.S.R. This would create a massive flood of refugees to neighboring countries South Korea, China and Japan, as well as the possibility of merger of the two Koreas.
As both Koreas speak the same language and have the same culture and one out of four South Korean families has relatives in the North, a majority of South Koreans want merger. The cost of unification would run into several hundred billion dollars. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, West Germany has spent more than $700 billion for the unification of the two Germanies, requiring a 7.5 percent income tax surcharge on West Germans. Although since 1969 South Korea has had an Unification Ministry with plans for unification, including about 1,200 public buildings earmarked for shelter for North Korean refugees, it would be very painful for the South.
A merger of the two Koreas would not be the same as that of the two Germanies. In the German case, East Germans had knowledge of the outside world and their living standards were higher than North Koreans. North Koreans have had no knowledge of what is happening in other parts of their country, not to speak of the outside world, for 50 years. It would be very difficult for the South to "anti-brainwash" their brothers and sisters in North. Hence, an implosion of North Korea would create an economic problem for South Korea and it would be very costly to bring North Koreans to a par with living standards of the South. Also China and Japan would not like to see an unified Korea. For the U.S., it would be OK.
Explosion - This nobody wants, but it is likely the "Dear Leader" will opt for it rather than suffer Implosion. All North Korean defectors who have defected from the North recently, including 74-year-old Huang Jang Yop, ranked 26th in the ruling party hierarchy and a close aide to the late "Great Leader", have made statements that North Korea's dictator and his generals are preparing for war through a massive blitzkrieg. Their plan is to capture Seoul, which is less than 30 miles from the border, within 24 hours and take the whole of South Korea within a week. Members of a U.S. Senate delegation during a visit early this year saw a massive defense exercise in which all vehicles were covered with camouflage netting and people took refuge in shelters. North Koreans had been told that the U.S. and South Korea were going to invade in the near future.
U.S. analysts are saying that if North Korean leaders options are either to see the disintegration of the country due to starvation or to attack the South, they would opt for the latter. Having seen the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. and subsequent fate of its generals and the communist leadership, the North Korean dictator and his generals would not like to see the same happen to them. If they do invade they are not going to lose anything: death through battle would be preferable to death through implosion. According to one high-ranking defector, Kim Jong Il worships Adolf Hitler, who died rather than surrender.
Although invasion of the South would result in wiping North Korea off the world map, enormous numbers of lives, both military and civilian, would be lost on both sides. The North Korean army has outdated military equipment from the 1960s and a shortage of spare parts owing to the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. The militaries of the U.S. and South Korea are state-of-the-art. But these two countries would have insufficient warning time to be able to retaliate with full force, as almost all North Korean troops, arms and ammunition are positioned a few miles north of the DMZ. Recently North Korea also moved several medium range missiles to its east coast, within range of South Korea and parts of western Japan (Washington Post, April 23, 1997).
Tensions between the Koreas already run high. Last year a North Korean submarine infiltrated into South Korean waters, resulting in several deaths on both sides. A few weeks ago North Korean naval vessels accompanying civilian North Korean boats intruded into South Korean waters and opened fire on South Korean military vessels, which returned fire. The North Koreans retreated into their own zone. Some analysts predict that these types of incidents will increase as the North Korean situation becomes more and more unstable due to deteriorating famine conditions.
According to Mr. Yop, North Korea would not hesitate to use nuclear, biological and chemical weapons against South Korea and convert it into a sea of fire. North Korean leaders believe that they would win the war, and that if Japan and the U.S. intervene they could be reduced to ashes. U.S. analysts say that a blitzkrieg would wipe out almost all 37,000 U.S. troops within a few hours if North Korea uses biological and chemical missiles. Apart from large-scale destruction of South Korea s infrastructure, if the North uses nuclear weapons the human losses would run into millions.
North Korea took Seoul within three days in 1950. If they do the same now, and take a substantial area of South Korea, this would give North Korea a bargaining chip against the U.S. and South Korea, and might lead to a stalemate. Also, China might take the side of the North against the U.S. in order to retaliate against U.S. intervention in its backyard. This would give China a chance to uproot U.S. forces from East Asia. The Chinese leadership believe that domestic pressure would force the U.S. to withdraw from the conflict in the event of American deaths. China made this type of statement during the Taiwan crisis early last year.
The North Korean situation reminds me of the last photograph of Hitler outside his bunker during the final days of World War II. On that day he came out to greet troops consisting of high school students who were being sent to defend crumbling Berlin. He knew it was a matter of days before the Soviets marched up to his Chancellory. Nevertheless, Hitler took everything Germany had to his grave. This is typical of a dictator and his country.
The U.S. is afraid of a similar situation on the North Korean front, which might cost almost all 37,000 U.S. troops stationed there their lives. Hence, the U.S. has been trying hard to get its troops back home before it is too late. It cannot do this without a treaty with North Korea because this would antagonize its friend South Korea and lower its image as savior of world democracy and freedom. South Korea fears that the U.S. might opt for a bilateral treaty with North Korea and leave South Korea to face the onslaught of the North's biological and chemical missiles.
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