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Callin’ All Politicos: The Land of Lousy Choices

Japan’s arch nemesis, North Korea, was very busy in 2010. Two major engagements with South Korea produced numerous deaths and raised regional and world tensions to levels not seen in many years. Japan has a long and complicated history with both Koreas that affects everyone living here, so it is worthwhile to examine the “North Korea problem” closer.

Who leads North Korea?
Strangely enough, a dead man. The person effectively in charge of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name) is Kim Jong Il. His father, Kim Il Sung, was the first leader of North Korea when it was formed at the end of WWII. Under a home-brewed ideology and pseudo-religion known as “Juche,” the North has inculcated total obedience to the state in every citizen. Kim Il Sung was worshiped as a literal god on Earth with supernatural powers ascribed to him and his offspring. When he died in 1994 the post of President was changed to “Eternal President” making North Korea the only country in the world ruled by a dead man.

It is widely suspected that in 2008 Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke which left him temporarily incapacitated and the future leadership of the DPRK in doubt. Since then great efforts have been made to prepare one of Kim’s sons, Kim Jong Un, as the heir-apparent.

Does North Korea have nuclear weapons?
Yes. Long suspected of secretly developing a nuclear weapons program, the DPRK conducted actual weapons tests in 2006 and 2009. They are presently believed to be in possession of a handful of nuclear bombs. To make matters worse, the U.S. was caught off guard when in late November of 2010 an American nuclear expert was invited to tour a North Korean nuclear facility and reported seeing an ultra-modern facility with thousands of centrifuges capable of producing weapons grade nuclear material. The DPRK is now believed to have a two track nuclear weapons program which makes it a double threat.

Would North Korea really start a war?
Actually, both Koreas are still technically in a state of war. The Korean War (1950-53) ceased with an armistice but no formal peace treaty was signed, thus the war is in a state of suspension and not conclusion. The fighting from 1950-53 resulted in strategic failure for the North, but its propaganda pledges that reunification under Pyongyang will occur some day.

The North maintains a large standing army but is ill-equipped to emerge victorious in any kind of a conventional war with joint South Korean and U.S. forces. Instead, the DPRK has used military provocation – often in the form of quick, violent strikes – to put pressure on the South Korean and U.S. side to deliver much needed resources that the North needs to maintain itself.

If the war were restarted, how would Japan be affected?
Japan, as the former colonial occupier of both North and South Korea, is the subject of particularly harsh propaganda by the DPRK. The North accuses Japan of conspiring with the U.S. to weaken and overthrow the North Korean government. North Korea has test fired long range rockets over Japan and in the event of a resumption of hostilities U.S. military bases in Japan and/or Japanese civilian or defense installations could be targeted.

What are the “Six Party Talks”?
In an effort to break the cycle of escalation, de-escalation, escalation, a working group consisting of representatives from six nations – North Korea, South Korea, Japan, America, Russia, and China – was formed to negotiate over the various issues involving North Korea. South Korea, the United States, and Japan typically take a tough stance against the North, while Russia and China (in particular) nominally support it.

Can the North Korea problem be “solved”?
A former U.S. expert on North Korea aptly dubbed the country “the land of lousy choices”. Appeasing North Korea has only succeeded in temporarily subduing their aggression, while taking a hard line often leads to violent flare ups. The U.S. side is confident in its ability to win militarily but is very hesitant to risk the kind of catastrophic damage that a collapsing North Korea could deal out upon the South.

The key to moving North Korea is China. The wartime ally of the DPRK is its main economic partner and one of the only countries in the world it can count as a friend. China for its part has competing interests at play. A rapidly growing economic and world power, China wishes to be seen as a global player and a force of stabilization. It is in China’s interest to keep North Korean aggression contained lest it reflect badly on their image. On the other hand, China is also eager to see a reduction in U.S. stature and influence in East Asia (their backyard), and playing North Korea against America is a useful tactic.

Even under the scenario of a “soft landing” in North Korea, where the regime peacefully breaks up and the two countries are reunited, many problems would remain or be magnified. The top priority would be feeding and housing a country of over 20 million that has been racked by famine, crippling poverty and political corruption for well over a generation. Reintegrating a people who have been cut off from the world into modern society would be an unparalleled social undertaking. To say that the economic burden to South Korea and potential donor nations like Japan of such a transition would be high is a titanic understatement.

Whether the outcome is peace or war, the issue of North Korea will loom over all of East Asia well into the 21st century.

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