Sunday, April 24, 2011

Is North Korea's ominous warning serious this time?

There was a time when Pyongyang's threats to rain fire down on the South Korean capital, their claims that such-and-such by Seoul or Washington was an "act of war" that would be responded to in kind, or their other various forms of menacing behavior was just so much bluster: it was a de rigueur for North Korea's mouthpieces to regularly threaten the neighbors to the south.

That was, of course, before the sinking of the Ch'ŏnan last spring, killing dozens of ROK seamen, and then the shelling of Yŏnpyŏng-do Island last fall, which killed ROK military personnel and two civilians.

Now that the envelope has been pushed, one wonders if we should take threats like these a little more seriously:
North Korea warned yesterday that it will launch full-fledged attacks against people sending propaganda leaflets over the border, and it won’t give any advance warnings.

The threat to anti-North Korea campaigns by South Korean activists came amid rising hopes that the two Koreas will join China, Russia, the United States and Japan to revive the stalled six-party talks on the North’s nuclear weapons program.

“Under this situation, our army officially informs the south side that it will expand the scope of direct fire, already declared, into full-scale destruction fire at any area, any time,” said the North Korean military in a report from the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

In March, the North said through Korean Central Television that it was losing patience with groups sending propaganda leaflets via balloons across the border and would open fire on certain South Korean sites used to launch the balloons.

Despite the warnings, some civic groups continued to send the balloons. On April 15, the birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, groups dispatched around 200,000 leaflets containing pro-democracy, anti-Kim family messages.
They are talking about anti-Kim Jong-il leaflets containing news of the Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East, along with dollar bills and DVDs, being floated over North Korean territory as a way to erode confidence in the regime. Pyongyang has made no secret that it is angry about the leaflets, which it considers psyops and therefore an "act of war." In fact, they have made threats in February and in March that they may attack these positions.

While I'm not saying that these leaflets shouldn't be sent out, I do think it is prudent to expect that North Korean might make good on its threat, with at least one or two shells lobbed in that direction (too many might invite a serious response from the Lee Myungbak administration, which is reeling from anger over its milquetoast response to the shelling last fall).

North Korea's have comfortably lowered the threshold at which they would act, and that alone should have us on guard. Moreover, the way North Korea is talking about this may indicate they are making a case (for their own people at least) why such an attack is not only justified but necessary. Here's North Korea's Central News Agency (KCNA) report on the same news above (朝鮮語):
The south side is persisting in the dirty action of scattering anti-DPRK leaflets, despite the north side's repeated warnings, while committing such reckless military provocations as firing bullets at it.

It scattered more than 200,000 leaflets at Rimjin Pavilion in Phaju City on April 15 and 1.2 million around Samgot-ri, Jung-myon, Ryonchon County in the central sector of the front on April 14, stealthily acting like a cat burglar for fear of merciless counteraction by the army of the DPRK.

It also perpetrated unpardonable military provocation such as firing 12.7 mm large-calibre machine gun in direction of the north side at random from 516 gendarme post at 19:38 on April 15.

Those facts prove that the present puppet authorities are getting evermore pronounced in the bellicose stand to escalate the north-south confrontation and finally bring the situation to the brink of war, the head of the north side pointed out.

Then he solemnly notified the following principled stand of the Korean People's Army:
As already and evidently clarified, leaflet scattering is a form of psychological warfare and it is just a clear-cut war provocation to a warring side.

Accordingly, it is our invariable stand that direct fire at the area where leaflets are let fly will be a legitimate punishment by the army of the DPRK, a warring side, to the breakers of the Armistice Agreement.

Moreover, the south side resorts to scattering of leaflets, moving places in a cunning way for fear of counteraction by our army. Under this situation, our army officially informs the south side that it will expand the scope of direct fire, already declared, into full-scale destruction fire at any area anytime.
Indeed, the KCNA story is a far more ominous read, for it combines the following elements: (a) a declaration that they consider leaflet spreading psyops and therefore an act of war, (b) an official warning of retaliation for said act of war, and most gravely, (c) a concomitant shooting incident that bolsters the case. That last one, left out of the English-language reports in South Korea and the Western media, may seal the deal by providing pretext.

The Pyongyang regime is starting to feel under siege, with much of the population outside the capital feeling very disgruntled following the Great Currency Obliteration of 2009 and the deprivation that followed. Simply put, the leaflet launchings make it harder for them to keep the people in line (which is one of the reasons for doing the leaflet launching in the first place!), perhaps to the point that the regime is under threat itself, and they have to do something.

It's no wonder, then, that some residents of P'aju (written as Phaju in the KCNA article) in the northern part of South Korea, are annoyed that the activists are launching the balloons from their neighborhoods. North Korea has recently demonstrated that they have no qualms about shelling civilian targets, and they could be next.

Now, this is not to say that the leaflets should not be sent. I'm sounding the alarm for preparation more than anything else. Perhaps also the leaflet-launching groups could pick some more isolated areas and perhaps even a maritime location (though I have no idea how feasible this is).

I'm just saying: This could get very, very ugly in the near term.

Plan... ahead...

This doesn't bode well. Apparently Kim Jong-il has paid a recent visit to the government agency that is responsible for the attack on the Ch'ŏnan.


  1. What about a place like 백령도? Not sure how to write that in English.

    Or, if launching from the sea is an issue, how about some place near Gangwon-do?

    Is Paju a good place to launch because of its proximity to Kaesong?

  2. I doubt, based on previous performance, this is anything but the perfunctory agitprop performance KCNA excels at. Negotiations bring out this kind of hyperbole.

  3. Adeel, I think P'aju is used because of a combination of ease of access for the SoKo launchers themselves and, as you suggest, its proximity to Kaesŏng.

    The problem with Paengnyŏngdo Island (Baengnyeongdo) is that it is a bit inconvenient to get to, not just because you have to take a long boat ride (a couple hundred kilometers from the South Korean mainland), but also because it involves paperwork and clearances. You can't just shove stuff in your minivan and drive over.

    Also, as we've seen with Yŏnpyŏngdo, North Korea may be more willing to shell South Korea's off-shore islands than the mainland itself, and sending the balloons from there just invites retaliation all the more.

  4. radcontra, prior to the shelling of Yŏnpyŏngdo, I would have to agree with you, but not anymore. They have specific grievances, specific targets, and they have clearly demonstrated they will use their contrived justifications to make good on their threats, even to the point of shelling civilians.

    It's a craven new world.

  5. "They"?

    North Korea is the perfect Rorshach test for pundits. It's just difficult to get reliable documentation. But, colossal fuck-up always works when dealing with humans. Any explanation requiring two people to work together is probably wrong.

  6. I spend some time near the Imjin River as I am fascinated by the paleolithic history of the area. A recent development is triangular signs appearing on fences surrounding unused bush by the river, in some places hard by public area such as roadside rest areas, and in the sorts of places I would usually look for river access or possible camp sites. The signs warn of Danger: Mines.

  7. radcontra wrote:
    North Korea is the perfect Rorshach test for pundits. It's just difficult to get reliable documentation.

    Perhaps the problem is that most pundits are looking at the wrong set of Roschachs. A lot of my "contrarian" perspective comes from reading the KCNA itself as a primary source, which it seems most people do not do.

    The other problem is that they take what the KCNA says with too much of a grain of salt, when it is surprisingly accurate in what it says. The KCNA's sins are those of omission — they distort by leaving horrible things out — but what they keep in is rather credible. Not completely, but to a large degree.

    That plus my gut — my interpretive, investigative gut — has served me well. I was, for example, one of the few who early on was fairly certain Laura Ling and Euna Lee had gone into North Korean territory of their own volition to get a scoop that would make them famous, and part of my short journey toward that decision was by looking at the KCNA reports in a certain way.

    I was also right back in 2009 that Kim Jong-il was not near death, and so far I've been right that the passing of the baton is not going so smoothly (something I picked up big time from the KCNA reports), and I think I will be shown to be right that Beijing is forcing Pyongyang to make some serious economic reforms to integrate it with the Manchurian provinces (an update on that is forthcoming).

    So it's actually not much of a Rorschach really. To be honest, I really hope I'm wrong, because Pyongyang is playing with fire here. They are probably assuming that if they lob just a few shells toward the balloon launchers, it won't pass the threshold requiring a military response from Seoul.

    If they had a sustained bombardment like they did to Yŏnpyŏng-do, you'd better believe there would be quick retaliation, but what if there were just three or four? Surely Seoul wouldn't risk all-out war over that, right? Right?

    But what's different now is that Seoul is expecting attacks on civilians and has consequently come up with a response that has a lower threshold than before: It might be that if there's any shelling, then the enemy position must be destroyed.

    Before Yŏnpyŏng-do and certainly before the Ch'ŏnan, this would sound paranoid. But now, it is prudent.

    I pray to God I'm wrong.

  8. I'm not questioning your method. But, you are doing foreign policy analysis and trying to make universal IR conclusions. Prediction from isolated cases is fraught with error. I'll take your fact-finding for what it's worth, but it's no substitute for good theory.

  9. The Chosun Ilbo is reporting that the Dear Leader secretly paid a visit to the government agency responsible for carrying out recent attacks on South Korea.

  10. radcontra, the problem with IR is that it's necessarily from a small number of cases, which by definition makes them isolated. The best we can do is predict trends, and some are better at it than others. In the past, like in the 1990s, I wasn't very good. In the Zeroes, I did significantly better.

    And I do have a good theory, but it's just too... what's the opposite of succinct?... to easily write down in a blog, so I just apply it case by case. And it has served me very well the past few years.

    I'm not really sure what you mean by trying to make "universal" IR conclusions. Academically and professionally, my focus is Korean studies, though I dabble in the social issues and politics of the neighbors, and I'm not trying to make some grand theory that would, say, apply to Vietnam or Libya, or whatever.


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