North Korea: Relevance and Consideration

I want to talk about North Korea.

(The original broadcast for this post can be found at BlogTalkRadio and Podbean)

North Korea is marked in red

You might wonder why is North Korea important? Well, there are a number of reasons. First, North Korea has resurfaced in the media lately due the provocative actions of its dictator…the missile tests, and the unchecked nuclear weapons programs, and the threats of violence…all of this is important…but, because of the size and location of the country, and the lack of real credibility from its government, it is easy to dismiss them as a real threat for some people…while others are panicked and preparing for the worst.

There are a lot of misconceptions out there and there are a lot of unsubstantiated stories floating around. You might have some ideas yourself – some of your ideas might be influenced by what you see or hear in the media…I want to be clear about a few things…some of the information offered by the media might have some merit, while a lot of it is just guesswork, and much of it is just not true.

Since North Korea is very isolated, and since the government dictates its own, very specific narrative to the world, it is very difficult to determine what is real, and what is either guesswork or propaganda. Even some of the “first hand” information from North Korean defectors and immigrants, or refugees (if you will), is tainted a bit by emotion, politics, and various bias.

I’d like to start with what we know about North Korea…the facts, if you will…or, at least is believed to be the most accurate account.

First, let me start with a brief history of Korea. I won’t go back too far, but for much of its history, Korea was an independent kingdom. Now, that changed in 1905 following the Russo-Japanese War they were occupied by Japan…and, 5 years later in 1910, Japan formally annexed the entire Korean peninsula. That’s how things remained until after WWII when the peninsula was split with the Soviets controlling the northern half. The north invaded the south in 1950, which led to the Korean War – the conflict halted in an armistice and it has been divided into North and South Korea ever since 1953.

Korean War
Korean War

Under the influence of the Soviets, Kim Il Sung came to power and adopted a policy of “self-reliance” – now, I will get into the leadership transitions a bit later, but I will summarize it briefly for now…after Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il took control around 1994, and he was followed by his son, Kim Jong Un – who remains in power today.

Some notable times in their history…following the Korean War, North Korea experienced serious mismanagement of their resources and economy – food shortages were so severe that in the ’90s, hundreds of thousands of people starved, and died of malnutrition. Because of their politics and policy of self-reliance, even with international assistance, most of the population was impoverished.

Today, the situation is not as dyer, however, there is still much evidence that the country is plagued by extreme poverty.

In addition to the politics of the country, there are several other factors which affect the standard of living, the culture, and their overall relevance on the world stage – economically, culturally, and militarily.

Now, what other factors could be that big of an influence, other than their failed economic and political policies? Well, for starters…let’s look at their geography and their climate briefly…for the most part, North Korea is very mountains and hills, separated by deep, narrow valleys, with some coastal plains which are mostly to the west…their total land area is not much bigger than the state of Virginia (or, about 200,000 sq km)…enough on the geography lesson…what does that mean and why is it important? Well, basically, they only have about 20% of their land which is suitable for agriculture…so, couple that together with their self-reliance policy and their 25 million people and it is clear they are going to experience food shortages unless they are more willing to do business with other countries – now, to go off subject for a moment, China has been an instrumental trade partner…and because of that, some of the gaps in their self-reliance policy have been filled.

Now, let me get back on track…their climate…a temperate climate with most of their rainfall in the summer…and, they have long, harsh winters…so, again, couple the climate issues with isolationist policy and the results are not hard to see.

Lanscape - Korea
Korean Landscape

Now, before I lose your attention…please bare with me…I am definitely going somewhere with all of this…it is very important to have as much information as you can before you can truly understand what you are dealing with…or what you are up against…or, most importantly, so you can answer the question, “Is North Korea relevant?”

Now, we have some background on the history, geography and climate…now let’s cover the infrastructure briefly.

First, if you are able to listen to this broadcast (or read this blog), then you are better off than at least 70% of the population in North Korea…to clarify…less than 15% of the rural population has electricity, and only 41% of the urban population…even when you consider that most of the people in North Korea live in urban areas, there are more than 18 million people that don’t even have electricity, or access to electric power. Additionally, more than 20 million don’t have cellular service and 23 million are without telephone service altogether.

As far as transportation is concerned, there is only one registered airline and they only have 17 aircraft…additionally, there are only about 700km of paved roads. I couldn’t get exact figures, but with such limited roadways, I can imagine there are not a lot of personal automobiles.

They do have about 7500 km of raillines, but the majority of that is used for military purposes.

So, they are a bit lacking when it comes to basic communications and transportation for their 25 million citizens…an important point, which I will reiterate a bit later.

Now, let’s talk about their military. Military service is an obligation for North Koreans…at age 17, they must enter military service – 10 years for men and women until age 23. I have conflicting information regarding the actual numbers, but there are about 9.5 military reserve and about 1.2 million active military – if those numbers are correct, that makes the total around 11 million…which is huge, for their population and size…some sources claim they have the 4th largest in the world…whatever the exact numbers I am not sure. This is important no matter the exact numbers. The military is broken down into the Ground Forces, Navy, Air Force and civil security forces.

Military Tank

As far as equipment is concerned…the NK military consists of mostly outdated Soviet era equipment…much of which is in ill-repair and lacking the support equipment for proper upkeep and maintenance. The do have a lot of equipment, so the numbers are important…for example…they have a large number of artillery grouped near the DMZ – even with out-dated equipment, they could send quite a barrage into Seoul, SK from that location. They have been spending a lot of effort recently on their rocket forces…particularly their nuclear program. I have read reports about them getting assistance from other countries such as Iran…and, that they may have purchased some Ukrainian rocket engines on the black market…I have no solid evidence either way; however, based on there recent activities, they can launch ballistic missiles with a fairly long range, and they do have some nuclear capabilities…now, whether they can marriage the two together and whether they have the accuracy to hit a target directly or not…well, that is all up in the air…truthfully, you don’t need to be spot on with a nuclear weapon in order to do grave damage.

Some things to note about their military. The air force has few modern aircraft, and due to the limited numbers and the lack of proper maintenance, most of their pilots don’t get a lot of flight time…so, they are probably not very proficient. They have a large number of anti-aircraft systems – surface to air missile and anti aircraft artillery, so even if with their aircraft and pilot deficiency, it would be problematic for manned aircraft to wage a successful campaign over North Korea while those systems are operational. They also have a vast radar network, and many conventional aircraft would have a hard time surprising them. As far as their ground forces…well, they are dug in deep…it is no secret that they have a huge network of tunnels and other hardened facilities in and around the many mountains and hills…they are hard to find, and hard to hit…and, they are all over the place throughout the country.

DMZ Guard
Korean Guard at DMZ – separating North and South Korea

I will stop there…I could spend hours discussing just the military in North Korea, but I want to move on at this point.

Moving on to the leadership, mindset, and historical precedents. As I mentioned earlier, at the end of the Korean War, the pennisula was split and, with the support of the Soviets, and with their guidance, Kim Il Sung came to power…Kim Il Sung adopted a policy of self-reliance and he demonized the US and molded his political, economic and military policies around the premise that reunification of the Korea pennisula was the ultimate objective under Pyongyang’s control. In 1980, Kim Jong Il (his son) was named his official successor, and in 1994 he took over his father’s role when Kim Il Sung died. In 2010, Kim Jong Un was named his father’s success, and he took control in 2011 when Kim Jong Il died…I don’t intend to confuse anyone, but I wanted to go over the lineage of governmental control.

I won’t go into all the turmoil each leader is responsible for, but I will hit on some key points. Under Kim Jung Un, there have been a number of notable executions, including his uncle, for alleged treachery. There have also been numerous accounts of human rights violations – including labor camps and human trafficking. Due to famine and poor living conditions, it is estimated that half the children suffer from malnutrition, and infectitious diseases are at epidemic levels throughout the population – including malaria, hepititus B and turberculosis.

In the recent months, Kim Jung Un has defied International pressures and tested nuclear devices, as well as test launched ballistic missiles. He has also made direct threats toward the US, Japan and South Korea.

Okay, well all this information brings us to where we are today…in a nutshell, of course…there just isn’t enough time to give every detail.

Let’s move on to why all this matters and what impact is has on the world, and let’s answer the question…Is North Korea relevant?

Today, North Korea stands isolated and impoverished, under the control of a leader who habitually makes threats and defies international standards in regards to human rights and nuclear weapons. Does he really have a nuclear capable ballistic missile? That is really not the biggest issue…even a small device can be used to cause devastation, and it doesn’t need to be attached to a missile.

After the most recent missile test – the one that overflew Japan – the international community devised more sanctions – and, to some extent they had support from known North Korean allies, such as Russia and China. The media is playing hard to China on the spot for not “doing enough”…Why China? Well, China is really the predominant supporter of North Korea. I doubt seriously either China or Russia is going to do much more than vocalize their opposition to further belligerence from North Korea. They could possibly pressure Kim Jung Un enough that he might back down, but that’s doubtful on many levels…first, Kim Jung Un has nothing to lose…more sanctions don’t matter because his country is already near rock bottom…his lifestyle isn’t going to change much either way…if he cooperates, though, he loses face…if he doesn’t cooperate, then it’s just more of the same. If he launches a nuclear strike at the US, or Japan, or SK, he will just hide deep inside one of his mountains…he might get caught eventually, but it would probably take years and the damage would already be done. So, I doubt he is going to back off. And, you are probably wondering why I don’t think Russia and china are going to do much….well, that’s simple…North Korea is right at their doorstep…both share a border with North Korea…now, I don’t think they fear a nuclear strike from North Korea, but neither of them want, nor are they prepared to deal with millions of North Korea refugees flooding across into their countries if a war breaks out…China likes its isolationist stance, and, honestly, they have a tough enough time keeping North Koreans from crossing at present. Imagine Russia or China going to war with Canada or Mexico…the US would have to bare all the troubles associated with millions of refugees flooding over the borders.

ICBM Launch
ICBM Launch

So, China and Russia are probably not going to do much to help North Korea, but they are not going to do much to provoke them either….war on the Korean peninsula, especially nuclear war is something neither want anything to do with.

That is just one problem…a war in North Korea would be a nightmare…like I mentioned earlier, their troops are really dug in…complete occupation of the North is probably not possible by any invader…there are too many caves and tunnels. You also need to consider the civilians in addition to the 11 million military…most of them are very disconnected from the outside world, which means they probably trust only the stories and propaganda…they would view any invader as someone coming to take what little they have…so, instead of fighting an army of 11 million it would be more like fighting 25 million.

Let me paude…because I have two schools of thought for you to consider…first is what I just described…a war that could not be won, and a population of people defending what little they have. Now, consider the wretched conditions the NK are living in…diseases, hunger, labor camps, torture…I mean, I saw some photos of a NK soldier gathering grass so he could have a meal for the day…so, just maybe, there would be mass surrenders if war broke out. I have to believe that some of those in NK would see a war as a chance to get away from the cruel regime they are currently living under.

Honestly, I think we’d see a little bit of both…some would take the chance to escape the North while others would fear something worse was coming if they didn’t fight.

Let’s pause for a moment and talk about how North Korea affects the international community. They don’t produce anything that can’t be produced somewhere else. They dont contribute to humanitarian relief, and the are not on the leading edge of science nor technology. So why do they matter? North Korea is not the enemy of the international community…the enemy is Kim Jung Un, and because he has the power to execute, the power to torture, the power to enslave and impoverish and demoralize…he also has the power of a large military and wmd…because he has those powers North Korea is relevant.

Thank you for taking the time to listen in (or read this post)…I welcome all your comments, and any suggestions you have for this program, as well as future programs.

Please check back soon.

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