By Intelligence Operative Jay Holmes
On April 15, North Korea will celebrate its 68th anniversary of independence. While the Western world will barely notice the celebration, it will undoubtedly be a big occasion in North Korea. Unlike the 4th of July in the US, there will be no hot dogs or hamburgers on the grill. Maybe there will be one half of a hot dog per person at maximum, and no ketchup. Generally, celebrations in North Korea take the form of televised military and party cadre parades with a strong dose of religious worship for whichever unimaginative Kim happens to be in charge at the moment. Other than that, it will be just another miserable day in North Korea.
On February 12, 2013, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, detonating a weapon with a seven kiloton yield. Fortunately, yields from nuclear detonations are easily measured by other nations, and we know that the explosion was one-third the size of the yield of the atomic bomb that the US dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.
It was hardly the massive Armageddon weapon that North Korean dictator Kim Un’s propaganda machinery described. However, it represents a technical leap forward from previous North Korean nuclear detonations, and it is sufficient yield to cause thousands of deaths in any South Korean city or US base.
This missile test was yet another predictable violation of the latest nuclear weapons agreement between North Korea and the rest of the world. Why anyone in the US government would ever believe that North Korea would hold to an agreement remains one of the more curious mysteries of US foreign policy. My suspicion is that diplomats are instructed to pretend to believe that they have some quiet agreement in place with the Kim dynasty for political value at home in the US.
Even Madeleine Albright had to know she was talking nonsense when she pretended to be giddy with the “successes” of her miserable diplomatic efforts with Kim Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, during the Clinton era. The upshot of Madeleine’s diplomatic “victory” was to exchange US aid for the assurance that North Korea would not pursue nuclear weapons. Only the staunchest of Clinton administration supporters were able to convince themselves that Madeleine’s diplomatic performance was anything more than self-delusion. Madeleine’s “work” with North Korea did, however, fulfill one critical purpose. It allowed President Clinton to pass the buck to the next administration.
No US president since Eisenhower has wanted to deal with North Korea. Bill Clinton was no exception. Every US president arrives to his first day of work with his heart and mind filled with optimistic projections of how he will build his particular version of the “great society.” These optimistic visions generally start with something like a beautiful No Child Left Behind butterfly. Those visions then end up devolving into some ugly No Corporate Donor Left Behind parasite, but that’s a topic for yet another day.
And therein lies the second motive for the North Korean Kim Machine. If the first urgent goal of the North Korean government is to convince North Koreans to remain obedient, then the second goal is to be noticed by the US White House.
North Korea desperately needs the West for two important reasons. It needs us and the rest of the world to feed them. Like any undeveloped infant, North Korea is not grown up enough to feed itself. It’s too busy playing with military toys to learn that basic survival technique. Also, the Kim Dynasty’s entire 68-year-old Kim Marketing Plan relies on the perceived great and urgent threat to North Korea from the outside world.
Any time the North Koreans can broadcast a genuine video clip of a US president uttering the words “North Korea” without having to rely on their unskilled photo-shoppers, it’s a propaganda victory. In North Korea, a day without “international tension” is like, . . . well, we can only imagine what that would be like. Who knows? It hasn’t happened yet.
North Korea has also been developing a missile that has the ability to reach Alaska. Kim claims that missile can hit Los Angeles and Austin. It can’t. In fact, it is highly unlikely that North Korean missiles could reach the US mainland as of yet. It’s also unlikely that North Korea could equip a long range missile with a light enough nuclear weapon in a reentry device that would enable delivery to US soil and detonation.
In spite of the lack of a real threat, the US Defense Department has reinforced missile defense systems on the US West Coast. That reinforcement was intended for psychological rather than tactical benefit. Precisely what, if anything, occurred as a result of the announced reinforcement is a matter that I will leave to the Defense Department to (not) talk about. That “(not) talk” session would likely consist of a terse statement that the precise details of military deployments are classified.
For folks living in South Korea and Japan, including the 63,000 US forces stationed in those two countries, the view is less comical. For one thing, North Korea has about sixty-five percent of its military at or near the border with South Korea. Thousands of artillery pieces with hundreds of thousands of shells are within range of the South Korean capital of Seoul. While some media pundits like to point out that the US and South Korea could easily wipe out that North Korean artillery, they are assuming a massive first strike by US and South Korean forces before North Korea could launch a barrage of missiles and artillery shells against Seoul and other targets. And a preemptive strike by South Korea and the US is highly unlikely.
To people living in South Korea and Japan, the clownish threats by Kim are not just rhetoric. North Korea does represent a real threat to its neighbors, and it has a long history of attacking South Korea. Remember that in March 2010, a North Korean submarine sank a South Korean Navy Corvette in South Korean waters, killing 46 South Korean sailors. The following November, North Korea shelled a South Korean island, killing three South Koreans. The South Korean island garrison responded with their artillery and killed about ten North Korean soldiers.
On March 26, 2013, after listening to a month long series of nuclear threats by North Korea, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye stated that North Korea’s only path to survival was through abandonment of its nuclear weapons program. North Korea responded by cutting its “hot-line” communications system with South Korea. Given that nobody in South Korea was ever going to believe anything that was spoken by a North Korean on that hot-line system, it hardly matters.
On March 29, Pyongyang announced, “The time has come to settle accounts with the US imperialists.” It then ordered North Korean missile teams to be prepared to fire on US bases in the South Pacific. We in the US could afford to laugh, but there was less laughter in South Korea and Japan.
On March 30, North Korea stopped pretending to be on the verge of all-out war with South Korea and the US and, instead, announced that it is in an actual state of war. Fortunately, Kim has remembered that he is only pretending to be at war, and no unusual troop movements or communications have been detected in North Korea. The US responded by moving high tech F-22 Raptor fighters from Japan to South Korea. Any changes in deployment of US ballistic missile submarines in the waters of East Asia would be classified, but we may reasonably assume that, in the event of a nuclear attack by North Korea, the US would respond with strikes by US submarine launched missiles.
This morning, North Korea did something interesting. It announced the appointment of Pak Pong-Ju as the new premier. The premier would not be in the top five of the power structure in North Korea, but he would formulate and present economic policies to Kim Un. Pak was fired from his post as prime minister in 2007 after proposing some very minor U.S.-style economic policies.
This appointment is seen by Western leaders as a rare, positive bit of news from North Korea. The appointment of a North Korean who has dared to utter a few non-hateful words about the US is interpreted by some as a signal from Kim Un that he would like us to remember that he knows that he cannot hope to survive any war with South Korea and the US. It is also good news because North Korea’s most serious threat to South Korea and to its ally China is the threat of the complete economic collapse of North Korea.
While an economic collapse in North Korea might seem like a welcome possibility to distant observers, it is far less appealing to South Korea, to China, and to half of the 25,000,000 North Korean people who suffer from chronic malnourishment. China and South Korea quietly agree about two things concerning North Korea. One is that Kim Jong Un is an annoying twerp. The other is that if North Korea collapses, both South Korea and China will be flooded with millions of hungry North Koreans. Neither country wants to deal with such a large humanitarian crisis or the chaos that it would introduce inside their borders.
So what does this mean to those of us fortunate enough to not live in North Korea? It means that the US and South Korea have no choice but to remain prepared for war with North Korea. To the White House, that means annoying distractions from urgent domestic economic issues. Even the most loyal Obama lovers do not believe the White House’s recent optimistic self-assessments concerning the US economy. While Los Angeles will not be destroyed by a nuclear device from North Korea any time soon, it and the rest of the nation remain under attack by a home grown economic weapon of mass destruction. With so many foreign policy challenges to deal with in the Middle East, and so many millions of Americans slipping into poverty, Obama and the rest of the nation would prefer to not have to spend time and money dealing with North Korea.
However, Iran would love a war between the US and North Korea or between the US and any nation not named “Iran.” To the north, Russia seems confused about what it wants in Korea. It can’t tell if a war in Korea would represent a net gain or loss to the Russian economy or to Russian foreign policy goals. The rest of the world is either unaware of the situation in Korea or simply hopes that war does not erupt there.
The greatest danger in North Korea is the possibility that, based on North Korea’s complete lack of understanding of the world outside of its borders, Kim Jong Un and his hard line pals in the North Korean military might miscalculate and trigger an all-out war. This morning’s announcement of their selection of a new “pro-Western” premier may indicate that, in lieu of a reasonable diet, Kim urgently needs to keep feeding his own subjects a heavy diet of war propaganda, but that he hopes that the US continues to not take him too seriously.
Yet in his confusion about the world outside of North Korea, Kim apparently feels that the only way to be taken seriously is to remain a military threat. He wants to be taken seriously enough to rate bribes from the rest of the world in the form of desperately needed food and oil shipments. My estimate is that North Korea wishes to remain one inch from that threatened war, but wants the US and South Korea to remain able to accurately measure that ever important last inch. In an ironic twist of any intelligence service’s basic goal, North Korea desperately wants everyone outside of North Korea to know more about their intentions than their own people know at home.
So far, North Korea’s war rhetoric has not been matched by military moves. Let’s hope it remains that way.
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“Jay Holmes” is a man with experience in intelligence and covert operations who spent decades intimately involved in fighting the Soviets, the East Germans, and the various terrorist organizations they sponsored. Now, he is a Senior Mouseketeer in the intelligence community, and he writes spy thrillers with author Piper Bayard. Piper is the public face of their partnership. Their first spy thriller, APEX PREDATOR: THE LEOPARD OF CAIRO, is due out this fall through Stonehouse Ink Publishing.
For more about Jay Holmes, see No Room for Fragile Egos–A Spook’s World.