Of all the absurd, pointless political offices in existence today, few can match the sheer dark comedy of the South Korean Ministry of Unification. Every year, South Korean citizens shill out some ungodly amount of tax dollars (someday, maybe even a special unification tax) to this painfully optimistic bureaucracy, which busies itself planning for the magical day when the Korean peninsula is peacefully reunited under a single (which is to say, the Southern) government.
The department’s existence reflects a certain deeply ingrained, ethnocentric naivete that’s all-too-prevalent in some corners of South Korean society, namely that a Korean is a Korean is a Korean, and therefore the so-called sovereign republic of North Korea (which has been independent from the South nearly as long as India has been independent from England) is really just a flash in the pan that can probably be absorbed without too much trouble.
Near as I can tell, the Unification Department’s most meaningful achievement to date was getting the North and South Korean flag-bearers to hold hands during the opening ceremonies of the 2004 summer Olympics. Most of the time they just keep their eyes peeled for any sign that the Northern government is planning to rain hell’s holy fire upon them, as on Monday, when the South Korean Unification Minister announced he had seen “indications” that the Kim Jong Un regime was planning its fourth test detonation of a nuclear weapon.
North Korea has been considerably more provocative and unhinged than usual lately, with the government’s rhetoric — hardly restrained at the best of times — escalating into what any normal person would consider an out-and-out prelude to war. On March 11, they proclaimed the 1953 Korean War-ending ceasefire with the South “invalid.” A couple weeks later, they downgraded relations further and announced the beginning of a formal “state of war” with the South. A few days after that, they warned that “merciless” nuclear attacks against the United States could come any day.
But of course when it comes to dealing with North Korea, you’re supposed to turn off the normal part of your brain — just as they have. And indeed, those equipped with North Korean-to-Human dictionaries have repeatedly cautioned that what we’re hearing right now is basically just a long, drawn-out, symbolic overreaction to the events of last winter, when the North launched a satellite and was slapped with sanctions, then detonated a nuclear weapon and was slapped with some more.
Similar cycles of provocation and scolding have occurred in the past without ever pushing the North to quite such apocalyptic language, however, leading most analysts to figure the key variable in this unprecedented pageant of muscle-flexing must be Kim Jong Un himself. Having only assumed power in December of 2011, such thinking posits that the 20-something Kim III must be uniquely eager to prove he can sable-rattle as good as his dad and grandpa, if not better. A recent psychological profile of the man commissioned by US intelligence paints a picture of an insecure, needy tyrant desperate to validate his authority in the context of the smotheringly high expectations raised by state propaganda, and fears being undermined by his vastly more experienced old-guard apparatchiks and generals. So provoking a phony crisis is a good way to get everyone to fall in line.
The only danger is that Kim’s critics within the regime might be right; if he is too young and dopey for prime time, he may not even know how to provoke properly, and might bumble into some stupid act that crosses the line — literally.
A small attack against South Korea or the United States — say, a single non-nuclear missile strike against a purely military target — could seem minor and symbolic from the North Korean perspective, but provoke a massive US-South Korean Combined Forces response. And that, worry NoKo experts Keir Lieber and Daryl Press in a provocative recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine, would almost certainly start a nuclear war, since the second the Combined Forces make any sort of move against Pyongyang, the Northerners have every incentive in the world to use nuke strikes to frighten off further attacks. Keir and Daryl point out this was actually the strategy favoured by American defence planners during the period of the Cold War when the Soviet missile gap was at its largest: strike first to scare, not necessarily to win.
Or try to talk things out beforehand, so no striking is necessary. Though Obama is unlikely to take Pat Buchanan’s advice and “pick up the phone, call North Korea and talk directly to Kim,” much has been made of his administration’s recent overtures to China — the People’s Republic being one of the few nations that keeps the Dear Leader on speed-dial.
The Chinese have seen geopolitical value in the survival of an independent North Korean regime since the Maoist era, but as a country that shares America’s desire for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, recent reporting suggests even their patience is wearing thin. How exactly they may assert that impatience remains to be seen; personally I’m fond of the scheme, flouted by some, where the Chinese secure regime change in the North by promising a safe exile for the Kim family — on the assumption that guaranteeing the Kims’ long-term personal survival (screw their subjects, screw the country) is what this whole spat is basically about.
But no one really knows for sure. In fact, if there’s one consistent theme of North Korean diplomacy, it’s not knowing much about anything.
We don’t know when the North is going to make its next belligerent move, or what form (another nuke test? a troop movement?) said move will take. We don’t know how many nukes they have, or if they’ve perfected a missile-based delivery system. We don’t know how far these theoretical missiles might reach, and we don’t know what target’s in their sights. We don’t know what their leaders are thinking, or what motives govern their actions. We don’t know if they want peace, or are willing to risk war.
Just about the only thing we do know, in fact, is that it’s going to be another slow year at the Unification Department.