Imagine that you are driving sedately along a narrow country lane with hedges on each side. It is so narrow that, should you meet someone coming the other way, it will be necessary for both cars to stop and find some manoeuvre that allows each car to continue on its journey. Now imagine that you round a bend in the road. As you emerge into a long, straight section, you see in the distance another car, and it is travelling at a speed that you consider inappropriate for the type of road you are on.
You assume that the other driver will see you and slow down, but unfortunately this doesn’t happen. Do you then assume that the other driver hasn’t seen you but will slow down once he has? Or do you assume that the driver of the rapidly approaching projectile is a dangerous lunatic, prompting you to start looking for a potential escape route, such as a gate you can crash through into an adjacent field? This is an imaginary scenario, but it does have a parallel in the arena of geopolitics.
The ‘dangerous lunatic’ is of course the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, known to the world as North Korea. It is dangerous because it is unpredictable, and its policies are describable as lunatic because there is no rational expectation that these policies will result in any material benefit to the regime. However, one must assume a reason for recent belligerence, such as the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of the island of Yeonpyeong.
It is said that the stand-off on the Korean peninsula is a hangover from the Cold War, but this is only partially true. We need to go further back in history, to the period of Japanese modernization and expansion following the Meiji restoration in 1868. One target of this expansionism was the Korean peninsula, partly as a buffer against Russian designs in the region. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05 was fought out in Korea, Manchuria and the surrounding seas, and it ended with the utter defeat of Russia, much to the surprise of contemporary Western observers.
Following the war, in 1910, Japan arbitrarily annexed the now moribund Korean empire, which subsequently remained in Japanese hands until 1945. Japanese imperial expansion continued with the invasion of Manchuria, which became a puppet state under Japanese suzerainty, in 1931. And both states became crucial sources of raw materials for Japan during the Second World War.
In 1941, Japan signed a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union, which benefited both sides: it allowed Joseph Stalin to focus on the developing threat from Nazi Germany; and it enabled Japan to prepare for its attack, later that year, on Pearl Harbor and to concentrate on its expansionist aims in Southeast Asia. However, at the wartime conferences in Tehran and Yalta, the British and American leaders urged Stalin to declare war on Japan, and they finally secured an agreement from the Soviet leader that he would do so three months after the defeat of Germany.
This declaration, when it came, can only be described as cynical. An atomic bomb had already been detonated over Hiroshima, and Stalin declared war two days later, hours before a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Elements of the Japanese leadership had been contemplating surrender before Hiroshima, but even after Nagasaki, Japanese leaders dithered for another week, which gave the Soviet forces time to occupy Manchuria and the northern half of Korea.
This is where Kim Il-sung, the self-styled ‘Great Leader’, enters the picture. He had joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1931, and he had spent time in the Red Army, so he was the ideal candidate, in Stalin’s estimation, to head a puppet regime. Local communists were considered much too nationalistic and therefore unreliable (and many were ‘liquidated’, in the mealy-mouthed terminology of the time). At first, Kim had widespread popular support because of his fight against the Japanese, and one of his first accomplishments was the establishment of a professional army drawn from the ranks of former guerrilla fighters against the Japanese and the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalists).
It can be argued that Kim was provoked into setting up the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948 by the proclamation that established the US-sponsored Republic of Korea (South Korea) earlier that year, but it is clear that he resented US interference in the peninsula. It was his decision to invade the south in 1950, but he would not have done so without the explicit approval of Stalin, who had already tested the resolve of the West with his blockade of West Berlin in 1948 and who probably reasoned that in both cases a response by the Western powers was unlikely.
Following the inconclusive end to the Korean War, Kim led North Korea until his death in 1994, during which time he established an all-pervading personality cult with myths about his military prowess that only the credulous could find credible, and then only because the unfortunate audience for this bullshit had no grounds for disbelief. However, what is certain is that Kim, inspired by the success of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, continued to believe that the reunification of Korea was achievable by military means, and it is possible that some cadres in the Workers’ Party of Korea and the Korean People’s Army still believe this to be so.
Although Kim continues to be president of North Korea, more than 16 years after his death, day-to-day running of the country has, since 1980, been in the hands of his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, who was designated as his father’s successor in that year. However, it was not until 1991 that he was appointed supreme commander of the North Korean armed forces, a vital step given that the basis of all political power in North Korea is the country’s military. It should never be forgotten that this tiny nation has the fourth largest standing army in the world, and the largest as a percentage of population.
Unlike his father, who had a distinguished military career even after the layers of mythology have been stripped away, Kim Jong-il had no military experience, so it is easy to imagine that some polite arm-twisting must have gone on behind the scenes in the eleven years prior to his appointment.
However, there is an interesting juxtaposition here: Kim Jong-il’s appointment coincided with the final collapse of the Soviet Union, which heralded the start of a long and probably terminal decline in the North Korean economy and the end to Kim Il-sung’s cherished policy of self-reliance as the true cost of the country’s ruinous ‘defence’ expenditure gradually became apparent.
It is clear that in the subsequent two decades, the ‘Dear Leader’ has consolidated his power in the country, but he knows that he won’t last much longer. And he has chosen a successor. One cannot fail to note that Kim Jong-un is his father’s third choice, and he does look a choice specimen. “Who ate all the pies?” is the question that springs automatically to mind. I know that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but he looks to me like a serial killer. And I can’t imagine that there are too many high-ranking officers who are happy to see a 29-year-old with no military experience made a four-star general.
So what was his role in the recent shelling of Yeonpyeong? There are only two possibilities: either he gave the order (perhaps with the explicit approval of his father), or he did not. If he did, then we have another dangerous lunatic to carry on the family tradition. However, if he did not, then there are elements of the army that are more than just pissed off at the idea of a bloated and presumably pampered young man telling them what to do. So will the ‘Fat Leader’ succeed to the throne on the death of his father. That may be a fat worse than death.