DID YOU KNOW IT: Double War with North Korea

If this post looks weird or hard to read on your dash, try reading it here, instead.)

In case you missed it, heads up: North Korea has declared double war on South Korea and the United States. Why double war? Well, technically… we’ve been at war with North Korea since June 25, 1950, so, uh. Yeah. We’re now at two times the war. You’d think this would be a bigger deal, but

The Seoul government said there was nothing in the North’s latest statement to cause particular alarm.“North Korea’s statement today … is not a new threat but is the continuation of provocative threats,” the South’s Unification Ministry, which handles political ties with the North, said in a statement. (Reuters)

Says the US,

”We take these threats seriously and remain in close contact with our South Korean allies. But we would also note that North Korea has a long history of bellicose rhetoric and threats and today’s announcement follows that familiar pattern.” (The Christian Science Monitor)

My theory? The declaration of double war is an outgrowth of not just long-standing tensions between North and South Korea (and North Korea and the United States), but a combination of North Korea’s predictable reactions to sanctions and/or failures of nuclear six-party talks (both of which have happened anew recently), the way North Korea’s political system and culture demand outsized aggression, and dramatic, unwieldy power struggles within North Korea itself.


This may be hard to believe, but North Korea started off wealthier than South Korea. Yes, really. The colonialist Japanese built cutting-edge mines, factories and supporting infrastructure prior to their defeat in World War 2, and most of it was in the North. Mismanagement of the economy meant that by the 1980s, machinery and infrastructure were rotting and could not be replaced. Instead of cycling cash back into manufacturing, agriculture, or basic infrastructure, North Korea diverted funds toward its attempt to build the world’s largest standing army. North Korea increasingly depended on its patron state, the USSR, for cut-rate food and technology.

In 1989 Kim Jong-il, former leader of North Korea (and father of current leader, Kim Jong-un) weaponized North Korea’s existing nuclear program, despite having signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1985. While it’s difficult to know exactly why this happened, it’s assumed that Kim Jong-il turned to nuclear weapons due to mounting pressure and insecurity - a pattern that appears to continue right up to today.

Externally, the USSR weakened to the point that North Korea lost both its security guarantees and preferential trade status with the soviet bloc. Internally, Kim Jong-il was the hand-picked successor to his long-ailing father, Kim il-Sung. While Kim il-Sung built his power base through the military (only after being installed by the USSR, a fact hidden from North Koreans), Kim Jong-il had no real military experience or meaningful, not-made-up military credentials - though he is suspected of trying to compensate for this via orchestrating a spate of terrorist attacks through the 70s and 80s. Kim Jong-il is, consequently, thought to have weaponized North Korea’s nuclear program in order to secure support from the military establishment during a time of political and economic instability, as well as guaranteeing his own accession. Developing nuclear weapons counts as military cred, right?

In 1995 a massive flood ravaged North Korea, turning an existing food shortage into a catastrophic famine. North Korea’s crippled infrastructure proved unable to stem the tide of malnutrition and death, so the state turned to the international community for aid. South Korea, China, the US, and other states poured hundreds of thousands of tons of food aid into the country. Unfortunately for North Koreans, widespread state corruption often prevented food from reaching those who needed it most. International observers and NGOs got so tired of the state’s refusal to allow them to control, or at least supervise, the distribution of aid that many organizations cut supply drastically or pulled out of North Korea entirely. Unwilling to put its Songun (“Military First”) policy aside for long enough to fix its goddamn food crisis, North Korea turned to nuclear brinksmanship in order to solve its problems.

The six parties at the six-party talks break down like this: representatives of South Korea, the United States, Russia, China, North Korea, and Japan sit around a table. Everybody except North Korea is there to shake their fist sternly in North Korea’s direction, sometimes more sternly than others. Sometimes they gripe about North Korea’s human rights abuses, but mostly they are there to nag about that whole nukes thing.

South Korea is there because North Korea sits on top of them, and re-absorbing South Korea is a long held goal of North Korea’s. Also, North Korea is mad jealous of South Korea’s vast economic superiority, which only compounds their predilection to yell and stamp their feet and throw missiles at South Koreans and stuff. Also, like I said, they have technically been at war for more than 60 years.

The United States is there because we hated Communism, and ended up stuck on the Korean Penninsula in order to prevent either the influence of Communist China, or Communist North Korea, or the USSR, from leaking into South Korea. The Korean War is stupid complicated. Also, we have a lot of spare food ‘cause we have hella farms, and North Korea wants it. And we view a surging China as a threat, so we want to protect our little bastion of military bases in South Korea (plus: I think we actually like South Korea). We are also still at the dumbest war with North Korea.

Russia is there because it is on top of North Korea. It has invested SO much money in North Korea over the past half-century, and would be pissed if that money was wasted. It has oil that North Korea wants, and North Korea has natural resources that Russia would like to leverage its oil for influence over, thank you. Also, sometimes North Korea’s pissy missile launches land in or around Russian territory. Rude.

China is there because it is North Korea’s uneasy keeper. One might assume that the common bonds of Communism keep them together, except the state systems are vastly different and neither one is actually communist. Whoops! Mostly, China just doesn’t want to deal with the instability of a collapsing nation of impoverished, under-educated North Koreans, because it is right next to North Korea. If North Korea goes down, ho! Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of freaked-out refugees pour over the North Korean border into China. China might be a lot richer and a lot more stable than their erstwhile neighbor, but they aren’t that rich, or that stable.

Why not let South Korea re-absorb the North? Simple: South Korea is an extension of US power. China dislikes the US presence in South Korea enough as it is. They have no desire to double America’s access to their sphere of influence. China would like it an awful lot if North Korea got its shit together and managed its economy competently - or at least quit with the whole nukes thing, so they could get more aid from someone other than China. Being North Korea’s only ally is tiring, plus it’s kind of expensive and the North Koreans think the Chinese are racially inferior, which is humorous given the present circumstances.

Japan is there because North Korea keeps being a shit to it, kidnapping its private citizens and launching missiles into its sea and throwing other Japanese people in North Korean gulags and, you know, just being assholes in general. To be fair, Japan was an asshole first, but the cycle’s gotta stop, somewhere, and “before Japan is nuked a third time” is as good as any, and better than some. Not that anybody really thinks North Korea will nuke Japan. Or. Anybody, really. Knowing North Korea’s luck, they’d probably just end up nuking themselves if they tried.

The talks go one of two ways:

One or multiple parties offers North Korea increased aid or new economic opportunities, in exchange for takin’ it down a notch by promising steps toward dismantling its weaponized nuclear assets. One or more parties threatens decreased aid and/or increased economic sanctions, if North Korea doesn’t dismantle its weaponized nuclear assets and quit pickin’ on its dang neighbors.

North Korea accepts these offers and promises compliance, but typically does not actually comply with said agreements, despite having received the promised carrot.


North Korea refuses these offers, and promises increased aggression (“self-defense”) if aid is withdrawn, deals are broken, or sanctions enforced.

It’s an endless cycle: The US and South Korea threaten sanctions in an attempt to force North Korea to stop building nukes. North Korea uses the threat of aggression to ransom aid from the international community, which allows it to continue pumping what little money it has into the military. North Korea tends to accept proposals when it is relatively secure, even if it doesn’t intend to follow through. North Korea acts out and refuses when it is at its most unstable - for example, during power transitions, the famine, or after sanctions are imposed.

In April 2009, North Korea tried to put a satellite in orbit. North Korea claimed the satellite made it into space, but everybody else is pretty sure it fell into the ocean shortly after launch. UN Security Council members thought the satellite was an excuse to test technology that could be developed into an intercontinental ballistic missile, and declared the launch a violation of an existing set of UN sanctions. A day later, North Korea withdrew from the Six-Party Talks in protest. In the meantime, North Korea has restarted (“restarted”) its nuclear weapon program, complete with two more underground nuclear detonations - not to mention multiple aggressions against South Korea. The UN renewed its sanctions accordingly, once a year.

February’s detonation seems to have been the straw that broke the UN’s - specifically China’s - back. North Korea’s decision to go ahead with the testing against China’s wishes spurred the put-upon state to demand additional sanctions against its neighbor. It looks like the UN’s decision to ban the export of luxury goods to North Korea is what pushed Kim Jong-un to the brink of double war, as if they are just that pissed off about not getting the newest Kate Spade bags. Not that the Kims don’t love extravagance, because they apparently do - but I don’t think the cycle of sanctions is wholly responsible for the continuation of the Korean War.


For such a tiny, impoverished, and isolated state, North Korea seems pretty ballsy. There’s a lot going on that plays into this, but I’ll try to keep it short.

The personality cult of Kims il-Sung, Jong-il, and Jong-un is rooted in a carefully maintained veneer of patriarchical infallibility and noble sacrifice in protecting the people of North Korea, who are so fuckin’ great that everyone around the world is jealous of them, or hates them, or both. Watch out, North Korea!

The viability of the North Korean state is rooted in the continued success of the Kim personality cult. The cult dies, the state dies. North Korea’s inner circle will do anything to maintain the illusion - which, in the context of North Korean culture, means being writing aggressively ballsy checks their state ultimately can’t cash, in order to keep North Koreans from finding out that their government can maybe cash a five dollar check, tops, with help from one of those taller neighborhood states from down the earth-street. If North Korea doesn’t act like it is constantly threatened, and act appropriately heroic in its own “defense”, the jig is up. The Kims are screwed.

What forms the basis of North Korean culture? Juche is the North Korean philosophy of nationalist self-reliance. Juche isn’t quite autarky, but has caused North Korea many of the same problems autarkik regimes like Germany’s Third Reich had: no state has all the resources it needs to sustain a modern standard of living, and would be better off specializing in some resources, while trading for others. As a result, North Korea trades few goods within a very limited economic sphere. Juche also has an element of ethnocentrism inherited from an older, undivided Korea.North Korea’s insecurity about its sovereignity, combined with a culture largely driven by the idolization of military service, plus its inability to form alliances with other states, led to Songun - “Military First”, which drove state policy after 1994.

Juche means North Korea doesn’t import enough to safely center their economy on anything other than sustenance; Songun means that they center their economy on the military, despite this. The need to maintain the Kim personality cult means loosening control of every aspect of daily life is not an option, even if it might help the economy. Unfortunately, the state can’t control everything; leaders die. Kim il-Sung died, and his son’s attempts to transition and sustain the Kim personality cult brought nuclear weapon development, dead American soldiers, and untold avoidable deaths by starvation, despite being anointed heir apparent 18 years before taking over completely at the age of 56. Many of the same internal and external problems plague Kim Jong-un’s attempts to consolidate power, except they are worse because everybody is pissed off at North Korea. And, Kim Jong-il kinda drove the country into the ground. And, Jong-un is what, 30?

So, in addition to having to create military cred where there is none (remember when North Korea sunk a South Korean boat? Tried to launch a satellite? Fired missiles at South Korean territory? Launched a missile into the Sea of Japan? That other time they failed at launching a satellite? The last two nuclear tests? Consolidation of power), Jong-un has to manipulate other states into providing aid for the shit-poor nation his father left him in order to keep pouring money into the military establishment that is central to maintaining the personality cult that keeps the people compliant which keeps the inner circle in power which keeps him in power and not-dead. That is a lot to ask of a 30 year old, and is, I think, the driving force behind North Korea’s trend toward being even more ridiculous than usual. Dude can’t stay in power without being a huge butthole, so he’s gonna butthole it up. He will butthole it up extra-hard because he is young and had little-to-no time to get a solid foothold as the heir of the Kim dynasty, and because everyone around him is hell of old and military and probably doesn’t take him seriously. He’s gonna butthole it up like his life depends on it, because it probably does:

On March 14, 2013, reports surfaced from South Korean intelligence sources that Kim Jong-un had been the target of an assassination attempt. The attempt was made by “disgruntled people inside the North” in response to the demotion of Reconnaissance General Bureau director Kim Yong-chol in November of 2012. According to the unnamed intelligence source the attempt was made in downtown Pyongyang and resulted in a firefight. The demotion was due to an internal power struggle between government factions. (Wikipedia)

But! Don’t get too worried - the idea of brinksmanship is to push the stakes as high as possible in order to get the most optimal outcome. I think the North Koreans may have drank at least a little of their own Kool-Aid, but I don’t think they are 100% irrational. I also think they know that launching missiles, nuclear or not, in any considerable number at pretty much anybody nearby would mean the swift end of the North Korean state. Declaring war on people you are already at war with, then proceeding not to do anything terribly out of the ordinary (North Korea’s ordinary, that is), seems like a pretty brinksmanshippy thing to do. The day has played out in an ordinary enough fashion that operations in a North/South Korean joint industrial venture continue, despite the declaration of war and threats of closure. If North Korea engages in limited economic cooperation with the state it is at war with, we’re probably all okay for the time being. We can wait and see if North Korea is serious enough to lose 500 million US annually by pulling the plug on the joint venture at Kaesong. If North Korea is pissed (or desperate) enough to flush that much income down the drain, maybe it’s time to do as Kim Jong-un probably does on a daily basis.

Maybe then, we can clench our buttcheeks.

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  5. lobisfemme reblogged this from heysawbones and added:
    Amazing and really in-depth analysis of the political background behind NK
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    North Korea really is a fascinating & completely insane place.
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