What really frightens North Korea, more even than the prospect of war

Saturday 22nd August, 2015

Seeing beyond old paradigms, political dichotomies and unquestioned assumptions: understanding the North Korean people and the rationale of the North Korean leadership.


That South Korea responded to North Korea’s artillery fire with its own was significant. It not only shattered the old cycle of northern provocation -> southern patience on the divided peninsula, it hurled a political salvo more terrifying to the North Korean leadership than mere physical retaliation. Because it delivered, directly in the earshot of the North Korean people, the resounding sound of the Kim Jong Un regime in vulnerability.

In the unlikely scenario that this would lead to physical war breaking out between the two Koreas, such an event would lead to the swift falling apart of the regime, and it knows this well. More than the inferiority of military capacity, it is the perceived quality of each nation’s peacetime that matters most in this equation. The South Korean people fear for all that they would lose in a conflict on the peninsula, while the North Korean people fear the regime’s ever-present control and long for its end. The tremor of potential upheaval is cut of a different psychological fabric for northerners and southerners.

That psychological fabric of the North Korean people, it is something the North Korean leadership lives with hung round their neck, I know from experience, with the weight of a ticking bomb. It may hurl loud threats of looming nuclear destruction at the outside world, but internally, confidence and faith is low.

This is why North Korea’s military strategy has remained extremely consistent for years. Military provocations of plausible deniability are executed out of people’s earshot, at sea and towards the South; while for the internal audience, notices regarding “victorious military engagements” are announced. Moreover, we must remember that the Supreme Leader Centred political system of the DPRK was constructed with lies, and its maintenance depends on it. The psychological dissonance brought on by confrontation with reality, in such a setup, is not to be underestimated.

That is also why the North Korean leadership is sensitive to and adamantly opposed to broadcasting and flows of information from the outside. The North Korean people today are no longer as they were under the reigns of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. While the Supreme Leader has grown younger, the people have become more mature. Today, the worth of the Supreme Leader’s divinity does not stack up to one dollar of foreign currency in the marketplaces.

People who were slowly dying under dictatorial oppression gained such a consciousness through a survival enabled by the marketplaces. It is a mindset that cannot be reversed nor switched off. It is not an exaggeration to say that North Koreans have passed the point where they disobey and desert command and control only because of pressing survival needs. They do so because they have reached a point of psychological insurrection in terms of system-loyalty.

Although South Korea’s loudspeaker broadcasting is of a lesser intensity than in the past, the North Korean regime of the third generation is weaker than it was in the past, and the impact of the blow will be correspondingly greater. In fact, proclaiming an intention to declare war in response to cross-border broadcasting is tantamount to proclaiming how a Supreme Commander cannot trust even his frontline troops.

It is in the interest not only of North Koreans, but also of the South Korean people, to broadcast information across all of North Korea. For those nations whose quality of peacetime is what is great and cherished, piercing a border in this way – not with guns but with words of truth – is the most efficient way to bring parties to negotiations, and to achieve lasting security, co-prosperity and co-operation. A nation whose quality of peacetime is cherished must not fear responding accordingly to military provocation.

The North Korean leadership know better than even the North Korean people that war on the peninsula is one and the same as the end of its reign. One South Korean artillery shell falling on North Korean soil, as it recently did, was enough to deeply impact a leadership that depends on an all too fragile military-propaganda strategy as its last line of defence. Words are powerful weapons to the psyche, but at other times, so is a threatening clenching of the fist. But above all, knowledge – and the will to act on it – is the most powerful thing.


Written by Jang Jin-sung.

Translated by Shirley Lee.

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