North Korea 101 – David Law

There are five pivotal issues that we need to be thinking about when it comes to North Korea.

The first and perhaps most important one is that North Korea is an economic basket case. The hermit kingdom, which at the end of the Korean War in 1953 was roughly at par economically with the South, now boasts a GDP that is a little over one percent of that of its southern counterpart. U.S. Senator John McCain once famously characterized Russia as a gas station with nukes; North Korea is nukes without the gas station.

Second, the only reason that North Korea is still a seemingly going concern is because of the economic, political and strategic support provided to it by the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation. These two countries control North Korea’s only land frontier. They determine what comes across its borders. They could shut the North Korean economy down in an instant. The dramatic increase in the North Korean nuclear missile threat after Kim Jong-un took power in 2011 can only be explained if we assume that Russia and/or China have been underwriting it.

But third, why would China and Russia be doing so?  The short answer is that they share a strategic interest of no little import. Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow all want to keep the North Korean regime in place – Pyongyang for obvious reasons, and Beijing and Moscow because neither would want to have a successor regime on its doorstep that would be almost invariably pro-Western. The longer answer is that all three countries want to show the American security guarantee to be a paper tiger. All three would like to see the U.S. withdraw from East Asia.

Were this to happen, it would provide North Korea with an opportunity to unite the Korean peninsula under its leadership and extend the life of its communist dictatorship. It would also enhance China’s prospects for turning the East China Sea into a Chinese lake and in the process crown Xi Jinping’s ambition to extend his hold on power beyond the ten-year norm that has existed since Mao Tse Tung’s rule of 27 years. As for Russia, it is interested in anything that will take down U.S. power a notch or three. But its perspective on what happens in East Asia is basically about how events there can provide space for its ambitions on its western border.

The fourth question is about the stakes involved in any serious conflict in and around the Korean peninsula. North Korea understands that should it launch an attack on the U.S., it would be destroyed.  The U.S. understands that if it was to launch an attack on North Korea, it would put in danger the 150,000 Americans serving and residing in South Korea, as well as hundreds of thousands of South Koreans. Neither side is likely to take such a risk – certainly not under prevailing strategic circumstances.

The fifth question relates to the prospects for a safe landing. If the U.S. keeps its cool, accepts that the North and South need to talk, and works at the same time to enhance its capacity to defend against a North Korean attack, this crisis does not have to end in tears. America does not need a perfect deterrent, just one that is sufficiently credible to ensure that North Korea thinks twice before launching an attack that could bring a cataclysmic end to its regime.

For the time being, however, the American president has allowed himself to get involved in a puerile shouting match with his North Korean counterpart about who has the bigger nuclear button.

Trump has lost the first round. The opening of the Winter Olympics in the South Korean city of PyeongChang on 9 February will feature participants from the two Koreas parading together under the Korean Unification Flag. Plenty of skepticism has been expressed about this love-in south of the demarcation line, but just imagine what people to the north of it must be thinking.

Make no mistake. The Korean crisis is not just about the Koreas. Ultimately, it is a front for a Sino-Russian effort to embarrass and undercut American strategic power in East Asia and elsewhere.

(A parting word: ignore the self-serving propaganda emitted from the PRC (population: 1.4 billion) about its fears of a massive wave of North Koreans (population: 25 million) coming over the border should the latter’s regime be destabilized. When the Wall separating East and West Germany came down in 1989, a very tiny proportion of the East German population went anywhere and those that did went to capitalist West Germany.)

For more posts by David Law on Korea and other subjects, go to


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