My Speculation on North Korea

Of all the foreign policy analysts in the world, I am probably in the bottom quartile.  Or decile.  So take this for what its worth.

We have heard rumors for months, even years, that the internal situation in North Korea is desperate, or more accurately even more FUBAR'd than usual.  There have even been hints of open popular opposition to the government, definitely an unusual occurrence.  I look at the attack on the South Korean ship in the context of domestic problems.  This was Kim's "wag the dog" response.  The classic totalitarian response to domestic problems is to seek out distracting foreign adventures.  I think what we may be learning is that the domestic situation is even worse than has been supposed.



  1. Captain Obviousness:

    I had basically the same thought. If it were any other country in the world I would say this will all blow over soon. But that country is such a train wreck that I wouldn't be shocked if Little Kimmy decided a war is preferable to the status quo. Whatever capital NK has has gone to their military. They could make South Korea hurt pretty badly. If it does come to this, I hope South Korea and Japan deal with it themselves and don't expect the US to help (LOL).

    This is another downside of the USA's police the world military policy: The US basically created geopolitical moral hazard by promising to bail out allies with our military if the shit ever hit the fan. Allies like SK and Japan have neglected their militaries because they've always known the US would come to the rescue if any commie bastards attacked. Now if a commie bastard attacks, even a broke and batshit insane one like Little Kimmy, who knows if SK is prepared to defend itself without our help?

  2. Chris Byrne:

    Well, I'm NOT one of the bottom decile of foreign policy analyst (I was at one point trained as an intelligence analyst) maybe just below the median... and I AM a long term Korea watcher... and I think you're absolutely correct.

  3. Matthew Brown:

    Well, Japan is our fault; we insisted that they demilitarize and not have much ability to project force beyond their borders. America is very much responsible for what present-day Japan is and is not.

  4. rsm:

    If there is a silver lining to this from a free market perspective it is that the shit started hitting the fan internally after they cut down on what little wealth accumulation and private commerce was possible. This of course hit everyone who was relying on the minimal markets available to keep their families going, but also hit those with influence who had been acquiring wealth as well.

    I have to agree with your analysis, then again, it's sort of a high probability guess, being a reliable, fairly high probability of success tactic historically. If the US wasn't as overextended as they are I suspect it would have been riskier. On the other hand, one thing that I picked up during my school days is that Seoul is actually within range of NK artillery (one of many references: which limits both tactical and strategic response options. You can push people pretty far with that kind of stick hanging over someone's head.

  5. Rob:

    Sinking a naval vessel = act of war, no?

  6. Michael:

    Kim acts up when he wants the world to give him something, but not to this level. I wouldn't exclude the possibility that another country promised something to Kim to conduct this attack to check the response of Obama.

    The world became more aggressive after Carter's first year when it learned he would be unresponsive.

  7. Jeff:

    The only ray of hope I see is China. If there is a shooting war with SK, and it's going poorly for NK (which it will), millions of refugees will pour across the China border. And China does NOT want to deal with millions of uneducated, unproductive, half-starved NK refugees. This could all be a way for Kim to pressure China for more free stuff.....

  8. Another guy named Dan:

    I think a mistake that tends to be made about NK is the belief that it is somehow completely monolithic and ruled entirely by the will and whim of KJI. IN any organization of human beings there are still going to be cliques and factions competing for access and influence.

    Over the past few years, the NK government and military seem to have been enamored of their nuclear program. As the economic pie there keeps shrinking, it looks like the nuclear guys kept getting the lion's share of available resources. This, however, has has not resulted in any new concessions. I'd be willing to bet that this indicates that the nuclear group has falen out of favor, to the betterment of the conventional side of the military. After all, nuclear forces can project force off the peninsula, but are of little or negative utility in putting down a rebellion within the country.

    My prediction is that they continue conventional military saber rattling, with an eye towards being able to bake concessions on their nuclear program without looking like they are bargining from a position of weakness. The sad part of this is that they would end up being rewarded for diverting resources back towards subjugating their own people.

  9. William Newman:

    If the North Koreans want domestic war propaganda material, why try to create it by secretly sinking a ship and then denying having done it? Wouldn't it be more natural to cook up some casus belli --- e.g., revive a border dispute, or claim that the battle was started by the other side attacking so that one is merely defending oneself --- then act on it openly, and trumpet loudly how one is demonstrating all sorts of nationalistic virtues by acting on it? Secrecy or deniability is OK for creating the casus belli, but the usual propaganda motive seems to fall apart if the secrecy or deniability covers all the fighting. Without being able to talk somewhat openly about at least some of the fighting, how much does fighting help one create domestic war propaganda?

    Intentionally attacking the ship while denying it does tend to send a very strong signal to the South Koreans and other nations. I can't see why the North Koreans would want to send that signal, but at least I can see that it sends a signal. Conversely, I just don't see how it sends much of a signal to people whose news is filtered by the North Korean government, unless their domestic propaganda is a lot twistier and weirder than I've ever heard.

    ("The mighty submarine flotilla of the revolution certainly didn't destroy the ship of the oppressors, comrades, absolutely not, nudge nudge wink wink, the oppressor ship must have just *mysteriously* exploded. Who can say why? These things happen! In other news, any difficulties in obtaining food must be borne in patience for just a few more months because our wise leader's judicious response to the current *mysterious* rise in military tensions has tend to increase the immediate cost of Triumphantly Carrying The Revolution To The World By All Possible Means! And in *other* other news, there will be a mandatory rally celebrating the defeat of the enemy's pathetic puppet naval forces, which though *purely* *by* *an* *accidental* *force* *of* *nature* is still worthy of celebration as a reflection on the great glory of the People's mighty strike power, for after all at any time the merest torpedo from one of our submarines can destroy any enemy vessel as easily as purest happenstance destroyed this one.")

  10. Matt:

    @William: Perhaps the attack was done by some trigger happy captain, and was not intended by top NK leadership. In that case NK's best play maybe is to claim innocence and cry foul when NK is eventually sanctioned. If you can convince your citizens that you did not do the deed, you will have them believing that the country is being treated unfarily by the international community. This fosters a sense of "us vs. the rest of the world" solidarity among citizens of the country, without starting open war.

  11. Dr. T:

    North Korea has been dysfunctional from its inception. But, so has South Korea.

    Here's a contrast: Israel, since its formation in 1948, has been surrounded by enemies and could count on no direct military aid from its distant allies. It has devoted a huge proportion of its GDP and a big percentage of its young adults to the military. That is what keeps Israel from being wiped out.

    South Korea is a peninsula nation that has had an aggressive, implacable, unstable foe along its entire land border since 1950. But, because we have kept troops there, the South Koreans never built a military strong enough to defend itself against an invasion by North Korea. If South Korea were as strong as Israel, it could declare war on North Korea for torpedoing its warship, wipe out the North Korean military (with our assistance), and eventually reunite the Koreans. But, because South Korea has never been strong enough militarily, its politicians will take whatever crap the crazy North Korean leaders dish out.

    South Korea has more than twice the population of North Korea. South Korea's gross domestic product is estimated by the CIA to be 33 times that of North Korea. If South Korea spent 3% of GDP on the military that would be the equivalent of North Korea spending 99% of its GDP on the military. Thus, there is no excuse for South Korea not being able to defend itself. It has a better technical base, a larger population, and a much larger economy. We need to cut the apron strings and let the South Koreans defend themselves.

  12. MikeinAppalachia:

    Unless things have changed significantly since 2004, some of you are vastly underestimating South Korea's conventional capacity and skills. Yes, the North's numbers would give them a brief advantage until the reserves could be mobilized. After that, the South would have a clear advantage, esp if they sacrificed Seoul and retreated behind the Han river and then countered.
    The North artillary in place could destroy most of Seoul's center and northern suburbs if unopposed for two hours. But all of their static pieces are targeted and there are counter-fire radar directed batteries to handle mobile or previously hidden nothern emplacements. Given USA air support, the South Koreans can handle the North, albeit with heavy losses in personnel and infrastructure. Question is if they were encouraged by the PRC to attack the ship to assess response by Korea, Japan, and the USA,

  13. Les:

    South Korea's military could easily steam-roll the NK army, they're not as big as the US military (they don't do as much power-projection so they don't need to be) but they are a potent force for their size and their special-forces are some of the most hardcore in the world. SK could wipe KJI's smug smirk off his face any time but doesn't for three reasons.

    1) The artillery batteries aimed at Seoul. Imagine 9/11, only smaller, but it happens to Every Other Building in a major city instead of just the two largest. That's what'll happen by the time those guns are silenced.

    2) Saddling South Korea with the job of up-lifting the North to a decent standard of living would cripple the new united Korea economically.

    3) China would really really really rather not have a land border with a pro-western nation.

  14. Lorenzo (from downunder):

    Matthew Brown: Japan is not demilitarised. It has some of the most capable armed forces around, with a considerable air force and navy.

    On the post, basically yes. If you are suffering a range of weaknesses, it becomes even more important to demonstrate your strength and resolve.

  15. txjim:

    Shane Smith of has a great insider view of NK. He bribes his way inside the cult that is NK and finds out what is going on there. Check out

    And don't come crying to me for the time sink after you have spent a day watching all the other vids! Particularly the Liberia series.

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