Economics, absolute military strength, and self-preservation will keep Pyongyang in its cage for the time being. To believe otherwise at this stage just does not add up.
Written By Matthew Bugeja of HARNESSING OSINT
How does one make sense of North Korea? Endless articles, books and other publications have been trying to make sense of it at full speed for at least twenty years. That is of course, if you do not look to include the Korean War in the 1950’s, which had set the tone for not only inter-Korean relations, but also the geopolitical aspect for upwards of half a century.
Before we begin, I would like to start with a confession, and a wag of the finger. I cannot profess to fully understand North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong-Un. There is a pattern of erratic behavior which sometimes simply defies all logic. But I have followed events on the Korean peninsula long enough to have a relatively rudimentary understanding of the hermit regime. The wag of the finger part is this: a lot of diplomats, analysts, and other figures have made a number of claims over the years, in an attempt to show their expertise in the area. One of these claims is the imminent collapse of North Korea. This collapse has been touted for at least the last 15 years. It has not happened yet, and I think it is about time we change that narrative somewhat.
From a geopolitical standpoint, the frozen conflict on the Korean peninsula is interesting. It pits North and South against one another, with China supposedly supporting the North (although that level of support has seemingly waned under Kim Jong-Un’s reign, by several accounts) and the U.S. providing backing to the South. The South has thrived under the protection of the U.S., whilst North Korea has barely kept afloat, seemingly doing so through what appears to be sheer political perseverance at any cost.
Looking at the North-South divide through a statistical lens, it is evident that North Korea is disadvantaged in a number of ways. An article written by the Guardian in April 2013 shows the massive economic and quality of life mismatch between the two sides. I would like to avoid being too verbose, so I will look to highlight just a couple of key statistics, in order to attempt to provide some clarity on what I view to be several common misconceptions.
The information is admittedly some 7 years old. But the outcome is the same – whilst North Korea’s expenditure as a percentage of GDP has been, and will remain higher than South Korea’s going well into the future, South Korea’s expenditure had been some three times higher in 2008. The point here is that South Korea is always likely to afford to spend more on their military, barring some massive economic depression which wipes out the country in the vein of the 1929 collapse in the US.
South Korea’s military is not only more technologically advanced than the North’s – it is also backed by the world’s sole remaining superpower – the United States, who has committed upwards of 30,000 troops to its defense. Whilst the US global power may be waning in a relative sense, from an absolute power perspective, it remains more than a match for Pyongyang.
Its leaders, regardless if we’re discussing Kim Jong-Il or his son, Kim Jong-Un, seek self-preservation at all costs.
North Korea certainly poses a threat to the South, due in no small part to Seoul’s relative proximity to the DMZ. In sheer numbers, North Korea had 1.19 million men in active military service to the South’s 650,000 in 2011. But they are, in comparison, not as well equipped. Their ground forces are composed of mainly outdated Soviet-era designs, although these have been augmented by other DPRK-designed hardware, whose quality may be average, but largely untested in true combat conditions.
In any hypothetical scenario in which North and South Korea went to war, one would expect that the North may be in a position to make serious headway due to its larger military, at least initially. However, chances are that Seoul’s superior military armaments and quality along with U.S. support would tilt the balance after initial set backs.
Based on 2011 data in this case, South Korea’s GDP per capita exceeded that of the North’s nearly twenty-fold. That is not insignificant or a surprise. It is simply another example of how the South has the edge over the North in a number of ways. This shows that the South’s open economy has steamed ahead, whilst the North’s communist system has not resulted in any form of benefit to its people, who have battled starvation on more than one occasion.
A lot of this points to North Korea’s eventual defeat, or its collapse, either through conventional military means or economic collapse. This is on the assumption that Pyongyang would not resort to the use of nuclear armaments in the event of its collapse, which is not impossible.
The one thing which is a constant when discussing North Korea’s policies and erratic behavior is definitely one thing – its leaders, regardless if we’re discussing Kim Jong-Il or his son, Kim Jong-Un, seek self-preservation at all costs. Think of North Korea as a cornered animal in a cage with a bad temper, but is also starving itself. You know that eventually, the animal will likely die as a result of malnutrition, but you want to avoid approaching it in the fear of it lashing out. In North Korea’s case, it is likely to growl and hiss at any action which it views (in its own alarmist, twisted way) to be hostile.
But I do not believe for a moment that it would be seriously considering launching any form of offensive operations against the South and its US allies. Self-preservation is a very powerful motivator. Whilst North Korea is hardly a thriving paradise, it has survived famines and economic mismanagement for decades. It cannot continue to survive in this manner indefinitely.
But on the other hand, to risk going to war with its southern neighbor and put its regime at risk would go against the very ethos of self-preservation. It is a cornered animal, but one which is happy to growl to give the impression of strength, but lacks the strength to eliminate its opponent. Resorting to nuclear arms is a non-starter, as it would be the definitive end of the regime, and quite possibly, the country.
To say that North Korea will collapse sometime soon is not really news. It might happen, it might not. Pyongyang’s threats should be taken seriously, but viewed in its proper context – it is unlikely to fight a war it will not win. Economics, absolute military strength, and self-preservation will keep Pyongyang in its cage for the time being. To believe otherwise at this stage just does not add up.
North Korea will only lash out in the event of imminent regime collapse. We do not appear to be at that stage just yet.
Cover photo credit: David Guttenfelder/AP