On Thursday, the South Korean government announced
that the warship it lost in March was sunk by a torpedo attack from North Korea. While South Korea, Japan, and the United States discuss punitive action, North Korea has threatened "all-out war" if new sanctions are imposed. This saber-rattling by the desperately poor North should not be a surprise, says Kongdan Oh, co-author of The Hidden People of North Korea; it is simply the most recent provocation by a regime that needs an external state of crisis in order to justify its repressive internal rule. With international pressure mounting on China, the North's closest friend and benefactor, the regime of Kim Jong Il has achieved just that. The Atlantic spoke with Oh, who is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, about the crisis and what the North is hoping to accomplish.
We know that South Korea has provided compelling evidence that North Korea was responsible for the torpedo. Can you describe specifically what it was that convinced the investigators?
First, it is credible due to the accuracy and objectivity of the combined investigation team, which involved almost 25 experts from Korea, the United States, Australia, UK, and Sweden. Those are heavy-weights; it wasn't just one or two investigators from Korea. It was global and its level of expertise level was very deep.
Their significant discovery was the propeller part that was used in the torpedo. It was obviously a design that North Korea has been using. They weren't caught on the spot, but with all evidence in hand, it shows this is quite close to an iron-clad case.
Why would the North have done this?
As I have been telling the world for the last 15 or 20 years, the internal political dynamic in North Korea is such that they constantly need a crisis. The regime was built on lies. And the two leaders, Kim and Kim, created one of the worst -- or best -- cults of personality, perpetuating that they are the most brilliant strategic leaders and the entire world is kow-towing to them. That is a foundation of their propaganda.
North Korea is basically a failed state -- their basic economy is bankrupt. The military industrial economy is only 30 percent functioning. Other than Kim Jong's palace economy and slush fund, the economy doesn't exist.
In this state, the leader needs a tool to propagate why he should be in charge of the country. Today, a lot of people know that South Korea is not a slave to the Americans and the Korean economy may even be catching up with the Japanese economy. Information seeps through. So the North Korean regime needs more crisis. The ordinary kind of crisis will not be satisfactory, given the grumbling of the technocratic level of mid-class elite who see the North's declining power and know that there is no way out. So the regime has to create a fear of an imminent dangerous and war-like situation so the country will be united in solidarity under the leadership of Kim Jong Il. That's the internal dynamic. For years, it has been one crisis after another.
What is the North's larger strategy -- what are they trying to achieve?
In 1994, North Korea created a nuclear crisis and we signed an agreed framework, and then of course there were accusations about whether the US was fulfilling the agreed framework on time. North Korea blamed the U.S., but basically North Korea broke the agreed framework. They conducted two nuclear tests and many missile tests. So they found out that bluffing, or creating a crisis through resolute militant operation, is maybe the way to sustain global attention, get aid, get diplomatic recognition, put to the UN that North Korea is a country to be reckoned with.
Is this ultimately a successful long-term strategy? I don't think so, because I think the Americans are getting smarter, and students of North Korean affairs are getting angry. But so far, with limited options, North Korea has been pursuing this and they have been gaining rather than losing.
So, what should the U.S. government keep in mind as it plans a response?
A lot of issues--diplomatic, military, economy, social, political--are on the table. I think China is a problem; everyone needs to show solidarity that this kind of provocation in peace time is close to an act of war. It cannot be tolerated. It means you have to impose sanctions, and in particular, tighten the sanctions that block Kim Jong Il's slush fund. That might be the most effective. In addition, for the last 10 years, South Korea has let North Korean vessels pass through the Cheju corridor. That should be stopped. But most important, the investigators need to deliver their report very formally to China and say look, if you want to be a great power in the 21st century, you are dealing with a gangster, and you should stop helping them. That is another form of sanction.
Why is the North denying responsibility? How is it a show of strength if they don't admit it was them?
They always deny. They always say, American and Korean hooligans created a comic farce and they fabricated evidence. Even if you caught them with blood on their hands, they would claim it was paint.
Does this imply any further danger to South Korea -- or to other countries in the region?
There is always danger, unfortunately, until North Korea disappears from the global map and the two Koreas are united. South Korea is very vulnerable because of its geographic location. Because of that, the U.S. has been very prudent not to trigger any war-like act. And North Korea knows it; it is the Achilles' heel for both countries.