Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Korea: the endgame no one sees coming

At first, I was surprised to hear that the Stalinist regime in northern Korea had chosen to sink a democratic Korean ship. The timing (late March) seemed off. The Tibet occupation commemorations had already passed, while the remembrance of the Tiananmen massacre was still more than two months away.

Adding to the surprise, the Chinese Communist Party let some of their mouthpieces fire some rhetorical rounds at . . . Kim Jong-il (Yonhap via One Free Korea):

In a rare move for Chinese state-controlled media, the Beijing-based newspaper openly criticized North Korea, calling it "proud."

"North Korea is dancing haphazardly along the nuclear tightrope, fraying the nerves of every world power. It is apparently proud, believing that it has played a dominant role," the Global Times said. "But North Korea fails to realize that the most dangerous role is the one the country itself is playing."

Joshua Staunton (the founder of OFK) doesn't think this amouts to much, and he has a point. The Global Times may be a CCP mouthpiece, but it isn't the CCP mouthpiece. Moreover, the cadres in Zhongnanhai have a history of playing the democratic world for fools. Who can forget when the CCP voted in favor of United Nations-imposed sanctions on northern Korea and then told the world - on the same day - that it wouldn't enforce them?

This time, however, I think something deeper is in play, something that few, if any, will see coming, and dramatically change East Asia - and not for the better, though it will appear that way to the untrained eye.

One thing we need to remember is that the cadres have been claiming for almost five years that northern Korea is actually Chinese territory, or at least it was back when it was called the Kingdom of Koguryo. Lest anyone consider this preposterously irrelevant, keep in mind that Mao used a similar verison of revisionist history to conquer Tibet in 1950.

Of course, the idea of that CCP could send in a military force to annex northern Korea and get away with it would be ridiculous - unless the democratic world was scared enough of the Korean tyranny to acquiesce in the move. That's more likely than one would like to believe.

Both America and Japan have elected governments more focused on domestic matters and less interested in projecting national power. Russia remains more obsessed with the European "near abroad" than the demographic loss of its own Far East provinces. Hardly anyone else considers the situation on the Korean peninsula as anything but a regional issue (i.e., one which doesn't involve them). All of them would be either uninterested in a CCP annexation or secretly grateful to the cadres for bringing "stability" with their conquest.

For the CCP, meanwhile, the benefits would be considerable. Hu Jintao, facing a party conference in two years and very little to show for his current tenure as CCP supremo, could bask in becoming the first Chinese leader since Mao to add territory the Middle People's Republic. This could enable him to handpick his successor as Party leader at least, and perhaps even stay around as Chairman of the Central Military Commission (and thus continue to wield the true power) for years after 2012. For the party as a whole, it would make radical nationalism suddenly look relevant again, especially if it can show the Chinese people that the democratic world endorsed the land grab (silent acquiescence will be more than enough for the cadres to twist and exaggerate to meet their needs).

For the Chinese people, however, it would be awful. The day the CCP loses power could be knocked back by decades as a rejuvenated tyranny once again takes aim at political dissidents. The balance of power would be permanently reoriented in Zhongnanhai's favor. Finally, Korea would never be whole again.

Naturally, democratic Korea would be furious, and loud. The CCP would have to make sure Washington can and will restrain South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, especially given that Korean nationalism would quickly transform from a long a left-wing phenomenon exploited by Kim and Beijing to a right-wing fury that would never forgive them for the annexation.

That's where the latest news Joshua dug up at OFK is so revealing (emphasis added):

Now, there is the story of Kim Soon-Nyeo, whose targets included a 29 year-old college student, two travel agency workers, and her grand sugardaddy, a former executive of the Seoul Subway system.

. . .

The spy collected “confidential” information about the subway system from Oh, information about local universities from the student, and a list of names of high-ranking police and public officials from the travel agents.

Oh maintained extramarital relations with the spy since his first encounter with her in China in May 2006, and transferred nearly 300 million won ($252,000) to “help” her cosmetics business. In June 2007, he became aware that she was a North Korean spy, but continued the relationship.

“What Oh handed over to the spy included contact information of emergency situation responses and other not-so-important internal data,” Kim Jung-hwan, a Seoul Metro spokesman, told The Korea Times, dismissing concerns that it could be used in possible acts of terrorism here by the North. Kim retired from his post in 2008. [Korea Times]

Yes, I can imagine a circumstance in which we or South Korea might face a provocation or a threat so serious that we have to do something more dramatic, in which case what Halloran calls for might have to be our first step. But I’m not there yet, because I fear that North Korea’s most dangerous weapons are already inside South Korea.

In other words, the Stalinists were gathering information to conduct terrorist attacks that could cripple the democratic South while leaving American troops at the demilitarized zone unscathed.

One can imagine what could happen next: terrorist attacks in Seoul, Lee demanding retaliation. America and Japan wringing their hands. When suddenly, the People's Liberation Army crosses the Yalu River, pounds their de facto colony's military and industry, dusts off the Koguryo claims, and reassures the rest of the world that it will all be over soon. Koreans may be enraged, but in Washington the reaction will be a sigh of relief, and strong reminder to Seoul of just who depends on whom for military protection. Game, set, and match to the cadres.

Now, there are still a number of variables that can stop this: Kim Jong-il may calm down; the various would-be successors to his weakly gripped crown could defuse the situation themselves (or argue among themselves enough to have the situation defused by inactivity); the terrorist network the Stalinists would use against the South might not be in place; someone in Pyongyang might even be smart enough to figure all this out (probably not Kim himself, but in his current condition, the right word at the right time can be awfully persuasive).

Still, we need to be prepared for the possibility that the cadres will decided using Kim Jong-il and his cronies has run its course, and annexation is their next move. Whatever one thinks of Kim and his regime, we must not forget that it is only in place because the CCP wants it in place. Replacing Pyongyang's anti-American tyranny with Beijing's anti-American tyranny is no solution.


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