North Korea: Military posturing merely reflects the country’s crumbling status

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presides over the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea.

NATO and the world’s democracies must be ready to respond immediately if the North were again to invade the South as it did in 1950. If Kim Jong-un and the small group of cronies in Pyongyang are convinced that outsiders will respond in kind to any large scale violence, they are highly unlikely to risk their survival and privileges in what is essentially a Soviet-style monarchy.

How should the world respond to recent events on the Korean Peninsula?

Korea was divided at the 38th parallel at the end of World War II, with the North being administered by Moscow, the South by Washington. Authors Acemoglu and Robinson of Why Nations Fail (2012) note that what two generations of Kim family absolutism did to the so-called People’s Republic of Korea includes:

• living standards by the late 1990’s are about one-tenth of average ones in the South;
• life expectancy is ten less years than in the South;
• there are recurring famines because of a collapse in agricultural production, and
• an educational system, much of which is propaganda intended to shore up the legitimacy of the regime against regime-created foreign enemies, after which students must then spend a full decade in the million-soldier army.

From the very beginning in South Korea, economic institutions encouraged investment and trade. Its first elected president, Syngman Rhee, and his successor, General Park Chung-hee, were clearly autocrats, but both helped to build an export market economy. Full representative democracy did develop over the decades. The 48 million residents of South Korea today live in one of the world’s most successful economies, which recently became its eighth-largest exporter.

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A North Korean soldier watches the South Korean side at the truce village of Panmunjom.The year 2013 has been designated by the government of Canada as “The year of Korea in Canada”. So much is going well that South Korea is seen to be a good example of rapid human development for the world. Many in both Koreas appear to want re-unification in a democracy with those with whom they lived for millennia until their country was divided in 1945.

South Korea’s democracy, including the recent election of Park Geun-hye as its first woman president, governance in general, excellent education-complemented by highly committed parents, the rule of law, social programs, culture, the arts and sports — all seem today to be among the very best internationally. Even South Korea’s dance, “Gangnam Style”, attracted more than 787 million YouTube views, the website`s most watched video ever.

South Korea’s successes were recognized indirectly by the election and re-election of H.E. Ban Ki-moon as UN Secretary-General. Ban noted in his acceptance speech, “My heart is overflowing with gratitude toward my country and people who have sent me here to serve. It has been a long journey from my youth in war torn and destitute Korea to this rostrum and these awesome responsibilities. I could make the journey because the UN was with my people in our darkest days …”

The three years of the Korean War were in fact a nightmare, taking the lives of almost three million persons on both sides, including 516 of the 30,000 Canadian soldiers fighting as peacemakers under the UN flag. Many communities were destroyed, in Seoul’s case during several seizures and counter ones. A survivor, now in his 80s, told me recently that two of his siblings attempted to survive, but died from eating pine tree needles. There were doubtless myriad similar tragedies.

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Earlier until August, 1945 came 35 painful years as a colony of Imperial Japan.

I agree with Jonathan Manthorpe of the Vancouver Sun and others that the likelihood of North Korea attacking South Korea is very small despite all the incendiary rhetoric coming from Kim Jong-un since January. He is no doubt seeking to convince North Koreans that he is defending them against aggression from foreign enemies. Without external foes, he lacks any shred of legitimacy. How many North Koreans, despite decades of similar propagandas from his father and grandfather, can believe that the new U.N. sanctions against the country in response to its mid-February underground test of a nuclear weapon is an act of aggression? Similarly, the joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises have been occurring for years and are hardly acts of war.

The real danger is that the regime will implode, provoking unmanageable regional consequences, possibly including intervention from South Korea. That would greatly trouble Pyongyang’s only important ally, China, which wants North Korea to remain a buffer against American military influence in the region and worries about millions of North Koreans refugees flooding into China.

The world can only hope that sanity in the region will prevail. Burma (Myanmar) is one Asian example of patience resulting in an advance for human dignity.

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.