Dodging the Pyongyang Propaganda Trap

North Korea’s propaganda offensive has been unleashed upon the world, from its nearest neighbor to the halls of the United Nations. ä

On January 16th, the powerful National Defense Commission unveiled a series of proposals aimed at improving inter-Korean relations, while calling also for the cessation of all mutual “hostile military actions.” These proposals were stressed once again in a document distributed via the United Nations Security Council on January 27th. 

In the meantime, on January 23rd North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations Shin Son Ho appeared at a press conference espousing similar sentiments. This was followed by ambassador to China Ji Jae Ryong reiterating to foreign press that “hostile military actions” must stop if North-South relations are to improve. “Denuclearization is the unchanging goal of the Chosun Peninsula,” he said. The regime has “taken its seat on the boat for the Six-Party Talks” and is now waiting to be joined by the other participants.

With regards to South Korea, the North is using the humanitarian issue of separated families as a decoy to foster domestic opposition to the upcoming joint ROK-U.S. military drills, and, vis the United States, Kim Jong Eun is getting the most out of his “friend” Dennis Rodman. There is no chance of Rodman grasping the concept of a “propaganda war,” but he certainly fulfilled his role as a “useful idiot” by offering to “invite CNN to Pyongyang” to repay the lavish hospitality that was bestowed upon him.

What is motivating North Korea to engage in this propaganda war beyond its shores? The answer is that, at the current juncture, they simply have no other option.

It is customary for the regime to counteract the annual “Key Resolve” defensive drills, though that response tends to occur on a smaller scale. Given that they executed emergency nationwide training last year, we must wait and see what they will do this time around. 

Some believe the North’s extreme sensitivity over the drills stems from their perennial fuel and financial shortages.  This is not the complete picture, however. 

The current state of North Korea’s internal affairs is simply not conducive to the large-scale mobilization of the military to provide a “response-in-kind” to the ROK-U.S. display of military might, especially when we consider the fact that they are still in damage control mode in the aftermath of the Jang Song Taek purge. Large-scale military mobilization could even allow for a coup d’etat by Jang loyalists under the pretext of training. Indeed, one prominent U.S. think-tank, RAND Corporation believes there may have been an assassination attempt on Kim Jong Eun during military training last year. 

No matter how unscathed Kim Jong Eun appears on the outside, he was skating on thin ice even prior to the Jang Song Taek incident. Even if we disregard every other sign of trouble; five changes of the Chosun People’s Army Chief-of-Staff in a matter of months has never occurred at any stage of the Kim dynasty before.

There was not even a new Chief-of-Staff during the factional uprisings in August of 1956, one of the most unstable periods for Kim Il Sung’s grip on power. Nor was the Chief-of-Staff changed during the Kim Chang Bong and Ho Bong Hak incident; nor the Kapsan faction incident; nor the Chongjin 6th Army Corps incident. There was no change of Chief-of-Staff during the mid-1990s in the midst of widespread starvation.

Objectively speaking, the internal workings of the North Korean military are now at their most insecure since the end of the Korean War.  Inadequate supplies are the basis of this insecurity, which in turn has seen the military command structure compromised. It was in this context that the Jang Song Taek incident took place, and the aftershocks are still being felt. 

On the 31st, Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun reported that 16 of Jang Song Taek’s associates had been executed and that a list of their names had been sent to overseas embassies and postings.  The list was sent to demonstrate that Jang’s international business network is now defunct, and that these business rights are now in the possession of the military. 

The current circumstances make it difficult for the regime to respond to the joint military drills with large-scale military mobilization, so they are engaging in an ideological war on the domestic front instead. This is designed to prevent defection and the further infiltration of outside information. Outside the country, the only thing they can do is try and break free from their disadvantageous position by engaging in a multifaceted propaganda offensive. The so-called “peace offensive” emanating from Pyongyang is pure propaganda without so much as a hint of sincerity. 

Some people take the North Korean propaganda at face value, and this leads them to muse: “North Korea is changing gently, so we too should ease off a little from insisting that they abandon their nuke program before we talk.” Such people unwittingly aid the Kim Jong Eun regime. (Of course, exchanges in the fields of human rights, sports, academia, intelligence, religion, and youth remain advantageous to us, and should take place.)

If we consider Pyongyang’s ongoing outward-focused propaganda and the events taking place internally, we can get a sense of their mission. We’ll get an even clearer picture of Kim Jong Eun’s intent from his reaction to the Key Resolve-Foal Eagle joint drills. The exercises are significant for this very reason. 

There are many hotspots around the world. Where will the next one arise? The troubles in the Middle East have reached their zenith and are now on the wane. Presently, the most turbulent area in the world is clearly East Asia, where the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and North Korea converge. Events taking place in and around the Korean Peninsula could have a major impact on world affairs going forward, including on the military landscape of the region.

Over the last ten years, the core of the changing situation in East Asia and on the Korean Peninsula has been the rise of China. Here, the U.S. and Japan have responded strategically, and more changes can be expected in future. The problem is that the changes are happening too fast. There is the possibility of a military collision over the Senkaku Islands.

This has led North Korea, which has been dominating the news since 1990 with its nuclear development and “military-first” policy, to take a back seat in East Asia. If China were to take serious action when faced with the possibility of Japanese nuclearization, North Korea’s nuclear weapons would become an “issue to be gotten rid of quickly” by the U.S. and China. This shift in priorities would deal the final flow to Kim Jong Eun’s “Byungjin Line” of simultaneous nuclear and economic development.

Moreover, as tensions between China and Japan grow ever more acute, the North Korean nuclear issue is pushed from the lead spot into a supporting role; an “extra.” The absolutist totalitarian regime of the Kim dynasty only has a chance of survival if it maintains both an internal and external target. (Such targets include class, anti-factionalist and anti-imperialist struggle.)

Kim Jong Eun needs to escalate the tension, otherwise he will be cornered and left in a situation where his power could be compromised. Domestic and external factors are leading the Kim Jong Eun regime in an unfavorable direction. 

North Korea has several options to ratchet up military tensions on the peninsula; a fourth nuclear test, a long range missile launch, or a provocation against the South. Of these, the fourth nuclear test and the long-range missile test would directly antagonize China, the U.S. and Japan. The one sure option is to make a military hostage out of South Korea– a nation that possesses no nuclear weapons.

Thus, Pyongyang’s endgame is to hold South Korea hostage and utilize this leverage to hash out a peace treaty with the U.S. The alternative is that South Korea will transform North Korea into an open, democratic society, thereby rendering its need for nuclear weapons obsolete. Only one of these two can emerge victorious. 

All North Korea has is nuclear force. What South Korea has is combined forces with the U.S., economic power and diplomatic clout. Additionally, Seoul possesses one even more powerful tool: the strength of freedom, human rights and democracy. If we utilize these tools with vigilance, we will see change in North Korea within one or two years without having to spend a great deal. 

If a society is to progress, there is no such thing as a “free lunch.” Someone must step up and lead the movement to denuclearize and democratize North Korea. That someone is a team of South Korea and the 24 million citizens of North Korea. It is extremely important that this point is fully understood. Otherwise, we may fall into the trap of Pyongyang’s propaganda war.