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The time is not now

December 20, 2011

When Kim Jong Il’s death was finally reported by KCNA, I warned the commentariat – well, begged, really – not to employ the term “Korean Spring.” While so far no writer (or enterprising Presidential candidate looking to needle the administration) has taken up the phrase in earnest, let’s be clear why a “Korean spring” is not in the making, and why attempting to destabilize North Korea’s government now would be a terrible idea.

While some articles, such as this piece in Foreign Policy, have suggested taking actions to precipitate the fall of the regime, the fact remains that every single attempted North Korean uprising has been met with lethal force. Even concessions, as we saw during the failed 2009 North Korean currency reforms, end with executions of parties responsible for bad policies. No matter what, the North Korean state has shown it is willing to use lethal force to perpetuate the Kim family regime. As in the case of Libya and Syria, any protest movement against such a repressive regime, even with high-level defections, continues in the best case as a civil war, one which would almost certainly put off Russia and especially China to supporting international efforts to induce revolution.

Even if a mixture of bought-off KPA generals, dissidents reinfiltrated across the border, and spontaneously invigorated Korean people was able to coalesce into a serious fighting force, the regime would likely retain enough support to militarily crush such a rebellion, and would be able to use its nuclear weapons to ward off any kind of foreign military intervention. While the KPA is hardly a perfect military, the Kim family regime’s Songun policies put the strengthening of the military force first. Contrast this to Gaddafi’s explicit weakening of the military and reliance on a variety of security services, mercenaries, and local paramilitaries, and one can see why the KPA would be a much more formidable fighting force for an incipient revolution to confront.

Now, one hopes that nobody will begin discussing military options, but given that some Presidential candidates are already asking them with Syria and Iran, let’s reiterate the reasons why such a move would be a totally catastrophic idea. North Korea has nuclear arms. North Korea, even without using them, can deliver hundreds of thousands of rounds of artillery an hour into Seoul if it so chooses to. North Korea’s army is almost certainly strong enough to inflict heavy casualties on the ROK army before American reinforcements arrive. Additionally, an advance aimed at decapitating the North Korean regime will almost certainly begin Chinese contemplation of military counter-moves to secure the Yellow Sea and perhaps create a buffer zone along its own border. China is not opposed to reunification per se, but it also will not accept a united Korea militarily aligned to the United States extended to its own borders, nor is the United States likely prepared to make the concessions that would make a neutralized or Finlandized Korean state possible.

Finally, the fact is that outsiders understand remarkably little about the North Korean regime’s internal workings. After all, foreign intelligence services did not know about Kim Jong-Il’s death until KCNA saw fit to announce it, not because some massive failure, but because of the incredibly secretive nature of the regime itself. While nobody can know the future, the prospects of regime change in North Korea are even more bleak than in Syria, Iran, or Burma. Short of rolling the iron die, it’s unlikely foreigners will have much opportunity to change this.

One more thing: could media sources please stop uncritically reporting the claim that Kim Jong Il was born in 1942? Kim Jong Il was far more likely born in eastern Russia near the Amur river in 1941 than in 1942. Do reporters really think he was born on Baekdusan in an event foretold by a swallow and commemorated with a double rainbow and a new star appearing in heaven?

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