North Korea, Kim Jong-un, and the End of the Cold War

Is the end near for North Korea’s repressive governing dynasty? With the recent escalation of military tensions in Northeast Asia, it does seem as though the regime led by Kim Jong-un is more brittle than ever. The DPRK’s ratcheting up of tensions with South Korea, Japan, and the United States is most likely a response to internal threats to the governing clique. What is often missed in contemporary news coverage is the increasing flow of independent information to the citizens of this “peculiar failed state.”

In the 1980s, new flows of independent information helped lead to the fall of communism in the Soviet sphere of control in Europe and the U.S.S.R. Radio broadcasts and other flows of information provided an unflattering mirror for those behind the Iron Curtain. In the case of the old Soviet bloc, political liberalization from above facilitated the emergence of a new mass consciousness and political revolution.

In the North Korean context, technological advances – including devices as simple as personal computers, digital tablets, and memory sticks – are offering ordinary citizens more and more alternatives to regime propaganda. Illegal mobile phones, too, are an important part of the new societal reality.

In the West at least, the saber-rattling of the DPRK is attracting only mild interest. Perhaps Americans and others have simply grown too accustomed to the threatening rhetoric of the North Koreans. Let us not forget, though, that Kim Jong-un still presides over a massive conventional army and nuclear warheads. If the country’s rulers deem their internal political situation sufficiently desperate, they could push the United States and its allies to test a new “counter-provocation” plan. According to the Los Angeles Times:

The U.S. and South Korea recently agreed to a ‘counter-provocation’ plan under which they would respond proportionately to a North Korean attack but avoid escalating to heavier weapons or additional targets.

If serious fighting breaks out, it may be difficult to quickly de-escalate the conflict. Let’s hope the North Korean people will figure out a stable and sure path to political revolution before Northeast Asia erupts in widespread fighting. I am not too optimistic about this prospect. What are your perspectives on the Hermit Kingdom?

South Korea Attacked: The Chaos of Cybersecurity

At 0500 GMT on March 20, 2013, the computer networks of major South Korean banks and television broadcasters were impacted by a likely cyberattack. According to Fox News, some of the networks were still down more than seven hours after the attack began. The mass-scale attack in South Korea is only the latest event in a wider global narrative of cyberinsecurity and chaos.

Unsurprisingly, initial suspicion has fallen on North Korea. Despite its status as a critically weak or failed state, the DPRK does have threatening military capabilities, including the potential to unleash cyberattacks. Only time will tell whether the “hermit kingdom” is responsible for the March 20 attack, which disrupted commerce in South Korea and beyond.

What is very clear, though, is that many geopolitical powers – notably China and the United States – are involved in both defensive and offensive cyber operations. I previously wrote about this brave new world of cyberwar-without-end. Even as the United States is ramping down what some previously thought to be a generational fight against Islamist terrorists, cyberwar may truly be unending.

A key reason for this dynamic is the plausible deniability that states can maintain with regard to attacks. A key reason is the pronounced role that non-state actors – whether terrorist organizations, organized crime groups, or other types of hackers – frequently play in these attacks on computer networks. Both states and non-state actors are quite active in efforts to disable or compromise critical networks. And, by definition, state-sponsored cyberattacks are covert operations. States obviously have no interest in transparency with regard to when and how they are targeting their enemies.

Even if cybersecurity is gaining more attention – both in terms of public budgets and news media coverage – not everyone agrees on the true nature of these risks. Last October, then U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta publicly warned about the potential for a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” Beyond the financial sector, utility networks, transportation grids, and other infrastructure may be seriously vulnerable to hackers. Sadly, the United States, China, and other states may see no viable alternative to a cyber “arms race” coupled with ongoing attacks. Welcome to the chaos of the international cybersphere.

North Korea: A Peculiar Failed State

October brought heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Here is the monthly summary from the influential International Crisis Group:

Tensions mounted on Korean peninsula against backdrop of rising nationalism in the region. [South Korea] 7 Oct announced deal with U.S. to extend ballistic missile system range; Pyongyang responded with claim it has missiles that could reach U.S. mainland. [North Korea] 19 Oct threatened military action against [South] if S Korean rights activists dropped propaganda leaflets in [North Korea]; activists carried out airdrop of 120,000 leaflets 22 Oct despite [South Korean] police attempts to block them, and released further 50,000 leaflets 29 Oct. Seoul commenced annual Hoguk joint military exercise 25 Oct, involving 240,000 personnel; [South Korean] satellite launch, planned for late Oct, postponed till Nov. [North Korean] Army Vice-Minister Kim Chol reportedly executed for misbehaviour during official mourning period after Kim Jong-Il’s death.

Even casual observers recognize a recurring pattern of geopolitical brinksmanship from North Korea. The DPRK, you see, is a failed state. And, particularly since the end of the Cold War (and the loss of Soviet support), North Korean rulers have sought to distract their public with externally-oriented fears.

Mass transit in Pyongyang, North Korea

Credit: Joseph A. Ferris III (Creative Commons license)

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a peculiar failed state because it retains significant governmental capabilities – especially in terms of coercive force – even as it suffers from a major deficit of popular legitimacy. It is difficult to know just how unpopular the dynastic regime is. There are no formal surveys of poplitical opinion in North Korea. Nor do most citizens have very good access to independent sources of information.

We can, however, make inferences from events like those of the last month. Kim Jong-un’s government reacted so forcefully to the airdrops because of its lack of domestic legitimacy. The execution of Kim Chol also provides a glimpse of the longstanding tactics of regime survival, which precede Kim Jong-un’s rise.

In the end, there is an intense struggle underway for the hearts and minds of ordinary North Koreans. The prison camps remain for political dissidents, North Korea remains on a war footing despite the immiseration of much of its population, and the militarist regime continues its effort to suppress the free flow of information to its people.