The Korea crisis just went pear-shaped

Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

I HAVE a bit of a confession to make: I may have seriously misjudged the severity, and therefore, the likely outcome of the growing crisis on the Korean peninsula.

A couple of weeks ago, after North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test, I found myself with some rare free time, and wrote an extensive article on my own blog explaining why that particular event would not, when it was all said and done, have serious consequences to the 60-year status quo in Korea

I was not exercising a great leap of imagination with that conclusion; since the unsatisfactory end of the Korean War, the pattern has always been the same: North Korea does a provocative thing. Its opponents (primarily the triad of the US, South Korea and Japan) impose some punitive measures. North Korea agrees to stop doing the provocative thing, or not do it again, in exchange for having the punitive measures lifted, and perhaps some kind of token reward, such as food aid or other economic assistance. Then things are quiet for a time, until North Korea decides to try doing a provocative thing again, repeating the cycle.

It has happened that way dozens of times, and all things considered, there was no reason to think it would be any different this time. Even the launch of what North Korea said was a satellite and everyone said was a thinly-disguised ballistic missile test was not unusual; knowing they would be sanctioned anyway, the North figured they had at least one free spin.

The pattern, however, seems to have been broken, as the alarming rapid turn of events on Thursday afternoon revealed. South Korea ordered the evacuation of the Kaesong industrial zone, the joint North-South enterprise park located about 10 kilometers inside North Korea. Some 124 South Korean companies were forced to hastily pack as much as they could carry and leave, much to the annoyance of company executives, who complained bitterly that politics was ruining their businesses.

A few hours after the order from Seoul, the North Korean regime, obviously miffed at being beaten to the punch, issued its own order for all South Koreans to leave Kaesong immediately, and further declaring that anything left behind would be seized.

Thursday’s chaos was significant, and significantly alarming, because the Kaesong project has until now been largely insulated from the North-South conflict.

Since it was established in 2004, in one of those occasional times when it appeared North Korea was reasonably sincere about at least trying not to piss off everyone in sight, Kaesong has only been affected twice; once in 2009, when it was briefly closed after an earlier nuclear test by Pyongyang, and for a short time last year, when workers from the South (numbering about 1,000; the industrial zone employs about 54,000 North Koreans) were blocked from entering after an incident in which two South Korean soldiers were killed by a North-planted land mine.

The South, of course, had a perfectly sensible reason for shutting down Kaesong; as a lucrative source of badly needed foreign currency for the North, the Kaesong operations were probably funding Pyongyang’s nuclear and other weapons development.

As far as the Kim regime was concerned, the abandonment of Kaesong, temporary or not, was an act of war. That’s perhaps a little strong, coming from a government that just blew up a nuclear bomb that would rank somewhere in between the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs in terms of destructive power, and just more-or-less successfully flight-tested a missile with an estimated 12,000-km range, but the assessment may not be too exaggerated; even before the nuclear and missile tests tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang were running high. The Kaesong shutdown simply aggravates the crisis, and what the consequences will be are anyone’s guess at this point.

It is extremely unfortunate, and should be a grave concern to everyone with a stake in East Asia. The Kims have always been inscrutable, and Kim Jong-Un even more so than his father and grandfather.

What is most worrisome is that with the loss of the one really legitimate source of income for his regime, Kim may feel he has little to lose by taking even more aggressive action against his ‘enemies.’ After all, there have been some indications that he is struggling to cement his authority over the country’s huge military (as was reported yesterday, he apparently recently had the army chief of staff killed); there may be no better way to solve that problem than to slip their leash and let them strike at the South, or even Japan or the US.

Even if that kind of nightmare scenario is not in the offing, the Kaesong pullout was a bad idea. The concern about what North Korea might be using the revenue it earns from the joint industrial zone is valid, but that is a smaller matter than the implications of cutting off the one fairly stable and tangibly productive connection between North and South.

Economic pressure, whether positive or negative, tends to work much better than politics or militarism in changing regimes, whether the goal is to change the regime wholesale or just change its attitude; Iran and Cuba are good recent examples. Economic engagement is what keeps China and the West from falling into a harsher conflict. And in the particular case of Kaesong, there is a considerable direct impact on the South Korean economy; more than 100 companies have suddenly lost all or part of their operations, and hundreds of South Koreans are now at least temporarily out of work. While the South Korean economy overall is not in serious trouble, this latest shock will, nevertheless, cause some damage, which could have a bit of a ripple effect in this part of the world, one that will have a greater impact than its scale suggests it should, simply because it was completely unexpected.


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