As Jews, our attention is constantly focused on Eretz Yisrael and the perpetual wars in the Middle East. This is quite natural, however we cannot ignore the news coming out of North Korea. This hermit country, ruled by a dynasty still professing extreme repressive Stalinism, is advancing its missile and nuclear weaponry in a declared battle with the U.S. and South Korea. In fact, we may be surprised to find ourselves at war with North Korea once again, in a conflict left over from the Cold War era.
Currently ruled by an unpredictable megalomaniac, Kim Jong-un, North Korea has over the years sparked numerous crises almost leading to war. Often, the crisis dissipates through temporary agreements with the superpowers. This tactic has enabled North Korea to buy time and cheat its way to becoming a war-mongering nuclear power. Given its new nuclear and missile capabilities and its over-a-million soldiers, a war with North Korea, especially if that country is backed by its traditional Chinese and Russian allies, could be very messy and dangerous.
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The Korean peninsula, bordering Russia and China, was annexed by an expanding Japanese empire across the Sea of Japan in 1910. Following World War II and the Japanese surrender, Soviet troops occupied the north, and American troops occupied the south, and the two rival states – one communist and one democratic/capitalist – each claimed to represent all of Korea. In 1950, at the height of the Cold War, North Korea invaded South Korea, occupying nearly the whole country. With U.N. backing, an American-led military entered the war, saving South Korea and reversing a near-victory for North Korea with its own near-victory, including the seizure of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. China then unexpectedly attacked the U.S.-led forces to prop up the communists, and the war ended in 1953 in a stalemate. The armistice that has been in effect since then includes a demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas, almost 25,000 American troops stationed there, a missile defense system, as well as tanks and other military equipment.
During the Soviet-U.S. Cold War, North Korea emerged as an extreme communist dictatorship heavily dependant on its Russian and Chinese neighbors. In 1990, as the Soviet Union collapsed and China turned toward capitalism, North Korea became the last remaining communist icon in a post-communist world. Ironically, it combined its totalitarian dictatorship with a personality cult. The first leader was Kim Il-sung, who, upon his death, was succeed by his son Kim Jong-il in 1994. Kim Jong-il died in 2011 and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-un. The leadership was handed down to three generations of Kims with rubber stamp communist party approval.
North Korea became among the worst absolute dictatorships, repressing all freedoms and opposition and demanding societal loyalty, if not worship, of its leader. The regime raised a huge army and repressed its populace by sending hundreds of thousands to “reeducation” work camps. It punished dissent with mass executions without trial. Throughout its history North Korea has told its people that the state of war with its rival, South Korea, and the U.S. required absolute state control.
Despite the end of the Cold War, the Korean conflict never ended. North Korea’s political, economic, and social isolation motivated its leader to pursue a path of self-sufficiency and war to protect its survival. Despite shedding their communism, China and Russia, historic allies with regional interests, often colluded with North Korea’s aims. They argued to the global community that North Korea could be tamed, despite its repression at home and pursuit of advanced weaponry for aggression abroad. They also did not want a U.S. presence along their border.
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North Korea was once again in the global spotlight in the mid 1990s as severe flooding damaged crops and infrastructure. A harsh winter in 2011 was another natural calamity to befall the country. With massive starvation and deaths, the regime was forced to accept U.N. international food aid. North Korea entered into an agreement with the Clinton administration to curtail its nuclear weaponry in exchange for aid. The international food aid saved the regime and allowed it to secretly break its agreement. It continued to pursue advanced, including nuclear, weapons. It also colluded with other rogue states, such as Syria and Iran, in advancing their own chemical and nuclear warfare capabilities. To ward off the fate of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq of 2003, North Korea, in 2006, announced that it had successfully conducted its first nuclear weapons test. Similar tests followed in 2013 and 2016, all receiving international condemnation. Last July, North Korea announced a successful first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system it named Hwasong 14. This achievement enables Korea to attack major U.S. cities.
Politically, the regime continues its Stalinist repression, forbidding opposition under penalty of torturous prison camp and/or execution. The regime is said to maintain prison camps on the level of Auschwitz, interning over a quarter million people. Emigration is also forbidden, although workers have worked under contract in China and Russia in slave labor conditions, with their salaries siphoned by the government.
The Korean conflict has heated up since the inauguration of President Trump. Kim threatened a nuclear attack on the nearest U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, and the U.S. warns of imminent war if North Korea continues its advanced nuclear and missile tests. Just last month, South Korea announced that it was establishing its own defense ministry special bureau to militarily counter its rival amidst border tensions, including the defection of North Korean soldiers. Although it is difficult to predict the future of this conflict, it might be worthwhile to suggest some scenarios that could occur.
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Based upon history as well recent developments, three possible scenarios and/or combination of scenarios present themselves.
Scenario one, which is the least likely, is another superpower-negotiated agreement to the Korean conflict. With North Korea’s war mongering and outright violations of past agreements, it is unlikely that rival superpowers could clobber the North Koreans into any sustainable agreement of trust without a comprehensive enforcement, which the regime is likely to outright reject. The 1990s’ flooding and the 2011 drought were chokeholds on North Korean survival, yet after being saved from starvation through international food aid, they openly violated their agreement to curtail their nuclear advancement. Short of a repeat natural disaster, it is unlikely that North Korea will sue for any conflict resolution, especially given their new nuclear capabilities, which they openly threaten to use against the U.S. and its allies South Korea and Japan.
Scenario two is implosion from within. The evil of North Korea cannot and should not endure indefinitely. Ultimately, a godless dynasty that forces its people to worship their leaders will fall. Therefore, more than likely, North Korea (like the Soviet Union) will eventually implode from within. This implosion is complicated by North Korea’s harsh repression and cowing of its subjects into strict obedience. Where it is likely to crack, however, is within its mighty military, where recent defections have shown some stresses against the ruling family dynasty. With language and cultural barriers, the U.S. is highly dependent on its South Korean ally to lead the fight against North Korea. The U.S. has already led the world in international sanctions, but without cooperation from neighboring Russia and China, economic punishment is difficult to implement in a way that would seriously threaten the regime. Recently, South Korea seized merchant ships traced to Russian and Chinese businesses carrying oil to evade North Korean sanctions. This has prompted talk of a naval blockade to prevent such essential supplies from reaching the regime.
To promote implosion, the U.S. should seek to sow discontent among North Korea’s upper military echelons. The goal would be to sway them from activating their nuclear lever in exchange for protection from prosecution and participation in a post-conflict unified Korea. The U.S. missed its opportunity with the droughts. The regime allowed mass starvation of its populace but managed to maintain the loyalty of its military. And, so far, the North Korean leadership has successfully unified its people by citing the external threat from the foreign U.S. across the ocean and its South Korean ally. The obedient Koreans – with a cultural tradition like Japan in accepting authority, and without a clear alternative or established opposition – are unlikely to rebel. However, there might well be a grumbling clique within the North Korean military and/or branch of the ruling Kim family which needs nurturing to swiftly oust the ruling elite. The trickiest part of hastening internal implosion is disabling the North Korean nuclear switch while strife reigns among the ruling elites and social chaos ensues.
One possible result of such chaos is that South Korea, already home to thousands of North Korean refugees, may be viewed more favorably in the north as a cultural, non-foreign alternative to dominance by the U.S. For this scenario to succeed, South Korea must show its willingness to unite the long-divided nation, peacefully if possible, but militarily if forced into war. They should behave like West Germany during the Cold War, which aided East Germans in their rebellion against the Soviet Union and benevolently absorbed them into a unified Germany. With successful South Korean marketing, it is likely that most North Koreans would want their homeland united under a less repressive government. It is therefore up to the U.S., using South Korean guidance, to stir up dissent within the grumbling military and family elite that control North Korea.
Scenario three is attack. This strategy could be implemented alone or in combination with promoting civil strife in North Korea. The U.S. would need to plan with South Korea a swift strike that will disable a retaliatory North Korean nuclear and/or missile response. The lesson from the Korean war of over 60 years ago is that North Korea’s subtle enablers, Russia and China, need to be pacified if the U.S. is to successfully undertake such a swift hit. Russia and China need to be persuaded against sustaining their historic alliance with North Korea, given their fear of a wave of North Korean refugees and their being unsure of their own ability to influence North Korea’s maddened regime. They will need U.S. guarantees that, like a united Germany, a united Korea poses no threat to them and will benefit their own backyard interests. With such guarantees, especially for participation in a post-war permanent resolution, Russia and China may agree to lay low should the U.S. strike North Korea to disable its nuclear missile capabilities and effect a regime change acceptable to them.
A U.S. blow to North Korea would no doubt benefit Israel as the regime has significantly allied with Israel’s enemies Syria and Iran. The regime has provided significant manpower in upgrading Syrian and Iranian chemical, nuclear, and maybe even foot soldier capabilities. According to the Syrian opposition fighting Assad in the last year, North Korean soldiers have served among the Syrian regime’s mercenaries, successfully turning the tide of the civil war against them. Last September, Assad publicly thanked North Korea for assisting him in overcoming Syrian rebels. With the Kim regime ousted or engaged in a war with the U.S., there is no doubt that the military might of Israel’s Syrian and Iranian enemies will also be depleted.
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As the Korean wild card gets thrown into the deck, in these End of Days in which we now find ourselves, we should beseech Hashem that this evil, war mongering, Nazi-like regime that is so helpful to our enemies be defeated. With such an outcome, we will all sleep more safely, without fear of nuclear war, knowing that the final redemption is coming closer for the Jewish people and the world.
The author, a graduate of Columbia University’s School of International Affairs, worked for the State and Defense departments as well as other government agencies in the field of international relations. He is the son of a Korean War veteran who recently revealed his role in stockpiling nuclear weapons aboard planes during the Korean War.