Politics of perception
What does North Korea fear the most? A revolution that would bring down the Pyongyang regime.
- Published: 4/04/2013 at 10:18 AM
- Newspaper section: topstories
When Al Qaeda launched its Sept 11 2001 attack it wasn’t to topple the United States. Osama bin Laden knew this was not possible. Rather it was to prove that the US is vulnerable and not all-powerful. By proving that, Al Qaeda had hoped the people of the Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa would also see that their own governments are vulnerable and not all-powerful.
It is Al Qaeda’s belief that these authoritarian governments hold power at the behest of the US. The group wanted to provoke an Islamic uprising in those countries to overthrow their governments and pave the way for the formation of a Muslim Caliphate.
They successfully drove home their Sept 11 attack. However, they failed to stir a popular uprising in those Muslim countries. But the strategy they were aiming at is true and tested. After all, it was taught to them by the CIA.
It’s a basic, well tested Cold War tactic. To topple an unfriendly government, rather than employing a costly invasion and occupation it is best to provoke a local popular uprising that leads to the installation of a friendly government.
This is the most immediate threat to the regime in Pyongyang.
North Koreans attend a rally held to gather their willingness for a victory in a possible war against the United States and South Korea in Nampo, North Korea, April 3, 2013 in this picture released by the North's official KCNA news agency in Pyongyang on Wednesday. (REUTERS/KCNA photo)
I’m in the process of reading George Friedman’s "The Next Decade", which gives insightful accounts on key global players. The insights on the groups and different countries discussed in this article are owed to the book. Allow me to get off Thai politics and apply what I have learnt from one of the world’s leading political scientists to the present crisis on the Korean peninsula.
Even if most of the world is dumbfounded by the aggressive and dangerous rhetoric and behaviour of North Korea, there is a logical explanation behind it: the regime in Pyongyang does not want to be toppled.
On March 30, the North Korean government declared it was in ‘’a state of war’’ with South Korea. Rhetoric like ‘’stern physical actions’’ against ‘’any provocative act’’ were used. Premier Kim Jong-un declared that rockets were ready to be fired at American bases in the Pacific.
The world went into a panic, but it should not fret. The Pyongyang regime is merely trying to ensure its survival and has no intention of provoking World War III. But this tactic also relies on the US not overreacting, which it won’t. Still bogged down and overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington doesn’t have the political will or the military resources to overreact.
North Korea is vital to the geopolitical balance of power in East Asia. It’s a buffer state between China and the US sphere of influence that is South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.
The US and South Korea would not invade North Korea because China would never tolerate American troops just across the Yalu River, which marks the China-North Korea border. The Korean War (1950-1953) taught the Americans that lesson the hard way.
North Korea would not invade South Korea because it could not win the war on its own. China doesn’t want to be pulled into the conflict because it benefits a great deal from the current balance of power, politically and economically, not just regionally, but also globally. Why rock a boat full of treasures?
However, strategically China could not tolerate a North Korean defeat and US and allied troops just across the river on its border.
And the US could not tolerate a South Korean defeat and the upsetting of the balance of power in East Asia. That would undermine the US global hegemony built on a network of allies, as it would send a strong signal to the allies that the US is willing to abandon them.
Both China and the US will do everything in their power to prevent another Korean War. No side can afford a war, least of all the Pyongyang regime because it would guarantee its own destruction. The goal of the regime is survival.
Why all the aggressive and dangerous rhetoric and behaviour then? It’s a survival tactic. The real threat to the Pyongyang regime is the population of North Korea itself, oppressed and in poverty. The fear is of a covert US operation to provoke an uprising among the North Korean population.
Perhaps there is, or perhaps there isn’t, an actual covert operation. But we can assume that the Pyongyang regime believes there is one. North Korea is a true relic of the Cold War and knows the manual well. The fear is real.
After all, in the early 1990s the US provoked a Kurdish rebellion against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Currently, one may argue the US is angling for a revolution in Iran. It is perhaps unfair that every regime around the world blames local uprisings on the US. But if we were students of history, then we shouldn’t be surprise by this perception.
Again, regardless of realities, the fear is real.
To deter a local uprising is to convince the population that the regime is invulnerable and all-powerful. The nuclear programme, firing missiles over Japan, sinking of a South Korean naval ship and declaring a state of war, these actions are not actually meant for a real war.
Rather, they are meant to convince the world that the Pyongyang regime is stable and has an immovable grip on its own country. That it is all-powerful and willing to bring wide spread destruction to prove the point. Here, we should be mindful of the difference between creating a perception and actually carrying out the reality.
The aggressive words and actions have heightened because North Korea recently went through a regime change. Kim Jong Il, the dear leader, died a little over a year ago. Succession and the early stages of new leadership always make for a vulnerable time.
Kim Jong-un and his advisers are doing what they must to keep the regime in power, to keep the North Korean populace in check and to deter the US and its allies from any aggressive covert action. That is, to appear aggressive and dangerous, powerful and erratic enough to bring widespread destruction.
Perception is a weapon of deterrence.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Reuters File Photo)
Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in a similar situation. As such, he must be aggressive in developing the country’s nuclear programme and in his rhetoric against the US and Israel. He must appear powerful and show a willingness to use said power in order to not just put a check on opposition dissidents among the Iranian population, but also to keep the confidence of the powerful Shi'ite clerics.
He knows Iran doesn’t have the military capability to take on the US or Israel, together or separately. But he also knows that the US and Israel – together or separately – do not have the political will or military resources to invade and occupy Iran. The only viable way to topple the Iranian regime is to provoke a popular uprising within the country.
The fear of a popular uprising is all the more real given the example of Arab Spring.
Based on the scenario laid out in this article, missiles might be fired, ships might be sunk and there might even be clashes that lead to casualties, but a full-scale war in the Korean peninsula is an unlikely event, therefore the world’s steady diet of K-Pop will not be disrupted.
However, all of this depends on key players acting rationally, including cooler heads prevailing during bouts of erratic, reactionary impulses, while keeping the goals of survival intact and the balance of power in place.
But as Mr Friedman also pointed out, we shouldn’t assume political players will act rationally. Hence, we should keep a close watch.
About the author
- Writer: Voranai Vanijaka
- Position: Political and Social Commentator