Some current articles on different aspects of North Korea seem at first glance to be quite unrelated. Take, for example, the recent article in NK News stating in part that a lack of linguistic skills holds back the field of study regarding North Korea. Then, a piece in the New York Times opined that perhaps Kim Jong Un pursued the development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental delivery systems for reasons beyond internal and external propaganda usage.
As disparate as these writings seem, there is a thread of commonality that ties them together, which I’d like to look at for further debate and discussion.
The focus here is two-fold. Initially it is about what it takes – and does not take – to fully fathom one of the most profound enigmas in international affairs troubling the world today. Secondly, to directly address a catastrophe in the offing, there is a need to review how experts came to the orthodox “understanding” that North Korea was only posturing with regard to its effort to acquire nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
To begin, current and future observers of Pyongyang need to be taught that core competencies for understanding Pyongyang do not include diplomatic or political skills. While those abilities might be of utility in other endeavors, concerns for political objectives and diplomatic outcomes too often get in the way of achieving a meaningful comprehension of practically any subject, particularly one as difficult to fathom as North Korea.
One writer cites the need for competency in the Korean language, and that is certainly true – if one is confined to doing research involving original documents. Not having a complete grasp of Choson-mal and Hangug-eo, however, is not necessarily a barrier to “getting” the North. In point of fact, the U.S. Air Force relied upon highly trained and widely experienced non-linguists as well as linguists to churn out high-quality technical reports and finished intelligence products for use at the highest national levels. [In the interest of full disclosure here, I am a Korean linguist, though my expertise is eroding from lack of application.]
More important than raw linguistic ability, though, is an analytical mind coupled with a deep understanding of the country. This ability to “get” North Korea can be acquired through training and experiential exposure to Korean culture. Experience is critically important for, as always in Asia, the past is prologue. Small events from bygone days that might not make the history books nonetheless comprise the foundation upon which larger events unfold. As business schools note, organizational continuity is paramount to the success of any institution, and that is particularly true for the study of the Kim dynasty. Institutional knowledge about North Korea needs to be passed on to the next generation.
The most significant factor to copmrehensively understanding Pyongyang is the failure to see things as the North does
THE PYONGYANG PERSPECTIVE
The major impediment to comprehensively understanding Pyongyang is not inadequate linguistic skills to read documents in the original, or even a lack of disciplined minds capable of analyzing an admittedly challenging country. Rather, the most significant factor is the failure to see things as the North does. This problem occurs primarily in the higher echelons of Washington’s bureaucracy, and the results of such failures are well-known. In additional to the legacy situation in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq come to mind. Things have not changed since, and Iran will likely join the list.
The old guard military leaders in the North know that their country would have been completely annihilated by UN forces during the Korean War, were it not for the intervention of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army. Further, those elder leaders see the 28,500 American soldiers across the border in South Korea and know that those troops are better trained and better equipped than their own much large force.
Kim Jong Un watches with fear the annual exercises involving South Korea and the U.S. – Foal Eagle and Key Resolve – to note with alarm that the most recent exercise involved amphibious assault landings that are obviously practice for invading North Korea. And he is all too aware that part of the drills included a decapitation strike against him personally.
Some analysts appear shocked to realize that Kim Jong Un sees this as an existential threat. That this should come as a surprise is disappointing – and frightening. After all, it is a very rational person who, after observing all this activity intended to end his regime – and his life – reacts by bolstering his forces to discourage such acts. This tardy recognition speaks to a larger issue, one that is at least partly the root cause behind all the failures the West has experienced in dealing with Pyongyang.
It is a very rational person who, after observing all this activity intended to end his regime – and his life – reacts by bolstering his forces to discourage such acts
We simply do not – are unable to? – understand the North Korean perspective. This says that we are, in a very broad sense, incapable of empathy. I do not mean this in a psychological or social sense, but purely as a practical ability to see things from another’s point of view. As Sun Tzu might put it, a failure to know one’s enemy is a recipe for disaster.
Korean linguistic ability would indeed be useful in parsing oral and written statements for the nuances of language to discern any hidden meanings. Equally helpful would be a well-grounded understanding of history, liberally flavored with a deep appreciation of the Korean culture. More valuable would be a massive dose of reality, an unflinching look at the Korean Peninsula today with eyes unbiased by one’s own foibles and predilections.
At the risk of belaboring the point but to ensure that it is understood, Pyongyang’s goal is regime survivability. That end is accomplished not by merely having some magic number of nuclear weapons. It is obtained by being able to survive and respond to an attack by the U.S. or South Korea. Kim Jong Un is not his grandfather who might have been willing to negotiate away his nascent nuclear program in return for serious concessions from the West. Conditions on the peninsula have evolved considerably since then, and a second strike nuclear capability is what Kim Jong Un sees as required to ensure survivability.
Even if Pyongyang were to inadvertently incite an attack by the U.S. – preemptive or in response to some provocation – the North intends to be able to weather the attack such that no enemy can eliminate all of its nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Hence the effort in miniaturizing nuclear devices and the work on road-mobile and submarine-launched medium- to long-range missiles. Tracking such weapons before they are actually launched is next to impossible, and that greatly increases the odds of some systems remaining viable for a second strike. This has, at long last, garnered the attention of the West and its allies, and it is indeed a worrisome development.
That some are only now coming to this realization is a troubling illustration of malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance of the highest order in “getting” North Korea. That too ought to worry the bejezzus out of everybody.
Main picture: NK News
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