The launch of a satellite by North Korea this year could provoke an American military strike against the DPRK, a South Korean expert told NK News in March.
In a wide-ranging interview on the DPRK leadership, ongoing rapprochement between the two Koreas, and Pyongyang’s more long-term goal, Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, warned that the ongoing cooling of tensions on the peninsula might not last.
“Pyongyang and Washington’s position on their satellite launches are radically different, and thus a crisis may arise once again and one cannot say it will not end up with a war,” Cheong said.
“The chance of a local war still exists here.”
Despite this Cheong, who has served on the policy advisory committees of the Ministry of National Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that both the “soft” line of Pyongyang against the South and the diplomatic position of ROK President Moon Jae-in have helped cool tensions.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
NK News: Do you think that Kim Jong Un has a plan to conquer South Korea? Is it possible?
Cheong Seong-chang: At the time of Kim Jong Il, especially after Kim Il Sung died, North Korea became internationally isolated and was facing serious economic problems – they were not thinking about conquering the South.
If you look at Kim Jong Il’s policy, he was more focused on making the Party cadres loyal to him rather than on developing the Korean People’s Army (KPA) into a force which could fight. And there were some old people there who could not do their job well – but still kept important positions – like that of the Chief of the Main Political Department. It was very inefficient.
As for Kim Jong Un, it seems that there is a plan to unify Korea by force – maybe not by an invasion, but in case of a conflict breaking out here. After their sixth nuclear test they said they have an EMP capacity, if it is true that they have expanded such a capacity, they could paralyze the South Korean army’s vehicles through an electromagnetic strike and begin an invasion.
There are many, many foreigners in South Korea and if they attack the South many of them will fall victim to the attack. Such an attack would be a declaration of war against the entire world: they may think about it, but the probability of it actually put in motion is extremely now at the moment.
“The policy of Trump is very one-directional and ignores the position of the U.S.’s allies”
NK News: Do you think the United States might attack North Korea? Would Washington start a war or something like a “bloody nose” operation?
Cheong Seong-chang: It seems that the United States has considered military operations since last year. But a sudden American invasion is also impossible due to international opinion, though recent U.S. discussion of North Korea’s human rights issues may be interpreted as them developing a pretext for an invasion.
This year the DPRK is likely to launch a satellite somewhere around the celebrations surrounding their 70th anniversary on September 9. The United States will respond with sanctions, then North Korea may respond with an even stronger nuclear test.
In case, as Minister Ri Yong Ho suggested last year, they conduct a hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific, then Trump is very likely to respond with an attack in order to accumulate support before the November elections to the House of Representatives.
NK News: Do you think that Donald Trump’s victory is a major variable here? Had Hillary Clinton have won the election, would the situation have been different?
Cheong Seong-chang: Clinton had very strong opinions on North Korea, but one cannot know if she would also have considered military options. The foreign policy of the Democratic Party was also not that flexible, thus she would have probably thought of a military option should she have been elected, but would have made relations with their allies a priority.
The policy of Trump is very one-directional and ignores the position of the U.S.’s allies. It would not have been easy to proceed like this if the Democrats were in charge.
NK News: What do you think of China’s position? They are implementing sanctions against the North with a great deal of rigor, it seems.
Cheong Seong-chang: China did articulate its position through the Global Times (Huanqiu Shibao), saying that in case of a military conflict they would not participate as long as the American army does not cross the military demarcation line. But if a conflict arises and they do, China will not tolerate it. They would likely intervene to maximize benefits for their nation.
If the United States advances to Pyongyang, China will probably not go as far as the capital, but they would occupy North Pyongan, Jagang, Ryanggang, and North Hamgyong provinces. In case of American withdrawal, they would withdraw, too, but if they do not, they may start to turn this land into their own due to resources which can be acquired.
One of the common stereotypes is that Kim Jong Un is more prone to using terror than his father. This is not true.
They are also quite interested in gaining access to the Sea of Japan, thus in case of an American invasion, they would likely focus on North Hamgyong. If they occupy it, they get large access to the sea. They can target Japan, they can go directly to the Pacific from there – the northeast region is important not only from an economic, but also from a military position: a bridgehead they can secure.
And like the U.S. and the USSR agreed to divide Korea in the past, China and the United States may strike a deal agreeing to divide North Korea into occupation zones.
NK News: What do you think is the guiding ideology of North Korea?
Cheong Seong-chang: One can say it is a combination of several ideas. The most important of them, the core one, is Stalinism, the one which proclaims the absolute authority and deification of the leader of the Workers’ Party and nullifies all traces of the “collective leadership.” This is the idea which makes the personality cult surrounding the three Kims acceptable in the DPRK.
The next would be the Confucian ideology of the past, of the feudal age of royal dynasties, which established a new form of social stratification in the North. Thus the concept of the “Paektu bloodline” made it normal for a supreme leader’s son to inherit the throne. The logic of a monarchy is a traditional and nationalistic one in Korea, and it became a part of the ideology of the country.
NK News: Purges of the North Korean elite are ongoing. What do you make of this?
Cheong Seong-chang: Terror is one of the integral parts of a Stalinist system, an indivisible part of it, since without terror the supreme leader holds no supreme authority. Thus the terror policy is linked with politics of the DPRK.
One of the common stereotypes is that Kim Jong Un is more prone to using terror than his father. This is not true. Under Kim Jong Il, there was an “intensification campaign” (심화조 사건) conducted for three years following Hwang Jang Yop’s defection in 1997, during which 2000 cadres were executed or sent to concentration camps.
Kim Jong Un has purged about 200 officials: only 10% of what Kim Jong Il did in a similar time period. Kim Jong Un actually depends on terror less than his father. And I don’t think we can say he just rotates cadres in order to promote loyalty – like Kim Jong Il did. With Kim Jong Un, it is also related to the actual qualification and skills of the cadres.
Since he changes cadres all the time, people think that there is massive purge going on – but in the military, he actually had only Hyon Yong Chol executed. Ri Yong Ho, for example, was removed from his positions and there were reports of him being purged, but still no evidence of his execution.
NK News: But he was deleted from all the photos, was he not?
Cheong Seong-chang: True. Purged officials normally get deleted from all records. But this does not necessarily mean he was killed. Remember how Hyon Yong Chol was deleted from all photos but then they showed some chronicle with him?
There is no 100% correlation. If one is executed, this does not mean they unconditionally deleted him from all the photos and if one is deleted that does not 100% mean he is executed.
There were many changes in those occupying various positions at that time, especially during the time Choe Ryong Hae became the Chief of the Main Political Department. But if they were removed from their positions, they were not necessarily all purged.
Kim Jong Il seemed to have asked only for personal loyalty from his subordinates and nothing else
Kim Jong Gak, for example, used to be the Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, then President of Kim Il Sung Military University, then a first vice-minister of the People’s Armed Forces and, as of this year, he is the Chief of the Main Political Department.
If one disappears, they are not necessarily purged. There are people who used to be Minister of People’s Armed Forces and then became Chief of Staff. There were several cases, but if someone is dismissed from a position of Minister of People’s Armed Forces or Chief of Staff this does not necessarily mean they are purged.
Ri Yong Gil is a Chief of Staff and now leads and Operations Department: it is a demotion, but not a purge.
NK News: Under Kim Jong Un, we have seen many cases of sudden reduction in rank. One moment an official is Vice-Marshal, and on the next day he suddenly appears wearing General of the Army insignia.
Cheong Seong-chang: Kim Jong Il seems to have asked only for personal loyalty from his subordinates and nothing else. Military exercises are quite symbolic, but Kim Jong Un actually takes interest in them. For example, if an artillery unit underperforms, he checks for the reasons behind it and passes down punishments, as well as outlines measures for improvement.
So he tries to appoint commanders who actually fit their positions. It is not because Kim Jong Un is a capricious man that he dismisses them, this may be the case, but there are multiple factors here, and each case is different.
NK News: Choe Ryong Hae has not appeared in a military uniform since 2014. Some speculate that he might have been stripped of rank. What do you think?
Cheong Seong-chang: There is a claim that he was stripped of his Vice-Marshal rank. When he was moved from the Main Political Department to the position of a secretary of the Central Committee – even if he retained the Vice-Marshal rank – it lost any meaning.
There are North Korean cadres who work in the Party, not in the military and have a military rank. Especially those who are related to military industry – they may be a three or four-star general.
“The soft policy of Pyongyang towards Seoul also makes the probability of war much lower”
This is done so they can guide the military with more ease, to facilitate a chain of command.
Kim Kyong Hui is a good example. She was not a military commander, yet she was a four-star general – in order to give her, a Party Secretary, some power in the army. We cannot really say if Choe has kept his rank or not.
NK News: How would you assess the probability of war in Korea as for now?
Cheong Seong-chang: I think that it is very low now after Moon Jae-in got elected. Because of his firm position, it would be very difficult for the United States to implement the military option.
The soft policy of Pyongyang towards Seoul also makes the probability of war much lower than it was last year.
But as of the future, there is no clear way to solve the DPRK nuclear problem, Pyongyang and Washington’s position on their satellite launches are radically different, and thus the crisis may arise once again and one cannot say it will not end up with a war. The chance of a local war still exists here.
While not completely eliminated, a chance for a full-scale war is much lower, when for a local conflict. With the rise of Moon, this chance is lower, but the main problems remain unsolved.
It is safer in Korea than it used to be, but there are still many unsolved problems which may change the situation in the future.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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