The Korean War never ended
The Korean War stopped for practical purposes in 1953, but technically, it never ended.
This is a matter of theory for most people around the world, but clearly for the North Korean leadership – and many of its brainwashed people – it’s a brutal reality.
This week’s shelling by North Korea of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong was just the latest illustration of this attitude.
There are few countries left that genuinely qualify for the title of rogue state, but North Korea is unquestionably one.
Because it’s so implacably locked off from the world, with the small numbers of visitors allowed visas confined to rigid and closely-watched itineraries, few people in the outside world know much about it.
But there are clues available, painstakingly put together by people who specialise in this most enigmatic of countries, and the overall picture they paint is uniformly horrifying.
My program, PM, has taken a keen interest in North Korea over the last decade, and I thought, in the context of the attack, I’d bring together here some of what I’ve learned from those experts.
What kind of country is North Korea?
No statistic brings the economic failure of the Kim Dynasty more graphically than the one unearthed by the author Barbara Demick.
There are, by some estimates, 30,000 refugees in China, some of whom make it to South Korea eventually.
Demick researched their physical health, and discovered that
“If you compare your average 17-year-old South Korean with a North Korean refugee the same age there’s about a five-inch difference in height”.
Now this is a racially identical population. In 1953, at the “end“ of the war, there was no difference in height.
The difference is entirely down to nutrition.
Not only has North Korea experienced a series of catastrophic famines, in which hundreds of thousands have died, but the people of North Korea have been systematically starved for more than half a century.
A country where the schoolchildren sing a song called “We have nothing to envy in the world”, is actually a hell of permanent rationing, in which people regularly forage in the countryside for insects, berries and roots, to keep their families alive.
And if you get sick from malnutrition in North Korea, you’ll be lucky to see a doctor. This is a country which the World Health organisation reports, spends less than one dollar per person per year on health.
Result: major operations performed without anaesthetic, and doctors and surgeons working not for money, but food, cigarettes and alcohol.
The reason is that the vast bulk of the country’s income is channeled to two protected sectors.
The first is the leadership itself, and there have been plenty of stories to attest to Kim Jong-Il’s taste for western luxuries.
The second is the military, including the country’s massive nuclear program, new details of which this week suggest that the aim is now not just an A-bomb, but an H-bomb
North Korea is, as everyone including viewers of South Park knows, the fiefdom of the dictator Kim Jong-Il, who succeeded his father Kim Il-Sung. Now it appears Kim Jong-Il is to be succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-Un.
This hereditary principle makes the country, as some would say, the world’s first communist kingdom.
But one influential Korea expert says that neither the communism nor the “family business” nature of the government is the real organising principle of North Korea.
That, says B.R.Myers, is racism: a profound belief that Koreans are uniquely pure and morally superior to all other races by virtue of their bloodline.
The corollary, of course, is that everyone else is racially inferior.
Myers says that “North Korea’s hatred of the United States, its animosity towards the outside world in general, is implacable. It derives from a race-based way of looking at the world …
This regime cannot go from being a military first government to an economy first government without in essence becoming irrelevant; without in essence becoming a kind of fourth rate South Korea”.
In sum, we’re looking at a racist, totalitarian State which acts with extreme unpredictability and which now undoubtedly has a nuclear weapons capacity, (though its capacity to deliver it is still not fully understood).
Countries it threatens include Japan and especially South Korea, states with which Australia has extremely strong trade and diplomatic ties.
The writer Christopher Hitchens, who has visited North Korea as a journalist, canvassed the diplomatic and military options when I spoke to him in May.
If the North Koreans were to start an outright war, he said: “that would be the end. We would be able to demolish their regime and we’d be able to demolish it before it got - which it keeps getting, inching nearer to - actual nuclear capacity.
Q: Demolish it how?
A: Well, it’s… Look, if it wasn’t for the threat that it poses to the South… There is another thing by the way it’s said to be able to do which is to open its dams and send water flooding into the northern part of the Republic of Korea. So it has a conceivably devastating riposte. But only once. It doesn’t have any follow-up capacity and all its main nuclear and other facilities could be taken out. It would be an afternoon’s work of a wing of the US air force to take that out and then we never have to worry about that again.
Q: That is as you say the most appalling decision that anyone …
Q. That would be a frightful decision to be- for anyone to be taking.
A: And then we would have upon us the responsibility, suddenly, for the care and feeding of millions of starved, ignorant, traumatised, desperate North Koreans. The world’s worst potential refugee problem”.
That really puts it into perspective, doesn’t it?
In the light of that, it’s easier to see why, even under heavy shelling of one of its islands, or the fatal ramming of one of its warships, as happened earlier this year, South Korea is proceeding with diplomatic caution.
There is one country which still has real influence with North Korea, and that’s China.
The Lowy Institute’s Rory Medcalf says “The key here is China’s role. China is the only power with real capacity to harm the regime in Pyongyang, as it proved when it cut off energy supplies briefly after the nuclear test in 2006.
China’s response will be a grand test of whether it puts the region’s interests ahead of its own relations with its dangerous little brother in Pyongyang. Beijing still absurdly denies that North Korea sank the South Korean warship Cheonan, back in March, even though a credible international investigation proved otherwise.
But Beijing can hardly deny what happened yesterday.
If it takes a business-as-usual approach, its relations with South Korea will be wrecked, and its chances of a working security relationship with the United States will be lost, perhaps for years”.
As Medcalf says, it’s unfortunate that US-China relations are in a trough at present.
Between them, the two superpowers really need to do something to control this most dangerous and unpredictable of international irritants. The consequences of failure could be huge.
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