Disclaimer: I do not claim to be any kind of expert in political science or international relations. The following is my own interpretation of the current situation between North and South Korea. Believe me, if my evaluations turn out to be wrong, I'll have much bigger problems than some snarky internet comments.
In light of ongoing tensions between the two continents, and increasingly concerned family members wanting to make sure I'm okay (resulting in some very early morning Skype sessions... mom), I wanted to spell out, to the best of my ability, why I probably won't die from a bomb in Korea.
First of all, let me remind you that the western media loves (and I mean LOVES) to take all the really interesting bits of a story and mash them together without regard for context or background. I would know. I used to be one of them.
The latest news with the Korean tensions is the locking of a joint factory complex that sits just north of the border. This is, understandably, making some people nervous. More than 800 South Koreans work in the complex, and the fact that they've been able to go to work like normal every day despite all the bombastic rhetoric has been a prime example of South Korea's lack of genuine concern. If the South Korean government were taking Northern threats seriously, they would never allow 800 of their own citizens to cross into the North every single day.
So when it was announced that the factory is being closed, naturally, some people got worried. However, the key detail is that the North is closing the factory, not the South. What difference does it make, you ask? All the difference in the world. If the South had decided that it was no longer safe for its citizens to commute across the DMZ into North Korea every day, then yes, we might have a problem on our hands. But the fact that it's the North closing the factory just means that they're being belligerent. In all reality, the factory probably won't even be closed for very long. It's a huge cash cow for currency-strapped North Korea. More than 50,000 North Koreans work there, producing hundreds of millions of dollars in goods and providing the state with more than 36 million dollars in annual tax revenue. A state as poor as North Korea isn't going to ignore one of its biggest sources of domestic income for very long.
Another tidbit on the news today is the movement of U.S. ballistic missile defense to Guam. Again, this sounds scary until you stop to think about it for a minute. If the U.S. were trying to defend South Korea from missiles, they wouldn't put missile defenses in Guam. Do you know where they would put them? South Korea. The U.S. has a giant military base smack dab in the middle of Seoul (it's surrounded by some really excellent bars, by the way). But North Korea isn't threatening South Korea. These missile defenses are being moved to Guam to defend the United States, in the unlikely event that the North tried to shoot a missile at you. This is a bit of a ludicrous scenario for a couple of reasons. The obvious one is that Korea is really, really far away from the U.S. I mean really, really far. Just ask my family. Any missile launched would have to make it all the way across the Pacific ocean (oh hey, Guam), before it even brushes the west coast.
Yes, there is a chance that the North could launch a conventional weapon at America. We do know that they have that capability. However, again, the chances of it reaching American soil before being shot out of the sky seem to be slim.
Now, let's talk about nukes.
We know that North Korea has some kind of nuclear capabilities. However, it's very important to remember that there is a big gap between having nuclear technology and being able to use it against an enemy. North Korea has only been able to detonate nuclear devices under pristine, highly controlled conditions, none of which involve shrinking the device down to a fraction of its original size, strapping it to a rocket, and launching it at someone.
So that's pretty much off the table. It is worth adding, however, that an unprovoked nuclear strike on a sovereign nation would bring the full force of the entire world down upon them. No nation on Earth would allow such an attack to go unpunished. The Kim regime would be wiped off the face of the planet before they could say "kimchi."
Speaking of North Korean military capabilities, it's important to look at the statistics with a grain of salt. Yes, North Korea has a million-man army, but many of those men have been on the verge of starving for most, if not all of their lives. Yes, North Korea has fighter jets that could fly over Seoul and drop bombs, but the government doesn't have enough fuel to get them in the air for very long. No fuel means no planes means no bombs.
Now, let's turn to some of the other factors that are at play here.
For the last few weeks, the U.S. and South Korea have been conducting military drills off the Korean coast. It's no secret that the war games are meant to be a show of force to the North, but these happen every year as part of the ongoing military cooperation between the two countries. The drills will be winding down in the next couple of weeks. Remember this, it will be important in a minute.
Arguably the biggest piece on this diplomatic chess board is Kim Jong Un. The man of the hour. Sir Portly McGoofyhair. A man who became an absolute dictator before the age of 30, making 20-somethings everywhere reexamine their life choices.
But seriously, he is young, and that is something we have to remember. Traditionally, age is a big deal in Korean society. The nation has a rich history of Confucian values, which place a heavy emphasis on respect for your elders. Ipso facto, if you're not old, you don't get a whole lot of respect.
So here's this young guy who is trying to maintain an iron grip on a country he inherited from his dad, which has been thrown into devastating poverty and left struggling at the back of the line as the world marches forward into the future. He has to get his people to love him and trust him the way they loved and trusted his father and grandfather. How does he do this? By making a big deal out of defending his people against the oncoming storm of American imperialism. See, here's the thing: most North Koreans have no information about the outside world. They don't realize that they're the weird little country everyone makes fun of. We have reason to believe many actually think South Korea is poorer than they are. But here's the kicker: if there was a war, they think they would win.
So what seems to be happening is that our buddy Mr. Kim is taking these war games happening with the U.S. and South Korea and using them as a propaganda tool. He's trying to make his people feel threatened so he can issue fiery rhetoric about the alleged imminent threat of an invasion. That way, when the military drills wind down in a couple of weeks, he can turn to his people and say, "Look! I made them back down! See what I did for you? North Korea is best Korea!"
It's all an inside game. This young man is insecure in his power, and he's trying to puff himself up in the eyes of his people. But he's not a moron. He was educated in Switzerland. He owns an Apple computer. He knows that any war would end in his demise. There's no question about it. He may be power hungry and full of hot air, but he's not about to engage in a war that he is certain to lose.
I know it's easy to fall into the trap of reading every news headline about Korea and thinking the end of the world is coming any second now. But remember, don't just read the headlines. Read the details. Read between the lines. Really listen to what is being said, and think twice before you start pooling a "Get Meg out of Korea" fund.
Though I wouldn't say no to a free plane ride...
Much of the information in this post comes from the following CNN article: North Korea warns 'moment of explosion' nears
The Korean misadventures of a rehabilitated news writer.
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