The Threat of War Is Fading

  • By Kang Chol-hwan from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk

    June 02, 2010 13:07

    Kang Chol-hwan

    A group of young students ask each other on the subway, "What are we going to do if war breaks out?" Fears among South Koreans of a war with North Korea have become more palpable these days, and such sentiments are understandable in the heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. There are those who blame the government's hardline approach. "Things were different during the days of the Sunshine Policy," they say.

    I grew up in North Korea, and based on that experience, I feel that the chances of war are actually smaller now than during the period of rapprochement. Isolated provocations by North Korea, such as the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan, may happen again. But the threat of an all-out war with North Korea has actually diminished. For a country to start a war, the balance of military power must be broken, allies have to support it, and the other side has to be caught off guard. Even if it has overwhelming military power, a country would be hesitant to wage war against another if the other side is well prepared.

    But for the Sunshine Policy, North Korea's military would probably have collapsed. In 1997, the North Korean military was preparing a massive parade but had to cancel it because it lacked the money. Hwang Jang-yop, a former secretary of the North Korean Workers' Party and the highest-ranking defector, says he was told at the time by Jon Byong-ho, the minister of Military Industry, "We need to hold a parade to mark the third anniversary of Kim Il-sung's death, but our weapons are antiquated and we've run out of gas." A tattered economy and an acute shortage of food made it difficult for North Korea to feed troops along the border with South Korea. On top of that, intensive psychological warfare operations by the South had threatened to undermine the ideological morale of soldiers. That was when the threat of war was the lowest since the Korean War from 1950 until 1953.

    North Korea's military regained its strength thanks to the Sunshine Policy. Over the last 10 years, the North deployed hundreds of missiles along the border capable of hitting targets more than 300 km away, test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile, and conducted two nuclear tests. Learning the lessons of the war in Iraq, the North boosted the number of special forces capable of launching terror attacks against the South from 150,000 to as much as 200,000. Money from the South made that possible.

    South Korea's alliance with the U.S. grew weaker during the Sunshine Policy, while the South's military dropped its guard against the threat of North Korean aggression. This increased the threat of war. I believe North Korean leader Kim Jong-il probably jumped up and down in joy when former President Roh Moo-hyun signed a pact with the U.S. to regain wartime operational control of South Korean troops. That is because the pact raised the chances of success of a surprise North Korean siege on Seoul.

    But the end of the Sunshine Policy meant that funding channels for North Korea dried up, and with them money for the military. The South Korea-U.S. alliance has recovered, while South Korea-China ties are being bolstered. And North Korea's nuclear tests have prompted China to view its long-time ally differently. On top of that, a botched currency reform has exacerbated North Korea's already feeble economy. Military rations have apparently been scaled back this year.

    Right now, the whole world is focused on the possibility of a North Korean military provocation. But Kim Jong-il knows better than anyone else that a surprise attack is impossible now and that an all-out war would mean the end of his regime. Although things may seem different on the surface, the actual chances of war have grown slimmer. I believe the North Korean military will slowly collapse if South Korea resumes psychological warfare operations. The only thing the South has to do is to deal effectively with limited provocations.

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