Sunday, October 08, 2006

North Korea's nuclear test

People are probably wondering what the average Korean's attitude is to the news that North Korea now appears to have 'The Bomb'. It's a bit strange for someone who isn't familiar with Korea's history and outlook, but generally there seems to as much concern about how the news could affect the stockmarket as the fear that North Korea may actually in the future be capable of tossing a nuclear explosive device over the border. My understanding of the Korean reaction is this: First, they have lived with the North Korean threat for a very long time now. Since the Korean war Seoul has been within range of North Korean artillery. I suppose you could say they have become complacent. But then on the other hand, in the past they haven't really had much control or choice in the matter. Secondly, Korea is still smarting from the IMF era; the period of time after the Asian financial meltdown in the late 1990's when the IMF forced the country to open up the country to outside investment and sell off ownership of several large companies in exchange for much needed aid. This would have been extremely humiliating for them, given that Koreans are very nationalistic and quite sensitive to their image and status in the international arena. This mindset makes them sometimes see any peturbations in the market as impending economic disaster which many seem to dread more than the threats eminating from the North. I suspect also that some people here may even harbour some pride in any Koreans being able to master nuclear weapons while thumbing the nose at the international community.
Hopefully, as the news sinks in and the implications become clear people will start to become concerned for the right reasons and start thinking objectively about whether the South Korean government is really acting in the country's best interest.

I'm going to offer my two cents worth about what I think is going to happen.
First of all, at this time I'm not seriously afraid that the North Koreans will try to actually use a nuclear weapon on a neighboring country. They still value their own existence.
But I wonder how many people in the west are aware that China has been making noises suggesting that they might have a legitimate claim to Korean territory, including, so I'm told, claims that Korea has historically been part of China, and plans to claim the entire Mount Taebaeksan (a site on the border with China with great historic and spiritual significance to Koreans) as Chinese territory. I personally think the North Korean regime only has a couple of year left in it. Then they will really only have two choices: surrender their keys to the South, or be starved out and overrun by the Chinese military, bomb or no bomb.
Part of the problem is that this is not your parent's or grandparent's totalitarian regime. It has gradually morphed into something more like a religious cult with borrowed Christian references to indoctrinate the people, with Kim Il-Sung as the eternally revered father, Kim Jong-Il the son, and the Spirit of the people all working together. (or something like that) Even the Chinese government probably doesn't like being associated with them too closely. For a rationalist like Hu Jintao the North Korean leadership must enough to make him cringe at times.
Clearly a regime like that is not going to behave rationally as the South Korean president, Roh Moo-Hyun has hopefully learned by now. The best we can hope for is that an internal coup will replace deranged leadership with a more pragmatic mindset.


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