[Viewpoint] Sending Pyongyang bananas

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[Viewpoint] Sending Pyongyang bananas

I was explaining North Korea, when my friend Clifton brought me up short.

Here in America I am regarded as a North Korea expert, since I lived in South Korea for six and a half years, and so I was confidently assuring my auditors that the North would never make good on its boast of “all-out war” because it knows it could never win.

“I’m not so sure,” said Clifton. He is a finance guy, not a military strategist, but he is pretty smart and usually worth listening to.

“I think they” - the North, that is - “have a network of agents who would suddenly come out and blow up every bridge in Seoul, block every highway, surround key government buildings, seize gasoline storage sites. I think,” Clifton said, “they’ve been in place all this time waiting for the word to go into action.”

“I’m not saying they could win,” Clifton hedged. “But I don’t think it would be so simple to defeat them. If they could seize and hold Seoul for 48 hours they would be in a pretty strong negotiating position.”

What they might want to negotiate - safe conduct back to Pyongyang and $100 billion reparations from Seoul? - is beside the point. Could the North really seize and hold Seoul for 48 hours?

Of course, I don’t know, even though I am the foremost expert on North Korea in certain suburbs of a certain American city. But for many years, even up until pretty recently, that was exactly the fear in South Korea.

I recall the warnings on subway cars of spies in our midst and the citizen’s duty to inform authorities of suspicious persons or activities. I noted the soldiers guarding every Han River bridge. No year passes without the arrest and trial of persons accused of spying for the North.

We should remember that on the day World War II ended, Aug. 15, 1945, Koreans of all political and social stripes were more or less randomly distributed over the peninsula.

Pyongyang was a center of industrial wealth and Korean Christianity; Jeju, agrarian as it was, was a locus of communist agitation.

When the American and Soviet conquerors of Japan and what was then Japan’s Korean province drew a dividing line across a map, many people on both sides of the line were caught up in skirmishes and massacres; civil war followed.

And all these years later there is reason to believe that many Koreans might feel, spiritually and psychologically, more at home on the other side of the line.

Hence the vigilance to outsiders often looks like spy-mania.

When I was editor of this newspaper a few years ago, a man with a pretty good resume of work in government and academia offered me an article arguing that in addition to the three acknowledged infiltration tunnels that tourists visit at the demilitarized zone, as many as two or three dozen others had been identified, some reaching as far south as Daejeon.

Within hours of the beginning of hostilities, the writer argued, North Korea could have a hundred thousand or more soldiers popping up at locations all over the peninsula.

I didn’t publish the article, because I could find no way to confirm it. No one talks. The government pooh-poohed the notion of multiple, undiscovered tunnels. My senior, well-connected Korean colleagues at the Joong-Ang Ilbo likewise dismissed the idea.

And probably it was nonsense - and nonsense, too, that thousands of North-loving spies crouch in the South, waiting decade by decade for the call to blow up bridges and seize gasoline depots.

For one thing, can even brainwashed North Koreans live for long in so free and exciting a city as Seoul and retain their loyalty to a regime that so obviously has lost out in the ideological and economic competition?

And yet, in the unending Cold War that lingers on the Korean Peninsula, surely we have learned to respect North Korean resourcefulness. And the canny calculation that led to the decision to torpedo the Cheonan.

The attack cannot go unanswered, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed in Japan last week. But what will the world do about it? A rather charming English proverb holds that “fine words” - in this case Secretary Clinton’s, but also President Lee Myung-bak’s - “butter no parsnips.”

Does anybody in North Korea know what a parsnip is? Even a metaphorical parsnip? President Lee says that he will stop buttering the North’s parsnips. He will end most aid and economic cooperation projects.

Of course, the North has mostly suspended these projects already, signaling that it is perfectly prepared to get along with unbuttered parsnips.

How do we tame a desperado country? UN sanctions are said to be moot because China likely won’t support them. But why should we think that Kim Jong-il would care even if China did support tougher sanctions? North Korea is already under a range of sanctions.

Time for some creative thinking. What really drives Pyongyang bananas?


A few years ago, when Korean “sunshine” governments were trying to curry favor with North Korea, they used to disrupt efforts of activists to send propaganda messages to the North - and even inflict police beatings on the activists.

Time to unleash the activists. Flood the North with balloon drops of radios, leaflets, cell phones, candy bars, packets of rice or seaweed or dried squid. Go on the propaganda offensive. Those 38,000 (or whatever the latest estimate is) North Korean artillery pieces can’t blow up all of them without exhausting the shells that are said to be poised to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.”

What is the worst that could happen?

Well, Seoul could be turned into a “sea of fire.” That is a sobering thought. But how likely is it that North Korea would launch its promised “all-out war” because it was being attacked by leaflets and dried squid?

It depends, I suppose, on whether my friend Clifton is right about the thousands of North spies lurking at the bridges and fuel depots of Seoul.

*The writer is former editor in chief of the JoongAng Daily

By Harold Piper
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