Don’t get suckered by the North

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Don’t get suckered by the North

Even while working in Bangkok I found myself being asked by journalists, diplomats and others what in blazes (pun intended) is happening in Korea. Is war eminent? Do you worry about your family’s safety in Seoul? And so on .?.?.

But my consistent reply has been that while I am concerned, I’m not at all worried about the North - yet I am very worried about how American pundits and politicians are misreading the overall situation. In real terms, America is not being militarily challenged. But South Korea is under full-scale economic attack.

We are witnessing a groundbreaking example of psychological warfare using the media - both traditional and bleeding edge - to achieve economic and political gains. North Korea has initiated major psychological warfare to damage South Korea’s economy by discouraging foreign direct investment and tourism while constricting movement of foreign economic players.

For example, the Australian Government is discouraging its citizens to travel to South Korea. Also, GM Korea is now spending resources on major contingency planning. All of these kinds and similar activities are forming a collective drag on the South’s economy - and this is the objective of this latest form of North Korea’s asymmetric warfare, along with apparent, recent cyberattacks on the South’s banks.

While closing the Kaesong Industrial Complex may seem like the North cutting off its nose to spite its face, that perspective misses two important points.

First, the North’s economic and citizen welfare concerns have consistently been subordinated to its political and military priorities and objectives. In other words, loss of hard capital revenue, even for North Korea’s weak economy, is a minor consequence given the leadership’s priorities.

And second, closing Kaesong also hurts South Korean businesses - most of which are small- and medium-sized enterprises. By damaging South Korean SMEs, the Kaesong closure may be an attack on President Park Geun-hye, since she has pledged to protect and promote SMEs.

Park’s “mishandling” of foreign relations may eventually invite blame for damaging a sensitive and vulnerable part of her political base. This too may be one of the North’s psychological warfare objectives.

If all of this comes across as a bit contrarian to prevailing wisdom and corresponding military posturing, please consider this. The North has painted itself into a corner where it has just one viable strategy - conquering the entire Korean Peninsula by one means or the other. Any accommodation with the South guarantees its eventual destruction, just as West Germany absorbed East Germany. Therefore, even if it takes decades and generations to do so, Pyongyang must consider a war of economic and political attrition if military options are implausible if not suicidal.

In the coming weeks and without pressure from China and others, Pyongyang will have no choice but to eventually dial down the rhetoric. The North’s ruling oligarchy neither is suicidal nor is it as foolish as it often appears. They know if they continue to rattle the South’s cage for a prolonged period, their threats will lose what credibility they now have.

Consequently, there will certainly be some kind of “breakthrough” to allow relations to cool down so that later on another ratcheting up of tensions may have the North’s desired effect.

From the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War, the North has relied upon asymmetric tactics. With the recent change of engagement rules by the South to immediately respond militarily to North Korean attacks, we have anticipated some other kind of provocation. We now are witnessing a new class of warfare via the media.

As always, it’s fascinating to see what Pyongyang may devise as the next form of extended warfare in the North’s Quixotic quest to conquer the South.

Meanwhile, it serves us all to bear in mind Pyongyang’s twin immutable strategic objectives - self-preservation of the ruling clique and conquering of the entire peninsula. All other matters are simply red herrings and short-term tactics. Let’s not be suckered by taking in current events alone.

*The author is president of Soft Landing Korea, a business development firm, and an alliance partner of Odgers Berndtson Japan, a global “Big Six” executive recruitment consulting company.

by Tom Coyner
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