Take a hint from ‘Argo’On a cold January night in 1968, thirty-one North Korean commandos slipped across the tightly controlled demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea. Disguised in South Korean Army uniforms, they successfully made their way to within a few meters of the gates of the presidential Blue House of Park Chung Hee.
The ill-fated attempt would culminate with the last of the commandos gunned down within sight of their prize. Only one would survive.
Three days later, another batch of commandos would successfully board and take control of the USS Pueblo, an American spy ship plying international waters in the East Sea. The USS Pueblo, now moored on the Taedong River in North Korea, serves as one of the countries top tourist attractions.
The ax-tree killings in 1976 of two U.S. Army officers; the Rangoon bombing targeting South Korea’s President Chun Doo Hwan in 1983 that left 21 members of the presidential delegation dead; the bombing of Korean Air 858 in 1987; infiltration tunnels along the border; and countless defectors going both ways.
While these events may seem too old for many to remember, recent incidents such as the sinking of the Cheonan corvette and the bombing of Yeonpyeong Island remind the world of North Korea’s imaginative villainy.
To anyone not well-versed on North Korean affairs, the aforementioned events would almost seem like log lines to your favorite Tom Clancy or Clive Cussler techno-thriller or spy novel.
Instead, they are the remarkably imaginative ways in which the North Korean leadership has lashed out at South Korea and the United States without provoking regime-destabilizing retaliation.
Indeed, a look at the recent Academy Award-winning film “Argo,” or a close read of Tom Clancy’s “Executive Orders,” in which a passenger plane is used in a suicide mission on the U.S. Congress - arguably foreboding the attacks of 9/11 - might awaken policy makers to the potential that exists for new and more imaginative understandings of how North Korea may act.
Maybe the imaginative minds should be asked to come up with predictions of how the North might try to attack the South in ways that wouldn’t set off a war.
There certainly is precedent.
In a 2002 interview with Time Magazine, Clancy acknowledges his consulting work with the Department of Defense. Of greater note is a group called Sigma, a consulting group of science fiction writers who have been called upon to advise the United States government on issues ranging from homeland security to possible terrorist attacks.
And of course there is the story of “Argo,” in which the CIA worked hand-in-hand with Hollywood to orchestrate the escape of American diplomats from Iran.
All of these show that merit does exist in embracing new mechanisms for understanding North Korea.
To anyone living in Seoul in 2010, the Korean media’s initial reports of the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island are often recollected as utterly terrifying, and in retrospect, almost cinematically so, with the pillars of black smoke coming from the tiny island repeated endlessly on television, something belonging in a Hollywood war film and not reality.
Perhaps it is the minds in Hollywood and South Korea’s now-vibrant literary and cinematic communities whose insights might lead us to see what the unpredictable regime in North Korean may do next.
To not explore new mechanisms through which North Korea can be better understood - and deterred - would not only be a disservice to South Korea, but irrational considering that South Korea’s foremost ally, the United States, has openly embraced such collaborations and done so with great success.
*The author, who previously served as a company commander for two years at United States Army Garrison-Yongsan in Seoul, is pursuing a masters in international peace and security at Korea University Graduate School of International Studies.
by Brendan Balestrieri