I did a tour in Korea in 1993-94, which hardly makes me an expert on the place, seeing that I have that in common with a fair number of Army and Air Force personnel over the past half-century plus. Reading about the expected fallout from the change of régime-boss north of the DMZ I think of that tour now as something along the lines of being put into place rather like an instant-read thermometer: there for a year in Seoul, at the Yongsan Army Infantry garrison, where I worked at AFKN-HQ – and at a number of outside jobs for which a pleasant speaking voice and fluency in English was a requirement. One of those regular jobs was as an English-language editor at Korea Broadcasting; the national broadcasting entity did an English simulcast of the first fifteen minutes of the 9 PM evening newscast. I shared this duty with two other AFKN staffers in rotation: every third evening, around 6PM, I went out the #1 gate and caught a local bus, and rode across town to the Yoido; a huge rectangular plaza where the KBS building was located, just around the corner from other terribly important buildings – like the ROK capitol building. Once there, I’d go up to the newsroom – which was a huge place, filled with rows of desks and computers, go to the English-language section, and wait for any of the three or four Korean-to-English translators to finish translating the main news stories for the evening broadcast, correct their story for punctuation and readability, stick around to watch them do the simulcast at 9 PM, critique their delivery.
These various activities put me out and about in Seoul, and made me Korean friends and working acquaintances that had nothing to do with the military, especially at the KBS job, where the translators were all native Koreans, whose education or life experiences had led to them being a fairly cosmopolitan bunch and fluent in English – I got to know them all fairly well, particularly Miss Min, since we would catch the same bus after work, heading back to the neighborhood of Yongsan, and the old elevated traffic roundabout. I think now, that was one of those times that I liked best – the bus ride; seeing the lights of the city reflected a thousand times in the dark-serpentine shape of the Han River as the bus went over one of the many bridges, back towards the Christmas-tree-topper shaped tower that crowned the Namsan Hill. There would be the scent of vanilla cake baking, when the bus passed by a certain place where there was a commercial bakery; even with the bus windows closed against the winter cold – and Seoul was bitter cold in winter, with a wind that came straight off Siberia – we could still smell vanilla cake. I liked Seoul very much, at those particular moments, as much as I liked the Koreans that I worked with, and encountered on the subway or riding the bus: tough, jolly, out-going and hard-working people, possibly the most snappy dressers on the face of the earth outside of the Italians, but intensely patriotic. Someone once described them as the Irish of Asia, and that struck me as a fair parallel.
But all the time I was in Korea – being at an Army base – we couldn’t help being aware of the situation; that the DMZ was just a short distance away, that Seoul itself was in range of heavy artillery fire from the north, and that as regular as clockwork, the NorKs would indulge in a bit of sabre-rattling; Another internet commenter called this the “Korean Motherland Unity Game of Repeated Chicken” – every six months to two years there would be a bit of public theater intended to remind everyone that the North Korean establishment was there, bellicose, somewhat relevant – and that there was some kind of concession to be extracted from the outside world. The old-time Korea hands that I knew and my Korean friends were relatively blasé about it all. Perhaps the Norks could level Seoul, if they wanted to – but Miss Min and the other interpreters doubted very much that any but the most well-disciplined and elite Nork troops could make it past the first well-equipped grocery store south of the DMZ, let alone Electronics Row … and the Nork military anyway hasn’t fought an all-out war for real since 1953. But figuring out what is going on inside North Korea anyway was a bit like looking at a sparse scattering of accounts from inside, and consulting a Magic-8-Ball. Riddle wrapped in a puzzle wrapped in an enigma doesn’t even begin to come close. Will the Norks go out with a bang, or whimper? What does the Magic 8-Ball say?
What is pretty certain to me at this point – and I’m not nor ever have been any kind of intelligence wonk – is that North Korea likely can’t last very much longer. The dynasty of Kims and their allies are like an extended crime family, sitting at the apex of a structure that looks more and more like a country-sized labor and concentration camp. The place is stripped bare – even the mountainsides are stripped of trees for firewood. When it comes to food, North Korea isn’t even able to economically support itself, having nothing left to trade to the outside world, save possibly nuclear arms. How long have regular famines been going on? Twenty years or so – long enough to physically stunt the growth of ordinary North Koreans, as is evident when they defect to the South. Possibly even China is tired of the antics of their psychotic little pet, after having enabled them for fifty-plus years.
So, whither North Korea? Damned if I know – but I guess that it will probably not last much longer. My Magic 8-Ball guess is that it will implode, without much warning at all, in the manner of Ceausescu’s Romania; just poof-like that. How the ordinary people of North Korea will cope with such a suddenly revised world is anyone’s guess. I don’t think they have been kept quite so hermetically sealed away that it will take a good few decades to readjust and catch up. They are, after all, the same basic physical and cultural stock as the South Koreans – who have come an amazingly long way since my father was stationed there, at the very end of the Korean War. Your thoughts?
(Cross-posted at www.ncobrief.com)