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

11 thoughts on “Nork”

  1. -When/whether it implodes probably depends on the continued will of NK’s rulers to suppress dissent by force. In this regard I’m sure they are closely following the Syrian election returns.

    -If the NK rulers’ resolve weakens or dissidents otherwise get a sense that the regime is near a tipping point it could all fall apart quickly. That’s a couple of big ifs.

    -If NK falls the main question will be how closely SK wants to emulate the German unification experience. My guess is, not closely.

  2. Re – unification? Considering the German experience – privately, not with a ten-foot pole, which makes it very tough on the Sorks, to have to make a public and plite display of enthusiasm, while privately screaming no! No! NOOOOO!
    At some point the Kims and their generals aren’t going to be able to reward their circle with goodies … and perhaps there are enough Chinese-made cellphones trickling into the North to make it possible for dissidents to communicate in some way. Maybe they are already; they might be, but it’s a death sentance for any word of this to get out. I’m certain there is more going on inside North Korea that any of us – even the intelligence agencies know about. On another blog, an interested prognosticator was venturing that maybe the best situation all the way around would be a Nork general doing a kind of Oliver Cromwell; taking over from the Kims and very gradually liberalizing the economic situation, and then the political one, and letting North Korea re-develope and reconstruct.

  3. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Korea on business over the last decade, and my impressions closely mirror your own.

    Seoul is a wonderful, modern, city with many interesting things to see and do – but remembering all those sighted-in artillery pieces just a few miles north always felt like a dash of cold water. I like and admire the Korean people, and describing them as “the Irish of Asia” seems apt in many ways. They’ve had the misfortune for most of their history of being adjacent to much larger, imperialistic, powers but have managed to retain their own distinct identity and culture. And South Korea essentially built itself up from nothing over the course of the last half-century.

    It looks increasingly unlikely that North Korea can continue without massive change; at this point, anything that doesn’t end in an explosion of violence probably would count as “good change”. A slow “soft landing” situation, with closer ties to the south evolving into possible political union would probably be best for all concerned, but even a sudden collapse followed by being absorbed into China would probably be better for the average North Korean than the current conditions.

    I’m just keeping my fingers crossed for my friends in Seoul.

  4. If there is an impplosion I think it will have to be instigated by the military. I think the population at large has been so starved and brainwashed that they are just trying to stay alive.

    There was an interesting commendatory on Robert Averech’s blog by an officer who had been stationed
    at the DMZ –

    Interesting in his comment that despite being only 30 miles from the DMZ there is layer upon layer of defenses and the South Korean troops are among the toughest in the world.

    I believe, if it weren’t for China and our own misguided politicians who believe giving them aid and food will stop their nuclear weapons development (the food I read simply is diverted to the military) – the country would have imploded a long time ago.

    I think Avrech’s comment on the country as being one giant Gulag is most appropriate.

  5. Much depends on China.

    Regarding unification with the south, I can’t see the Chinese being copacetic with a democratic, free market and notably Christian culture — as the south is — as a next door neighbor.

  6. A few years ago, I had a medical student from China whose mother was a professor at Beijing U. She, the student, was very sharp (She wrote me a year or two ago that she was doing a surgery residency) and very well informed about China. She spoke perfect English learned from a grandfather who picked the wrong time to return to China. She told me that the part of China adjacent to NK is very poor and the Chinese fear a massive invasion of refugees if NK goes up in smoke. SK has similar worries. For that reason both countries conspire to prop up the NK regime. Nobody wants the NK population, many of whom have been starved to the point of mental and physical retardation (Sorry, I know that isn’t supposed to be said). A collapse will be a disaster, especially now that China is in big economic trouble (Ghost cities, etc.) There is no good outcome on the horizon.

  7. One of the members in my car club still has relatives in Stuttgart – and there are a lot of West Germans who wish the Wall had never come down. They got a huge influx of people who felt they didn’t have to work but wanted the money.

    I remember reading one economist who said that a far better way of reunification would have been to prop of the East German mark to the point you could keep the factories open in the East – the communists took over a lot of the plants from, say, Walther and Carl Zeiss – allow them to keep producing – and they would have products that in the first few years were’t up to Western standards but would have been priced accordingly for the world market.

    As it was by trading 1:1 there was no incentive to stay in East Germany – all the East Germans who had to wait 10 years for a crappy car like the Trabant –,28804,1658545_1658533_1658030,00.html

    They all bought Audis and VWs and headed west with no real transferable skills (unless you consider doping for the Olympics ;-) )

    As it is getting back to the Norks (and what is a “Sork”? ;-) ) – the Chinese will return these poor wretched souls to the North Koreans for certain death either quickly or slowly (by concentration camp) – all for wanting to get something to eat.

  8. East Germany only had about one quarter as many people as the West. North Korea has about half as many people as the South. I am guessing that the per capita GDP spread between N. and S. Korea is much greater than the same figure was for the Germanys. Any reunification would seem to be full of difficulties. The best outcome might be an independent N. Korea with a reasonable govt and its own currency. Reasonable govt is likely to be the hard part.

  9. Johnathan – exactly. The Oliver Cromwell option, as long as those odds seemto be. Bill – Sork – opposite of Nork! ;-) Michael – when I first began to read of how the North Koreans were slipping over the border into that part of China, the stories always emphasized how sorry the local impoverished peasants felt sorry for them! How pathetic is your situation, that impoverished Chinese peasants feel sorry for you?
    I think this is one of those situations where there is no good option – only the least worst one.

  10. China does not want re-unification for the same reason the entered the Korean War in 1950: they do not want the US at their doorstep, much as we did not want Russian nukes in Cuba

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