Monday, April 06, 2009

Ask a Korean! News: The Best Commentary on the North Korean Missile Launch

One of the Korean’s favorite blogs is Nambukstory, written by Mr. Joo Seong-Ha, reporter for Dong-A Ilbo, which is one of the largest dailies in Korea. Mr. Joo writes about many things, but his specialty is North Korea. If you know how to read Korean and care even a little bit about North Korea, please read his blog. His commentaries are always the most insightful, not simply because he is a very smart person. He was born and raised in North Korea, and graduated from Kim Il-Sung University. In other words, he was on track to be an elite officer of the North Korean regime. Instead, he escaped from North Korea into China, and eventually made his way into South Korea, to work as a reporter.

Because of his unique background, the perspective on North Korea that Mr. Joo offers in his blog is unlike any other. The Korean believes that there is absolutely no better way of understanding North Korea. Therefore, when this whole North Korean missile thing came about, the Korean knew where to go. And sure enough, there was a great post from Mr. Joo that the Korean was compelled to share. Below is the translation. The original post is here. The Korean focused more on making the post sound intelligent (because it is, in Korean,) than making the literal translation – thus, some parts of the translation is are not an exact match. At any rate, translation comments are always appreciated.

How to Screw Over Kim Jong-Il

The clamor over North Korean “rocket” reminds me of the phrase from Art of War: “If you fight when you want, where you want, and how you want, you never lose.” Currently, I am sure that there are many who wonder why this topic is given so much attention. I spent all day at the company [i.e. Dong-A Ilbo] on Saturday because of the news of North Korea’s satellite launch, although it was my day off. The same with Sunday.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs had an emergency response meeting starting 8 a.m. on Saturday. While it looks funny to have a response meeting when there is no response to be made, I am sure they were more afraid of appearing to do nothing – at least they should pretend to do something. The president also held a meeting with national security ministers. Would those meetings provide any good answer? (Would anyone expect them to?) I doubt that.

Even the Blue House [= presidential residence] meeting on Sunday after the rocket launched was limited to re-asserting the previous stance. But then again, there is not much more to do. In this light, at least the remark by President Lee Myong-Bak on the 5th [=Arbor Day in Korea] was wise – “while North Korea fires missiles, we plant trees.” Since there is nothing to do, at least he can grab a shovel and plant a tree.

Let us return to the Art of War above. This battle about the satellite is a battle we can never win, because Kim Jong-Il has all the choices with respect to the when, where, and how. This is how North-South relationship generally has unfolded so far.

To compare it to ping-pong, it is as if Kim Jong-Il continues to drive the ball and we are only defending. We are tense and befuddled because we don’t know where the next ball will fly to. It is pathetic in some respects. South Korean government says the principled thing is to stay calm. I would like them to do at least that, but it is not as if they are staying calm, as they are busy coming up with clumsy responses.

Strictly speaking, my personal view is that the media, including Korean ones, are taking treasonous actions. Treasonous action is nothing complicated; it is, literally [in Korean], an action that benefits the enemy. The following is why I think so.

First, the media is providing the stage for Kim Jong-Il’s play. Kim Jong-Il can trot around with that crude missile is thanks to the capitalist media that incessantly chatters for him. When the media chatters, the politicians are in the difficult situation of having to do something.

That missile is something that can never be used in an actual situation. Would a military satellite, which can measure shoe sizes on the ground, simply sit on the missile’s movement in the time of war? The missile takes several months between assembly and launch, and is immediately noticeable no matter where it is hidden. The idea that Kim Jong-Il can surprise America with an ICBM in the face of obvious self-destruction is clearly a fiction.

Second, the media, beyond serving its function of providing information, is terrorizing Koreans. Television only showed the missile news all day Saturday – it seems that the media is firing the bullshit cannon on behalf of Kim Jong-Il. It is not difficult to realize who gains from the atmosphere of fear resulting from such chatter. Further, although all three network television stations clamored in their special programming, the ratings did not even hit the average for the same time period from January through March. In other words, Koreans do not even care now.

I wish the media knew enough to simply graze over the news. For example, what if the media were to report – perhaps after it covered celebrity gossip – “Despite the hoopla, launch fails as expected”; “The result of decade’s worth of research was on display”; “Lack of funds leads to poor research”? Wouldn’t that frustrate the person who played the missile card thinking it would be a great piece of strategy?

Also, there is no report within the news inundation that convincingly explains why an ICBM is dangerous for Koreans. The media says the missile can become a nuclear weapon’s delivery mechanism. However, although Korea already is completely exposed to North Korea’s nuclear attack, I don’t remember if Korean media ever clamored this loudly on that issue. If the media is not concerned about Korea’s exposure to nuclear attacks, does that mean they are more worried for America? Are they maybe concerned that the crappy nuclear delivery mechanism would threaten America enough to discontinue military aid toward Korea? That is a separate political issue, but let us not forget that U.S. is a country that survived the Cold War against Russia, which had 10,000 nuclear warheads.

Personally, I believe that the true danger for Korea is the SCUD missile and long-range artillery. Specifically, there is truly nothing Korea can do against missiles like KN-02. Seoul is utterly exposed to North Korea’s long-range artillery and missiles without any defense. This situation did not happen yesterday, and this is the true danger.

Some eminent scientist on the news said “an ICBM can fire against Korea depending on the angle,” to emphasize ICBM’s danger against Korea. This is laughable. The media, with a straight face, is stating the sophism that North Korea is building an ICBM to attack Korea, although it can attack Korea with a cannon at any time.

(True danger to Korea is the missiles and long-range artillery, pictured above.)

Third, the media is assisting North Korea’s technical analysis. With North Korea’s technology alone, it would be difficult to figure out the post-launch status of the missile. However, once launched, America, Japan, or Korea kindly analyzes the status, which is relayed back to North Korea through the media. Using high-tech equipments such as satellites and Aegis cruisers (which costs more than a trillion won per ship), the media provides such details as where the first stage rocket landed, where the second stage rocket landed, what the ability of this missile will be and how likely the success would be, and so on.

Honestly, without the analysis from America, Japan and Korea, aided by such cutting-edge equipment that cost billions of dollars, I am not sure if North Korea would even know where its rocket went. Kim Jong-Il is in the cat bird seat in that respect – he just needs to launch, and there are all these great people who know to bring over the newest equipment possible to let him know exactly where, how, and why his rocket failed.

As an aside, Dong-A Ilbo’s report that ICBM technology is far more advanced than a satellite technology was a very good one. I believe that it was a good report in the time when everyone was reporting as if satellite rocket can be turned into an ICBM by simply changing the launching angle.

I can understand the overreaction on the part of the Japanese media. In the long term, emphasizing the threat from North Korea helps the militarization. Also, it can distract the eyes and ears focused on the administration with falling support. But Korea faces a different circumstance from Japan. Why must we engage in hysterics?

In fact, there is not much Korea can do against North Korea’s action. This is the difference between “closed society” and “open society”. Because of the many factors to be considered, Korea simply cannot respond in the thuggish way to North Korea’s thuggish action. Because of the backing from China and Russia, taking North Korea to the United Nations is difficult as well. Then what must we do? Should we simply sit and chatter as we do now? Is that all we can do?

I believe that for Korea’s benefit, the media must ignore Kim Jong-Il’s theatrics. A show requires a passionately reactive audience to be successful. Kim Jong-Il must be loving it now, since other countries are creating such reaction. One can tell how much he is enjoying this episode from the way he tricked the whole world on Saturday. I cannot be the only person who got screwed with high blood pressure from having to stand by on his day off.

But for a showman, the most discouraging thing is the non-reaction from the audience. It is truly devastating if no one even watches you. What is a showman to do in that case? He would try to take out another card and try his best in attracting attention. But there are only a limited number of cards for Kim Jong-Il to take out. If the missile thing does not work, there can be such things as “military provocation”, “nuclear test”, or “hostage situation,” etc. As far as the next cards of Kim Jong-Il go, these are about it – and this does not take an expert to figure it out. With this knowledge, South Korean government say there is nothing that can be done. But is that really the case?

Isn’t it about time that we move on from passivity and research a way to screw Kim Jong-Il over? I will quote the Art of War once again: ““If you fight when you want, where you want, and how you want, you never lose.” Can’t we win based on this?

This type of analysis is common in the Korean media: “The reason why Grand National Party is being dragged around by Democratic Party is because the former is trailing the latter in the ability for setting the agenda and naming the problem.” But I have never seen a media report that applies this type of analysis to North Korea. In this analysis, Korea would be the larger but incompetent and befuddled Grand National Party, and North Korea would be the small Democratic Party that overwhelms Grand National Party.

Let us analyze Korea’s advantages over North Korea. A quick list includes wealth, democracy, stronger military, etc. – in fact, it is difficult to name them all because there are so many. Korea can screw with North Korea using these advantages to their maximum effectiveness. But an idiotic eye-to-eye strategy cannot beat North Korea. A rich man who dislikes being beaten cannot get into a fistfight with a thug.

Then what can be done? I have thought of many possibilities, but I do not need to list them all, since national strategy is not decided on one person’s opinion. But I believe that we must publicly solicit the ways in which we can take over the agenda, utilize our advantage, and negotiate our way. We must bring the experts on North Korea together and formulate such policy – a policy for which, while avoiding outright collision, North Korea has no recourse other than to fume, like we do right now. For example:

Example 1: Kim Jong-Il announced that North Korea will launch a missile, but South Korean media is strangely quiet. When Kim Jong-Il begins to wonder about the absence of reaction, suddenly South Korean media causes a sensation with a report, “North Korean Labor Party secretary defects to South Korea.” No matter how many announcements about missiles are made, South Korean media only pays attention to the North Korean elite’s defection. The embarrassment from the defection by the elite, and the apathy to the missile, would surely piss off Kim Jong-Il.

Example 2: A foreign corporation that used to deal with North Korea suddenly announces that the relationship is terminated, saying that it would deal with South Korean corporations now. Whenever North Korea tries to buy anything, the foreign corporations reply that they would only deal with South Korean corporations that pay more. Nations friendly to North Korea slowly turn against it. The situation is infuriating, but it is not something that can be addressed militarily; all North Korea can do is to feel the misery of not having any money.

Such responses may be criticized on the grounds that they are reenactment of the competition during the Cold War era. But our advantage is that we survived that very competition. In the very least, Korean government loses the incompetence of getting dragged around by being unable to take the initiative.

If that’s not good enough, there are other ways such as: What if we gave such an exorbitant aid that North Korea cannot control it? We can give so much that North Korea cannot afford to turn down such an overwhelming aid, and that the entire [North Korean] Security Forces cannot control where the aid goes. Imagine the Gaeseong Industrial Complex becoming 10 times bigger. North Korea will have a lot of trouble gagging the laborers and preventing the leak of Korean pop culture, eventually causing a headache for maintaining the current regime. My personal estimate of the amount enough to overwhelm North Korea is around 2 percent of South Korea’s budget. Even the much-criticized “excessive” aid during Roh Moo-Hyun administration was less than 0.2 percent of the budget. Giving as much as my estimation for five years does not even amount to the cost of constructing the second Lotte World [amusement park in Seoul currently being built], which costs around 2 trillion won.

We keep focusing on how to respond to Kim Jong-Il, but that is not the right point to focus on. Korea’s leader must draw his own image of what Korean Peninsula would be like at least 10 years into the future. We have already seen Kim Il-Sung, who appeared as if he would live forever, suddenly disappear one day. Life is finite. Looking just a little beyond the finite lifespan may provide a new answer.

This is what happens with incompetence: although the “missile” is a greater threat to the United States, and was made for the purpose of talking with that country, Korea screamed and hollered while U.S. remained calm. Embarrassingly, there was no effect to such hysteria. Also, Korean government obstinately ignored the opinion for recognizing the projectile to be a satellite, insisting that the projectile is an ICBM. But once the U.S. said it was a satellite, Korean government sheepishly corrected the description as a rocket. Then, once the launch happened, Korean government recognized the projectile to be a satellite. Once U.S. changes the description again as a “missile”, Korea would have to follow again. How does this make sense?

This missile ruckus is reminiscent of the humiliating episode in November 2008. Korean government had totally ignored North Korea’s repeated request for military communication material and equipment, until that point. On the day North Korea cut off the North-South Hotline, Korean government groveled and said it would provide the equipment. (I feel personally embarrassed as I write this.)

In this episode too, Korean government led the charge in overreacting, hollering that launch would be unforgivable. But once it became obvious that there is nothing Korean government could do, it quietly corrected itself, saying, “There will be no military response.” Korea would publicly assert that North Korea will pay for its misdeeds, but it quietly set its butt on the chair in the six-party talks. Truly, what embarrassing and sad scenes.

Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Thanks for the great translation - and interesting article. It's high praise (and a lot of hits) coming his way, I'm sure.

    What surprises me more than anything is how worked up people get over things - especially things they cannot control in any way. While I can't remember who originally said the wonderful quote, I remember the meaning - something about you can't control the world or situation, but you CAN control your response to something.

    I picture North Korea as the five-year-old sitting at the 'grown-up' table - wreaking havoc and creating chaos every way he can to attract attention. When a real kid does that, of course, he gets sent to the little kids table, the corner, or perhaps to his room - whatever the case, he's not bothering the rest of the world (er, table) anymore. Threat of nuclear missiles? Wah wah wah. In North Korea vs. the world, I'll pick the world anyday.

  2. Awesome, thank you for the translation. I read the korean original but for the parts I didn't immediately understand I looked at your translation to get the idea right away. Some may call it cheating, but I think of it as efficient reading!

  3. Maybe I'm tired but this article didn't make any sense to me. The West doesn't care if S Korea is blown up, they are worried if N Korea can reach the States. And how much China/Russia are backing that crazy N Korean SOB. Cuz if that little nutcase could bomb the US I think he would!

    What's going on with those 2 journalists, anyway?

  4. The question I would have for Mr.Joo is -- does he think that the overreaction by korean media is a thoroughly kneejerk reaction, that is, is it completely irrational? What would be their defense, if any, to the charge of committing "treason"?

  5. Good post! Ju Seong-ha captured exactly my sentiments about the North Korea situation. N.K. is a prima donna who craves attention like a meth addict. Why doesn't everybody see thru that? Or may the press does but instead chooses to "aid the enemy" for a fistful of wons; "good news" is what sells papers!
    What must be remembered is that dictators and damagogues are not as crazy as you think. They are political animals whose mission is to stay relevant and get enough attention to achieve political goals. The press has been jazzing up the news too much and giving everyone an impression that these "nutcases" like Kim Jong-Il, Ahmadinejad, Sadam Hussein, et al are suicidal. Even Hitler was not suicidal when he started the war; he made very calculated, political moves with all geopolitical factors considered. Sadam confessed after his capture that he had bluffed wrong and had not thought that Bush would actually march in like that ("boy, was I wrong about that!")

  6. usually, media coverage mirrors to some extent what people want to read / hear, right?

    Ju Seong-ha's analysis is spot on, however, when it comes to his suggestions how to react, i don t think he offers anything new, we have heard it all before (A Lankov calls it 'subversive engagement').

    to all of you who are surprised that views like those of Ju Seong-ha are not more present in the media: name one government / organization that has an interest in bringing the KJI regime down AND publicly dares to discuss the consequences that one has to face as a result of it.

    Thanks to TK for the translation!

  7. Firstly, thanks for taking the time to translate for a wider audience. Still, Joo doesn't have the skill to prognosticate. and his background might actually be a drawback.

    But, secondly, Joo is not the only commentator to advocate restraint. However, even this approach is faulty. It ignores how other states, like Russia and Japan react use DPRK's actions to justify their own policies. Those "experts" think about DPRK as if they are flying with gimbal lock. They fail to acknowledge the geopolitical realities of the peninsula and its relation to the continent and islands in the region. And, they ignore the lessons of North Korean actions, but also the legacy of American blowback and the actions of neighboring states. I agree with Joo to the extent that DPRK should be ignored as a state like others, but rather should be viewed as as the result of decades of bad policy by others, a sort of snake's skin discarded after molting. In a sense, DPRK exists because of our sins of incompetence and denial. The regime histrionics are just what we deserve for all our arrogance.

  8. Thank you for the translation, it was a great article.

    Can't you post more articles from that blog?

  9. Thank you for providing the translation - my Korean ain't what it used to be. For that matter, neither is my English.

    That's such a great Planet of The Apes cartoon.

  10. tellos,

    If the Korean had more time, he would translate every single one of Mr. Joo's posts. His blog is that good.


    The cartoon in the original post is really funny, but it seemed pointless to translate because you need so much context to get the joke.

  11. Baltimoron,

    The Korean would argue that the restraint point is secondary in Mr. Joo's post. Mr. Joo's primary point is that South Korea must find a way to affect North Korea in South Korea's terms, rather than passively focusing on how to react to North Korea. In other words, South Korea would not restrain itself just for the sake of doing nothing -- it would restrain itself so that it can focus on the battles that it can truly win. And hopefully, those battles will take into account the geopolitical realities that you speak of.

    As to what battles that S. Korea may engage in, some of the suggestions that Mr. Joo makes are highly intriguing. To further develop one of his ideas, what if Korean government guaranteed to any foreign company that sells goods to North Korea that it will buy any product heading toward North Korea at three times the price? This would do more than piss off KJI, purveyor of fine cognac and cigars. The stability of N. Korean regime strongly depends on KJI's ability to bribe high officials with foreign luxury goods. This would be a great first step in destabilizing the North Korean regime.

  12. One thing I don't fully get is, if you piss off KJI with openly hostile tactics such as those suggested by Mr.Joo, wouldn't that be the anti-sunshine way of dealing with north korea? Wouldn't a less overt way of putting the ball back in our court be a better tactic?

    Sorry in advance if i'm just expressing my ignorance.

  13. The Korean does not think Mr. Joo is married to the Sunshine Policy -- he seems more concerned about having the initiative in the North-South relation. In the post he specifically says that even though his proposal may escalate the tension a la Cold War, S. Korea has the advantage precisely because S. Korea survived the Cold War just fine.

    But the escalation does not need to happen on its own. Suppose S. Korea did much to economically isolate N. Korea, then provides the massive aid that Mr. Joo proposed? Wouldn't NK more inclined to accept that? These are just some brainstorming, but it could be something worth thinking about.

  14. A Japanese friend of mine was suggesting smothering them with aid a few months back. He reckoned 1% of Japan's military budget would suffice.

    I doubt trying to corner the world market on cognac and cigars would work. I'm sure certain companies would be all in favour, but the UN resolution that was passed unanimously supposedly forbids people from selling luxury goods to DPRK anyway. It would be nice if that was more strictly enforced.

    Working on the Chinese and Russians. KJI continuously makes them look like asses and they keep running cover for him. A Chinese friend of mine claims that the DPRK doesn't give any credit to China for saving their ass in the Korean war; because of Juche and all that. That ought to be useful.

  15. I've always thought that David Koresh and our dear leader have a lot in common; they are both cult leaders who lock themselves in a confined space with a shit load of weapons, and I've heard some stories about KJI having a penchant for deflowering a select group of virgins. What's with the crazy, violent people and their obsession with virgins (sexual repression is one of the most dangerous things in the world)?
    Going Janet Reno on them or applying a smothering strategy in any form, IMHO, is counter-productive and may lead to unintended consequences that none of the neighboring countries can afford (and we all know that when Uncle Sam talks of war, he means having that war nowhere near his land, which is why some hardcore pundits jazz up the possibility of air strikes like it's a friggin' video game)
    I'm no fan of the sunshine policy because of the ineffective way it was done, but I do believe that change has to happen within, with some catalysts surreptitiously injected from the outside world. An organism like N.Korea will eventually die out with hardly a whimper. But in the meantime, S.Korea has to play the game it knows best as Ju suggested, i.e. in the money game; treat N.Korea like any business partner who has to abide by contractual terms with conditional penalties attached to them. After all, Kim and his posse, despite the crazy look in their eyes and their constant, disrespectful talk of "yo mama" in the south, understand money just as well as the rest of the world does; it's always good to have more. And let them have their belligerent talk every Tuesday. It's not like they follow up on it or anything.

  16. Good article other than the odd paragraph about giving the North so much money "they wouldn't know what to do with it."

  17. I responded to your comment:

  18. Thanks for the great translation.

    I believe this is more than just " something you can't control the world or situation, but you can control your response to something". After all, we are dealing with nuclear weapons in possession of a dangerous, hegemonic regime. To that end, ramifications are much severe, therefore, we can't simply be reactive.

    I dont believe there will be one Korea in my lifetime. I hope I am wrong, though. I simply believe China's rise in power has indirectly benefited DPRKs effort to sustain their government.

  19. thanks for the great article and translation!

  20. The reasoning on the NK blogger is extremely flawed. What if NK sold the technology of the missile or the missile itself to another country? Then the it would threaten more people, including SK.

  21. ateryu,

    Two responses:

    1. The author clearly addresses that issue, if you read it carefully: That missile is something that can never be used in an actual situation. Would a military satellite, which can measure shoe sizes on the ground, simply sit on the missile’s movement in the time of war? The missile takes several months between assembly and launch, and is immediately noticeable no matter where it is hidden. The idea that Kim Jong-Il can surprise America with an ICBM in the face of obvious self-destruction is clearly a fiction.In other words, it doesn't matter where this missile goes. It is no something that can really be used. It is likely that no one really wants this missile.

    2. Even assuming for argument's sake that it does proliferate, how does it affect South Korea? (The Korean, as an American, would find it bad if it does proliferate, but we are only talking about Mr. Joo's point of view here.) For all S. Korea is concerned, the missile can go anywhere in the world -- and it still does not add a meaningful threat to S. Korea. Like Mr. Joo said, main threat to S. Korea is long-range artillery and short-range missiles of N. Korea. Adding an ICBM means pretty much nothing for S. Korea.


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