Friday, December 30, 2011

Kim Jong-Il's Death -- Assorted North Korea Questions

To round out the posts about Kim Jong-Il's death, here are all the North Korea-related questions received in the last few days.

Dear Korean,

I read this on CNN:
In addition, the South Korean government asked church groups to refrain from lighting Christmas trees near the demilitarized zone between the two countries due to the North's mourning period. The Christmas trees have been deemed a symbol of psychological warfare, and North Korea threatened in the past to retaliate if the South lights the trees.
How can a Christmas tree be psychological warfare?


The Christmas tree thing goes back to a controversy a few days before Kim Jong-Il died, and the report from CNN is slightly inaccurate. It is not about Christmas trees -- it is about a single Christmas tree. In particular, the one that is 100 feet tall, right near the Armistice Line.

There has been a 100 feet tall watch tower since 1971 at Aegi-bong, which just across the river from North Korea. In 2010, after North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong-do, South Korean government decided to engage in "psychological warfare," and one of the weapons of choice was to allow Yoido Full Gospel Church (the largest Pentecostal church in the world, with 1 million members,) to turn the watch tower into a giant Christmas tree. This is what it looks like, from last year's lighting.

Of course, North Korea did not take this kindly, and threatened to destroy the tower. Again this year, strong words were exchanged about the Christmas tree just before Kim Jong-Il died. And as reported, South Korean government decided to not light the Christmas tree this year.

All of this is rather ironic, because Kim Il-Sung was born into a devoutly Christian family in Pyongyang.

(More after the jump.)

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

Dear Korean,

I happened across your site while doing some research on the Korean monarchy. I was speculating as to whether the 'cult' of personality being built around NK's dictators has some historical precedence in Korean attitudes towards their monarchs? Is there any link? Or is the current cult of personality in NK a relatively new phenomenon?


A lot of people -- including South Korean intellectuals -- are fond of linking the personality cult of North Korea with the past monarchies in Korea, e.g. the Joseon Dynasty. The Korean believes that this is a mistake borne out of ignorance about how the kings of Joseon Dynasty operated.

To be sure, it may be fair to point out some level of connection, given that Korean kings were treated like, well, kings, i.e. treated with extraordinary care. The Korean's favorite example is: the excrement of Joseon kings were called "cherry blossom," and was immediately wrapped in silk after, um, "production," to be shown to the doctor resident in the palace.

But on the whole, traditional Korea almost never had a personality cult around the king. In fact, very rarely did traditional Korea even have an extremely strong monarch in the mold of Louis XIV. For the most part through its history, Joseon Dynasty was a country ruled by a relatively weak king and a large bureaucracy of Confucian scholars who shaped most of the national policies. The personality cult in the mold of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il simply has no precedent in traditional Korea.

Dear Korean,

But what about the military? From everything I've seen, it appears that the military leaders are solidly behind the status quo. After all, if the regime were to topple, they'd have to find real jobs and would lose their access to what apparently passes for the good life in North Korea. And the rank-and-file soldiers seem well fed, warmly dressed, and reasonably healthy, and presumably may support the status quo, too. Or is my off-the-wall assessment simply wrong?

Doug C.

The Korean would say that the assessment is correct up to a certain point. It is true that, compared to the rest of the population, North Korean soldiers are relatively well fed, warmly dressed and reasonably healthy -- which is why North Korean military has not rebelled yet. (If they did, that would really be the end of North Korea.)

But it is important to note that such relative comfort is no thanks to the regime itself. The formal rationing system in North Korea is almost completely destroyed, such that the military is acting on its own to feed itself. The military does this by extorting from the civilians around them, essentially setting up a feudal fiefdom around the bases. Certain military bases have gone so far as to set up their own trading companies that sell weapons and natural resources to China. Also, as Mr. Joo Seong-Ha pointed out, there is virtually no discipline left in North Korean military, particularly at the level of ordinary soldiers who grew up during the mass famine in early 1990s. This means that the military supports the regime not on an ideological basis, but on a transactional basis -- in other words, the military will support the Kim Jong-Un regime only to the extent that the regime would let the military take its share. 

Having a highly corrupt military that is slowly slipping outside the sphere of his influence is obviously not a good situation for Kim Jong-Un. Yet should Kim Jong-Un incautiously attempt to root out the corruption in military, it is entirely possible that the military would turn against him -- a disastrous consequence that would almost certainly result in the fall of North Korean regime. This is an added challenge for the young new ruler, and another reason why the Korean is hopeful that North Korean regime is not for much longer.

Dear Korean,

I've always wondered if South Korea maintains an action plan for the sudden and complete collapse of North Korea, as in "We're now responsible for millions of starving people, not to mention one million soldiers and lots of guns and a nuclear arsenal, so starting tomorrow we're going to do x, y, and z.

Don W.

Actually, it is not (just) up to South Korea to have an action plan on what to do on the day when North Korea collapses. For situations that are DEFCON 3 and above, Republic of Korea - United States Combined Forces Command handles the situation. The ROK-US CFC has a series of Operation Plans that deal with different situations in North Korea, and the proposed OPLAN 5029 details the action plan in case of a sudden collapse of North Korea. OPLAN 5029 has five scenarios to which CFC may have to respond:  (1) coup d'etat; (2) mass defection of North Korean people; (3) humanitarian aid following a massive natural disaster; (4) foreigner(s) being held hostage in North Korea, and; (5) the regime loses control over the weapons of mass destruction, and such weapons are exported out of North Korea.

OPLAN 5029 was only proposed and is not yet officially adopted, because Korea and U.S. could not settle their disagreement about which country would take the lead role in the operation, especially in the scenario involving weapons of mass destruction. But regardless of OPLAN 5029's official adoption, there seem to be few reasons to doubt that ROK-US CFC would know what to do in case of a sudden collapse of North Korea.

In addition, South Korea has a mid-range plan of what to do with North Korea in the 3 to 6 months time frame. Although details are not available to the public, each ministry in the South Korean government has an action plan of what to do in North Korea in case of a reunification. (So for example, Ministry of Education has a plan on the school curriculum to be implemented in North Korea.)

As to what the Korean thinks of what ought to happen . . .

Dear Korean,

I'm curious about your views on Korean reunification. Not so much the if, when and why but more on how, in a practical sense how would one begin integration of the two halves of Korea? During my brief year in SK as an exchange student my Korean classmates seemed almost apathetic to the north and the issue of reunification seemed an impossible and unwanted task to most of them.

And while I would be the first to cheer on the collapse of the north I can't see how the people of the north could be integrated into a new, united country remotely resembling the South Korea we have today. Of course my insight is quite limited so your views on the matter would be much appreciated.


The Korean has not been thinking too hard on exactly what should happen, so he cannot give a full, detailed plan on how the integration should proceed. But he does have a few reasons to think that the integration process, which will certainly be difficult, may go smoother than one might think.

1.  Korean nationalism is powerful.  When it comes to Korea, never, ever, ever underestimate the power of Korean nationalism. Both in South and North Korea, nationalism has been mobilized to achieve remarkable things, albeit in diametrically opposing directions. South Korea achieved wealth and democracy at a speed unprecedented in human history. North Korea became the only country in human history in which an industrialized country backslid into a massive famine. Either way, Korean nationalism is a powerful thing.

After reunification, there surely will be an undercurrent of mistrust and hostility between former North and South Koreans, going in both directions. But such undercurrent will have a difficult time getting articulated in public and at the leadership level, because Korean nationalism and the idea of "one people" [한민족] is simply too powerful. In fact, that South Koreans still broadly support reunification after 60 years of constant terrorist and military attacks by North Korea is a reflection of just how strong Korean nationalism is.

2.  Korea is an leadership-oriented society.  Relatively speaking, Koreans generally trust the social leaders to know better and do the right thing. This is not to say Korean people are sheep -- remember that South Korea was also a dictatorship only slight better than North Korea until the 1980s, but South Korea democratized because of the relentless protests by democratization activists. By "leadership-oriented society," the Korean only means that Korea is a society in which ordinary people are willing to sacrifice their personal interest in favor of the national direction set by the leadership. 

Reunification would certainly entail sacrifices, particularly on South Koreans who would have to subsidize North Korea for quite some time. Yet because of the strength of nationalism described above, South Korean leadership would almost uniformly call for such sacrifices. And Korean people would generally respond to those calls favorably.

3.  North Koreans are used to law and order.  A common worry about reunification goes like this: "What if North Korea degenerates into a complete chaos? How could anyone restore law and order?" But one must remember that although North Korea suffers from dire poverty, it is still a modern country used to modern law and order. North Korea is not, say, Somalia, which constantly degenerates into warring factions because its people have little experience with modern and centralized state. In contrast, North Koreans have plenty of experience living in a modern, organized state. (In fact, the problem in North Korea is too much organized state.) North Koreans are used to be being educated and working in an organized environment, which would make their repatriation to an industrial economy relatively smooth.

4.  Migration is sticky.  Another common worry about reunification is:  "What if the poor North Koreans flood and paralyze South Korea?" The Korean is pretty sure that after reunification, North Koreans would come down to South Korea in enough numbers to disrupt the status quo for South Korea. But he does not believe that it would come to a point of total chaos.

A general truth about human migration is that it is sticky. Total migration, in which the entire population migrates, is extremely rare and only confined to situations in which there is an existential threat to that population. (For example, migration in the wake of Rwandan genocide or the war in Kosovo.) Absent such existential threat, people generally do not like to move from where they are, even if there were zero restriction in their movement and it is very likely that their living conditions would significantly improve elsewhere.

Here is an interesting case -- Poland after joining the European Union. After joining the EU in 2004, Ireland, Sweden and United Kingdom immediately opened their doors to Polish immigrants. All three countries have a per capita GDP that is more than double of the per capita GDP is Poland. In other words, in 2004, Polish people had the freedom to move out of Poland to a much wealthier country any time they wanted to. And sure enough, many Polish people did take that chance. But did the elimination of border empty out Poland? Hardly -- between 2004 and 2009, a little more than 200,000 people moved out of Poland, in a country that has more than 38 million people. What is more, the number of emigrants peaked in 2006, and by 2009 the figure returned to the level of Poland's pre-EU days. Clearly, 200,000 is not a small number. But it is hardly the case that Poland emptied out.

Yes, yes, the Korean knows that the difference between South and North Korean per capital GDP is more like 15 times than double. It is not as if the Korean is advocating for a full-blown, open-South-Korea-immediately policy as soon as the reunification is achieved. For a short term, it would probably be necessary to implement some level of movement control. But the Poland example is nonetheless a data point. As long as South Korea can quickly build up North Korean economy, there would be more incentives for North Koreans to stay than migrate South. And such build-up can happen rather quickly because . . .

5.  South Korea has a ton of construction experience, and there is a lot of money in the world.  One must remember that South Korea got its start on building its national economy by engaging in huge infrastructure projects, both domestically and abroad. For example, water pipeline construction in Libya by Dongah Construction, completed in 1991, was the largest construction project in the world at the time. Reunification would mean a series of huge, huge infrastructure projects in North Korea, because North Korea pretty much needs everything -- roads, rails, airports, power plants, aqueducts, sewage, large buildings, high speed Internet, everything. Only a handful of countries around the world have the necessary expertise to engage in such broad-based building projects, and South Korea is one of the best. Such infrastructure project could double as massive job creators for North Korean people. When there is a hope for a better life in the place they live, people don't move.

But how to pay for all that? This is where the second factor comes in. Right now, there is a lot of money in the world. Or to be more precise, there is a lot of liquidity in the world -- huge flows of cash that are not being invested because of the volatility in world markets. If North Korean regime falls in, say, the next five years, suddenly the greatest risk factor for the world's 15th largest economy is gone, and one of the most experienced countries in the world in massive infrastructure construction needs money. Who wouldn't want to lend money to Korea at an attractive rate in that situation? This is partially why Goldman Sachs forecast that by 2050, unified Korea will have a larger economy than Japan, Germany and France.

Of course, the Korean is not saying that it will be a cakewalk and everything will be hunky-dory. There will certainly be all kinds of ghastly issues in the short term, like discrimination, crime, and various injustices that are prone to happen in a major upheaval. Even in the long term, North Korea may become like the American South -- still relatively poor and somewhat discriminated against, even after 150 years since the Civil War. But the Korean believes that the worst cases scenarios that people fear, i.e. total chaos and mayhem, long-term economic depression, etc., are unlikely. 

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


  1. I think the Poland/North Korea analogy is misleading. First of all comparing Poland to North Korea is a bit far-fetched to say the least (Poland's GDP is more than 10 times the North Korean one). Secondly - the language - not all the Poles, especially those from lower income groups, more prone to emigrate, speak English (I'd say only a minority does). Thirdly - the distance - it's 1700 km form Warsaw to London. Maybe it doesn't seem much in American standards, but Poles were always reluctant to migrate for work even within their own country.
    Anyway, according to the 2011 census almost 1 mln Poles are "missing" - so the number of emigrants is believed to be grossly underestimated.
    BTW, I love your blog!

  2. Very interesting read. I wonder if you would be interested in studying up on what happened with the reunification of Germany and then making some comparisons from that perspective.

  3. I would have to agree that Korean reunification would go fairly similarly as it did in Germany, not the mass chaos people might think. Some restrictions on movement and discrimination would probably happen, but like Germany in 10-20 years things would most likely be settled and integrated, with a powerhouse economy to match.

  4. Usually, a lot of people compare North and South Korea to East and West Germany. So do I. And I too think it might be similar if the Koreas unite.

    However, I am also aware of the difference of situation. I mean, Germany got united in the past century, with a different technology, different economy and, well, a different generation, differend period in history.
    Also, the culture is different as well. Though both in the European countries and in Korea nationalism is strong (well, with the EU, it doesn't seem to be that strong anymore), in Europe people speak a lot against their own government and regime, while in Korea, no matter the protests, they seem pretty proud and obedient, being, as The Korean said, a leadership oriented society.

    I think if they unite, there won't be any chaos, just maybe some temporary economical crisis, for the state would be extended to a very poor part, which is actually a large teritory. But Koreans are hard workers and I'm pretty sure they would solve that problem soon enough. But then, some foreign countries may interfer to make it harder for Korea because of the concurence. But the USA, being a strong ally, would surely take its actions to get even more powerful from this event.

    As for migrations. I believe a lot of people would travel. But not only North Koreans to the South. The South, being wealthier, the majority might be migrations from north to south, but I believe a lot of South Koreans might go to the North as well. And here are the reasons.

    1. Work. I think many workers might be sent to the northern part either to construct and mantain buildings or various explorers, who would research the land that was strictly forbidden. I think North Korea has plenty of either natural or social resources that scientists would just LOVE to put their hands on and write a lot of new books.

    2. Families that were divided. For example, the northern mother/father is too old and weak to travel, so the son/daughter might go to the north with their family. Also, South Koreans who lost their hometowns might want to return.

    3. The mountain. There is a mountain that was very important to all the Koreans, but it is in the North, making it inaccessible for the southern people to visit there. Thought there were some events when they could visit it one special day, or something like that.

    4. Just out of curiousity. I think many old and young people might be curious to at least visit this long forbidden land and see how it looks. Then, if they see it's actually not that bad, they might want to stay. That can be done if the society and tourism develops well enough to attract more people. And of course, good advertisement plays a big role here as well.

    For the same reasons mentioned, foreigners all over the world would be eager to come and see this long restricted and shortly open land of North Korea.

  5. Comparing Poland's actions joining the EU in 2004 to a Korean unification today is hardly a comparison. Poland at that time had a robust economy compared to the 1980's when they were emerging from more than 40 years of communist rule. If you want to use a comparison, I'd suggest the German unification as your example. Although the former Soviet Union didn't have the personality cult figure of the Kim's.

  6. "Somalia, which constantly degenerates into warring factions because its people have little experience with modern and centralized state."

    I AM SO FUCKING OFFENDED BY THIS AS A ETHNIC SOMALI!! Wtf do you mean "its people have little experience with modern and centralized state." what shit are you saying? Are you talking out your ass with what the CNN feeds you? Its been 26 years since civil war between somaliland, 20 years since another power war with the goverment and 2/3 years since war with al shabab with key cities/Districs. All together its only been 27 years since somalia hit govermental failure and from that it it was only during 2003 that somalia was called "Dangerous" when terrorist came into the country.Law and order is exist in somalia and I think were much better the N.K were there is concentration camps. Dont compare somalia to N.K and say their better, You obviously don't research. Btw im a somalilander!


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