While the west prepared to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner last week, we in the east received a lovely surprise in the form of a North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean island near the disputed maritime border. The attack killed two South Korean marines and brought the two countries the closest they have been to war since the end of the Korean War. What we may be witnessing however, is not the beginning of new war, but the end of the North entirely.
Like so many of North Korea’s brazen acts, this attack asks the question of motivation. Tyrannical and isolationist the regime may be, it is hardly stupid and certainly employs some amount of rational deliberation. This being the case, there are two conceivable reasons behind this. The first is that it was an attempt to generate diplomatic capital in an attempt to force the West back into direct talks. This has been the prevailing tendency since the start of the war on terror, and the state department’s resources have increasingly been focused elsewhere. America starts ignoring the North, so they beat their chests to get everyone back to the table.
This may well have been a sufficient explanation if the North had not already provided such a stimulus mere days before the attack. This was in the form of the new uranium enrichment facility just recently unveiled. They went so far as to even invite Stanford physicists who later commented on its extremely high level of sophistication. Following the announcement there was already talk brewing of renewed six party talks. Therefore the assertion that the shelling was diplomatically motivated doesn’t really hold up.
The second and more likely explanation is that we are witnessing rumblings occurring within the power structure of the regime itself. Due to Kim Jong Il’s failing health, the regime will soon find itself at a critical crossroads. Everyone put on a lovely show of unity at the party conference last month, when Kim Jong Un was ‘anointed’ as the apparent successor as leader of the ruling Worker’s Party. The fact however is that the true disposition of the regime’s military and state elites is unknown right now, and the idea that they will all get behind a 26 year old, with no experience to speak of, military or otherwise, is questionable to say the least. Given these facts it then seems highly logical that the attack could be an attempt to increase the successor’s credentials before his father becomes too infirmed. He knows that should the military divide over the succession, the regime would not likely survive the resulting blowback.
Such a thing may come to pass regardless of the attack however. The critical nature of the situation became even more apparent this week, following the release of cables that showed China increasingly frustrated with the North, and even prepared to accept re-unification. We may in fact be on the verge of witnessing, as Robert Kaplan recently asserted, the implosion of the regime itself. Without Chinese aid and support, to say nothing of a strong leader to keep the elites in line, the regime would most likely crumble in a few years at the most. Contrary to what so many of us believed, the most tyrannical regime on the planet may fall without the US or South Korea firing a shot.