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What the Hell Has Been Going On Between North and South Korea?

August 28, 2015

by David Whelan

A military parade in North Korea. Photo by babeltravel

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

A lot has happened in the past seven days across the Korean peninsula. 

First, North and South Korea started shooting each other after the NPRK told the South to stop broadcasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda

Then, 50 North Korean submarines disappeared, reportedly away to war, and then turned up in their bases some hours later. 

While all these mini-skirmishes were taking place, diplomacy was quietly sewing up wounds. 

Finally, after days of talks, came the peace agreement and the photographs.

One moment the East was on the cusp of war, the next things were better than ever. It was a political event in microcosm, not so much a Cold War but a firecracker dispute that seemed to end as quickly as it began.

On the ground of both countries, everything seemed curiously normal. "During the crisis the BBC spent an hour broadcasting phone interviews with a cross-section of residents of Seoul," Adam Cathcart, lecturer at Leeds University and expert on North Korea, told me, "[and] they all agreed that there was more tension coming out of the international media than from South Korean society." And in the North, "There was a holiday on August 25 and people were out dancing in the streets, as if nothing had happened."

"At first [the South] said there was no evidence of North Korean involvement and that injuries sustained had been minor," added James Hoare, Britain's first diplomat to Pyongyang. "Then the story changed. The first statement might have been aimed at preventing the incident escalating into something bigger or it may just have been a premature assessment."

So what on earth was all that actually about?

The dispute began back on August 4, when a reportedly North Korean landmine badly wounded two South Korean soldiers conducting a routine border patrol through the DMZ. 

The DPRK, of course, denied any culpability, and utilized the classic "pics or it didn't happen" argument for their defense: "If South Korea wants to keep insisting this was our army's act, then show a video to prove it. If you don't have it, don't ever say 'North Korean provocation' again out of your mouth," North Korea's state KCNA news agency quoted the country's National Defence Commission as saying.

In response, South Korea began broadcasting propaganda against the regime for the first time in eleven years, which turned out to be the opposite of ideal for Pyongyang due to the impending presence of two major national holidays—the National Independence Day on September 9, followed by the Party Foundation Day just over a month later.

In a nation founded quite literally on the power of charisma, during the run up to two of the hottest propaganda events of the calendar year, South Korea's actions were anathema to the regime. And, of course, South Korea knew this. It's not a one-way fight, and never has been. "Strife and low-level violence along the border, it should be stressed, predates the creation of the Demilitarized Zone in 1953," Cathcart said. "For two years prior to the Korean War, the two Koreas were really going at it pretty heavily along multiple stretches of the border. Both sides tested the other, and South Korean President Syngman Rhee stated multiple times his desire to push all the way up to the Yalu River (Korea's border with China) and wipe out the North altogether."

There are even reports that South Korea were the first to militarize this week, which suggests they moved their machinery before 70 percent of North Korea's subs went walkabout. 

This would explain why the North reacted swiftly with anger—entering the state into "war footing," the deployment of submarines, the general moaning. North Korea takes propaganda very fucking seriously, it takes actual militarization by a richer, more powerful foe even more fucking seriously.

WATCH: The VICE Guide to North Korea:

Pyongyang's power structure is founded like a really tightly written TV show. 

Everything coheres and pulls in the same direction: toward the smiling face of Kim Jung-un, what Cathcart calls a "unity of expression. "Blast the wrong thing, like South Koreans did, at precisely the wrong time, and they'll most certainly threaten to blow your sweet Hi-Fi system up.

When the event is viewed in micro, then, the swift and quiet resolution of all this seems both intriguing and a bit odd. Everything was ramping up. Subs were disappearing, gunfire was traded over the DMZ. 

But the explanation, according to Cathcart, lies not to the south, but to the north, across the Yalu River and into China. 

Beijing, it turns out, is currently preparing for its own massive propaganda event, which the two Korean nations were about to overshadow and potentially ruin.

The celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II is scheduled for September 3 in Tiananman Square, an event that the president of South Korea is very much expected to turn up to and admire as 12,000 Chinese soldiers march in celebration of Xi Jinping's own vice-like grip on power. "Beijing was very obviously displeased with Pyongyang," Cathcart said.

 "The prospect of having [their] propaganda event of the year (the "Anti-Fascist Global War Victory Day" parade [coming up on September 3]) ruined by Kim Jong-un probably caused serious heartburn among the Chinese Communist Party leadership."

So, China spent the weekend quietly collecting troops on the Chinese-Korean border, as if preparing to unleash the mother of all bottom spankings.

It all made for a fascinating mix of political intrigue, military displays, and total confusion. 

"Never underestimate China's ability to be insulted by what it perceives as North Korean ingratitude and intransigence in the face of China's expanding regional agenda and ambitions," said Cathcart.

It's often easy when thinking about North Korea to imagine it as a cartoon nation, with no real motivation other than to entertain us with its barbarism

The thing is, North Korea is poor. And hungry. Really truly hungry

It suffers regular famine—one in the 90s lasted for four years. By last count, at least 20 million people out of a population of 24 million are malnourished. 

These are the same people who make up their army, the same army that lost 3.5 million members during the famine in the 90s, made up of troops who are reportedly underfed and far shorter than their Southern counterparts. 

In both 2004 and 2010, North Korea has successfully received food and economic aid after periods of aggressive foreign policy.

By entering their nation onto the cusp of war mere days before two vital regime events, Pyongyang could explain to the population the reason for the current food shortages and lack of economic fortitude.

 Their upcoming calendar events are hugely important to the regime's charismatic control over the nation; a time to remind, according to Cathcart, "groups like the Democratic Women's League or the Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League, that they live under the dark cloud of war that can only be kept away by their supposedly brilliant leadership."

"One could argue that both [the North and South] have gained," added Hoare.

 "The incident did not escalate, the North offered a token gesture over the landmine without quite admitting that it was their responsibility. But the loudspeakers have stopped and there may be further talks. It is not the way I would do business, but they have been doing it for 60 years."

But both nations also must answer to higher powers—like China, who sometimes simply cannot afford to waste time on elongated disputes and lose face.

While it may seem the DPRK dropped draws and got a thorough bottom spanking, they have managed to secure the potential for future peace talks (where more aid from the South is almost certainly top of the agenda), as well as an immediate short term break in US-Korea military exercises in the region. 

This will undoubtedly be used by Pyongyang as a show of might to its people. The glorious leadership has kept them safe, once again. Oh, and here's some food they just found.

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