(PSA: All of the news articles linked below are in Korean because, at the time of writing this piece, there were no in-depth news reports on this skirmish in English.)
On August 10, South Korea started broadcasting “anti-North Korean propaganda”. These broadcasts accused the North of planting landmines, some of which blew up and seriously injured two South Korean soldiers on August 4, around Panmunjom, a village that bridges across the border between the two Koreas. In response, on August 20, between 3:53 PM and 4:12 PM, the North Korean military fired two grenades across the border, provoking a counterattack from the South. At around 5 PM, Kim Jong-un issued a statement that the South Korean government had 48 hours to retract its accusations and apologize, which the Park administration refused to do. In the end, Kim Jong-un sent Hwang Byeong-seo and Kim Yang-geon, Kim’s military second-in-command and Secretary of State respectively, to meet Kim Gwang-jin and Hong Yong-pyo, the National Security and Reunification Ministers of South Korea. After a day of heated debates, President Park issued an apology for the propaganda, though the sincerity of said apology is still being contested by various news networks.
Thankfully, we seem to have avoided restarting the Korean War, but there are a couple things about this latest skirmish that have me very rattled compared to past conflicts, the first of which is Kim Jong-un’s growing desperation. It’s becoming clearer each year that he would rather die a ruler than live long enough to watch his dictatorship fall apart, a sentiment that has horrifying implications if it turns out that he has no regard for the future of the peninsula. Any sensible person would be able predict the effects of using nuclear weapons relative to the size of the peninsula and realize that it’s a really bad idea, but Kim Jong-un has shown that he is not a sensible man. He is a crazed and cruel dictator, much like his father before him, though Kim Jong-il was a little more careful about overt altercations with the south.
The second thing is Kim Jong-un’s cruelty. When Kim Jong-un sent his troops to Panmunjom a few hours before negotiations began, he sent several messages to the people of both Koreas. The first, and easiest for everyone to see, was that he was willing to resort to aggression if diplomacy didn’t lead to results he wanted. The second, however, is what makes this gesture so chilling. The largest complication in inter-Korean relations has always been the fact that so many families were separated by the Korean War. In countries like both Koreas where filial piety, called hyo in Korean, is so strongly emphasized, this splitting of families is especially painful. Kim’s gesture, however, abused the strength of the bond of hyo. His sending troops to Panmunjom sent the message of “these soldiers could be your family, and if I don’t get what I want, I will force you to kill each other”.
Americans and other Westerners have a tendency to make Kim Jong-un into a punchline until things like this happen, at which point they just ignore us. Especially in the case of America, whose troops are stationed in the South already and has nothing concrete to gain from protecting the peninsula, it’s much easier to write off the war than to admit that things have gone horribly wrong here. Why bother the good white people of America with the Asian people’s problems, after all? It’s not like America royally fucked up the peninsula during the Korean War and its aftermath or anything of the sort.
Similarly, the rest of the Western world is overdue for a reality check. There’s a reason why the personality cult has survived for so long, and it’s largely due to your ignorance of its capabilities and cruelty. With no opposition or external pressure, the Kim family was free to establish its dictatorship and popularize it by raising themselves to a godlike status, and with Kim Jong-un currently feigning dramatized anger over memes and other media jokes while using it as a cover for his dictatorship, this fanatic cult couldn’t be more fervent in its devotion. The worst part is that it wouldn’t be a stretch for something really bad to happen only for Western media to laugh it off. No UN Security Council meetings would happen. No additional aid would be sent to my country in the event of a war. For now, it seems that South Korea is the only nation on high alert.
(Image courtesy of 대한민국 국군, or The Republic of Korea Armed Forces)