Kim’s Korea or Putin’s Russia?

Jack Bolton 11 February 2018

Hacking, sabre-rattling, and intimidation – tools of the trade for both Putin and Kim Jong-Un. Choosing between two evils is far from ideal, but that was nonetheless the point of the Union’s debate concerning these two men and the threats their nations pose.

North Korea and Russia remain to a large extent the Cold War bogeymen that have not shrugged off the mantle. The concern surrounding both nations is not entirely unfounded. Russian jets routinely enter into UK airspace, and the nation has demonstrated an alarming belligerence towards neighbours such as Georgia, Turkey, Finland, and of course, the Ukraine. Turning to East Asia, the DPRK never signed a concluding peace treaty with the Republic of Korea in 1953, and so the two states remain in an uneasy, often-flouted truce, with tensions rising dramatically due to the recent developments in North Korea’s testing of ICBMs. Both aggressors have drawn the Western media’s eye. Both have large militaries at their disposal. Both are run by powerful, unprincipled individuals. Still, there are arguments to be made that the two parties do not represent equal threats.

“Better the enemy you know than the one you don’t,” stated the first speaker for the proposition, Raffy Marshall. Russia remains a relatively stable state, concerned with border conflicts within its sphere for the most part; its military is enough to enforce order, but it is overstretched, conscript-based, and riddled with corruption; North Korea however is sending very real shock waves through the White House and around the world; the fact that it is essentially a desperate ‘basket case’ makes the possibility of a larger war that much more likely. While Russia is largely contained by NATO, no serious measures are in place to deal with a very potent and volatile DPRK besides South Korea and the United States’ “token force.”

“The proposition, to my mind, appear to have very little understanding of North Korea,” replied James Hoare, the historian and diplomat. Certainly, North Korea is “nasty, and it is definitely something we have to be careful of,” but ultimately, we know very little indeed about the North’s capacity to make good its threats. Kim Jong Il once mused that any Western expert who thought they knew anything about his country ‘was a fool.’ The North’s capabilities have thus been “widely exaggerated” by the media: it cannot hope to conquer the more populous and wealthier South with outdated equipment and an undernourished army. It also has yet to show the world that it has nuclear devices that it can attach to its ICBMs. Kim’s Korea has yet to have its Cuban Missile Crisis moment; for Russia that time is long past.

Barbara Demick, a US journalist, kicked off the second round by noting the fanaticism of the Korean soldier – there is a genuine willingness amongst the ranks to worship the supreme leader and fall in line even when they are starving and lack basic needs. This, along with the fact that there are 1.1 million of them under arms, makes for a sobering thought. North Korea, she argued, does not reside in a climate of détente, but a constant state of unease with its superior neighbour, making it all the more likely that “something could go very very wrong.”

The former Conservative MP Louise Mensch was next to speak, and rather interestingly she made only a slight reference to Korea, instead choosing to focus upon the “very real and serious threat, which has not been given enough air time” of the Russian capacity for cyber warfare. The scale should definitely shock us: Twitter recently announced that it has identified over 50,000 Russia-linked election bot accounts on its platform. While Putin isn’t killing off his own people like Kim, Louise affirmed, he is nonetheless clearly determined to undermine his rivals at home and abroad by very subtle methods. Because we are so unaware of this shady world, we do not recognise the threat until it is too late. She was also quick to point out that it was Putin’s Russia that was enabling Kim’s Korea by providing it with nuclear technology.

Tim Reilly was keen to point out that we should set clear parameters in place for judging the two threats properly. By assessing the intent, capability and the outcome of both nation’s threats, we could then determine the one which warranted the most concern. While it is indeed true Russia has a greater capability than Korea, Putin is “not a madman” – his intention is the same as pretty much any leader of Russia in the modern age – secure the nation’s borders, and undermine her enemies, without risking serious repercussions. Russians, he noted, have a very acute and painful memory of the Second World War’s slaughter- a repeat of this would be the downfall of Putin. Putin, although dabbling in underhanded tactics, “plays the game” – his objectives of security and national cohesion are clear, and since we know these goals we can predict him, and maybe even reason with him. Kim Jong Un, however, is in many ways unpredictable and unreadable. He wishes to survive at all costs, he has the power to back up a good number of his threats, and his removal from power, the most likely outcome of a war, would create a “second Syria” right on China’s doorstep.

Following this, Adam Cathcart followed similar parameters to determine that Russia was in fact the greater threat. Korea, he claimed, wished to spend money on nuclear weapons to ensure a permanent security and allow economic (rather than military) spending to gain steam; it has no desire to expand unlike Russia. Korea is not the leader in military technology nor cyber warfare, whilst Russia is certainly racing forward in these fields. Given that Russia has shown a commitment in the last five years to an unashamedly expansionist policy, Putin should be the villain of the hour.

Further developing this set of judgements, John Everard proposed a set of 4 points of criterion to evaluate the different perils that the states represent: asking what both are trying to do, assessing the likelihood of them doing it, calculating the possibility of stopping them and predicting the outcomes if they should succeed. Essentially Everard continued to expound upon Reilly’s points – that Putin cares about Russia, but Kim cares only about Kim. Survival in an overtly hostile environment, with China turning its back on the regime, is making him more and more desperate. Nuclear tech being provided by Russia and China is making the possibility of that erupting into a truly terrifying conflict. Putin’s agenda is flexible: he has no timetable to keep to, only goals that can be met militarily or diplomatically. Kim has no such luxury when “every day seems to him to be a struggle for survival.” Beyond this of course, we cannot rule out a Trump-inspired invasion – or another ill-advised move/ strike to stop the dictator. Either way, it seems likely that when the pressure becomes too great, Kim “will push the button, even if he knows he will not survive.” The US’ inability to shoot down such missiles (the anti-ICBM system works only half of the time in test scenarios) makes a tragic outcome scarily plausible.

The concluding speech was masterfully delivered by Alasdair Donovan. Kim, he proposed, kills off his family members as he wishes for “no challenges at home.” Clearly, Korea’s willingness to keep within its borders is a definite sign that the nation can be brought to heel – Russia’s invasions are not met with a credible counter. 2016 saw a rebound by the Russian economy after a short recession, with a 0.3% GDP growth; sanctions imposed after its involvement in the Crimean conflict failed to have the long term effect that many had wished for. Kim is not suicidal, but Putin’s willingness to gamble means that the greater danger is in fact Russia. The elites of Korea have a lot to lose, unlike their soldiers, and the people would not dare question their leaders’ decisions; Putin, however, while supported by a similar cabal of oligarchs who wish to remain in power, is toying with the dangerous notion of Russian nationalism; the possibility of things getting out of hand are very real indeed.

What I found particularly noteworthy in this debate was the attention given by some of the speakers, rather bizarrely, towards the polishing of their chosen dictator. The debate took on a certain farcical element as the very nature of the argument mean that members of both sides had to downplay the faults of their party. Marshall noted that Alexei Navalny’s arrest in Russia was, while despicable, an improvement over any similar situation in North Korea, where any political opposition is met with severe punishment and even death.

What was also quite strange was that the floor never clearly stated what they meant by ‘this house’. Was this the United Kingdom? The West? Surely the United States has more to fear than us when it comes to Korean ICBMs?

All in all however, the evening was enlightening and entertaining, despite the very dramatic nature of such a debate. Talking to James Hoare afterwards, I was told that he found it very pleasing that a serious and considered discussion was had on North Korea’s threat, since many like him are “constantly drowned out by more alarmist pundits.”

“It’s very important that you look at what we know rather than guess what we don’t, and the facts as they present themselves are simple. The peace dividend of the Cold War has been squandered by Russia, whereas North Korea has, if anything, improved – there are no more Blue House raids, and Kim Jong Un has yet to sink a South Korean vessel as his father did in 2010. Perhaps, if fate will allow it, some good may come of talking.”