This article is part of Next, The Globe's five-day series examining the people, places, things and ideas that will shape 2013.
It is the most heavily armed frontier in the world. But visiting the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone that separates it from North Korea can sometimes feel like a trip to the fair.
At the south end of the Freedom Bridge, which would link the two Koreas if it were open, is a souvenir stand selling “DMZ” ballcaps and fridge magnets, the three letters written in English for the tourists who flock here for a taste of the Cold War. The four-storey observation point that allows visitors to peer into the Hermit Kingdom to the north contains a convenience store and a Popeye’s restaurant that plays bouncy Korean pop songs as it sells weak coffee and greasy chicken. Schoolkids shout with glee from the roller coaster and bumper cars of “Peace Land,” an amusement park cheekily set up within binocular range of the North Korean soldiers on the other side of the border, who likely don’t get to relax much.
The blasé attitude with which South Koreans treat the threat posed by their unpredictable neighbour is understandable. In the six decades since the Korean War ended with a truce, but no peace agreement, they’ve seen it all – from tunnels dug under the DMZ towards Seoul in the 1970s, to armed frogmen who swam down the Han River in the 1990s, and a pair of nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
But there’s reason to worry that 2013, the 60th anniversary of the formal end of hostilities, could be another dangerous one at the frontier between the two Koreas.
Some Pyongyang watchers expect yet another escalation as the regime of Kim-Jong-un tries to force itself – and its need for cash and food – to the top of the international agenda. Some predict North Korea will stage a spectacular military provocation, perhaps akin to 2010’s deadly shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, to force Seoul and Washington to pay attention to its demands.
And with South Korea’s hawkish mood captured by the presidential election victory of of Park Geun-hye – whose father was a former military ruler and whose mother was assassinated by North Korean agents – there are many who believe Seoul will punch back the next time Pyongyang strikes, sending the peninsula into an unpredictable spiral.
“The North Koreans will want to test [Ms. Park], maybe an overland intrusion, an artillery attack, shooting down an airliner – God knows what – and if she overreacts it could lead to a chain of escalations,” said Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea at Kookmin University in Seoul. “We’ll see newspaper headlines like ‘Korea on the brink of war’ with big pictures of smoke rising and soldiers rushing to the front line.”
Prof. Lankov feels that some kind of North Korean provocation is almost a certainty in the first few months of 2013. What’s unknown is what Ms. Park will do about it when the time comes.
“The question is who will control her [North Korea] policy,” he added. “She’s likely to rely on experts, and a lot of the people in her camp are crazy hardline ideologues.”
After North Korea launched an artillery attack in November, 2010, on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing four South Koreans and injuring 19, the outgoing president Lee Myung-bak promised that Seoul’s practice of turning the other cheek was over. He vowed North Korea would “pay a dear price” for any further provocations.
That fed-up mood persists today among South Koreans. “Since the Yeonpyeong incident, many people feel that if we see another attack they want to see a tougher response from the government,” said Jeong Han-wool, who studies public opinion at the Seoul-based East Asia Institute.
Another variable is an apparent struggle for control taking place in Pyongyang’s shadows. Kim Jong-un appears to have borrowed a page from his father’s playbook and carried out a dramatic purge of top military officers in recent months (former army chief of staff Ri Yong-ho hasn’t been seen since July and more than a dozen other top officials are believed to have been ousted), perhaps creating the need for new “victories” to rally the army around the country’s twenty-something leader.
“When I was living in North Korea, the central government would organize a committee that went to town telling us ‘we attacked South Korea and the South Koreans are terrified of us.’ I would hear that and feel very proud,” recalled Oh Sung-il, a North Korean defector in his early 30s in an interview in Seoul. Oh Sung-il is a name he assumed after arriving in South Korea in early 2011.
“The political leaders, they know they look foolish internationally whenever they stage one of these attacks. But more important is controlling the internal population, and the propaganda they can present to their own people.”
Kim Jong-un tried to portray himself as a reformer during the first months following his father Kim Jong-il’s death last December. He allowed talk of agricultural reforms that would allow farmers to privately sell part of their crops, and stunned many Korea-watchers by appearing in public with his new wife, Ri Sol-ju, even being photographed with her at an amusement park.
Since the purge, the reform talk has stopped, and Mr. Kim’s wife was not seen at either the Dec. 12 rocket launch or the ceremony marking the Dec. 17 anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death, although there are rumours she’s pregnant. Dozens of armoured vehicles are parked in defensive positions around Mr. Kim’s official residence, according to other reports, suggesting he’s become paranoid about the possibility of a coup or an uprising.
The regime angered even its lone remaining patron, China, with the Dec. 12 rocket launch that put a satellite into space, but was widely viewed as a test of banned ballistic-missile technology that brings North Korea closer to having deployable nuclear weapons. “The North’s long-range missile launch symbolically showed how grave our security reality is,” Ms. Park said the day after her election win.
Mr. Oh, the defector, says the real threat to Mr. Kim’s rule comes not from the country’s military, but from a generation of young North Koreans who no longer believe in the Kim dynasty and who long for contact with the outside world. Mr. Oh was forced to flee after his family was caught in possession of South Korean movies, and said South Korean-style haircuts and clothing are now common in Pyongyang despite the fact foreign films are banned and only a tiny elite have Internet access.
“The system is not changing, but the young people are changing,” he said.
Could that bring about change inside North Korea? “If China changes [its policy towards North Korea], these young people will be powerful within five years,” he added. “If China doesn’t change, it will take much longer.”