The phrase “a Pig War” used in the title of this article has been mentioned in a number of previously published articles. Today, in view of another episode of escalation of inter-Korean relations, this phenomenon will be explained in detail. First, let us look at the causes of the new wave of antagonism. If we focus on the role of mutual demonization and agitation, we will notice that a few factors heavily contribute to the transformation of a misunderstanding into a hostility.
First, demonization drastically reduces the chances for the resumption of the inter-Korean dialogue. And there is a certain logic behind that, “How can we engage in negotiations, or maintain “hot lines,” or the system of mutual awareness with them, a true embodiment of evil?” Consequently, the tools that are normally employed in the settlement of misunderstandings preventing them from descending into conflicts prove to be ineffective in a situation of mutual distrust.
Secondly, demonization is the root cause of distorted reality that manifests itself in several ways. First, any activity of the other party will be (incorrectly) interpreted as harmful based on the assumption that the other party is a bunch of “bloodthirsty ill-wishers.” Accordingly, any activity will be viewed as a preparation for a provocation or as a provocation in progress.
At the same time, analysis and expert examinations are twisted to play the role of yet another cog in the propaganda machine. Naturally, in the situation of mutual resentment, those trying to voice the true state of affairs will be silenced and those “greasing the wheel of propaganda machine” will be in trend. What does the world see as a result? A phenomenon where people first invent a propaganda construct and then uphold it as the ultimate truth. And it is nearly impossible to convince them to abandon their delusion.
Demonization also leads to a mutual agitation manifested in two ways. First, both parties act on the principle of an asymmetrical response, i.e., they harshly retaliate for any minor provocation. In other words, when a country is on the “red alert,” the shoot-and-kill tactic is applied each time something seems to be suspicious.
Second, mutual agitation creates a stressful environment for the parties to the conflict. The lower strata of the society experiences the most severe pressure. That, in turn, increases the chances of an inadequate reaction to some strange or unusual events.
As a result, the likelihood of a conflict triggered by an insignificant or engineered cause increases tremendously and is often referred to as “the Pig War.”
Here is a hypothetical situation. Let us speculate how things will develop in it. A pig is rustling in the bushes of a demilitarized zone. There are military personnel on either side of the zone. They have long been on the verge of a nervous break and have been subconsciously waiting for an enemy provocation. They are ready to leap into action to settle accounts with the scoundrels from the other side of the demilitarization zone.
One of the parties (it does not matter which one) loses the nerve and, having decided that it is not a pig in the bushes, but creeping saboteurs, opens fire. Having heard shots coming from the other side, the other party returns fire. It also reports to its leadership that it has (in compliance with the instructions) harshly retaliated for a provocation.
The party that started shooting at the pig and received a return fire also retaliates severely, while reporting to its commanders that it has been attacked without a declaration of war. In the aftermath, each party actively blames the other party for being attacked for no apparent reason. Then zealous military steps in: “Won’t you finally give us a chance to teach these scoundrels a lesson!” Then politicians join the choir: “This time we must not soften the issue and let them get away with it! We cannot afford to act as some weaklings. We must keep up our country’s prestige in the eyes of the public!” But situation is such as there is no way to determine what triggered this turmoil. On the other hand, nobody really cares to find out either. Because those who were wishing for a turmoil are now rubbing their hands.
Another point is that in these circumstances the overall picture of the political situation and military power of the opponent’s country can be significantly distorted. Ideological “blinders” can grant tremendous assistance as well. As a result, the parties might find themselves in a very unpleasant situation. For example, the South might believe that the “senseless bloody regime” of the North is about to collapse and that it really makes plans to attack the defenseless South. The South might also believe that there is a strong Christian opposition in the country and that mass protests are about to erupt. Basing their assumptions on these imaginary believes, they would expect that intervention of South Korean or American military aiming at the elimination of nuclear sites or the top country officials would gain support of the country’s population, or would, at least, resemble the plot of a Korean action movie. The North, in its turn, might believe that fancy reports about South Korean indestructible might are just reports, that the change of the puppet regime is inevitable and that the highly praised warriors of the US Army are cowards unable to fight without high-tech bathrooms and a 24-hour supply of ice cream. As a result, both parties would be preparing for an armed conflict not with the real North or South, but with some fictitious characters from the distorted “cartoon/propaganda reality.”
That seems like quite a realistic scenario for the initiation of a conflict. And it would be very difficult to discern where the fiction ends and the reality begins. Because at some point the damage suffered by each party would be so significant that nobody would be able to walk away by just saying “oh, we are sorry, it was just a misunderstanding” without losing their face. And that means that it would not matter anymore who initiated the fire. The winner’s version would go down in the history books.
The readers could notice that the topic of risk of “irrational factors” and the role of an accident, which is much more serious than it might seem, has been brought up in our articles on numerous occasions. It was zoomed in to show that despite majority of people think of politics as of something orderly, planned in advance and targeting long-term political goals, in reality things sometimes happen chaotically. And if ordinary people cannot understand something, they immediately classify the situation as an intricate combination of moves devised by some cunning politicians. In this context even “the Pig War” described above could be interpreted as a crafty design developed by the top officials. And this is why the irrational factor is so serious and so dangerous. And this is why the readers are reminded of it whenever it is appropriate to bring this subject up.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine