Apr 2nd 2013

The Trouble with North Korea

by Ian Buruma

 


Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit. 

NEW YORK – Nobody would care much about North Korea – a small and isolated country of 24 million people, ruled by a grotesque dynasty that calls itself communist – if it were not for its nuclear weapons. Its current ruler, Kim Jong-un, the 30-year-old grandson of North Korea’s founder and “Great Leader,” is now threatening to turn Seoul, the rich and bustling capital of South Korea, into “a sea of fire.” American military bases in Asia and the Pacific are also on his list of targets.

Kim knows very well that a war against the United States would probably mean the destruction of his own country, which is one of the world’s poorest. His government cannot even feed its own people, who are regularly devastated by famine. In the showcase capital, Pyongyang, there is not even enough electricity to keep the lights on in the largest hotels. So threatening to attack the world’s most powerful country would seem like an act of madness. 

But it is neither useful nor very plausible to assume that Kim Jong-un and his military advisers are mad. To be sure, there is something deranged about North Korea’s political system. The Kim family’s tyranny is based on a mixture of ideological fanaticism, vicious realpolitik, and paranoia. But this lethal brew has a history, which needs to be explained.

The short history of North Korea is fairly simple. After the collapse in 1945 of the Japanese empire, which had ruled quite brutally over the whole of Korea since 1910, the Soviet Red Army occupied the north, and the US occupied the south. The Soviets plucked a relatively obscure Korean communist, Kim Il-sung, from an army camp in Vladivostok, and installed him in Pyongyang as the leader of North Korea. Myths about his wartime heroism and divine status soon followed, and a cult of personality was established. 

Worshipping Kim, and his son and grandson, as Korean gods became part of a state religion. North Korea is essentially a theocracy. Some elements are borrowed from Stalinism and Maoism, but much of the Kim cult owes more to indigenous forms of shamanism: human gods who promise salvation (it is no accident that the Reverend Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church came from Korea, too).

But the power of the Kim cult, as well as the paranoia that pervades the North Korean regime, has a political history that goes back much further than 1945. Wedged awkwardly between China, Russia, and Japan, the Korean Peninsula has long been a bloody battleground for greater powers. Korean rulers only managed to survive by playing one foreign power off against the other, and by offering subservience, mainly to Chinese emperors, in exchange for protection. This legacy has nurtured a passionate fear and loathing of dependency on stronger countries. 

The Kim dynasty’s main claim to legitimacy is Juche, the regime’s official ideology, which stresses national self-reliance to the point of autarky. In fact, Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, were typical Korean rulers. They played China against the Soviet Union, while securing the protection of both. Of course, this did not stop North Korean propagandists from accusing the South Koreans of being cowardly lackeys of US imperialism. Indeed, paranoia about US imperialism is part of the cult of independence. For the Kim dynasty to survive, the threat of external enemies is essential.

The fall of the Soviet Union was a disaster for North Korea, as it was for Cuba; not only did Soviet economic support evaporate, but the Kims could no longer play off one power against another. Only China was left, and North Korea’s dependence on its northern neighbor is now almost total. China could crush North Korea in a day just by cutting off food and fuel supplies. 

There is only one way to divert attention from this humiliating predicament: propaganda about self-reliance and the imminent threat from US imperialists and their South Korean lackeys must be turned up to a hysterical pitch. Without this orchestrated paranoia, the Kims have no legitimacy. And no tyranny can survive for long by relying on brute force alone.

Some people argue that the US could enhance security in northeast Asia by compromising with the North Koreans – specifically, by promising not to attack or attempt to topple the Kim regime. The Americans are unlikely to agree to this, and South Korea would not want them to. Apart from anything else, there is an important domestic political reason for US reticence: a Democratic US president cannot afford to look “soft.” More important, even if the US were to provide such guarantees to North Korea, the regime’s paranoid propaganda would probably continue, given the centrality to Juche of fear of the outside world.

The tragedy of Korea is that no one really wishes to change the status quo: China wants to keep North Korea as a buffer state, and fears millions of refugees in the event of a North Korean collapse; the South Koreans could never afford to absorb North Korea in the way that West Germany absorbed the broken German Democratic Republic; and neither Japan nor the US would relish paying to clean up after a North Korean implosion, either. 

And so an explosive situation will remain explosive, North Korea’s population will continue to suffer famines and tyranny, and words of war will continue to fly back and forth across the 38th parallel. So far, they are just words. But small things – a shot in Sarajevo, as it were – can trigger a catastrophe. And North Korea still has those nuclear bombs.

 

Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College.

 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "
Jun 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " While many conservative Republicans opposed Trump and saw that he posed a danger to their party and democracy itself, they were hesitant to buck the mass movement they had created, fearing that it would turn against them. Some of these same conservatives assumed that with Trump's defeat, the horror of January 6th, and the former president's banishment from social media, the time had come to restore sanity to their party. But the GOP leadership’s continued cowering in the face of what they now call "Trump's base" has caused them to circle the wagons and purge their ranks of those who call for sanity. "
May 26th 2021
Editor's Note: This article is about the Federal Reserve, inflation in the 1970's, and possible similarities to today.
May 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Netanyahu claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews around the world, including me, despise Netanyahu’s racist politics. As an American, I am also deeply troubled by the US government’s knee-jerk support of Israel. Fortunately, I am not alone in this view. A growing number of Democratic Congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, have called on the United States to stop supporting Israel’s lawlessness. The truth is that the US government’s uncritical support for Israel has come to depend more on evangelical Christians, such as former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, than on American Jews, who are deeply divided by Netanyahu’s actions. And the evangelicals’ real interest in Zionism is not Jews’ security, but Armageddon, the end of the world, which they believe will come only when all Jews are in Israel."
May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."