Amid all the Western panic at the prospect of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, the hereditary Communist monarch of the Hermit Kingdom, wielding a nuclear arsenal, we would be well-advised to take a chill pill, as Kim Sunn-joo – a Korean travel agent cited in this piece on the "crisis" – advises:
"I see this test as North Korea’s marketing strategy. They just seem to be playing games. I wouldn’t say that South Korea is completely free of danger, but I don’t think we are any more in danger than we were before. People here are used to these kinds of threats.”
Okay, so they’re playing games, but what kind of games – and what is the prize?
There are two theories about this. The first is that the North Koreans are desperate to normalize relations with the West, insofar as the most secretive, repressive, and downright loopy neo-Stalinist regime on earth can hope to achieve some semblance of normality.
Essential to understanding the comic-opera belligerence of the North Korean regime is the fact that the Korean War never ended: a truce was declared, but the formalities of ending the conflict have never been performed. South Korea refused to sign the Korean War Armistice Agreement, and the two sides are technically still at war, after all these years.
To the North Koreans, who are especially prickly and sensitive when it comes to matters of "face," this is a living issue, one that has a definite effect on their behavior in the present. Any U.S. president who entertains the idea of resolving the ongoing series of crises that erupt on the Korean peninsula with clock-like regularity has to be prepared to revisit this entire issue of the war that never officially ended.
It is clear that the Korean question, if it is to be resolved, cannot be approached militarily. No one, not even the nuttiest neocon, contemplates attacking the North and effecting "regime change." This leaves negotiations, but the problem here is twofold.
First, the U.S. has insisted on dragging other nations into the talks, so that we have the so-called Six-Party Talks: the North, the South, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Russians, and the U.S. Predictably, however, these talks have gone nowhere fast, partially because the North insists on dealing directly with its real antagonists, who are still occupying South Korea after all this time. Pyongyang wants to deal directly with Washington, and one can hardly blame them: after all, the current president of the U.S. has declared that he’ll talk directly to the Iranians, a step that no U.S. chief executive has taken since U.S.-Iranian relations were broken off in the Carter years. Why not the North Koreans? After all, Kim Jong-il is no crazier than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – or, at least, it’s a horse race.
Secondly, a new factor has recently entered the equation, and that is the apparent incapacity of Kim Jong-il, 66, said to have suffered a stroke last August. These reports call into question his role in policymaking decisions and raise the issue of just who is in control of North Korea’s nuclear program. You can’t negotiate if there’s no one to negotiate with.
Which brings us to the second theory about why Pyongyang is popping up like a grotesque jack-in-the-box, every few months, with a new outrage against international order: it’s all about internal North Korean politics and the question of who will succeed Kim Jong-il as the next "Dear Leader." To understand what may be going on inside the notoriously closed society of North Korea, it is necessary to give a little context.
The North Korean regime was created by the Soviet Union after its armies "liberated" the North from Japanese occupation at the end of World War II. There weren’t a whole lot of Communists who lived in the North – the membership of the official Communist Party was largely confined to the southern, urban regions – and the Soviets had to make do. The regime and the Communist (Workers) Party of North Korea were basically cobbled together out of a number of various and often competing communist organizations, some with roots in China, others with roots in the South, and others coming directly from the Soviet Union as translators and "advisers." A fourth group, the smallest, was associated with the future "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung‘s Manchurian guerrilla campaign against the Japanese, which eventually was defeated. Kim Il-sung fled to the Soviet Union until he arrived back in his home country via a Soviet destroyer and was installed in power by the Red Army.
These four factions balanced each other out in the early years of the regime, when the cult of personality around Kim Il-Sung was in its infancy and had yet to tighten its grip on the party and the nation. This rough parity was upset, however, in 1956, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev launched an ideological "reevaluation" of the Stalin years at the CPSU’s 20th Party Congress. His famous speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes sent shock waves through the international communist movement. The Khrushchevite critique of Stalin could be easily applied to the cult that was developing around Kim Il-sung, and the remnants of the Soviet and Chinese factions within the North Korean Workers Party took the opportunity to raise their heads. At a meeting of the party cadres, Yun Kong-hum, a member of the Soviet faction, rose to give a speech attacking the Kim Il-sung personality cult. The leadership, however, was prepared: he was met with a chorus of jeering, and his words were lost in the tumult. Shortly after the meeting, he and his factional cohorts fled to China. Those who stayed behind were purged from their party positions, and a great many were taken out and shot.
It was at this point that the North Koreans began to go their own way and veer out of the Sino-Soviet orbit. Convinced that Beijing and Moscow were trying to control events in North Korea, Kim Il-sung began to play a delicate balancing act, resisting pressure from his Communist allies to moderate his policies and subtly playing off one against the other. This strategy was greatly facilitated by the impending Sino-Soviet split, which began to go public in 1957.
The idea was to isolate North Korea from "foreign" influences, namely the Soviets and later the Chinese, both of whose supporters within the North Korean Workers Party were systematically purged, imprisoned, and executed over the years. Yet there was a problem with this strategy, embodied in Juche, roughly translated as "self-reliance": the country was and is desperately poor, and this policy of self-isolation only exacerbated a situation that has, today, become nearly intolerable.
When Khrushchev greatly reduced Soviet aid to Pyongyang – which amounted to around 30 percent of the government’s gross receipts – the country plummeted into an economic free-fall from which it never really recovered. Today, North Korea teeters on the brink of famine, which has already claimed many thousands of lives, and the people are literally eating the bark off of trees.
Now, every regime, no matter how tyrannical, depends to a large extent on the consent of the people. What prevents them from rising up and overthrowing their oppressors is the conviction that they’re being protected from a much greater danger, and, in North Korea’s case, it’s the bugaboo of foreign occupation. Draconian economic sanctions imposed by the West reinforce this general impression and give the regime’s insistence that the Americans and South Koreans are about to invade enough credibility to increase the public’s tolerance of Kim Jong-il’s antics.
This is what gives President Barack Obama’s recent comments on the latest crisis a darkly humorous tone. He said that the world has got to "stand up to North Korea." The truth, however, from a North Korean perspective, is precisely the opposite: in their view, it is North Korea that is standing up to the world. So much of the Western commentary on the North Korean issue notes that the nuclear test generated firepower equivalent to the blasts that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki – acts carried out by the United States against a prostrate Japan. It is certainly not lost on the North Koreans that the U.S. could just as easily rationalize a similar attack on yet another nation of yellow-skinned people.
In spite of all the hysteria surrounding North Korea’s nukes, and the rather perfervid and technically dubious assertions that they’re capable of launching a ballistic missile attack on Alaska, or even Los Angeles, the reality is that we represent more of a credible threat to them than they could ever hope to mount against us. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is primitive, and they couldn’t construct a nuclear weapon that is stable and usable for years to come, if ever. We, however, could wipe them off the map, if we so chose, and therein lies the key to understanding their crazed course.
They are like those suicide bombers who face an enemy they cannot possibly hope to defeat in conventional warfare, yet there is a difference: Pyongyang must convince us that they are ready, willing, and able to strike, without actually doing so, because a military conflict would almost certainly deprive them of power. However, in order to keep that power, they must convince the populace that they are surrounded by enemies who are just about ready to invade. The war threat keeps the population in line and effectively prevents any repetition of the 1956 factional rebellion that openly challenged the Juche regime.
So what does the West do? After all, who knows what crazed course Kim Jong-il will take? He seems erratic, at best, and, what’s more, there seems to be a new faction arising in the military, hardliners who want no compromise with the West and are prepared to go to war if that’s what it takes to maintain the stability of the regime.
The only rational policy is to avoid provocations at all costs. Nothing justifies going to war, and it is unlikely that the North Koreans are so completely out of it that they’ll launch a first strike on the South – which would incapacitate the entire Korean peninsula. A strike at Japan, which the Japanese greatly – and rightly – fear is probably not in the cards, either, although I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. What’s more probable, however, is a Chernobyl-type nuclear accident involving the North’s nuclear facilities. Their program is primitive and their scientific prowess less than reassuring. This is a disaster just waiting to happen – which is one good reason why some sort of rapprochement is imperative.
The West, however, holds a trump card that requires no action on their part, and that is the inherent instability of the regime. No matter how much it inveighs against the "Western plot" against North Korea’s independence and economic well-being, it is the regime itself that is the real obstacle to the nation’s development. North Korea is a giant pressure cooker just waiting to go off, and, left alone, it will explode. It’s only a matter of time.
The explosion, when it comes, as it did in East Germany and the rest of the Soviet bloc, will bring down the heirs of Kim Il-sung and toss the regime into the dustbin of history. The social chaos that ensues will naturally spill over into the South, as well as China, and the repercussions will be severe – but far less life-threatening than a military conflict, which will plunge the entire region into an abyss it will take many years to climb out of.
The U.S., under Bush, consistently blocked attempts by the North and the South to come to some kind of accommodation. Our policies have clashed with the deeply ingrained nationalism of the Korean people, and the history of our collaboration with despotic Southern rulers is a long and shameful one. Pressure on the regime to give up its nuclear program only yields defiance. The best we can do is wait and let nature – in the form of a natural human resistance to intolerable conditions of privation and repression – take its course.