They call it the Hermit Kingdom: ruled over by a dynasty of ostensibly communist despots who have established the world’s only Marxist monarchy, North Korea is a mystery wrapped inside an anomaly. News of the inner workings of the regime is sporadic, unreliable, and contradictory: not only that, but we in the West lack the context to extract meaning even from those events which are confirmed. Therefore any conclusions about what is happening there are necessarily uncertain: keeping that in mind, however, one thing is clear enough – something big is happening among North Korea’s political elite.
To begin with, the country’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, hasn’t been seen in public for over a month. He failed to show up for the opening session of the country’s rubberstamp parliament, and a documentary shown the same day on state-controlled media depicted him a week or so earlier inspecting a factory – and noticeably limping. Also noticeable: the pudgy little dictator has apparently put on even more weight, and isn’t looking at all well. In response to rumors about the Dear Leader’s health, North Korean state media openly admitted Kim is experiencing "discomfort" – the first time they’ve ever commented on the 31-year-old despot’s rumored physical ailments.
Not that Kim’s sudden disappearance is unprecedented: he’s vanished from public sight before, although never for this long. So this fact alone is not definitive. As John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, put it: "These episodes reveal as much about us as them – our own assumptions, even obsessions, when it comes to North Korea. We assume North Korea must be on the brink of collapse, so when the young leader suspends his relentless ‘onsite guidance visits’ for a few weeks, we assume he’s been overthrown."
Yet there is much more to the story than Kim’s failure to show up when he’s expected: word has reached the West that entrance and exit permits into Pyongyang, the capital, have been revoked – an indication that there is genuine fear of a coup. And all of this takes place against the backdrop of an ongoing purge directed at followers of the late Jang Song Thaek, Kim’s uncle, and until his execution earlier this year the regime’s number two man. In addition to a long list of crimes, Jang was accused of plotting to overthrow the regime and install himself in power: his entire family was reportedly arrested and executed as well, and the purge is ongoing.
To add even more drama to this scenario, three top officials of the North Korean regime recently showed up in South Korea for the last day of the Asian Games – including the new number two man, Hwang Pyong So, recently elevated to the vice-chairmanship of the all-powerful National Defense Commission. The delegation met with their South Korean equivalents in Seoul, and, shortly after the visit, the North announced that reunification talks would reopen, with the first meetings to be held in late fall.
The rumor-mill is working overtime to make sense of these events, and all sorts of speculation is being put out there. Word is out that Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo-yong, is now effectively in charge of day-to-day affairs of state. A group of high level North Korean defectors say there has been a coup in progress for many months, with senior military and party leaders no longer taking orders from Kim and in effect establishing a military junta with Kim as their front man.
This may be reading too much into recent events, but there’s one fact that has been generally overlooked, and which is the real driver of recent events: China and the Pyongyang regime are on the outs. A recent campaign against the "dogs of China" has been unleashed in the wake of the Jang Song Thaek purge. Defectors from the ranks of the regime claim that the purge was provoked by "the discovery during interviews with Jang Song Taek and his followers that they had met frequently and maintained close relations with members of Chinese intelligence."
Jang was in charge of the special economic zones set up by the regime in cooperation with the Chinese to encourage economic development: these were a source of precious foreign exchange, which was put in Jang’s hands. His downfall was a blow to the reformers – a relative term in the context of North Korean politics – who lobbied for more consumer goods as opposed to the official "military first" policy upheld by the regime to date. According to unconfirmed reports:
"The [North Korean National Security Agency] has been holding ‘criticism sessions’ for any and all Party, national institution and military cadres who had worked in China or visited the country on a frequent basis for personal or official reasons. These criticism sessions are aimed at investigating whether these cadres worked with the Chinese intelligence services. The NSA has made no exceptions for anyone involved in Chinese affairs. The investigation has reportedly been kicked into higher gear as dozens of cadres in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Trade, and those involved in the military’s foreign currency earning activities are suspected of being ‘dogs of China.’"
There are many confirmed reports indicating that Sino-Korean relations are less than comradely: in the recent greeting issued by the Workers Party of North Korea on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China the flowery rhetoric of past messages was omitted. More ominously, the Telegraph reports that a crack division of the North Korean army was pulled away from the Demilitarized Zone and put on the border with China in mid-August:
"North Korea has transferred one of its newest and most modern armoured units to the border with China, in the latest indication of the depth of the rift between the two erstwhile allies.
"An estimated 80 tanks of the 12th Corps of the North Korean People’s Army have been reassigned to Ryanggang Province, the strategically important frontier region that shields North Korea’s east coast ports, including Wonsan.
"South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that no tank units had previously been stationed in the province and that the 12th Corps has been reinforced with an armored infantry unit, artillery sections equipped with multiple rocket launchers and brigades trained to carry out ‘special warfare.’ Formed in 2010, the unit has the specific task of repelling Chinese troops in the event of an incident in the border region."
China has been North Korea’s closest ally since the seizure of power by Kim il Sung in 1948. Yet a relationship that has always been rocky hit some major shoals as the Chinese leadership changed direction after Mao’s death and Pyongyang decided to push ahead with the development of nuclear weapons.
The Sino-Korean conflict dates all the way back to the early years of the cold war. Both Mao and the Soviet leadership were critical of Kim Il Sung’s internal policies, especially the periodic purges and hard-line stance taken by the Workers Party against the slightest hint of outside interference: in 1956 they decided to get rid of him.
While Kim was in Moscow getting an extended lecture from Nikita Khrushchev on the necessity of moderating his position, supporters of both China and the Soviets inside the Workers Party plotted to launch a coup at the August plenum of the Central Committee However, Kim got wind of the plot and managed to delay the plenum, gaining time to ambush his opponents, who were shouted down when the meeting finally proceeded and summarily expelled from the party.
The "Yanan faction," as the pro-Chinese group was called, fled the country: those who didn’t were executed. And while the Chinese and Soviets remonstrated with Kim, who promised to halt the crackdown, the "Great Leader" as he was known by then, failed to deliver on his pledge and wound up either jailing or murdering the nominal "President" of North Korea for being too close to Beijing.
Given this background, the murk surrounding recent events begins to clear, and we can discern the vague – and still developing – outlines of what is happening in the Hermit Kingdom.
It’s important to keep in mind the deep-seated "isolationism" of the North Korean regime, which long ago moved away from Marxism-Leninism in order to embrace "Juche," or self-reliance, the "Korean road to socialism." North Korean political commentaries are largely bereft of references to the Marxist classics and are instead chock full of citations from the works of Kim il Sung, Kim Jong-il, and their hagiographers – a weird mix of personality cultism, ultra-nationalism, and outright mysticism. While paying lip service to the "internationalist" traditions of Marxist thought, the regime’s polemicists continually harp on the absolute necessity of self-reliance – economic autarchy – and the "military first" policy which throws most of the nation’s fast-shrinking economic resources down the sinkhole of the military budget.
This horrific distortion of North Korean society – which has led to periodic famines and the deaths of many thousands – is a direct result of the Korean war and its aftermath, which left a very proud nation not only divided but continually threatened by the outbreak of a war that hasn’t officially ended. There was never any peace treaty: only an uneasy armistice that has shown frequent signs of breaking down.
China’s unhappiness with the North Korean regime has been apparent for years: periodic stoppages of food and fuel imports from China have been Beijing’s only means of reining in its obstreperous allies. This, along with China’s increasingly public annoyance with Kim Jong-un over his resumption of nuclear testing, has led to a belief inside the North Korean elite that Beijing has betrayed them – and so the events of the so-called "August Faction Incident" are being reenacted in Pyongyang.
This explains the surprise visit to the south by Hwang and two other top North Korean officials, and the sudden announcement that reunification talks are to resume. Rather than allow the Chinese to penetrate the North economically and politically, the fiercely independent upholders of Juche are playing their one and only trump – the reunification card. By appealing to their Korean brothers in the south, they are hoping to avoid Chinese domination, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, loosen the American grip on Seoul. Their proposal for reunification is based on the Hong Kong model of "one country, two systems," i.e. the North would keep its authoritarian oligarchy in place, while formally "reuniting" with the South in a kind of vaguely defined symbiosis.
In spite of the vagueness of the North’s official position, there is much sentiment on both sides of the border for reunification under any terms. This was underscored during the Bush years by Seoul’s so-called "Sunshine policy," but the real progress that was being made was fatally undermined by the Americans, who sabotaged it at every opportunity.
Much has been made of the alleged danger of renewed war between the north and the south, which would drag us in as well, and this has been underscored by Pyongyang’s persistent missile tests and nuclear brinkmanship. Yet the real danger is that an armed conflict will break out between Pyongyang and Beijing – a possibility that would not only throw Washington’s policy for a loop, but would also fundamentally change the situation on the ground in the two Koreas.
In that event, the sentiment in favor of the peninsula’s reunification would be even stronger, provoking an outburst of nationalism – and anti-Chinese feeling – in the south, and increased sympathy for the embattled north.
This would shred Washington’s policy, and its relations with Seoul, and render the alliance with the Americans almost irrelevant, and in any case an obstacle to the long-sought goal of reunification.
Washington, as usual, is totally unprepared for any new development that calls the conventional wisdom into question. That dubious "wisdom" consists of our enduring cold war policy which views the Korean conundrum as just another "frozen" conflict, one destined to retain its original shape into the indefinite future.
Yet things are coming to a head on the Korean peninsula, and not in a way that any of our policymakers could have predicted, given their frozen-in-time cold war perspective. An administration that wasn’t obsessed with the Middle East and had some analysts on board who knew something about the North Korean regime would now be preparing to arrange for a peaceful outcome to a very dicey and delicate situation. One would think that with all the talk of an "Asian pivot," the Obama administration would be all over this – but no. Instead, our Middle East obsession continues to distort US foreign policy so that we ignore real threats, inflate marginal ones, and are continually ambushed by events and forced to simply react.
The best thing this administration could do would be to get out of the way – out of the Koreans’ way, that is, as north and south negotiate the terms of reunification. Koreans yearn, above all, for independence – that has been the leitmotif of political currents on both sides of the DMZ since the end of the Korean war. "Juche" isn’t just something that Kim il Sung thought up in an idle moment: the concept of self-reliance is deeply ingrained in Korean history and culture.
The 30,000 US troops in Korea are merely sitting ducks, waiting for the day when Pyongyang launches a massive attack – possibly including the use of nuclear weapons – resulting in equally massive US casualties. This isn’t a policy – it’s a tradition, a useless and highly dangerous one. Those troops should be withdrawn, pronto, and the Korean people should be left to determine their own fate, without any interference from Washington. This would pave the way for a united and strong Korea, one fully capable of resisting Chinese domination – and a potential partner in building a lasting peace in Eastasia.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.