A Preconceived Notion: The past, present, and future of North Korea

It is two and a half minutes to midnight.

So looms the current bulletin of the Doomsday Clock, an analogous and morbidly fascinating representation of our proximity to global nuclear disaster, the dreaded hour of midnight. Maintained since 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board, the Doomsday Clock provides an explicit, if not uneasy understanding of just how precarious our existence is – not only as nations, but as living beings. Two and a half minutes is the closest the world has been to midnight since the early 1980s, when all communication between the two Cold War superpowers ceased and tensions reached an icy peak. It is the closest it has ever been to the most dangerous year in the Doomsday Clock’s history, 1953, when the USSR began testing hydrogen bombs and the clock was set to two minutes to midnight. When people speculate as to why we now find ourselves so close to conflict today, the reasoning normally includes talk of a volatile, unscrupulous national leader, unblinkingly followed by his supporters, overtly concerned with nationalistic preservation and personal gain. Whether that critique refers to Kim Jong-un, ‘Dear Leader’ of North Korea, or Donald Trump, the contentious president of the United States (US), depends on the analysis, and the analyser. All that is known is that increasingly larger-scale atomic weapon tests by North Korea, compounded by capricious rhetoric from Trump, has resulted in the closest brush with nuclear war the world has seen in decades. Late last month, North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho accused Trump of declaring war on North Korea – an ironic statement, being that the US has technically been at war with North Korea since 1950. A peace treaty was never officially signed after the Korean War, and only a temporary cease-fire has been in place all these years. Since its creation, North Korea has established a unique image for itself: an elusive nation, a hyper-communist, indoctrinated military state, committed with an agenda against Western powers, specifically the United States. Most of the West believes in such a North Korea, but why? This view is in fact dangerous – plagued by inconsistencies and based on preconceived notions that may push the world even closer to large-scale conflict. If the problem of US-North Korea tensions is to be addressed, one must first understand how this image of North Korea evolved. Only then can the future be addressed.

After the Second World War split Korea, newly liberated from Japanese colonisation, between Soviet Russia and the United States, Cold War tensions constrained the two countries from ending what was supposed to be a temporary political hold. While the United States established a ‘pro-western dictatorship’ in South Korea, the Soviet Union installed Kim Il-sung, pro-communist guerrilla fighter meant to unite the nation and give communism a second foothold in the east. In an attempt to fulfil this duty, Kim Il-sung invaded South Korea, and after three years of brutal war the border between the two countries remained at the 38th parallel. In the aftermath, Kim Il-sung began creation of the powerful propaganda machine that still rules North Korea today, establishing dogmatic and eccentric rule of law, and using extreme military order and immersive propaganda to make the hyper-cohesive state. The North Korean ideology of Juche, or ‘self reliance’, is normally used to describe the communist state’s workings; yet, such ideology did not work for long. As support from the Soviet Union dwindled, and eventually extinguished with its fall, the North Korean state suffered a severe economic depression in late 1990s, in which 500,000 people died. And yet the state persisted, as did practical worship of the new ‘Dear Leader’, Kim Jong-il, son of Kim Il-sung. By 2009, before Kim Jong-un’s rise to power in 2011, North Korea had already detonated two nuclear bombs. By 2016, five bombs had been detonated, each with increasing power and accuracy. Kim Jong-un established himself as even more eccentric than his father, murdering family members and propagating an even more efficient propaganda machine. Although always targeting the US through indoctrination, Kim Jong-un’s recent clash with President Trump has given North Korea, already a paranoid nation, ample reason to feel pressure for a strike. Although lacking the missile-delivery technology, North Korea could still inflict terrible devastation on surrounding countries, and nothing about its leader’s character says that he will not do just that.

Image courtesy of Roman Harak via Wikimedia Commons, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Roman Harak via Wikimedia Commons, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Propaganda Poster in Pyongyang 

While this is the accepted rhetoric, there are a few crucial things that must be addressed. Many of the problems with this account stem from the way the West views the cultural evolution of North Korea. The first has to do with the aforementioned ideology of Juche. While North Korea operates as an economically communist state, many have come to believe, particularly North Korea propaganda expert Brian Myers, that their propagandistic ideology is more a holdover of Japanese fascism than Stalinist communism. The political climate resembles much more that of far-right states, and Myers has noted that North Korean government policies are extremely xenophobic and racist. Juche, according to Myers, is a propaganda lie told to trick foreigners. This has been contested, but in any case, it is true that Juche is only a small part of a complex cultural system that is focused on the worship of a singular government figure, xenophobic misunderstanding of the outside world, and most importantly, one heavily-sanctioned nation’s struggle through destitute poverty. This is the aspect that is so commonly obfuscated by Western rhetoric, most tellingly US Senator John McCain’s ‘crazy fat kid’ comment. North Korea is not crazy, and neither is Kim Jong-un. The country is simply poor and extremely insecure, threatened by some of the world’s most powerful nations. Kim Jong-un is not an irrational madman, and in fact some have said that he is the only truly rational actor in regards to his feud with Trump. On a more individual level, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof heard some very rational criticism of Trump during his recent trip to North Korea. Citizens spoke of Trump as a ‘crazy man’, a ‘thug’, and a ‘pathetic man with a big mouth’. These are not the eccentric and hyperbolic criticisms one would expect from a ‘crazy’ nation. North Korean citizens are just people – indoctrinated and oppressed, but not insane.

So why is this important, and how does this affect the future of the conflict? Understanding the cultural shift of a nation, as well as its drives, is important to understanding how conflict can be avoided. Trump has ignored the vast majority of historical aspects that make North Korea such a dangerous nation, apparent by his inflammatory and targeted Tweeting that has only entrenched North Korea’s image of the United States as an aggressive nation. Years of sanctions by western states has severely hurt the North Korean economy, but its far-right economic policies, including massive military spending and lavish government budgets for higher-ups has in part led to another devastating famine. Poverty, insecurity, and possession of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction makes North Korea extremely dangerous, and not to be trifled with. Trump’s direct approach, his promises of ‘fire and fury’, most likely will not work. Mark Bowden, in an article for The Atlantic, has outlined four broad foreign policy approaches that the US could take in response to Kim Jong-un. According to Bowden, ‘all of them are bad’. They include ‘prevention’, a massive military strike aimed at taking out North Koreas military, weapons, infrastructure – essentially Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ – ‘turning the screws’, a smaller, more targeted attack to eliminate more direct threats yet not spark retaliation, ‘decapitation’, the removal of Kim and his inner circle via assassination, and finally ‘acceptance’ – according to Bowden the ‘hardest pill to swallow’. While still seeking preventative measures, allow Kim to develop weapons and pursue his interests. Most of these options would result in massive casualties, not only in the Korean peninsula, but to American lives as well. A full scale strike would trigger ‘one of the worst mass killings in human history’ as the intel would never be perfect and there most likely will always be a contingency weapon in Kim’s possession, set to go off at even the smallest hint of an assault. The only option that does not result in mass death is acceptance. North Korea still operates on the cold war idea of Mutually Assured Destruction – as a rational actor, they know that use of their weapons would result in their destruction, and therefore probably do not want to use them. If the US were to tone down the drums of war, something that may hurt the pride of many Americans, North Korea may do the same thing. The solution is not fool-proof, and North Korea’s hatred of the West, compounded with Trump’s capriciousness, will continue to be a problem. But a diplomatic problem is preferable to global nuclear war. After all, planetary destruction is something only a madman would want – and North Korea is not that.