In February, 2013 former NBA basketball start Dennis Rodman traveled to North Korea to view an exhibition basketball game and meet with the country’s new leader, Kim Jong-Un. Rodman called him “my friend” when he returned to the United States. Kim Jong-Un is said to be an enormous fan of the NBA. Joking on his late night program Conan O’Brien said, “This week, Dennis Rodman and six former pro basketball players will travel to North Korea to play the top North Korean basketball team. My advice to Dennis Rodman: lose.”
It was later explained to Rodman that North Korea had threatened to destroy the United States and operated one of the most vicious prison camp systems in the world. One of those imprisoned was missionary Kenneth Bae, who was sentenced to 15 years hard labor for taking photographs of homeless children in North Korea and running missionary visits inside the country from China. Rodman tweeted his new friend Kim Jong-Un on May 7, 2013: “I’m calling on the Supreme Leader of North Korea or as I call him “Kim”, to do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose.”
This event was merely one episode in the North Korean opera that’s been taking place for almost seventy years. The internet is filled with memes ridiculing the nation and its leader and it’s tempting to do nothing more than laugh at the pictures of him surveying North Korea’s armed forces or the ridiculous propaganda that the regime feeds its people, among them that the hamburger was invented by Kim Jong-Il and that the same leader scored eighteen consecutive holes in one the first time he played golf.
As the saying goes, “it would almost be funny, if it wasn’t so sad.” North Korea may be the most repressive regime in the world and one capable of inflicting serious harm to its neighbors and the entire world. No other government with nuclear weapons poses such a threat, save Pakistan. United States diplomacy and engagement has been unable to make any inroads on the situation in the last twenty years and with the regimes number one goal being survival, normal sticks and carrots have lost their effectiveness.
What is the likely endgame in North Korea? Does any kind of optimistic scenario for future peace exist? And what options does the United States really have in preventing future destruction?
From Guerilla Fighting to Juche
Perhaps a short history lesson is valuable in teasing out North Korean motivations.
After already bringing Korea into its orbit, Japan annexed the peninsula in 1910 and it remained under Japanese control until after World War II. During 1931 a staged explosion gave Japan a pretext to invade the Chinese province of Manchuria. A young Korean named Kim Il-Sung joined the Chinese Communist Party and began fighting in guerrilla units.
As the War began pointing to a conclusion, the United States wanted Soviet help in defeating Japan in order to limit causalities, since it was not yet certain that atomic weapons would be available for use. An agreement was reached for Korea to become a trustee of the United States, the Soviet Union, China, and Great Britain. Kim Il-Sung became the Soviets choice to lead the area of Korea under their control. Kim made the decision to invade South Korea in 1950 in an effort to unify the peninsula under his control. After initial military success, a United Nations contingent led by the United States reversed the course of the war. In the end, no territory changed hands.
At the time of the armistice that ended the Korean War, living standards in both north and south were comparable and more heavy industry was located in the north. The south did not outpace the north economically for a very long time, and aid from the Soviet Union meant that statistically, a North Korean citizen did not live much worse than a South Korean. Although at one time it would have been accurate to call North Korea a Soviet client that gradually changed as Kim drifted further and further from the Soviet orbit, a process mostly completed by the time the country’s 1972 constitution was drafted.
The 1972 constitution was saturated in the concept of “juche,” which most simplistically refers to self-reliance. It is an attempt to make compatible concepts that cannot be reconciled. Socialist revolutions, particularly Marxist ones, are intrinsically international in nature. The internationalism of Marxism was one of its primary separators from the nationalism of fascist ideologies in the twentieth century. “Juche” is actually a Korean translation of the word “subject,” but not in the sense that Korean citizens are expected to be subjugated to the Kim family (although they are), but in reference to how Marxist theory treats the terms “subject” and “object.” A good part of the Marxist critique of capitalism was that it raised “objects,” or things above people by putting commerce at the center of society. So, at its most basic meaning, “juche” refers to “subjects” or people, as being the basis of North Korean society and the power within them to work together without need of assistance from any other nation. It was a clever sleight of hand, at least among sociopaths, in transposing the socialism from North Korea’s founding into the beginnings of a nationalistic personality cult that was closed from outside influences.
“Juche” also informed economic planning by placing an emphasis on self-sufficiency. North Korea significantly increased its industrial output in the 1950s and 1960s in much the same way that the Soviet Union did – by force-feeding huge amounts of capital to manufacturing as well as forcing employment on Koreans. For a period of time, the North was far more industrialized than the South.
Increasing the mystique of the Presidency, scores of myths were concocted about Kim’s life and abilities and children were taught to emulate him from the time they attended school in a way a Christian would be taught to emulate the life of Jesus or Muslim Muhammad.
Meanwhile in South Korea
Life was not rosy in South Korea in the years after the armistice. It too was run by an authoritarian regime. That regime was led by Syngman Rhee. Under the guise of anti-Communism, Rhee stifled dissent and was guilty of numerous human rights violations including torture and extra-judicial executions. Protests against Rhee caused him to go into exile in 1960, then a 1961 coup placed the military in charge of the country.Against this turmoil lay the seeds of South Korea’s transformation to a global economic power-house. The government invested heavily in private enterprise throughout the 1960s and gradually a boom took hold that was contemporaneous to other booms in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Market forces propelled the country to wealth as South Korea’s extremely educated population was put to work and the South Koran government made economic development its primary focus.
Against this turmoil lay the seeds of South Korea’s transformation to a global economic power-house. The government invested heavily in private enterprise throughout the 1960s and gradually a boom took hold that was contemporaneous to other booms in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Market forces propelled the country to wealth as South Korea’s extremely educated population was put to work and the South Koran government made economic development its primary focus.Up until around 1975, standards of living in North Korea and South Korea were comparable. That year the typical North Korean earned the equivalent of about $2,800 per year compared to $3,100 in the South. As North Korean growth stagnated and South Korea’s boomed, the gap started to grow wider by the year. Today, the typical South Korean earns an income twenty-two times that of a typical North Korean. Population growth has also run slightly higher in the South, with growth between 1950 and today of about 153% compared to 140% in North Korea. That may not be a lot, but when combined with the increased living standards, means that South Korea’s economy is now forty-four times as large as North Korea.
Up until around 1975, standards of living in North Korea and South Korea were comparable. That year the typical North Korean earned the equivalent of about $2,800 per year compared to $3,100 in the South. As North Korean growth stagnated and South Korea’s boomed, the gap started to grow wider by the year. Today, the typical South Korean earns an income twenty-two times that of a typical North Korean. Population growth has also run slightly higher in the South, with growth between 1950 and today of about 153% compared to 140% in North Korea. That may not be a lot, but when combined with the increased living standards, means that South Korea’s economy is now forty-four times as large as North Korea.
Collapse of the Soviet Union
Everything changed in 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed. Communist and Soviet-aligned countries had to re-examine their identities and forge a new path forward.
China elected to use the Singapore model of development that uses a free market system in conjunction with authoritarianism in social matters. North Korea went a different direction and introduced the policy of “songun” to complement “juche.” Essentially, “songun” elevated the military above all other state institutions.
Revolutions make authoritarians nervous and the Kim dynasty is concerned more for their existence than any other factor influencing decision making. Previously, possible retaliation from the Soviet Union protected Kim from being deposed or invaded. The country suddenly seemed extremely vulnerable. Military spending soared and now reaches one-third of total GDP compared to less than 3% in South Korea. Nuclear capability was added in 1994.
Is there any kind of optimistic scenario for North Korea? It’s hard to see one. The regime would not go down without a fight and before it could be defeated, it could launch nuclear weapons and significant chemical stocks at Seoul. Economic sanctions have had little effect as the elite are unaffected and the population is largely ignorant of better things.
The best strategy may be to encourage more of a dialogue between North and South Korea as well as forge stronger tied between Japan and the peninsula, although that would not be easy to do.
It is also not easy to find a consensus on what would happen if the regime would topple. Immediate absorption by the South, requiring huge transfers from South to North, is not palatable to Seoul. Losing a buffer is not palatable to China. That means, for the time being, the only realistic option seems to be the one being pursued – take a tough line and hope the course of history works in your favor.
Entangled in the “strategic patience” approach are two, perhaps contradictory, aims: regime change and denuclearization. The more the world pushes for regime change, the less likely denuclearization becomes. So far, President Trump’s approach has been a tough line, but squarely aimed at denuclearization. Time will tell if that singular approach is more likely to accomplish its goal. An in-tact North Korea with no nuclear weapons is probably the only worthwhile option for the world in its dealings with North Korea.