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Culture Wars: Responding to North Korea

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For nearly half a century, North Korea has been prepared for war. They sit apart from the world, separated by scores of barbed wire and concrete tank-traps in a purported “hermit kingdom.” Existing in a continuous war posture has become the country’s identity, but now tensions are heightening in the region and North Korean’s Asian neighbours fear a recent round of events may provoke an arms race.

Officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the nation utilizes the Juche Idea as its political system. Devised by Communist Kim Il Sung and continued by his successor, his son Kim Jong-il, the Juche Idea requires citizens to pledge absolute loyalty to the country’s ruling party (the Workers’ Party of Korea) and its leader.

Along with the Juche Idea, North Korea’s leaders exploit a “cult of personality” to maintain rule. Kim Jong-il and his father are deified, with innumerable statues and monuments in their likenesses strewn across the country like absurd altars in worship of madness. State film studios crank out propaganda, infusing the culture in a tone of unvarying threat and severance from the rest of the world.

North Korea is a deeply militarized society. The country employs a “songun policy,” which effectively is a “military first” strategy. This forces a great deal of the nation’s GDP to be spent on the military. Aid agencies say that at least a third of North Korea’s population relies on food handouts to stave off starvation, while Kim Jong-il’s government and military continue to be top priority. The songun policy is couched in an attitude of defiance towards North Korea’s neighbours and “enemies.”

Recent news of nuclear tests sent neighbours in South Korea, China and Japan into panic mode. North Korea has also been testing short-range missiles, with new reports of long-range testing planned for the next two weeks further escalating the anxiety.

So what can be done with a nation so entrenched in bizarre ideology that it pits the rest of the world as enemies? How can the interminable surge of propaganda and misinformation be countered? And what are the options for cracking the vigorous, wicked cult of personality of Kim Jong-il and his minions?

There are, of course, no easy answers. North Korea possesses one of the largest armies in the world, but there is much conjecture as to how well-armed the troops actually are. Reports from the border suggest that some soldiers carry wooden replicas instead of actual firing weapons.

South Koreans have lived under the threat from the North since the end of the Korean War. There has been steady fear of North Korea’s actions, with the threat of nuclear war and artillery ever-looming. These latest tests increase tension in the South, especially near Seoul due to its proximity to the demilitarized zone.

The Chinese have long been considered the closest thing the North Koreans have to an ally in the region, although they appear to be having trouble keeping some semblance of control. The relationship appears to be weakening between the two countries, with the Kim Jong-il’s government repeatedly pressing the conception of autonomy and antagonism towards outside powers.

China, once the brokers of the six-nation disarmament talks, is growing tired of North Korea’s antipathy and views their recent defiance of mediation as a sort of last straw. It is in China’s best interest to keep the North Koreans at bay, especially with the likelihood of immeasurable refugees streaming across into China should the regime collapse.

One also must consider the Japanese. Japan and Korea clearly have a bloody history, dating back to the Japanese imperial army’s occupation of Korea around the time of World War II. Some of Japan’s leaders are advocating for a shift in the country’s foreign policy and constitution, moving away from the current pacifist stance and into a greater defensive carriage. Some even call for Japan to develop its own nukes.

It is clear that North Korea continues to threaten Asian stability with its unrelenting threats and testing. A country in a persistent posture of war is difficult to deal with, but a nation obsessed with self-image in a perpetual hostile stance might prove impossible to reason with entirely. There are few options on the table with North Korea, with a would-be “stockpile” of nuclear weapons suspected to be tucked away at Yongbyon.

Some suggest that a “wait and see” position is all that can be really proposed from the rest of the world. Knowing anything material about the North Korean nuclear program is easier said than done, with the preponderance of information gained from propaganda and “official media” sources. Many analysts have suggested that the regime lacks necessary technology, like miniaturizing and hardening for nuclear warheads.

Others, like the United States, are moving forward with a more insistent stance. America recently renewed threats to “stop and search” North Korean freighters in an effort to intercept weaponry that some believe could be headed to the Middle East. North Korea maintains that such action would constitute an act of war.

Should the United States continue on its course of action, it cannot act alone. The Obama Administration is up to its elbows in conflict already and cannot afford engagement, especially with North Korea. A military intervention in the region would be most costly and America cannot attempt any sort of ground engagement. Further aggressive action in the region would also put more pressure on the South Koreans.

In terms of an actual war, North Korea’s best options lie with its incalculable ground troops. The nuclear technology is dubious, while the medium-range missiles aimed at South Korea are substandard to their neighbour’s technology. Any sort of definitive outcome would not be favourable for Kim Jong-il’s establishment, but the civilian costs from North Korean counterstrikes on Japan and South Korea could prove colossal.

While the situation cannot be treated with kid gloves, it is also difficult to avow any sort of attitude in regards to the North Koreans without risk. The intimidating postures of the Obama Administration threaten to toss the over-extended troops into further conflict and this may be playing right into Kim Jong-il’s hands. The leader could be seen as defending his people against the cruelty of the West and the war of idealism, couched in decades of misinformation, would not be easily won by Western forces.

The best possible posture may be no posture at all, at least for the time being. North Korea believes “all the world’s a stage” and Kim Jong-il relies on response from the West and his neighbours to stimulate his substantial self-image. The Juche Idea and his regime’s propaganda thrives on the sort of impetus his enemies can bring through belligerent actions.

The United States and its allies must prove to the people of North Korea that they are not enemies. The West cannot presently assume a hostile, hard-line standpoint due to the risks involved.

The Obama Administration should observe from a distance and should stand down from its aggressive threats in North Korean waters. The international community should press allies to remain guarded and for continued negotiation involving the Chinese. China has twice cut off supplies to the regime, so a similar approach could have an impact as North Korea will not risk conflict with its more powerful neighbours.

Additionally, Kim Jong-il is at a period of transition and will name one of his three sons as a successor. Perhaps the change will open a brighter future for diplomatic opportunity and perhaps cooler heads will ultimately prevail.

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About Jordan Richardson

  • Nice job, Jordan. Nice to see something other than jíbaras on America’s supreme court as a political topic being discussed.

    You did a good job of explaining much of North Korea’s political culture.

    At the moment, it appears that the best possible customer for North Korean technology is some Arab country bent on destroying us in Israel. The only question is whether the Arab country(ies) in question can pony up enough money to pay the North Koreans sufficiently.

    One of the very few westerners who spent extensive time in North Korea, Prof. Stephen Fox, suggested that Israel try to find some way to engage the North Koreans.

    But I have not seen hide nor hair of Prof. Fox in two years or so.