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From Hermit Kingdom to Rogue State: When Will the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea be a Welcome Member of the World Community? [ 2006.07.24 ]

Like a sore on your face that will not heal, or a mosquito that continually buzzes around your head, the thorny issue of what to do about North Korea just refuses to go away. This is for the most part simply because the nation itself won’t sit quietly long enough to allow other world members to forget its presence. Considering it is a country still officially at war one supposes it ought not to be forgotten about for any length of time by those that make it their business to be involved in global affairs, and this is why many of the world’s most influential states keenly observe the goings on in Pyongyang. It just so happens that the bulk of these same observers neighbour the troubled state, which perhaps can be viewed simultaneously as a good and bad thing. Good in a sense that those who are troubled by Kim Jong-Il’s policies can at least feel that they have a better vantage point from which to view the actions of the dictatorship, much like keeping your friends close but your enemies closer. Alternatively bad if things come to a head militarily and you find yourself an “arms throw” away from danger. In a political world filled with ideological clashes the DPRK is a genuine thorn in the side of the perceived utopia that is western-style democratic capitalism, and where once communist Korea stood proud with its Chinese and Russian allies it’s now finding itself increasingly left out of a world that wants liberal trade and a global economy. Whether or not globalization is in itself a good idea, it is real and it is here and states have two choices; give it a try, even if by twisting the model to suit their own desires, or avoid it completely. In Juche the North Koreans have an antiquated political system that simply cannot bend to the ways of modern trade and thus they must by default choose to opt out of the current style of relationship building between nation states. Frustration, fear, and denial all set in when one finds the cornerstone of your very being is crumbling at the edges, and this must be how Kim Jong-Il and his Korean Worker’s Party feel today. Like a caged tiger being whipped into a corner, the DPRK’s response to the machinations of world economic and political leaders is to strike out at the perceived oppressors. This is why the North Korean Army tests missiles periodically without batting an eyelid. They are simply trying to gain attention and respect by flexing metaphorical muscle, saying to anyone who cares, “We are not afraid of you and we are brave enough to prove it”. Ironically their military hardware never quite completes its tests successfully, in a striking parallel to the DPRK government which also cannot finish what it began in 1947, the reunification of the peninsula under Pyongyang’s leadership. So what does the Dear Leader and his Generals have to do to be left alone by the United States, Japan, and others, in order to live out their existence on their own terms? Well for a start they have to abandon Juche, they have to give up the long lost hope of reunifying the peninsula under their direction, they have to get over the pain and the fear of their past and future dealings with Japan, and they have to be made to realize that the United States by itself is not an enemy, rather just another player in the game of life who no more wants to control Korea than it wants to eat kimchi daily for breakfast.

It seems one of the first things one has to understand about the DRPK is that, rather bizarrely, its current status as an isolated land is entirely self-imposed. Despite appearing to many outsiders as an historical brother of communist China and the USSR, the Marxist-Leninist leaning Koreans of the day were evolving into their own unique breed of political thought, one that took a patriotic turn towards what it meant to be a Korean of that time. Self-sufficiency in all aspects of governance, including the economy and armed defense, was at the heart of this newly generated socialism, and this essentially meant pushing Moscow and Beijing away as the DPRK looked to establish itself as a fiercely independent socialist paradise, no just an ideological pawn of its northern and western neighbours. The theory may have seemed foolproof at the time but in practice Juche has proved disastrously deficient as a system of governance, culminating in the millions of ‘unofficial’ deaths throughout the 1990’s brought about by famine. Whilst the United Nations continually attempts to provide relief in the form of food aid this is merely a token gesture. Like trying to heal a severed arm with a band-aid it is outrageously inadequate and does not address the problem at its source i.e. why was the arm severed in the first place, so to speak. The secondary issue often mooted by foreign observers is how much of the aid actually reaches its intended target, the starving masses? The astutely cynical point out that sustaining the world’s fourth largest army takes a lot of food and since Juche is underpinned by a self-sufficient defense theory then feeding the army means feeding the DPRK. If you asked Kim Jong-Il if he would rather lose an armed soldier or a rural peasant the answer would be pretty clear, so unfortunately in a non-transparent regime the end result of aid may be to fuel the problem not solve it. Even if the DPRK military is propped up from time to time by foreign aid can the leadership not see the failings of Juche. If you have a deficient agrarian sector and are too poor to import adequate stocks, then how can you be considered self-sufficient? What is more, if the whole world can see this, how can the North Korean leadership fail to? Of course they don’t, but they are so steeped in their ideological ways, in their Nazi-era Germany style administrative brainwashing, that they refuse to recognize their own system’s failings. Any man can say when he is right but only a truly courageous man can say when he is wrong. Unfortunately the Dear Leader is not this man.

And so does the North honestly still pursue a policy of reunification centred on Pyongyang having control of the entire peninsula? Well according to the DPRK official website the policy is to “Destroy the Wall”, the man made concrete structure that has physically divided the two Koreas since 1977 onwards. That’s it. That is the entirety of the DPRK’s web based propaganda to deal with reunification. It is hardly a detailed plan of how to reunite some 72 million people from largely different socio-economic backgrounds. Beyond this simple rhetoric the Korean Workers’ Party still holds true to its policy of filling the entire Korean peninsula with the Juche ideology thus establishing one unified and communist Korea. Apparently the North sees the US as an imperialist needing rid of from all Korea. Only then in their view can the “People’s Democratic Revolution for National Liberation” take place signaling the beginning of a new single Korean state. So basically this is the DPRK’s wish list:

1) To be rid of the US presence in the ROK
2) To have installed a pro KWP/Communism government in Seoul
3) Have this government cede all powers to the KWP
4) Rule over a single communist Korea

While wish number one may be realistic enough, simply removing the troops of America cannot remove 50 years of ROK military indoctrination by US forces. Likewise where will a pro-communist political party emerge from in the Republic? Are the leaders in Pyongyang so blind that they cannot see the hopelessness of their plan? There is simply no way they can achieve their goals peacefully and thus must abandon the policy of reunification on their terms. If the DPRK can truly never relinquish their Juche ideology then the best they can hope for is a two-state Korea with something resembling close to normal diplomatic, trade, and migratory relations with their southern brethren. Short of this the stalemate can only continue.

Another stumbling block to North Korea being more accepted by the world community lies in its deep seated hatred of Japan and the US. There are more than reasonable grounds for the people and government to be resentful of these two nations however both the former and the assumed would be colonizer should no longer be viewed with suspicion over imperialistic designs. Unfortunately the citizens of North Korea are not allowed to see things this way as it appears one of the ways Kim Jong-Il deceives his people into supporting his government is to play on long held fears that one day Japan would try and re-conquer its former occupied territory or similarly that the US will attempt to take over. What the leader spectacularly fails to grasp is that the West doesn’t trade in bullets anymore. Any desire by Japan or America to interact with the DPRK would be purely on an economic trade level. This would surely lead to the allied states gaining from North Koreans as any trade partner gains from another but that is how modern global politics has evolved. One nation gives and receives from another and ideally all parties gain in some respect. In a Stalinist state however the people only know that which their government lets them so it is hopeless to think that the men and women of the North will ever be able to appreciate the benefits of having normal relations with not only Japan and the US but the rest of the planet. To the world the DPRK has no enemies, but to the DPRK the entire westernized world has become one giant opponent. Despite what the North Korean leadership may believe, the United States and others do not wish to control the Korean Peninsula, at least not militarily. They may desire to be more ideologically aligned perhaps, but unlike in Iraq where there is oil, the blood supply of industry up for grabs, Washington has no desire to occupy the North. They would simply like to see the DRPK, Juche-oriented or otherwise, relax its threatening stranglehold against peace across the region. The White House does not ask or expect Pyongyang to jump into line and create a liberal capitalist state overnight. All the Asia-Pacific desires first and foremost is for the DPRK to relax its stance on maintaining a threatening regional policy. The rocky and turbulent path to a united or at least friendly Korean peninsula will take many more years of hard walking but the first step would be a DPRK military back-down and a resumption of regular diplomatic ties. Unfortunately to Kim Jong-Il a request to halt military expansion is tantamount to threatening an invasion.

One could argue that the only reason the nation has not collapsed to date is the continual intervention of China which is thought to provide around 70 percent and 40 percent of the DPRK’s fuel and food imports respectively. The humanist should congratulate China for not allowing millions of innocent people to go through the tragic conditions of absolute poverty, but the realist should see that China’s actual aim is to keep alive a state that may be its only genuine political friend, the only other east-Asian nation not seen to be in bed with the US. So whilst on one hand China is treading the seemingly inevitable path towards full-scale capitalism it holds Pyongyang dear to its chest with respect to historical ties of ideology and future ties of potential military cooperation. No matter how many diplomats smile and shake hands in front of the press galleries of China, the Republic of Korea, and Japan, there is a palpable sense of unease regarding China’s indifference to the west, or more specifically to America. At times China might just feel like Kim Jong-Il could be a genuinely valuable ally, and so the reluctance to really push North Korea forward is obvious. Abandoning Juche must mean embracing capitalism which equates to working with if not appreciating United States foreign policy and the last thing China would want is a North Korean State resembling anything remotely like a follower of US diplomatic instruction. So openly China admonishes the North’s overt testing of weaponry, and it certainly does not wish for war to erupt across the region; however it must secretly appreciate where Pyongyang is coming from in its attempts to fly in the face of American determination. Of course the US-Japan-ROK triumvirate sees things much differently but short of invading the DPRK they have little option but to hold out for a more reasonable administration with which to deal with. Change must come from inside the troubled state as you may lead a horse to water; you may whip, spur, dangle a carrot; but you sure cannot make him drink. If the world we lived in was someone’s high school science project they could start from scratch and make the North Korea of the 1950s avoid Juche and stick much more closely to Soviet or Sino style communism. Maybe the Korean peninsula we all know today would be much less troubled, as the Northern half would resemble perhaps something of contemporary China. As it is 50 odd years of cold war look set to continue between two would be brother countries. Will regime change in Pyongyang bring about a new resolution to a long standing crisis, paving the way for world community acceptance? Only time may be the judge.

By Bernard Laidlaw

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