As the year draws to a close, I can’t but wonder how many more years will pass before we see the demise of the last bastion of Stalinism – the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea a.k.a. North Korea. I suspect it won’t be all that many, for things are coming to a head.
Korea was referred to as the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ by 19th-century Western adventurers owing to its seclusion.
Late 19th century Korea: an official being carried about in a ‘sedan chair’
The very late 19th century saw stirrings of modernisation paralleling developments in China and Japan. The Korean Empire was proclaimed in 1897, but the Japanese invasion of the peninsula in 1910 effectively turned Korea into an outpost of the Empire of Japan. After WW2, Korea found itself the rope in a tug of war between communism and the free world, and did what ropes do when put under too much strain – break in two. The South became a staunch Western ally while the communist North pretty well went back to the ‘hermit’ tradition after the Korean War with their policy of Juche (self-sufficiency). Not that they’re at all self-sufficient – the Chinese could pull the plug on them any time by stopping the movement of basics such as foodstuffs and fuel oil across their common border.
The way the place is run is strongly reminiscent of Stalin’s Soviet Empire. There is the Party, there is the military, and then there are the rest, in descending order. There is hardly a civilian economy to speak of. The country can’t even feed its own people, and dire poverty and hunger are the norms outside the capital Pyongyang, where of course the ruling class reside. On the government website, they call it a ‘socialist fairyland’, and no doubt it is for that lot. The country is replete with gulag-style concentration camps for those deemed undesirable by the political elite. A damning report a couple of years ago revealed that prisoners resort to eating rats to stay alive, and torture is commonplace.
The absolute ruler of this warped totalitarian state is Kim Jong-un. He was educated at a classy private school in Switzerland but minders ensured that he didn’t socialise with the students from the decadent West. I’ll call him Emperor Kim III given that he’s the third of the Kim dynasty – his grand-daddy took up where the last head of the Korean Empire left off, and the Kims have always regarded themselves as the rightful rulers of the South as well. The military top brass are his henchmen, but like Comrade Stalin, the ‘Dear Leader’ makes sure that those beneath him remain insecure about the safety of their own hides; the tiniest sign of disloyalty may lead to dismissal or worse. As the BBC reported earlier this year, informers will rat on anyone who stops clapping too soon after he has spoken, which amounts to a black mark against the impertinent and thereby potentially treacherous party.
Information flows within and out of the place are anaemic and, where they do occur, are elusive or distorted. A great deal goes on behind the scenes that the most astute Western observer can only speculate about. North Korean ‘news’ broadcasts can be a surreal experience for the watcher or listener as the tone of the delivery ranges from the manic to the hysterical, sometimes verging on the clinically insane. Some ‘news’ items are in the realm of morbid fiction, especially those depicting the supposed horrors of the world outside the Socialist Paradise. (I recall one item many years ago about NZ and Australia going to war – maybe they’d heard about the 1981 underarm bowling incident J.) The North Korean people at large are constantly reminded that the evil West is intent on destroying them and they have to be grateful to their courageous leaders for keeping the aggressors at bay.
This is one shockingly awful system that won’t be imploding any time soon – the regime’s hold on power is far too strong. Occasionally, we do see signs of internal discord, such as in 2013 when Emperor Kim’s uncle Jang was dragged before a kangaroo court (a ‘special tribunal’ of the Ministry of Internal Security…… says it all, doesn’t it?), made a ‘confession’ about having plotted an act of treason, and was then promptly executed. But as long as the Chinese prop it up, the place will continue on its present path leading to nowhere.
Despite a string of hitches of an almost comical nature – test missiles disintegrating minutes after being launched, and nukes only a bit of which goes off – North Korea is slowly but surely inching towards its goal of being able to attach a nuclear warhead that actually manages to explode to a long-range ballistic missile that actually manages to make it to its target. That would bring the western seaboard of the US within range. According to experts approached by the BBC, this should be by 2020.
Nuclear missiles fired at Los Angeles or San Francisco would likely be detected and be brought down before they could do any harm, although there’s no guarantee of that, especially if there’s a salvo of them. Missiles fired at Japan or Guam would have a much better chance of reaching their destination, and the odds are probably in North Korea’s favour if the target is Seoul.
In any of these cases, retaliation would almost certainly be immediate and devastating. The South Koreans announced in September that they had a plan to reduce Pyongyang to ashes – “remove it from the map” – should there ever be a nuclear strike on them. And you can imagine how the Yanks would react to a hit on them, or even a thwarted one. The dice appear to be loaded against Emperor Kim and his merry men. Why then are they so intent on developing a nuclear arsenal including long-range ballistic missiles? Does Emperor Kim III really think that he can take on the US? The joker is a power-crazed megalomaniac, but even he can’t be that crazy. And surely his generals aren’t total fools and must have dropped some heavy hints about the likely consequences of biffing nuclear-armed missiles around.
Various commentators have made much of the Dear Leader’s ego and the regime’s burning desire to be admitted to the nuclear club, but I suspect the reason for the build-up may be more pragmatic: the North Korean regime wants to avail itself of a deterrent against an American use of nuclear weapons in the event of a resumption of hostilities on the Korean peninsula.
Such a scenario would involve over a million men supported by thousands of heavy tanks and artillery and rocket units flooding into the South across the DMZ (demilitarised zone) and from there on to Seoul just a proverbial stone’s throw away. The US military ran a simulated North Korean invasion on their computers a few years ago and the news was not good – predictions were that Southern defences would be rapidly overpowered and the invaders would have Seoul at their mercy within days.
The temptation for the Americans to use tactical nuclear weapons under those circumstances would be immense – a handful of Hiroshima-magnitude battlefield nukes would turn the situation around. But that would constitute a ‘first strike’ which would give Pyongyang the right (as they see it) to retaliate in kind. There’s a fair chance that one or two of even their crappy missiles would make it to their destinations, and the North Koreans will be banking on the Americans not taking that risk – which would leave Pyongyang with the upper hand in a war fought with conventional weapons.
Of course, the Americans might use the tactical nuclear option anyway, and threaten to unleash strategic nukes – multi-megaton jobs – should the North Koreans retaliate. One thing seems clear enough: things could get out of hand very quickly should this scenario begin to materialise. It is surely in everyone’s interests to see to it that it doesn’t.
‘Everyone’ includes China, the only power on Earth that has any sway over the clique in Pyongyang. But the Chinese will need some powerful incentives to put the dampers on North Korea. As long as they regard the place as a buffer between them and neighbours within the Western sphere of influence, they’ll continue providing the life support Emperor Kim III needs, whatever pretentious noises they make at the UN Security Council about North Korean nuclear testing. And now that the pressure is on Beijing following the Court of Arbitration judgement regarding the South China Sea, their influence over Pyongyang gives them leverage with the West – hassle us over our maritime claims and we might not be so willing to bring Pyongyang to heel when they’re getting bolshie. At the same time, China’s geopolitical interests would not be served at all well by a satellite reduced to radioactive ash.
The ball is in Beijing’s court. The time is fast approaching when they will have to flex some muscle to effect dramatic changes in the Hermit Kingdom. As I noted at the start of this article, the Chinese can pull the plug on North Korea any time they like. In the meantime, it would be a good idea for the Chinese to make it crystal clear to Emperor Kim III that the People’s Liberation Army will not be rushing to the defence of North Korea should he pick a fight with the South and the Americans. It has to be impressed upon the Socialist Fairyland Emperor that while Pyongyang might not have changed much since 1950, Beijing has.
Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and is a regular commentator on social and political issues. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org