North Korea: Paper Tiger or Apocalyptic Threat?

The Dear Leader and the Great Leader posthumously survey their subjects.

If you’re like me, you have been following the current unravelling of relations on the Korea peninsula with the feeling of both trepidation and dread. Having only been alive since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it has been jarring to suddenly live in a world where one might open The New York Times one morning to discover that Los Angeles or Tokyo no longer exists. Yet this is the state of affairs that we have returned to; two nations threatening each others’ populations with total annihilation — the destruction of millions of lives, goals, hopes, dreams and relationships, all triggered by a single nuclear chain-reaction, delivered atop an ICBM. And whilst some analysts seem to remain fixed to the assumption that Pyongyang does not yet possess a working missile and re-entry vehicle, it would seem imprudent to act upon it, given the geographic proximity of both Seoul and Tokyo, both cities with populations in the tens of millions.

A cool and refreshing antidote to this atmosphere of uneasy terror is Andrei Lankov’s book The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia. Lankov knows his subject intimately; a former citizen of the Soviet Union, he attended Kim Il-Sung University in 1985, whilst the founder of the North Korean state was still ruling in Pyongyang, and is now a professor of history in Seoul. In the book, he rightly focuses not on the North’s bellicosity in the international sphere, but on the condition in which the average North Korean has lived since the end of the Korean War and the solidification of the regime’s grip on power. Of course, things have improved marginally since the death of Kim Il-Sung in 1994; small markets in rural areas are now permitted, and hungry soldiers will now often accept a bribe as an alternative to enforcing some of the more draconian laws. Yet the repression of free-thought and speech, the total authority of the Supreme Leader, from whom all blessings flow and to whom all praise should be directed, the arbitrary arrests and prisons camps, and the hideous sŏngbun caste system — by which one’s loyalty to the regime is determined by heredity, meaning that if one dissents, generations of one’s children and grandchildren will be brutally punished, and often denied access to basic rations — these features of Kim Il-Sung’s vision all remain, making the lives of average North Koreans a horrifyingly dull nightmare. It is partially for this reason that, like the totalitarian society George Orwell envisioned in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the regime must constantly shift the focus of its citizens’ attention to a perceived external threat; from the ruling elites’ point of view, North Koreans should be focused on the spectre of foreign invasion, rather than on the regime itself.

Lankov, however, identifies a further purpose to Pyongyang’s nuclear brinkmanship. Unlike China, it is unlikely that North Korea would be able to successfully implement market-orientated reforms — thereby reviving its long-floundering economy - and still keep the Kim Dynasty in power. The reason for this is the existence of South Korea, a country with a shared language, culture, and — to a relatively large extent — national identity, yet with grossly higher life expectancy, per capita GDP, affluence and general engagement with global culture. The reform of North Korea would suddenly allow its citizens to make an objective comparison with the average life of someone living in the South, unfiltered by state-controlled media, and the regime rightly fears that this comparison, when made by a substantial portion of Northerners, could be a fatal blow to its political standing. As such, income for the state has to be generated by any and all means that do not require reform, and the Kims have found that an effective way to extract funds from South Korea and the United States is to manufacture a crisis, and then demand aid and money to restore the status quo. The first instance of this “aid maximising-diplomacy”, as Lankov calls it, was launched around 1990, when North Korea began to rattle its sabre and make noises about pulling out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This resulted in the “Agreed Framework” treaty in 1994, which granted the North a hefty payout in exchange for monitoring of its nuclear facilities. Sitting here in 2017 with hindsight, we can see exactly what that monitoring bought us…

What does this mean for the current high tensions and nuclear stand-off? Well, for one thing, we can be sure that Kim Jong-Un is a rational actor, insofar as he will likely not make any move that will prove suicidal, such as a preemptive strike on Seoul or Guam, nor is he likely to posses pseudo-religious ideas about glory and martyrdom. We can therefore be fairly sure that his own survival is forefront in his strategic calculations, which means that the tried and true Cold War logic of deterrence will likely contain the regime. This in itself, however, does not make war impossible, nor even unlikely. A miscalculation could always lead to an escalating spiral of reprisals and revenge, or Kim’s ambitions for unification could get the better of him, leading him to seize a swathe of territory in the South, and then do what Saddam Hussein later said that he wished he had done in Kuwait; namely, seize the territory, and then threaten anyone who tried to reverse the annexation with a nuclear weapon.

However, what appears most likely is that the current crisis has been manufactured by the North (by their stepping up of missile and weapons tests) in order to test the incumbent President of the United States, a step that Pyongyang likely considers necessary given President Trump’s hawkish stance on China, the only country Pyongyang could even remotely consider an ally, during the election campaign. This brings us to the other side of our subject nuclear equation; President Trump himself. One should remember that a large part of the US nuclear arsenal remains at “launch-on-warning”, and that the President retains the power to unilaterally order a nuclear strike by way of the “nuclear football”, a briefcase that follows the President wherever he goes. Congress would not hear of such an order before the missiles were on their way. Given this, and the President’s fairly obvious disconnect with any reality not centred around himself, Pyongyang’s experiment is likely far more dangerous than they realise. China seems to be in agreement, and, not wanting to have American nuclear warheads flying their way, have stepped up implementation and ratification of further sanctions on the regime in response to their weapons tests. It remains to be seen whether these sanctions will have the biting effect desired by the Security Counsel. One thing remains certain, which is that the situation cannot continue in this way for too much longer. Whether Kim Jong-Un’s regime will collapse from pressures external or internal, by means of peace or war, is the most important remaining question.

Andrei Lankov’s book:

I received no payment or sponsorship for this review.