Breaking news of the development of an ICBM capable of reaching most of the continental United States has once again forced the world community to grapple with yet another “existential” threat to the globe’s only remaining superpower. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), more popularly known as North Korea, is the world’s most isolated and one of its most brutal totalitarian states.
The people of North Korea do not enjoy any of the civil liberties enjoyed by even the most repressive of regimes – such as freedom of thought, let alone conscience, religion, choice, and the right for self-determination in governance. Indeed, the people of North Korea are so isolated from the world and its iconography that aid bags to the DPRK do not need to scrub away the US flag or MADE IN THE USA from their packaging because the vast majority of North Koreans have no idea what their sworn enemy’s flag looks like. Indeed, so great is their isolation that they would be unlikely to point out the United States on a map of the world or even identify the most basic of facts about the USA. So extreme is their isolation that the raison d’etre of the state itself is a phantasm – a conjured apparition of the propaganda apparatus that neither corresponds to nor conforms with reality in any way.
Aid workers marvel at the blatant display of aid from other lands, but especially from the United States, thinking, surely, in this most repressive of states, they must be careful to show they are receiving aid from their sworn enemy? Such is the difficulty one encounters when trying to imagine a level of repression this extreme that does not arise from an illiterate populace. North Koreans are far from unintelligent, however, as their missile and nuclear weapons development programs have demonstrated to the world.
Their relentless focus on this technology coupled with a drive for recognition on the world stage has made this communist relic a foe of asymmetrical proportion to its enemy the United States of America, which has consumed itself with the “War on Terror” for the past decade while the DPRK developed advanced missile systems and honed their nuclear weapons technology. Many analysts like to point out the United States vast military superiority as a reason to not fear the DPRK, but this would be a misleading comfort.
The United States displayed vast military superiority in the first Korean conflict as well as in Vietnam. To compare the two situations, Vietnam or the first Korean war with the present is inaccurate. Strategy must account for close to seventy years of intense brainwashing in preparation for this war which the North Koreans expect at any moment. This level of fanaticism is not something normally encountered with a potential military foe and would something novel for the modern era whose closest incarnation to this kind of relentless bloody dogma in recent times would be the Islamic State, but even their murderous ways would not be odd in North Korea which has perfected state punishment and abuse of its citizens.
North Korea was formed in the aftermath of World War II when the Allied Powers divided the once-Japanese-occupied Korean peninsula in two, much as the Allies did with Germany. The Soviet-controlled North became a communist state under the leadership of Kim Il-Sung, grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-Un, and a powerful personality cult was established surrounding Kim Il-Sung which persists in full force to this day. In a bid to reunify the peninsula under communist rule, Kim Il-Sung launched the Korean War in a gambit that would have far-reaching ramifications for history.
The record is unclear as to whether Stalin supported or denied support to Kim Il-Sung for his plan, but there is no doubt that the North was way more prepared to wage a war of invasion against its southern neighbor than the South was to fend off such an attack. Without Soviet assistance, North Korea invaded South Korea and nearly conquered the whole country until United Nations Allied Forces arrived and engaged with North Korea, driving them back into North Korea and as far as the Tumen River with China. At this point, Mao’s People’s Republic of China dispatched what it called “volunteers” to the Korean front and helped North Korea drive back the UN Allied Forces. At this time in history Mao’s China was unrecognized by the United Nations, so at the UN China was represented by what is now Taiwan, or the Republic of China.
This ability to operate outside of the United Nations framework is what allowed Mao to come to North Korea’s aid without starting World War III – something Soviet intervention may have caused. In a famous story, the Soviet delegation left the UN meeting in protest when the invasion of South Korea by North Korea was discussed, leading to the UN’s authorization of an Allied task force to repel the invasion, an event that would not have happened had the Soviets not left the meeting and exercised their veto power. Mao’s China, allied with North Korea, and the United Nations Allied Forces fought to an armistice which remains in place to this day.
North Korea’s state was rebuilt under the auspices of the USSR with massive Soviet aid leading to conditions that were in many ways better than in the South. North Korea maintains Stalinism to this day and many of its rituals and political practices hearken back to this time. The overwhelmingly repressive state apparatus was perfected under Kim Il-Sung’s son, Kim Jong-Il who also took the country on a military first path and emphasized the development of weapons for the nation’s survival. Known for his brutal rule, Kim Jong-Il employed brinksmanship negotiation strategies to force major powers to the table and used these incidents to extract aid to prop up his regime’s power.
The dream of “reunifying” the peninsula did not die with the Korean War and remains a salient goal of the regime today, though more as a frontispiece to a larger operation that is consumed with regime survival. Its population, in addition to being brainwashed, is routinely brutalized for the smallest infractions of North Korean law and any independent organization, thought, or movement is immediately identified as a threat to the regime.
That is why it is so important for the nations of the world to engage North Korea on an economic level. North Korea’s isolation allows these conditions to persist, but their dependence on the outside world for the basic necessities of survival mean they need the outside more than the outside needs them. Many critics wish China would do more, but since China is North Korea’s principal economic partner, why would China want to relinquish power over North Korea? Or encourage the collapse of a regime that would lead to the United States, a global foe, to move into the vacuum with South Korea?
The world needs to engage North Korea through bilateral economic ties. Aid in exchange for deep integration would force the North Korean government to begin interacting on more levels with outside forces. This in turn would allow for the spread of new influences and ideas on multiple levels.
If North Korea can slowly become dependent on a wider array of goods and services from the outside world, the centrality of the Kim cult becomes less potent. Eventually, any threat the Kim regime poses to these material supply line would make enemies of multiple state actors instead of the upper echelons, which are much more easily disposed of by the Kim regime. Bringing North Korea out of the shadows and engaging with them as a normal state will either force them to become a normal state through economic pressure or lead to their collapse. The only way to any type of life in North Korea is on the Kim-family path, and there are no alternatives. Helping the nascent market economy that is rumored to be developing within North Korea would do far more harm to Kim Jong-Un’s rule than further isolation would.
Economic integration and interaction on deep levels, beyond aid and sustenance, will bring North Korea into normality or lead to its demise. Either way, the pursuit of military action, whether bilaterally or unilaterally, will lead to the deaths of many innocent people and the continued policy of isolation will only create greater conditions for the Kim regime’s survival.
If you’d like to read up on the situation in North Korea and learn how utterly brutal and terrifying that country is based on either compiled research or first-hand accounts, then the following books are for you:
This book examines the daily lives of many of the upperclass members of North Korean society and a studied look at how their society functions.
The harrowing tale of an escapee from one of North Korea’s brutal state-run gulags. Imprisoned since birth, this tale of human suffering is sure to leave an impression on the reader.
This book is comparable to Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and was compiled from stories written inside the regime. Being caught writing such accounts is grounds for the death penalty within North Korea.