Deciphering the DPRK

Deciphering the DPRK

International Politics Reviews, 12 December 2013 In-this-October-1945-photo-from-North-Koreas-official-Korean-Central-News-Agency-communist-leader-Kim-Il-Sung-chats-with-a-farmer-from-Qingshanli-Kangso-County-South-Pyongyang-in-North-Korea.-Korean-Central-News-AgencyKore-960x528

Over the years, North Korea has probably received more crisis news coverage in the global media than any other country. This due partly to the nature of the situation on the Korean Peninsula – a frozen conflict – and the incremental development of the North of nuclear weapons. Counted as one crisis, it has lasted nearly 20 years, since North Korea threatened to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1993. This past year, 2013, has been no exception with a large amount of international media coverage of the most recent crisis, which began with the North’s satellite launch in December 2012 and was followed by a UNSC Resolution in January. This in turn was followed by the North’s third nuclear test in February, US-ROK military exercises and the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Zone. Despite the alarmist tone of the coverage, the escalating levels of Northern rhetoric, and the use of B52 bombers in Foal Eagle 2013 by the United States, there seemed little new to those habituated to North Korean crises. Indeed, 2013 iteration seemed to play itself out in a familiar and formulaic manner, repeating a cycle that was evident in the 2010 crisis, the 2009, the 2006 crisis, as well as the 2002-3 crisis. The only difference – thus far – between this time and previous iterations has been the response by the People’s Republic of China, which has appeared to take a harder line over the third test by supporting UNSC sanctions and stopped a number of Chinese banks from dealing with the North.

Often as not, much of media coverage of North Korea seems to obscure rather than reveal the nature of the regime. The dominance of the security narrative prompted by the annual cycle of missile launches, nuclear tests, and other provocations shoulders aside narratives on human rights, economic reform, and North Korean societal issues. Certainly those issues get a mention by popular media, but this is usually merely as reference points to the larger security narrative. This monopoly that the security narrative has on the popular media shapes the view and work of various Western agencies of government, think tanks, and, of course, academia. The introverted and isolated nature of North Korean society and its inability to mobilize Western media to its own narratives mean that the country has long been reduced to generalization and caricature of the regime. As Lankov states, “for the vast majority of Americans and Europeans, North Korea is a nuclear device.” (Lankov, 2013, p.146)

This tendency to characterize North Korea as monolithic is justified by its totalitarian nature. It appears difficult if not impossible to treat social and political issues separately from, say, military issues in the North Korean context, largely because of the huge role the military has in the country, both as mobilizer of human capital and as shaper of security-nationalist narratives. Furthermore, there is the bias that the outside world has towards such a regime. With the world’s worst record of human rights, it is difficult for Western scholars and experts to study the country without some emotive response. How can one be impartial about a state that continues to run gulags and death camps? The totalitarian completeness of the state and the ‘insidious’ coercive and ideational tools for coercion also make it difficult to know whether acceptance (by the public) is the same thing as support for the regime. While understandable, this response adds to the muddle that characterizes analysis of the regime and distorts policy choices.

Fortunately for those who wish for a deeper analysis of North Korea, there is a strong canon of scholarly work that sheds light on the nature of the regime, some of which is reviewed in this study. Nearly all authors represented in this review agree that North Korea is indeed a riddle, but that it can be explained by examination of its internal logic. Furthermore, they all agree with the thesis that its economic failures are not an accident of its political system, but the direct result of the system. Cha, Lankov and Eberstadt are clear that in Pyongyang, politics trumps economics, with dire consequences. The regime alternates between bouts of reform, why has it not followed the example of its communist benefactors in Moscow and Beijing by either collapsing or truly accepting economic reform? Gause, Lankov and Cha agree that reforms have always been halfhearted because of the fear that they will engender loss of political control. (Cha, 2013, p.213), while Zumwalt, suggests that hunger may even be a means of control for the regime (Zumwalt, 2012, P.233). This use of hunger as a tool of social manipulation resonates with the permanent state of war used in 1984 for social control.

This article will examine three facets of North Korea examined by the literature, which correspond roughly to politics, economics and security.

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