The Telegraph, 16 April, 2017
There are two questions which at some point occur to every Western observer of the North Korean government. The first is: are they serious? The second is: are they utterly mad?
Donald Trump’s threat this weekend of a pre-emptive strike if North Korea carries out any new nuclear tests has raised tensions on the peninsula to a level unseen since the Korean War. Many have sought to blame him for it. But in truth, the so-called Democratic People’s Republic has made such a confrontation inevitable with its persistently outrageous behaviour.
For this rogue state it is not enough to threaten the world with nuclear war. Nor is it enough to bombard us with hyperbolic language, such as the promise last year to turn South Korea into a “sea of fire”. No, North Korea also seems to lack the moral compass of even the most hardened criminal states. It has, to list only a few transgressions, mass-produced and smuggled illegal narcotics through its diplomatic carrier bags; counterfeited international currencies on an industrial scale; abducted non-Korean citizens to help train its spies; been implicated in the black market arms trade; and carried out high-profile assassinations in other countries.
For most Europeans the concept of the concentration camp seems a dark relic of history, but according to a UN report there are 80,000 to 120,000 inmates still languishing in North Korean camps as you read these words.
It is tempting to attribute North Korea’s behaviour to crazed ideology. It is the last hold-out of 1930s Stalinism, and some say it out-Stalins Stalin himself. But despite all the trappings of a Soviet state – the “people’s army”, the party bureaucracy, the secret police – it is also a neo-Confucian feudal kingdom, with a leadership in its third generation. It uses a Kantian concept of “willpower” as a mobiliser of the people, pushing its citizens to any sacrifice or hardship and ensuring their compliance with a cradle-to-grave secret police state.
Yet there is method to the madness. The regime’s rhetoric and posturing derives from its origins as a small partisan group, trained by the KGB to fight larger, better equipped foes such as the Japanese army, which brutally occupied Korea from 1910 until 1945.
Donald Trump’s threat therefore fits perfectly in the regime’s narrative. And that narrative leads it to respond to said threats with the most aggressive rhetoric possible. It routinely escalates things to a level no other state would dare. It previously threatened nuclear war in 2013 when the UN Security Council approved new sanctions.
The rest of the world has become used to this behaviour and has adjusted its expectations accordingly. So the answer to the question “are they serious?” is no, not entirely. While we should not dismiss the danger, this is ultimately brinkmanship in the inimitable DPRK style.
Such is the regime’s paranoia, however, that no amount of American diplomacy has persuaded it to let go of its fears. Bill Clinton’s effort in 1994 was said to have been undermined by a secret parallel DPRK uranium enrichment programme. The 2003 Six Party Talks failed because the North Koreans would not allow independent observers to verify the deconstruction of their weapons.
Barack Obama attempted a moratorium on long-range missile tests, but the North Korean diplomats stormed out of the room after learning that their “innocent” satellite launches would also be prohibited. Each time a new US administration has approached the issue, the same regime has been looking back.
Then there is China. Beijing has subtly undermined every Western attempt at diplomacy or sanctions so far, either watering down sanctions at the UN or watering them down at the border where trucks and ships regularly cross as part of a black market which helps sustain the North Korean economy. China has intervened to prevent sanctioning of the companies involved, and recent demonstrations of stopping coal shipments were merely cosmetic. The most egregious example was in 2012, when Chinese-built mobile missile launchers took part in a military parade in downtown Pyongyang in full view of international journalists.
Contrast this behaviour to that of the USA during the Cold War, when it stopped South Korea and Taiwan from obtaining nuclear weapons. For the Americans, China’s reluctance to rein in the DPRK has put regional security in jeopardy. So Mr Trump’s game is clearly to approach this mess as China’s problem, and make it put pressure on its treaty ally – perhaps to halt its nuclear programme.
But would North Korea accept such a deal, even if China were to offer it? Probably not. Seeing the fate of Libya as instructive, North Korean officials point out the dangers in believing in Western assurances. After all, their human rights abuses outshine those of the Gaddafi regime by some measure. Nor is it clear that Kim Jong-un can persuade the military to disarm. While the Kim family is at the top of the pile in North Korea, they buy the military’s support through the Songun ideology, which means “military first” when it comes to allocation of resources. Without it, the Kims cannot govern.
This is the ultimate block to any agreement. Hwang Jang-yop, the most senior North Korea official to defect, once alleged that the military’s primary raison d’être was to unify Korea, by force if necessary. Its generals are true believers in this cause. From that perspective, nukes change everything. With them in play the USA might not risk using its own nuclear weapons if the North invaded the South. So nuclear weapons are essential to maintaining even the ghost of a credible invasion threat – and if Kim Jong-un backed down on that, how long would he last in power?
This is a question we may soon see answered. But it helps explain why the North Korean leadership are at least not completely mad. When it comes to the power of the atom, they are tragically, dangerously sane.