What really is the point of the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea?
I can well remember a left-leaning friend of mine commenting in October 1989 that the impending fall of the communist regime in East Germany would permit a true socialist foil to West Germany. When I pointed out to him that the sole raison d'être of the DDR was to “get in the face” of the west and once the regime collapsed the reunification of Germany was inevitable he seemed at a loss for words as this scenario had not crossed his mind. To his credit he reminded me of my “good call” when it became clear that reunification was indeed inevitable to him but he shouldn’t really have had to consider that as being necessary.
Unfortunately the media was as unsatisfactory in its analysis of realpolitik then as it is now and offered no genuine insight as to the future of the twin German states.
So what does the DPRK stand for? What does it offer that is fresh and challenging? I would contend that there is absolutely no use for this Cold War throwback in today’s world whatsoever. But TV, radio and print media seems unable to comprehend this anachronism. There is plenty of media coverage of the staged rise and rise of Kim Jung-un but there is no really critical examination of what it means. Even seasoned North Korea watchers are only willing to speculate as to who the real power behind the throne might be as opposed to what purpose the throne actually serves.
The real question has to be “Why is North Korea?”
In reality the DPRK is a vanity project of one family which ruthlessly subjugates the poor citizens in an ever-deepening socialist circle of Dante’s worst kind of hell.
There was a time when North Korea might just have had a purpose. It was a Soviet and Red Chinese backed alternative to South Korea which, and let’s not forget this, was no bed of roses with a succession of particularly nasty strongmen shored up by the US. There was no way that the US was willing to let the Republic of Korea be threatened by the North and this was of course demonstrated by the willingness of the US and allies to fight the Korean War. The Korean War was war by proxy - the Cold Warriors engaging in a hot war a long distance away from Europe was somehow OK as it was “only” Korea after all.
But those days are most definitely gone and we now see a democratic and technologically advanced ROK sitting cheek by jowl with a starving dinosaur. Political freedom of choice has become the norm in South Korea for only the past couple of decades but it has been one of the success stories of this generation. Korean business has made massive strides helped in no small part by the chaebol business culture.
In the same period North Korea has stagnated almost year on year. The true beginning of the end for the DPRK was probably the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994. What followed was an uncertain succession by his son Kim Jung-il which has been marked by an indecisive and too often erratic leadership style which has plunged his people into one humanitarian disaster after another. This is a country which maintains a standing military of over 1.2 million with something like 20% of the male population of military age (17-54) actively serving. This military force includes over 4,000 tanks, 900 naval vessels and 1,700 aircraft. Add to that the development of tactical and intermediate range ballistic missiles with nuclear capability and this amounts to a potent regional power. However the abject failure to feed the population makes a complete nonsense of the military might. Although current data is mostly unavailable in the west it was the case approximately 10 years ago that combat pilots received a diet of 850 calories per day and this was supplemented to 950 calories during flight training. The food situation has, if anything, become more acute in the last decade so the readiness of the North Korean military is highly dubious from the point of view of physical preparedness alone, even before considering that much of the hardware is completely obsolete. It is never recommended to drop calorific intake below 1,000 per day without there being health risks. Therefore the fighting ability of the North Korean frontline soldier will probably be severely impaired by his chronic undernourishment. So the DPRK is armed to the teeth but those same teeth are in danger of falling out due to ill health.
The proposed succession of Kim Jong-un probably gives some unrealistic causes for optimism in the West. He is Swiss-educated so he will be bound to be a reformer some have said. On what basis are these claims made? The same Swiss school where Kim was sent has turned out some of the less democratically minded Gulf leaders. In the case of the Gulf that is OK from the West’s point of view as this protects our vital interests. In the case of North Korea we have no resource of strategic importance so it is of far lesser importance. Kim is being led by the hand by a highly empowered clique that will not shed the privileges of state easily and it could very well be argued that it is the lack of experience of the candidate and his malleability that make him ideal for the job. His educational background will not matter one jot as he is readied to take the Juche tiller under the guidance of some rather desperate people. Those who attach themselves to the leadership are terrified that they might lose everything in a reforming DPRK so they redouble all efforts to maintain continuity of the regime.
And it is no surprise that Kim Jong-un has been pushed forward at such a callow stage in his development. Kim Jung-il has been fading visibly and a declaration of succession in the family business had to be made sooner rather than later. Kim Jong-nam was entirely discredited after his botched attempt to visit Disney Japan on a false passport and Kim Jong-chul was regarded as too feminine by his father. Kim Jong-un was in effect the last man standing and his father had to be decisive in some way.
The recent military parade in Pyongyang was interesting not only from the point of view of the world being able to get a look at the prospective leader but also in that father and son were joined on the viewing platform by a senior member of the Chinese Politburo. It had been rumoured that Kim Jong-un had travelled to Beijing to let the Chinese leadership have a look at him and the appearance in Pyongyang of this senior official suggests that the ties between the two regimes are still healthy. It is one thing for China to see thousands of North Koreans flee across their border but it is quite another to cut off their fraternal socialist neigbour.
Russia has seemingly distanced itself from the comings and goings in Pyongyang but it must be certain that there is some input from Moscow. The Russians are not disappointed that the US and South Korea are tied down with large military commitments on the Korean Peninsula even if those forces are so very close to Russia’s own border.
There are no other players of substance in this scenario apart from Japan and Tokyo is more concerned about its own security issues than anything else. Japan is thoroughly inconvenienced by North Korea’s sabre-rattling which has gone as far as to manifest itself in IRBM missiles launches across Japanese territory.
So back to the question. Why is North Korea? North Korea exists to this day because there is no collective will for it not to exist any longer. Until China and Russia jointly find the will to engage the DPRK in negotiations or even offer some ultimatum or other that would make sense to Pyongyang then we are left with this throwback to a bygone age. Let’s make no mistake here, Washington, Seoul, Korea and the UN can posture all they wish but without the full support of Beijing and Moscow we could find North Korea enduring for another 50 years. Another 50 years of despotism and state-sponsored enslavement of a people who know nothing different because they have been willfully detached from the rest of the world by a regime which has self-preservation of its privileged position as its only aim.
In the end nobody really needs the DPRK except for a very narrow clique at the top of the internal tree and some international actors who do not really care what happens inside the country as long as they can have a semblance of influence with Pyongyang and nobody else does.
I will explore strategies for the future of North Korea in an upcoming blog and the various roles of the key players in the region. I will also try to fill in some of the blurry outlines that surround the DPRK and attempt to sweep away a few misconceptions.
The future need not be all bad news but it will take massive political will all round and make no mistake about that.