There’s no country on Earth quite like North Korea. In America and Europe, the reaction to the country, when there’s any reaction at all, is divided fairly equally between nervousness and mockery. It is a controversial force between the myth and reality of what life is really like inside North Korea.
Most people would have difficulty naming any city in the country other than Pyongyang. Few of us have ever met a real live North Korean. The place exists; it’s in our consciousness, occasionally in our nightmares, and now and again (more so now) in the news. But what really is North Korea?
In the space of just over a year the news from North Korea became seemingly more and more bizarre. It was reported that the country’s leader Kim Jong-un (the son of former leader Kim Jong-il and grandson of the nation’s founder Kim ll-sung) had executed his uncle, a senior member of the ruling elite, by feeding him to hungry wolves. It then made headlines shortly afterwards by being suspected of launching a crippling and embarrassing cyber attack against a major Hollywood studio about to release a comedy movie, The Interview that lampooned Kim Jong-un. This was around the same time it was announced that the United Nations was to create a Commission of Inquiry. This concluded in 2014 that North Korea continues to commit crimes against humanity in its gulag of prison camps. And then, in May 2015, it was announced that Kim had ordered the execution of the North’s minister of defence. Just to make sure this internal purge made the international news, it was announced that the chief of the countries 2-million-strong army was killed with an anti-aircraft gun.
As North Korea continues to make news, seemingly becoming a stronger nation overtime we need to understand the history of this country if we are to understand the seemingly bizarre, but also crucial (and often heartfelt) myriad oddities. These create a strange attraction to this perplexing nation that piques our curiosity but also frightens and alarms us. The very public, and mass outpourings of grief over the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011, the strident rhetoric of independence and isolation, the power of the North’s home-grown governing philosophy of Juche all seem remote and alien to the outside world. Yet these become comprehensible when the nation’s history is understood.
Kim Jong-un’s image is being as carefully crafted today, as were the cults of personality and official legacies of his father and grandfather. The message of continuity, of continuing struggle, of the necessity of regime survival to continue to be all pervasive – ‘build a rich and powerful country, a country we can be proud of to the world’.
Yet North Korea remains mired in poverty and economic collapse. It is undoubtedly a failed state – unable to feed its own people without a constant drip feed of aid from China.
The threat of economic collapse that full sanctions could entail is a real one to the North, and the question of how much pain Pyongyang can take is debatable. One theory is that sanctions would worsen the food supply situation to such a point that even senior cadres would experience shortages – potentially leading to growing disaffection with the party and within the party. Yet this is far from guaranteed. What is certain is that full sanctions would be regarded as an act of war by Pyongyang. There is also the question of just how exactly, beyond ending food and exports, you isolate a regime that seems often to wish to isolate itself.
This self-isolation process appeared to be deepening further in 2003 as Pyongyang retreated from diplomatic engagement and economic reform and reaffirmed and accentuated a military-first line that appeared designed to harden attitudes across the board. This line replaced economic reform as the primary ideological thrust of Pyongyang and remains largely in place to this day.
But the real question today is, if North Korea is this economically unstable, how does it afford nuclear weapons? There are five key contributing factors towards North Korea’s income. Firstly, Trade – around 75% of their trades comes from China. “China has enormous leverage to influence stability in North Korea, but most of it they feel they cannot use because of adverse consequences for China interests in North Korea,” said Scott Snyder, director of the Program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Beijing has the ability to shut down food and energy supply for North Korea. However, a North Korean collapse would likely send refugees flooding over the border into the economically weak north-eastern region of China, a situation Beijing wants to avoid.
Secondly, Overseas labour – many North Korean labourers are forced into Russia and China to rake in cash for Pyongyang. Weapon sales are also a huge contributing factor towards their economic state. North Korea continues to trade in arms and related material, exploiting markets and procurement services in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Lastly, Cybercrime – North Korea was reportedly behind a $81 million cyber theft of funds from Bangladesh’s account at the New York Federal Reserve last year. Prosecutors believe Chinese middlemen helped North Korea with the theft.
Although it seems North Korea is able to afford nuclear weapons, the real question is why is Kim Jong-Un doing these tests? To him, it seems logical. He can’t win without nuclear weapons. His one pursuit is to stay in power, he can’t stay in power by being economically stable and successful like South Korea, and he also can’t militarily beat South Korea with conventional weapons as they’re backed by the USA. His only hope is to be a nuclear power.
For Kim, this is the safest situation he can be in. To have the power of nuclear weapons so that nobody ‘rattles’ him and in return, he won’t retaliate. This is called M.A.D (Mutually Assured Destruction). It is a doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender. It is based on the theory of deterrence, which holds that the threat of using strong weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy’s use of those same weapons. The strategy is a form of Nash equilibrium in which, once armed, neither side has any incentive to initiate a conflict or to disarm.