Korean conundrum

Last week, North Korea forced itself back on to the world’s agenda with a high decibel announcement that it had successfully tested a “hydrogen bomb.” Sure enough, seismic indicators revealed that what was probably a nuclear explosion had occurred at a test site used for three previous tests (one unsuccessful). In all probability, the device was not a fusion (hydrogen) bomb but an upgraded fission device, marking an advance in efforts to miniaturize a weapon so it can be mounted on a ballistic missile warhead. The test was conducted in defiance of UN resolutions and international condemnation — including from China.

The Chinese dimension is particularly noteworthy. The North Korean regime is the most isolated and sanctioned in the world with only one “ally” and supporter. China has shielded North Korea from the most punishing UN sanctions and has provided critical inputs (coal and food) without which the North Korean economy could not function. For most of the period since the Korean War, the two communist regimes have made a great show of their close ties. North Korean leaders made highly publicized visits to China and senior Chinese officials reciprocated. But over the last four years, both Beijing and Pyongyang have installed new supreme leaders. China’s Xi Jinping has quickly consolidated power on a scale not seen since Mao. In North Korea, a young heir to the Kim family dynasty, Kim Jong Un, assumed power in the same time frame following the death of his father. He has amplified the family practice of ruthlessly consolidating power by killing anyone thought to pose a political threat, including his own uncle. Xi clearly expected the young Kim to show proper deference to China and comply with Beijing’s “advice.” The Chinese do not like Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and Kim had reportedly promised Xi he would not conduct another nuclear test. Last week, in an overt act of defiance, he did so anyway — and the Chinese reacted with undisguised anger. U.S. Secretary of State Kerry has tried to seize the moment and pressure China to abandon its long support for Pyongyang. But Beijing has a dilemma; if it presses Pyongyang so hard it brings down the regime, one likely result will be millions of starving North Korean peasants flooding across the border into Manchuria. So far, China’s public response to Kerry has been silence.

The Korean War ended in 1953 with a ceasefire and an armistice, not a peace treaty. Technically, a state of war still exists on the Korean peninsula with both Koreas armed to the teeth and 28,000 American soldiers stationed in the south. Ever since the armistice was signed, North Korea has been locked into a posture of fierce hostility toward South Korea and the United States. Poisonous, over-the-top invective has been Pyongyang’s stock-in-trade for more than six decades. Internally, North Korea is a militarily-garrisoned police state led by a family dynasty that has effectively imprisoned and isolated the general population. The North Korean economy cannot reliably meet even the most minimal needs of that population. As a result, perhaps a million, perhaps two million, North Koreans have literally starved to death. This is a direct product of the regime’s determination to feed and reward the military, the police and the communist party apparatchiks at the expense of everyone else.

It has long been a kind of guessing game whether the North Korean leadership is clinically paranoid and psychotic, or whether there is method to the madness. Presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz labeled Kim “a crazy nut case.” Maybe not. Most experts believe that Pyongyang has a calculated strategy — that Kim is actually a ruthless realist. The most plausible explanation for North Korean behavior sees it as focused on one overriding goal, survival of the regime, i.e. the Kim family’s power and position. The grandfather, the father and now the grandson all have believed that this goal requires an absolute preservation of police state controls and the rigid isolation of the population from foreign influences and ideas such as democracy, human rights and free enterprise. This has, however, come at a high cost of economic deprivation and technological backwardness. Every day, North Korea falls further behind the South in terms of modernization — and Kim knows it.

What to do? The Kims have long seen the answer as lying not with China, but with its declared enemy, America. If the United States were to abandon its hostility (so the thinking goes) and accept North Korea as it is — including diplomatic ties — it would be like the golden goose had taken up residence in Pyongyang. With U.S. acquiescence, North Korea would have access to foreign capital (World Bank, Asian Development Bank, corporate investment) that would solve North Korea’s economic problems and buttress the domestic credibility of the regime. Kim, instead of being confined to the narrow precincts of North Korea, could travel the world and bask in the attention of other world leaders — while portraying all this at home as evidence of adulation from other countries. In sum, what Kim craves is wealth and, most of all, respect. But how to get it while keeping the police state intact? The Kim answer has been simple: make North Korea so threatening by building nuclear weapons that the Americans will come running with offers of concessions. If one fission bomb won’t do it, perhaps a dozen will. If that won’t do it, perhaps a hydrogen/fusion weapon will.

That’s where we are. The question is what, if anything, can we do about it?



Marvin Ott

Marvin Ott

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.
Marvin Ott

Latest posts by Marvin Ott (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.