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North Korea: Predicting the Unpredictable (Part II of II)

North Korean soldier commemorating the 100 year anniversary of Kim il-Song's birth, 2012

North Korean soldier commemorating the 100 year anniversary of Kim Il-Sung’s birth, 2012

(Part I on the background of North Korea can be found here)

North Korea, (the DPRK) is willing to reject modern globalization and completely separate itself off from the rest of the world in most aspects of society. As a result, the truth on the ground in North Korea is one of, if not the most, difficult to come across in the world for any sovereign state today. The saber-rattling and constant propaganda within the DPRK isolates their people and their government from the outside world to an alarming degree so predicting the next course of action that North Korea will take may seem like a fruitless endeavor. There is no simple and straightforward way to resolve the humanitarian crisis that has plagued the north half of the Korean Peninsula since the end of World War II. Nonetheless, a better understanding of recent North Korea history coupled with continued engagement, diplomacy, and patience can serve to unravel the options in how best to approach the Hermit Kingdom.

The Six-Party Talks involving North Korea, South Korea, US, Japan, China, and Russia that began in 2003 have fallen far short of their goals of stopping or even slowing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. North Korea walked out of the negotiations in 2009 and has refused to return to the table unless the talks begin without preconditions, which is unacceptable to the other participants. North Korea previously made gestures toward denuclearization, but each time soon after reverted to moves showing they were clearly continuing to advance their programs covertly or overtly. In total there have been three confirmed nuclear tests conducted in the DPRK (2006, 2007, and 2013), and estimates on their stockpile of nuclear weapons vary, though most reports cite between several to two dozen. Critical to remember is that separate from the amount of nuclear material and warheads available is the ballistics systems, which North Korea consistently has invested in improving.

North Korean field laborers

North Korean field laborers

Though virtually no aid has been given to the DPRK from the United States since the former walked out of denuclearization negotiations in 2009, between 1995 and 2008 the US gave North Korea over $1.3 billion in foreign assistance; over 50% in food aid, and about 40% in energy assistance. Since 2009, nearly all other countries with the exception of China have given minimal aid. The DPRK continues to suffer devastating levels of widespread malnutrition and food shortages, but even when aid was high the unequal distribution failed to adequately address the problems. The fact that Kim Jong-un and his predecessors have ignored the economic infrastructure and treated the well-being of the common citizen as second rate is clear. However, the balance between turning a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis, and outright exacerbating the problems are unclear.

Though perhaps the least impactful on policy directly, sports and cultural exchanges have opened interesting windows into North Korea and Kim Jong-un. When Dennis Rodman and members of the Harlem Globetrotters visited North Korea for a trip which included a game with national players, it drummed up considerable discussion and no shortage of controversy. The strange relationship between North Korean leaders’ love for American basketball and western consumerism (Kim Jong-il reportedly was the largest buyer of Hennessy) underlines a kind of hypocrisy in dealing with the outside world. While only very few are exposed to foreign culture, if that double standard of political opposition, but indirect adoration can be highlighted then perhaps changing North Korean’s perspectives on their situation could be possible. While Dennis Rodman may have accomplished little more than inflating Kim Jong-un’s ego, other individuals like Rob Springs with Global Resource Services, who has devoted time and resources to humanitarian causes within the DPRK have been able to make more positive, though very limited, change outside of elite circles.

Official DPRK state news announcing the rediscovery of a unicorn lair

Official DPRK state news announcing the rediscovery of a unicorn lair

Attempting to normalize relations or interact within North Korea without care can have the consequences of legitimizing the leadership and ignoring or setting aside the wider problems the country faces on a daily basis. The limited projects and NGOs from the West that are allowed to engage with North Koreans directly, such as the GRS and the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology should be further explored, while being aware of the opportunity for the government to manipulate such positive exchanges.

Dealing with North Korea directly, either via economic/military pressure and intimidation, or through incentives and aid, has thus far proven unsuccessful in making lasting large-scale progress. Despite that, the US, South Korea, and West should continue to monitor and track the military threats and nuclear ambitions of North Korea, while also keeping relevant avenues of dialogue open if the DPRK will return to negotiations. Part of the reason the DPRK has found relative success by its own right in shaking its fist at the outside world is because it has done so often spontaneously. Small scale aid and projects through private groups have been able to achieve limited goals, and working to help North Korean citizens directly could help chip away at decades of mistrust.

Approaching the DPRK from not just a macro level, but also through smaller initiatives opens up more possibilities for the people of North Korea to interact with the outside world. The Kim Jong-un regime is firmly in control, though hopefully in time there are real alternatives available for the North Korean people to make their own decisions.

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North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom (Part I of II)

Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un in front of military leaders

Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un in front of military servicemen

(Part I of II)

North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a country of 25 million that has been effectively  trapped in a Cold War mindset since the 1950s. Like his father Kim Jong-il who ruled from 1994 until his death in 2011, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has run the country through a policy of desperation, repression, and isolation, the last of which has given way to its label as the Hermit Kingdom. North Korea is governed by Juche, a political ideology of self-reliance used to justify the totalitarian military dictatorship and the idolization of its hereditary leadership. Kim il-Sung, the father of Kim Jong-il and grandfather of Kim Jong-un, is the founder of Juche and still the Eternal President of North Korea despite the fact that he has been deceased for over 20 years. Worshiped like a God, the leadership of Kim il-Sung and his successors are treated as infallible, and their policies have driven the country to a draconian state in a constant humanitarian crisis with alarming similarities to George Orwell’s 1984.

Reverence to Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il is compulsory

Reverence toward Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il is compulsory

North Korea’s leaders have perpetuated a mentality of mortal fear through decades of pro-regime propaganda. The country has instilled into its populace the idea that at any moment South Korea and the ‘evil American imperial empire’ would annihilate them if not for their hard work and the sacrifice of their armed forces. The North Korean active armed forces are the fifth-largest in the world by manpower, a staggering feat considering North Korea is barely in the top 50 of countries by population. Bizarre reports from North Korea such as an official released happiness index placed them at #2 most content behind China, South Korea at #152, and the US at #203 (though the criteria and full rankings are unclear). After a trailer for the movie, “The Interview” featuring James Franco and Seth Rogen was released, North Korea’s UN Ambassador made an official complaint to the United Nations, declaring the film as “the most undisguised act of terrorism as well as an act of war.”

The conclusion of the Korean War (1950-1953) resulted in a cease-fire though not a formal peace treaty, thus technically the two countries have been at war for more than six decades. The sinking of the ROKS Cheonan navy ship that killed 46 South Korean servicemen, and the shelling of Yeongpeong Island, also in 2010, are recent skirmishes that prove North Korea is willing to push the envelope on what is acceptable in terms of brash maneuvers to embolden their own military situation. Though the rhetoric and threats far exceed the reality of the situation, North Korea has shown it is an unpredictable and temperamental thorn in the region. For example, despite an extensive array of measures, sanctions, and incentives offered to give up its nuclear and missile programs, North Korea continues to develop and test its weaponry and nuclear capabilities.

Map showing common routes taken by North Korean defectors

Map showing common routes taken by North Korean defectors

The reality for many North Koreans is far from the front lines, despite hosting the most heavily militarized border in the world with South Korea. Millions of North Koreans live and work in labor camps which have been compared to Nazi labor camps and Soviet gulags. The inhumane conditions are coupled with the extent of service in the camps, which can span past one’s life onto their future kin. In the relatively short span of several generations malnutrition and starvation has resulted in a marked difference in stunted health and growth between North Korean children and their neighbors in South Korea. The health emergency has become the norm in the country and the state has taken great effort to hide the scale and extent of the atrocities. The average North Korean knows next to nothing about the modern world, living in a caged country and with minimal hope for change.

Most comparable humanitarian disasters are troubled by a lack of governing authority and distribution networks. Uniquely, the North Korean government has defiantly rejected food aid many times because of the conditions dependent on halting or ending its nuclear ambitions, and its stance on the donors themselves. Its adherence to the Juche self-reliance ideal has created a paradox of being unable to sustain itself without outside help, while being ideologically  against accepting most assistance with the exception of its closest quasi-partner, China. China has seen North Korea as a buffer zone between a united Korea under Western influence, and has desired internal stability in the Hermit Kingdom over an even worse humanitarian disaster that would inevitably come with state collapse. Recently, the United Nations has tried to put additional pressure on China to change its policies towards repatriating North Korean defectors, many of whom must travel to Southeast Asia before being accepted as refugees in South Korea. The transition into the modern world for North Korean defectors is so shocking that assimilation is an extremely difficult task in itself.

While a total reformation of the North Korean political system seems the best way forward for the people of the DPRK, total state collapse would inevitably bring about chaos and tremendous consequences for the millions of refugees that would find themselves in a totally new world they have been taught to fear their entire lives.

(Part II covers the contemporary relations and future of North Korea and can be found here)

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