Everything You Need To Know About The North Korean Threat
Laugh if you want at the fat little men with bad haircuts who always seem to be in charge of the place, or the pants-wetting adulation at its immense choreographed rallies for those same Supreme Leaders, or even its robotic spokesmen’s unfathomable barking blather. Laugh at its late-Buck-Rogers-era architecture in its Potemkin capital, Pyongyang, or at any and all of its other uber-kitsch signature features that make the North Korean system so exquisitely mock-able to the outside world.
Laugh if you want, but the North Korean threat is as serious as a heart attack.
North Korea’s leadership is methodically preparing for a nuclear showdown against the United States and its allies in the Korean peninsula – and it is planning to win that confrontation. If that ambition sounds like insane, over-the-top conceit from an insane, over-the-top dictatorship, look at the facts on the ground to date.
For decades, the Kim family regime (now on its third Kim) has been relentlessly moving ahead with its nuke and missile programs. Last year, according to its claims, Pyongyang managed to set off a thermonuclear device – a hydrogen bomb – and also successfully shot off a prototype ICBM that appeared able to target all of the continental U.S. At the beginning of this year, Dear Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un announced that North Korea was moving into mass production of nukes and missiles.
Furthermore, North Korea has registered all these achievements in WMD proliferation in the face of continuous American and international opposition. Which is to say that North Korea has out-maneuvered all of the foreign powers trying to prevent it from becoming a nuclear-weapons state. North Korea’s leadership – at least thus far – has outsmarted its American antagonists at almost every step of the ongoing nuclear drama. And to anyone who follows the news, it should be evident that Pyongyang – not Washington, not the UN, not even Beijing – calls all the shots in the unfolding “North Korean nuclear crisis.” Not so bad for a ridiculous little government that we reflexively dismiss and satirize in comedies like Team America and The Interview.
So, let’s check our condescension at the door. We underestimate the North Korean regime at our peril. The DPRK is very difficult for us to understand, not least because three generations of dictators have so very successfully managed to close the country off from the world. But catastrophic events quite possibly await us if we do not make the effort.
North Korea’s leadership is methodically preparing for a nuclear showdown against the United States and its allies in the Korean peninsula – and it is planning to win that confrontation
The North Korean political system is one of a kind. Originally spawned by Stalin as a far-flung Soviet satellite at the beginning of the Cold War, North Korea broke free from Moscow early on, and has mutated into an Asiatic hereditary dynasty in its own right. It retains all the instruments of control and terror from the original Marxist-Leninist model, while supplementing them with a whole roster of inventive new totalitarian tricks of its own.
Evidently, the North Korean variant of totalitarianism is superior to the Soviet prototype. The latter, after all, is in the dustbin of history, and the former is very much still with us.
Where Marxist-Leninist states always have a secret police force, the North Korean state set up multiple services. Not only do they spy on and suppress the subject population, these services also surveille each other and report any signs of disloyalty or impurity to the very top. Marxist-Leninist states always had their dreaded gulags, but North Korea’s political prisons, or kwan-li-so, are even more terrifying. Adapted to capitalize on Asian family values, they threaten the horror of the concentration camp not only for the arrestee, but also for his whole extended family – children, cousins, grandparents, everyone. When you wonder why North Koreans don’t rise up against the horrible oppression they suffer, or why more people don’t try to flee its inhumanity, remember this part: The system is carefully designed to hold every North Korean’s entire bloodline hostage.
And then there is North Korea’s unique, and uniquely odious, Songbun system. Marx may have envisioned his Communism as a classless utopia, but Pyongyang pulled full throttle in the opposite direction, imposing carefully calibrated class designations as a tool for social control. In North Korea, class status (currently, there are over 50 of them) is assigned for life, and one’s Songbun determines one’s chances in life – and death. It is a safe bet that no one from North Korea’s privileged “core” classes died in the Great North Korean Famine of the 1990s, and that almost all the victims were members of the so-called “hostile” classes. Songbun formalizes and perfects techniques of social atomization that Stalin and Mao only pioneered, transforming divide-and-rule into a science, and thus routinizing internal mutual mistrust and hatred to a degree perhaps never attained through deliberate government policy.
Three decades (and two Kims) ago, the late Robert Scalapino, then arguably America’s foremost expert on East Asia, opined that the political system of North Korea was “as close to totalitarianism as a humanly operated society could come.” North Korea is not quite as hermetically sealed today as it was back then, however. Domestic cellphone service is now permitted, some modicum of unauthorized information from abroad now penetrates state borders, and market activity is no longer always “counter-revolutionary.” But when it comes to complete control over the life and thought of the people under its command, there is not even a close second to the Kim regime in the world today. Compared to North Korea, the Islamic Republic of Iran looks like an experiment in natural law and consent of the governed.
North Korea’s extraordinary apparatus of repression guarantees that the DPRK’s populace endures an unending human rights nightmare. It is also a guarantor of the regime’s staying power, helping to explain why more liberal governments (say, East Germany or Ceaușescu’s Romania) failed to keep their grip. But the North Korean project cannot be understood without also appreciating the regime’s ideology – the spirit that animates the machine. That ideology is key to the menace Pyongyang poses to America and the world today.
Outsiders have almost no grasp of Pyongyang’s true worldview for the simple reason that DPRK political treatises and pronouncements are practically unbearable to read or listen to. Almost no one would want to take a voluntary voyage through North Korean propaganda. Yet hiding in plain sight within the exegeses on “Juche thought” or “Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideological System” is the implacable logic of a revisionist state.
North Korea is no longer a Marxist-Leninist regime. It was once, of course, but Marx and Lenin have been stricken from the DPRK constitution and the charter of the Korean Worker’s Party, and their statues removed from Kim Il Sung Square. Communism isn’t even the proclaimed objective any more. Instead, Pyongyang promotes “our own style of socialism.” The immortal minds behind this thinking are “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung and “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il, both smiling down on “Dear Respected Comrade” Kim Jong Un from heaven.
North Korea’s “own style of socialism” has also wheeled 180 degrees from Marxism-Leninism’s ambitious claims of universal reach. No more “workers of the world, unite!” Today, North Korean ideology is narrow-cast to Koreans, and Koreans only. The watchword is minjok, crudely translated as “race.” (For foreign ears, Pyongyang translates the term as “nationality” or “nation.”) To Western readers, “National Socialism” is a freighted term, chained to a particular place and time. So, let’s say instead that the North Korean regime is an avowed exponent of “Racial Socialism.”
North Korea’s doctrine of Racial Socialism would make Julius Streicher blush with envy. North Korea now preaches an unabashed and full-throated gospel of race. It’s a secular theology that tells of a Korean nationality oppressed and exploited from time immemorial by other, more powerful peoples. An ideology that praises the loving and infallible patriarch Kim Il Sung – who led the North Korean people out of the wilderness and into the shelter of their own independent socialist state – and prophesizes the Elysium to come, when the entire Korean race will at last be united under the Kims of Pyongyang. With that coming together, the racial destiny of the Koreans will finally be fulfilled, and the whole Korean nation will be ready to stand up to stand up against the other peoples of the world once and for all.
If this vision sounds uninspiring, consider the metaphysical tides that have called men (and women) to action for most of recorded history. The battle cry of the tribe, or the nationality, is primordial, and has coursed through the blood of most peoples on earth until roughly the time when the World Economic Forum threw its first cocktail party. “Davos Man” cannot understand the sacrifices the North Korean state demands from its people. Four millennia of civilized (and uncivilized) peoples around the world would despise Davos Man for that. The DPRK’s self-justification for its authority and ambition may not be pretty, but it comes from a powerful lineage – another fact which may help account for the regime’s remarkable capacity to survive in the face of formidable odds.
Ominous and inescapable implications flow from the North Korean state’s raison d’etre. First and foremost, absorbing the rest of the Korean peninsula as its own – unconditionally – is central to the Kim regime’s self-assigned mission. Back when North Korea was a mere Communist state, there might have been other overarching goals, but now that Pyongyang espouses Racial Socialism, reunification overshadows all other competing tasks. Since the promise to gather all the Korean minjok under its own rule is the very rationale for the North Korean state, it is an utterly non-negotiable goal.
But of course most of the peninsula’s population have no intention of subjecting themselves to North Korean totalitarianism. They have built an open and prosperous democracy in the South. The Republic of Korea (ROK) is one of the modern world’s great success stories. Be that as it may, the existence of any alternative Korean state, much less a successful one, is an affront to the North Korean regime. To Pyongyang it is imperative that the ROK be eradicated. Subversion from within would be the simplest way to overthrow the South Korean state, but 70 years of North Korean-sponsored efforts have proved ineffective.
Thus, the second unpleasant implication of North Korean ideology: Military conquest of South Korea must be the North Korean regime’s prime plan for unifying the minjok – forever.
Kim Il Sung’s surprise attack against the South in 1950 almost consummated his dream but failed when the U.S. came to the ROK’s defense. Since the 1953 ceasefire that ended the shooting in the Korean War, three generations of Kims have striven to develop the military muscle to complete the task the Great Leader started. This has meant generations of wholesale “super-militarization.” There are reportedly more men under arms today in tiny North Korea than in Putin’s Russia. For over half a century, North Korea has been running an economy on a total-war footing, waiting for its chance to take out the ROK. It’s a permanent garrison-state mobilization, which also happens to dovetail nicely with the regime’s designs for total command of its subjects at home.
Not surprisingly, North Korea’s economy buckled under these breathtaking military burdens. And the scale of economic failure was magnified by the regime’s increasingly capricious and politicized approach to management and planning. Even before the end of the Cold War, North Korea was falling far behind the South in their economic race, and when the USSR collapsed and Soviet subsidies ceased, North Korea careened into manmade (or more specifically, “Dear-Leader-made”) famine. Though the North has enjoyed a measure of economic recovery in the DPRK’s consumer sector under Kim Jong Un, its economy is now tiny by comparison. Kim Jong Un cannot afford the military modernization required for a redo of his grandfather’s full-frontal, conventional assault against the South.
When it comes to complete control over the life and thought of the people under its command, there is not even a close second to the Kim regime in the world today.
This is where North Korea’s nuke and long-range missile programs fit into the regime’s game plan. And this is the third unpleasant implication of the regime’s thinking: Nuclear weapons are indispensable, and threatening America with nuclear weapons is absolutely necessary.
The nuke-missile program not only avails the North Korean state of a manifestly affordable path for “asymmetric warfare,” it is in fact a trifecta for Pyongyang. Developing and amassing the world’s deadliest weapons counts as a huge domestic plus, redounding to the honor of the Supreme Leader and further reinforcing his power and legitimacy. Nuclear weapons are also an insurance policy for regime survival, both deterring external pressure from hostile powers and facilitating the international military extortion upon which the regime financially depends. Finally, and perhaps most important, this nuclear sword represents the regime’s last best hope in its quest for unconditional reunification of Korea.
For Pyongyang, the road to unification leads through Washington. America prevented the takeover of the South during the Korean War. America has prevented subsequent military assaults on the South through its military alliance with Seoul (which includes not just forward-positioned U.S. troops but also a U.S. nuclear guarantee).
The necessary (though not sufficient) condition for Pyongyang to advance its design for reunification is for the U.S. to abandon South Korea, relinquishing the protection that the U.S.-ROK alliance has provided to date.
Almost exactly 50 years ago, Pyongyang tried to reconfigure the Korean chessboard through a commando raid on the Blue House in Seoul and almost succeeded in assassinating then-President Park Chung-hee. Today, as if in a high-tech homage to that earlier operation, Pyongyang is attempting once more to rearrange the geopolitical chessboard, this time by pointing a nuclear pistol at the White House.
North Korea’s leadership is not suicidal. It could not have lasted this long if it were. Pyongyang is not intending to barrel into a nuclear exchange against America, a contest in which it would clearly be doomed. Instead, Team Kim seems to have in mind a duel it can actually win – a face-off in which it forces Washington to blink.
And the thing is, it’s not a crazy scenario.
Nuclear weapons are indispensable, and threatening America with nuclear weapons is absolutely necessary.
Imagine, if you will, a future world with many more North Korean nukes and missiles, in which the Kim family regime chooses to create a crisis in the Peninsula. (The crisis would not be spontaneous. Crises involving North Korea never are, and DPRK officials are masters of gaming things through well in advance.) In this carefully crafted emergency – who knows what, maybe an artillery barrage into downtown Seoul? – the U.S. president would be faced with a choice:
1) Retaliate against the North, and risk escalation that could lead not only to a possible nuclear war in the Peninsula but also a strike on the U.S. homeland, or
2) Hold off on military response, try to cool things down, and reach out to the North in an effort to de-escalate tensions.
Should Washington choose that second, and arguably more responsible course, it is entirely possible that the credibility of the U.S. military commitment could be fatally undermined. If so, South Korea’s alliance with America will be worthless, and the arrangement would fall apart. And without U.S. backup for the South, the struggle for unification would suddenly be a new and very different game for Pyongyang. Even with America out, unconditional unification is nothing like a slam dunk for the Kim regime, but that prospect might just begin to verge into the realm of political possibility.
We cannot know how long the North Korean state will last. Autocracies sometimes suddenly collapse, and their impending downfall is only “obvious” in retrospect. The Kim family regime will not last forever – no dynasties ever have. If the U.S. and her allies were to concentrate their attention and resources on “North Korea threat reduction,” in fact, they no doubt could appreciably shorten the lifespan of that dictatorship, and increase the odds of a successful post-DPRK reunification of the Korean peninsula. So long as North Korean leadership has anything to say about the matter, however, the Kim family regime will be around and the dangers it poses to us will only increase.
Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and is senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR). He is also a founding board member of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).