North Korea's Kooky Showmen
January 2, 2013
See Robert Kelly's Asian Security Blog for a good resource on northeast Asian International Relations.
Until North Korea’s recent successful rocket launch and recent boasts that its missiles can now reach the U.S., it had been a slow news month for the country. No atomic tests or threats to ruthlessly defeat imperialist puppet stooges with merciless and punishing blows. We now view entire weeks of no provocations from Pyongyang as unusual. Imagine applying the same metric to, say, Iceland. As a professor at a South Korean university in an International Relations program, I’m often asked when visiting Canada how I can live so near those madmen up north, who could do anything. Western reporters puzzle over the latest saber-rattling from "the closed, Stalinist state" and its pudgy dictator, inevitably dismissing the action as more inexplicable and self-defeating petulance.
After decades of coverage, western journalists still generally mistakenly read North Korea as an Soviet-era backwater run by delusional Marxists. Several factors have allowed this cliché to persist:
Far from being monolithic in response to North Korea, South Koreans have their own generational divides, which were exposed in the recent election. The elder generation, many of whom lost family members in the war, retains strong emotions of bitterness over the North. The “386” generation, Korea’s equivalent of the counterculture named for the computer processor, harbors sympathy for the North and nationalistic spite for what they see as American interference—South Korean journalism can be nearly as xenophobic as that of its neighbor. The youngest generation, which I teach, is vaguely aware that some country up there isn’t fond of them as they sip their lattes to Lady Gaga.
In South Korean news, of course, every vitriolic pronouncement and bizarre move is reported as Kim Jong Un heroically visits another tractor factory, the regime refuses flood aid because it’s too much pesky food and not enough cement for its army, or the North shoots a tourist and itself in the foot at the resort it desperately wants to raise money from. Shelling a South Korean island is also difficult to ignore.
Yet South Koreans themselves, unsurprisingly after sixty years, are jaded about Pyongyang’s we’ll-make-you-a-sea-of-fire-ha!-ha! bombast. The division between the two states is a raw sore in the nation’s psyche, but it seems more deeply felt than taught, discussed, or analyzed. Most scholarly work on North Korea here seems done in English by foreign academics. After northern defectors are in the south the press immediately loses interest, leaving them to wander dazed and forgotten around the Jetsons-like skyscrapers and malls of Seoul.
The tours are predatorily expensive, finance the regime, and are from all reports not only gloomily enervating but a quintessential Potemkin experience. The mandatory minders are omnipresent, at times forbidding photographs and preventing any independent nosing around, even panicking when visitors go to the bathroom unescorted. Effective interaction with the locals is zero and tourists are unlikely to see anything beyond the few showcase facades or the ubiquitous statues of you-know-who they are urged to fawn over.
Occasionally a useful idiot will write a puff travelogue based on these artificial impressions. A recent piece claims that Pyongyang has “a laid-back, leafy feel” and its hip, urbane citizenry freely asserts an open dialogue—a posting met with hoots of derision on South Korean blogospheres. More commonly, North Korea watchers report that their highly-censored visits simply provided little information.
Imagine toward the end of World War II that the Cosa Nostra seized control of Italy in the general chaos. It being rather difficult to establish popular support by saying, “Hi, we’re the mafia and we’re your government,” it might be more effective to wrap your racket in a prominent ideology. If that creed gains you foreign allies and money, so much the better.
As with our counterfactual Rome, so goes Pyongyang, which opportunistically availed itself of guns and aid from Soviet Russia and China as it passed itself off as communist, and then, when these allies either went broke or lost interest, turned to juche to proclaim ex nihilo a tradition of proud self-reliance.
Thus part of the bewilderment that North Korea doesn’t behave like a proper communist state is because it isn’t one. References to Marxism faded from their constitution after the USSR’s breakup, and the term communism itself disappeared in 2009. Since the 90s famines the regime has grown tolerant of private farming plots to raise badly needed food. Loyal insiders are rewarded with capitalist luxury goods such as cars and watches, and Kim Jong-Il himself had a $700,000 a year Hennessy cognac habit. Seoul academic Andrei Lankov believes that under the increasing corruption of lower officials, average North Koreans make up to 75% of their income from non-government markets.
As B.R. Myers finds in The Cleanest Race, perhaps the best present read on the country, the announcements for international media spewing from Pyongyang, heavily laden with Marxist buzzwords, are entirely for foreign consumption. North Koreans themselves are fed a different diet of ugly racial triumphalism whereby the pure, childlike Korean race needs protection from the subhuman barbarians from America and elsewhere, a protection by happy chance selflessly supplied by Dear Leader. Analysts have also failed to note the regime’s lack of missionary zeal for freeing any international workers from their chains who aren’t Korean. Whereas western powers fretted over Soviet expansionism, North Korea wants to reunify and then shut out the savages forever. State propaganda even depicts fellow communists in China with appalling racism, and babies born with Chinese fathers and North Korean mothers are quickly dispatched through forced abortion and infanticide.
Moreover, where Soviet bloc states were eager to indoctrinate citizens through subsidized higher education, Pyongyang valorizes a Rousseau-esque pablum of the innocence of natural feeling in its propaganda. ‘Spontaneous passion’ is what brings about heroism rather than study or numbing reason, and not much artwork has professors or physicians alongside the rugged soldiers and laborers. What universities there are closed for ten months in 2011 so that students could work on farms, and it took until this September for North Korea to make grade twelve mandatory.
Ditto for juche, the supposed doctrine of self-reliance holding that “man is master of all things,” which causes the regime to substitute a native term (“fluffy icy thing” for decadent ice cream), or which causes the country to need its own fabric, a stiff polyester product named vinalyn—or, for that matter, its own nuclear deterrent.
Except, as Myers adds, “This fake doctrine has absolutely no bearing on North Korean policymaking.” Whereas race-based nationalism is thoroughly instilled in schools and media, juche is an intentionally opaque philosophical mist. Visitors to Pyongyang who quiz their hosts on even simpler tenets are given embarrassed evasions—Myers’s guides stammered, “Isn’t it time for you to get back on your bus?”
The acceptance of foreign charity by a so-called self-reliant nation also invites uncomfortable questions, and apparently the regime explains away food aid as tribute from awed outsiders. Yet otherwise juche has little apparent role. The Juche Tower in Pyongyang is now thirty years old, and anything more than a mailbox is usually named after one of the Kims, extolling them as near-deities rather than praising Korean can-do. Robert Kelly at Busan National University notes after a tour how pictures and plaques at the Pyongyang metro praise Kim Il-Sung’s “help” in advising planners to install ventilation and flood control—a fortunate intervention, he wags, as evidently their engineers “thought a flooded, unventilated subway system would be a great success.”
Faced with this perversity, western journalism falls back on North Korea’s cliché as an ideological basketcase, with perhaps more than a little first-world bigotry that developing nations aren’t terribly rational. At least Soviet-bloc countries seemed to behave somewhat predictably, and now we are unable to process a government which doesn’t and conclude it must just be run by teenagers when it breaks its own arms control accord 16 days after signing it.
What we miss is that the North benefits from and encourages this comic picture of stilted invective and childish defiance. The prickly regime heaps histrionic abuse on any criticism—has no one noticed it has no apparent objection to being depicted as perverse or random, even subtly encouraging such an interpretation with the above pose of Kim Jong-Un smoking in front of a satellite image a la Dr. Evil? Oddly, the late Christopher Hitchens was likely closest to pegging North Korea. In his usual cynicism he nevertheless saw through the smokescreen of decoy ideologies to call the regime what it is—a “militarized crime family”—in effect, the world’s first gangsterocracy.
In this light, the Kim family’s threats and nuclear program are not really about socialism or security or any high-flown philosophy, nor illogical acts of bellicosity, but about shaking down neighbors. The regime essentially runs the globe’s biggest protection racket, telling South Korea and anyone else in range: You have a nice country here; t’would be a shame if anything were to happen to it.
Risk-averse China is still willing to pay, privately loathing its “ally” but believing the extortion much cheaper than the alternative of a North Korean collapse on its borders, complete with U.N. troops. South Korea, though some quarters still see the North as a reluctant bride they can love into reconciliation, has mostly turned off the money tap in exasperation, hoping the problem will go away.
If Don Kim decides that he might advisedly move into more secure forms of criminal revenue-raising, say investment banking or student loan collections, all may be well. For now the west enjoys rolling its eyes at dear kooky brown-jumpsuited leader, failing to see a coolly calculated diversion for the prolongation of a thuggish government. Playing crazy on TV has worked by getting attention, deals, and loot. All the while, the bomb sits ready to make someone an offer they can’t refuse.