Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

North Korea: The Paranoid Peninsula - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
Select Page
North Korea: The Paranoid Peninsula

North Korea: The Paranoid Peninsula

Thinking of a luxury cruise holiday? Or, perhaps, a golfing vacation away from it all? What about a sojourn at a spa, complete with health and beauty treatment?

Well, all that is on offer where you least expect it, that is to say in the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, otherwise known as North Korea and branded by President George W Bush as part of “The Axis of Evil.”

Having just hit the headlines by carrying out a nuclear explosion, North Korea is in all the headlines and expected to remain there for some time yet. But how much do we really know about what is, along with Myanmar, one of the world’s two most enigmatic countries?

Well, we know that North Korea has a Communist, some say Stalinist, regime. We also know that it has remained impervious to the global expansion of the market economy over the past decade or so. Finally, we know that North Korea was founded by a maniac called Kim Il-sung and is now ruled by his equally unstable son Kim Jong-Il.

Paul French’s timely book, however, shows that much of what we think we know about North Korea is either inaccurate or downright wrong.

To begin with, the regime in Pyongyang could hardly be described as Communist in any normal sense of the term. Kim Il-sung paid lip service to Marxism-Leninism because his two big neighbours, Russia and China had gone Communist.

In reality, however, the old Kim peddled a peculiar eastern ideology known as Juche which, when examined in depth, is closer to Nazism than Leninism. According to this bizarre ideology, Koreans are the most ancient nation on earth, descending from celestial origins and destined to carry the torch of humanity long after all other nations have vanished due to war or other calamities. The principal aim of anyone who rules over the Korean people is to safeguard the purity of Koran blood. This is why nothing is more abominable to a Korean than having any sexual liaison with an outsider.

Thus the two Kims, father and son, saw themselves as custodians of their people’s racial purity. The trouble was that the purity they wanted to protect had already been sullied by centuries of Chinese and Japanese invasion and occupation. That “sullying” assumed even wider dimensions under American occupation that, starting in 1950, continues in the southern part of the Korean peninsula to this day. Kim, father and son, dream of reunifying the peninsula, that is to say annexing South Korea, under their own rule. To achieve that goal they have to drive the Americans out and persuade South Koreans, who are twice as many as North Koreans, to abandon their Westernised democratic life and adopt Juche.

There is, of course, little chance that South Koreans will willingly submit to North Korean rule. South Korea’s population of almost 50 million is more than twice that of North Korea. The average South Korean’s income is 20 times higher than that of his counterpart in the north. Average life expectancy in South Korea is a full 22 years more than that of the north.

The two Kims have always assumed that the vast military machine they have created in the north would be more than a match for the South Korean army, provided the Americans were not there to confuse the situation.

Thus, it is vital for North Korea to develop a nuclear arsenal with which to either drive the Americans out of the peninsula or, in case of a full-scale war, deter any use of nuclear weapons by the US. The North Korean strategy could be described as one of reunification through nuclear blackmail. Kim Jong-Il knows what his late father also knew: if reunified under a democratic system, Korea will never adopt Juche or vote for the Kim dynasty. This is illustrated almost daily by the fact that many North Koreans escape to the south, while no one form the south takes the road north.

The idea of reunifying the two parts of Korea enjoys strong support in both north and south. South Korea, however, hopes to achieve reunification in the same way that Chancellor Helmut Kohl reunified East and West Germany in the 1990s, that is to say with the help of diplomacy and cash.

The leaders in Seoul know that any war in the peninsula, even not involving the use of nuclear weapons, could produce the biggest tragedy in the Korean nation’s history. This is why they have developed their so-called “sunshine policy” which, translated into practical terms, means ever-increasing South Korean subsidies for the North Korean regime. These subsidies allows the northern leadership to feed its people and use the resources of the state for maintaining one of the world’s largest armies and, in more recent ties, develop nuclear weapons.

While Washington is unhappy with South Korea’s “sunshine policy”, many in Seoul claim that it has already produced some results. North Korea has started to slowly reform its economic system by allowing elements of free enterprise to function in parts of the market. Two huge capitalist enclaves are already in operation in the north – one close to the border with China, the other next to the demilitarised zone with South Korea. Together the two zones have crated more than 120,000 well-paid jobs in the north.

With the coming of capitalism, albeit in small and controlled doses, a new North Korean upper middle class is already taking shape with the same taste for luxuries, including pet dogs, fast cars and mistresses, that marks out the bourgeoisie throughout the world. The virus of globalisation has already entered North Korea’s pure bloodstream, and, given time, is bound to destroy the Kim regime.

Paul French punctures yet another popular myth about North Korea- that Kim Jong-Il is a maniacal moron. To be sure, Kim the Son has an enigmatic life-style. He is a film buff, and occasional filmmaker, who spends up to six hours each day watching videos of old black-and-white Hollywood movies. According to some sources, he is madly in love with the image of Lana Turner, a 1940s Hollywood peroxide blonde who played femme fatale in a string of noir thrillers. (Incidentally, such a fascination would not sit well with Juche and Korean racial purity!)

Nevertheless, French shows that the young Kim is an astute politician capable of sophisticated manoeuvrings when needed.

According to French, North Korea is a “failed state” that must be saved from the consequences of its failure through active engagement by the five powers that matter to it: Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, and, above all, the United States. Translated into practical politics this means that the five powers in question should help save the North Korean regime from the consequences of its own weird ideology and disastrous policies.

One might ask: why should anyone help Kim Jong-Il?

French’s answer is implied but clear: deprived of attention and help, Kim may do something absolutely horrible!

Will Washington buy French’s thesis and treat Kim as a juvenile troublemaker that must be weaned away from violence through psychological support? The way things look like in Washington, the answer must be no. If anything, it is the regime change idea that is gaining ground among all those who believe that something must be done about North Korea before it has a working arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

More Posts