An Op-Ed in the London Daily Telegraph on Wednesday pointed out that the fantastical North Korean regime founds its historical legitimacy on its ferocious animosity vis-à-vis U.S. imperialism. -- This, according to Tim Stanley, is what makes the current moment so dangerous: North Korea might give in "to the mad logic of Juche [North Korea's state religion] and launch an all-out holy war on the West. . . . If Kim Jong-un judges that the time has come to purify the South of democracy and invades, his action would surely prompt an American response that, in turn, would draw China into the conflict." -- Ian Buruma, in Canada's Globe and Mail, essentially agreed, but argued on Wednesday that North Korea's attitude has much deeper roots, in "a political history that goes back much further than 1945. Wedged awkwardly between China, Russia, and Japan, the Korean Peninsula has long been a bloody battleground for greater powers. Korean rulers only managed to survive by playing one foreign power off against the other, and by offering subservience, mainly to Chinese emperors, in exchange for protection. This legacy has nurtured a passionate fear and loathing of dependency on stronger countries." ...
NORTH KOREA IS A JOKE. THAT'S PRECISELY WHY IT'S SO DANGEROUS
By Tim Stanley
Daily Telegraph (London)
April 3, 2013
SEOUL -- North Korea may look like a country gone mad, but that is exactly why we ought to take its latest display of hubris so seriously.
While it should be fixing its crumbling economy, Kim Jong-un’s regime prefers to declare a state of war with its southern neighbor and threaten the United States with rockets. To comprehend why it is doing this, and why this crisis is so dangerous, we have to understand its obsession with history.
A defining moment in the North Korean narrative is the Korean War of 1950-1953, when the Communist leader Kim Il-sung lead the North in an invasion of the South and was pushed back by U.S.-led forces. Schoolchildren in the People’s Republic are taught that American troops carried out atrocities against their grandparents and that the U.S. would do it all again were it not for the iron leadership of the Kim family.
Equally important is what happened after. In peacetime, the tyrannical Kim Il-sung’s power was challenged by liberal reformers, and his response was to shift the ideological justification for the regime away from Marxism and towards a unique quasi-religious nationalism called Juche. Kim became like a god, and when he died he remained head of state, governing from the afterlife.
In official accounts, the birth of his successor, Kim Jong-il, was accompanied by the appearance of a double rainbow. This secretive boy with a bouffant hairdo was cast as the god of sport, among other things. When he played his first-ever round of golf in 1994, he supposedly scored 11 holes-in-one; North Korea’s football coach said that Jong-il guided the team during the 2010 World Cup with the help of an invisible cell phone -- technology that the regime claimed the leader himself had invented.
When the next in line, Kim Jong-un, came to power in 2011, the pantheon gained a more gregarious deity, who smiled a lot and visited people in their homes.
North Korea is governed by fantasists, but the fantasy is bolstered by a network of gulags; hard currency raised through drug trafficking and counterfeiting money; the development of nuclear arms; and a huge stockpile of conventional weapons that could level South Korea.
Moreover, all this barbarism is justified by a good-versus-evil struggle with the U.S. The eternal fight against “imperialism” legitimizes the Kim family’s control of the country. When famine struck in the 1990s, the regime blamed a U.S. embargo and credited the limited relief that was allowed into the country to Kim Jong-il’s personal diplomacy.
Confronting the U.S. is a matter of personal honour, a fact underlined by an extraordinary order given that, should war occur, a priority must be protecting the nation’s 35,000 statues of the Kims.
It is possible that the present crisis is being manufactured for the benefit of the home audience, that Kim Jong-un is reinforcing the propaganda that it is his family that protects the people from U.S. aggression, by first stirring up aggression, and then resolving it through diplomacy.
But considering the regime’s failing grip on reality, two things could go wrong. First, North Korea might raise the stakes so high that diplomacy becomes impossible and backing down would undermine its authority. This is a regime that would allow its people to suffer rather than accept any compromise.
A second possibility is that the hermit kingdom surrenders to the mad logic of Juche and launches an all-out holy war on the West. Most religions have some element of apocalypse in their theology, and North Korea is no exception.
If Kim Jong-un judges that the time has come to purify the South of democracy and invades, his action would surely prompt an American response that, in turn, would draw China into the conflict.
It is a terrifying thought that this slightly farcical regime could trigger the war to end all wars.
NORTH KOREA'S REAL TRAGEDY: NOBODY REALLY WANTS TO CHANGE THE STATUS QUO
By Ian Buruma
Globe and Mail (Canada)
April 3, 2013
Nobody would care much about North Korea -- a small and isolated country of 24 million people, ruled by a grotesque dynasty that calls itself Communist -- if not for its nuclear weapons. Its current ruler, Kim Jong-un, the 30-year-old grandson of North Korea’s founder and “Great Leader,” is now threatening to turn Seoul, the rich and bustling capital of South Korea, into “a sea of fire.” U.S. military bases in Asia and the Pacific are also on his list of targets.
Mr. Kim knows very well that a war against the United States would probably mean the destruction of his own country, which is one of the world’s poorest. His government can’t even feed its own people, who are regularly devastated by famine. In the showcase capital, Pyongyang, there’s not even enough electricity to keep the lights on in the largest hotels. So threatening to attack the world’s most powerful country would seem like an act of madness.
But it’s neither useful nor very plausible to assume that Mr. Kim and his military advisers are mad. To be sure, there’s something deranged about North Korea’s political system. The Kim family’s tyranny is based on a mixture of ideological fanaticism, vicious realpolitik, and paranoia. But this lethal brew has a history that needs to be explained.
The short history of North Korea is fairly simple. After the collapse in 1945 of the Japanese empire, which had ruled quite brutally over the whole of Korea since 1910, the Soviet Red Army occupied the north, and the U.S. occupied the south. The Soviets plucked a relatively obscure Korean Communist, Kim Il-sung, from an army camp in Vladivostok and installed him in Pyongyang as leader of North Korea. Myths about his wartime heroism and divine status soon followed, and a cult of personality was established.
Worshipping Mr. Kim and his son and grandson as Korean gods became part of a state religion. North Korea is essentially a theocracy. Some elements are borrowed from Stalinism and Maoism, but much of the Kim cult owes more to indigenous forms of shamanism: human gods who promise salvation (it was no accident that the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church came from Korea, too).
But the power of the Kim cult, as well as the paranoia that pervades the North Korean regime, has a political history that goes back much further than 1945. Wedged awkwardly between China, Russia, and Japan, the Korean Peninsula has long been a bloody battleground for greater powers. Korean rulers only managed to survive by playing one foreign power off against the other, and by offering subservience, mainly to Chinese emperors, in exchange for protection. This legacy has nurtured a passionate fear and loathing of dependency on stronger countries.
The Kim dynasty’s main claim to legitimacy is Juche, the regime’s official ideology, which stresses national self-reliance to the point of autarky. In fact, Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, were typical Korean rulers. They played China against the Soviet Union, while securing the protection of both. Of course, this didn’t stop North Korean propagandists from accusing the South Koreans of being cowardly lackeys of U.S. imperialism. Indeed, paranoia about U.S. imperialism is part of the cult of independence. For the Kim dynasty to survive, the threat of external enemies is essential.
The fall of the Soviet Union was a disaster for North Korea, as it was for Cuba; not only did Soviet economic support evaporate, but the Kims could no longer play off one power against another. Only China was left, and North Korea’s dependence on its northern neighbour is now almost total. China could crush North Korea in a day just by cutting off food and fuel.
There’s only one way to divert attention from this humiliating predicament: Propaganda about self-reliance and the imminent threat from U.S. imperialists and their South Korean lackeys must be turned up to a hysterical pitch. Without this orchestrated paranoia, the Kims have no legitimacy. And no tyranny can survive for long by relying on brute force alone.
Some people argue that the U.S. could enhance security in Northeast Asia by compromising with the North Koreans -- specifically, by promising not to attack or try to topple the Kim regime. The Americans are unlikely to agree to this, and South Korea would not want them to. Apart from anything else, there’s an important domestic political reason for U.S. reticence: a Democratic president can’t afford to look “soft.” More important, even if the U.S. were to provide such guarantees to North Korea, the regime’s paranoid propaganda would probably continue, given the centrality to Juche of fear of the outside world.
The tragedy of Korea is that no one really wishes to change the status quo: China wants to keep North Korea as a buffer state, and fears millions of refugees in the event of a North Korean collapse; the South Koreans could never afford to absorb North Korea in the way that West Germany absorbed the broken German Democratic Republic; and neither Japan nor the U.S. would relish paying to clean up after a North Korean implosion.
And so an explosive situation will remain explosive, North Korea’s population will continue to suffer famines and tyranny, and words of war will continue to fly back and forth across the 38th parallel. So far, they’re just words. But small things -- a shot in Sarajevo, as it were -- can trigger a catastrophe. And North Korea still has those nuclear bombs.
--Ian Buruma is a professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.