North Korea exists. That alone is an extraordinary fact. It is a relic of the Cold War, a liminal nation, persisting on the frontiers of what was once the second world. It is less than 200km from Pyongyang to Seoul, yet the two capitals of a divided Korea could not be more different. One is the home of Gangnam Style and is a 21st-century global city; the other is stuck in the 2nd century. The North Korean calendar is based on the birthday of Kim Il-sung, the founder of modern North Korea as well as the Kim dynasty which rules it, making 2018 107 in Pyongyang. It is an example of how much North Korea revolves around the Kims, the dynasty that has ruled the North for three generations and seventy years. Statues of the Eternal Leader litter the country, with reports that there as many as 34,000 of them, or one for every 750 citizens. It is a country always looking to the past.
The Kim myth is the creation story for modern North Korea. The peninsula has been at the mercy of foreign influence for centuries, and from 1910 it was a colony of a growing Japanese Empire. Portrayed as a liberator who helped expel the Japanese during the Second World War, the guerrilla leader Kim Il-sung became the national sovereign. With the division of Korea, the US took up the role of imperial colonialists, vacated by the defeated Japanese. The North sees the South’s regimes as illegitimate collaborators, who worked with both overlords. Park Chung-hee, the authoritarian president of South Korea during its transformation into a modern powerhouse, even took the name Takagi Masao while he fought for the Manchukuo Imperial Army hunting down guerillas such as Kim.
As the Second World War changed the US forever and fostered the growth of the consumer society which would eventually spread around the globe, the Korean War had a similarly transformative effect on the North. Bombs levelled the state. Dean Rusk, Secretary of State under JFK and Lyndon B. Johnson, said that the US had destroyed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” The material effect on the country was one that it has still not recovered from, lagging far, far behind the South. But equally as influential was the political effect. Kim Il-sung’s power was entrenched, he had ‘defeated’ the American imperialists, and the state became one whose priority was survival. It became a fortress state and a hermit kingdom.
The conflict with, first, the Japanese and then the US is the locus of the North Korean identity. In many ways, it still sees itself as fighting a war against the imperialists, and not only because the Korean War is technically still being fought. The guiding principle of the North Korean regime is Juche or self-reliance. To rely on outside help, as was needed during the Korean War, is a weakness. Korea will never be free, the thought continues, unless it does not need help from anyone. Kim Jong-un’s pursuit of a nuclear deterrent is part of this.
Armed with a bomb that can do devastating damage to the continental US, and a system to get one there, the younger Kim may now see this as the time to change tack. The US can no longer intervene in the North with impunity. While beforehand only Korean lives were threatened, with artillery pieces trained on Seoul, now those living in San Francisco, Chicago, or New York are threatened if Washington attempts any attempt to dethrone the establishment.
The chance to improve the economic conditions of the North may now take on a more prominent role. Relegated to an afterthought in the grim pursuit of a weapon that could do more than bloody the nose of the worldwide superpower, it may now take centre stage. Byungjin is the latest ideology promoted by Kim. It is the notion of the dual development of nuclear weapons and the economy. Under byungjin, the regime has relaxed its control over foreign currency, allowing dollars to circulate instead of the native won, as well as ignoring some minor market endeavours. Park En-na, a South Korean diplomat, paints the picture of a recovering economy:
“Kim has introduced many new elements to the economy. To some extent, they even allowed privatisation.”
The North remains a brutal dictatorship. A cult of personality surrounds the ruling Kim family who uses the notion of a revolutionary bloodline to cement their place at the head of an authoritarian regime. It has ignored the plight of its people, who have gone hungry, thirsty and without access to even the most basic of modern amenities for decades. It is a regime that has always feared that it may be removed and that Korea may be under the heal of yet another colonial empire. Now, with the means to secure itself from foreign meddling, it is reaching out once again.
Donald Trump is a destabilising influence on international politics. He is belligerent, bullying and unpredictable. But a summit between the US President and the Supreme Leader could not have been predicted a year ago. The world will certainly change after June the 12th. The only hope is that it is a change for the good of Koreans, both North and South.
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