The latest crisis emanating from Pyongyang is almost enough to make you nostalgic for Kim Jong-il who died at the end of 2011. Sure, he may have been a murderous tyrant who lived the high life while his people literally starved—but at least he was predictable and conservative in his actions. Not so his callow son and successor Kim Jong-un, who appears bent on escalating tensions with South Korea, the United States, and Japan so as to consolidate his shaky legitimacy to rule the North.
Young Kim’s regime has already said it will no longer abide by the Korean War armistice and that a “state of war” now exists on the peninsula. He has tested nuclear and ballistic weapons. He has cut off the redline telephones that maintained communications with the U.S. and South Korea. He has threatened to attack not only South Korea but the U.S.—in fact displaying supposed war plans toward that end in a doctored photo. He is also widely suspected of launching a cyber attack on South Korea.
On Monday, North Korean authorities announced that their military would require more preparation time in order to send a long-range rocket, due to technical difficulties. Only two days later, the North Koreans fired the missile to the world’s surprise and, soon, condemnation. This is a familiar dance between the North Koreans and the international community, and one that has played out for three generations of Kims in power in the reclusive totalitarian state. In this month’s issue of COMMENTARY, Jay P. Lefkowitz discussed the phenomenon:
The Six Party Talks have fostered a dynamic whereby every time the regime needs foreign assistance, it engages in a provocative action, whether of a military or diplomatic nature, that is seen as a threat to the stability of the region. The international community then condemns the action and threatens, or imposes, new sanctions. The North Koreans promise to be on better behavior and are rewarded with an infusion of hard currency or food aid. Soon, North Korea flexes its muscles again and the cycle of aggression, reaction, and reward begins afresh.
Today’s New York Times article featuring interviews with a handful of North Koreans visiting China should throw a big pail of cold water on the excessive hopes expressed by so many who think that the new dictator, Kim Jong-un, is likely to transform the country he inherited, like a piece of furniture or real estate, from the previous dictator, his dad Kim Jong-il. Like other dictatorial spawn–including, lest we forget, Bashar Assad–the younger Kim has taken a few stylistic steps to distinguish himself from the old man. These include allowing women in Pyongyang to wear Western-style clothes and backing amusement parks for the elite. Young Kim is even speaking in public, something his father famously refused to do.
But the conditions of the vast majority of North Koreans remain grim. As the Times article notes, “The price of rice has doubled since early summer, and chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials continue to idle most factories, leaving millions unemployed.” The Times reporter quotes a middle-aged woman known as Mrs. Kim: “Why would I care about the new clothing of government officials and their children when I can’t feed my family?” Ordinary North Koreans, even relatively privileged ones like her, spend much of their time simply trying to scrounge up enough food to survive. The article sums up conditions thus: “Emaciated beggars haunt train stations, they said, while well-connected businessmen continue to grow rich from trading with China and government officials flourish by collecting fines and bribes.”
The answer should be stunningly obvious, but don’t tell Reuters. In the course of an article about the divergent fates that await victorious North Korean athletes and those who have failed, comes this:
The reality is that life is tough in North Korea in the best of times, however. International sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, a decaying economy and a defective food distribution system have left almost a third of its 24 million people poor and hungry and it has few friends besides its neighbor China.
It really takes an intellectual contortionist wearing blinders to miss so utterly the reasons for North Korea’s failure: it’s a totalitarian state that holds its own citizens in contempt. International sanctions may target the North’s weapons program but, if sanctions were waived tomorrow, the only beneficiaries would be Kim Jong-un and the military. The food distribution system is not defective, just misaligned. After all, it was the regime and military that benefited when the Clinton administration shipped food aid to North Korea. The regime maintains the Songbun, a social classification system that marks North Koreans for life. A tiny few benefit; most are disposable.
North Korea’s new dictator, Kim Jong-un, is getting a lot of publicity for the stylistic changes that separate him from his recently departed father, Kim Jong-il. He has actually made speeches in public. He has shown up at a concert where Mickey Mouse and other (unlicensed) Disney characters performed. And now he has revealed that he has a wife, the good-looking young “comrade,” Ri Sol-ju. There have even been reports of a top general getting fired, a move whose import is hotly debated among North Korea watchers–is the regime rent by dangerous schisms or is this a sign that young Kim is consolidating control?
No one knows. Which is precisely the point. Dear Leader the 3rd is getting breathless attention for pulling back the curtain a millimeter on his life. Only in the context of the world’s most closely controlled Stalinist state is this news. The fact that no one has any idea of what is actually going on behind the scenes suggests that we should not be distracted by a few publicity stunts. Life in North Korea has not changed a whit since the 3rd Dear Leader took over from the 2nd. A quarter of a million North Koreans remain confined to hellish gulags and the rest of the population–24 million people–is still living in the most abject poverty and isolation. Meanwhile, the leadership continues to lavish what little money they have on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and their own extravagant perks.
If President Obama wrote a thesaurus, he’d probably list “friendship” and “respect” as synonyms. When he and his allies seek affirmation for their foreign policy, they cite the friendly relations they have with some of the world’s worst dictators and would-be dictators.
Obama is willing to hand dissidents and defectors back to their oppressors; write human rights off the agenda with Russia; and calls Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan one of his closest friends. Previously, he reached out to Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi and Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.
Establishing friendly relations with dictators is not hard: All one needs to do is cede all principle and give them everything they want. Take Kim Jong-un: While even Obama would not go so far, he could make the young North Korean demigod America’s closest ally if only he would abandon South Korea, withdraw U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula, and provide all the luxury goods money could buy.
On Feb. 29, the Obama administration agreed to give North Korea 240,000 tons of food aid in return for a return for a North Korean moratorium on long-range missile tests, nuclear tests, uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities. Then last week North Korea announced that it was planning a satellite launch which of course involves using a long-range rocket in contravention of the “leap day” deal. This week North Korea says it will welcome International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors back after a hiatus of three years, thus seemingly upholding another aspect of the deal.
What’s going on? Why is Pyongyang making deals, then taking actions that immediately repudiate them, while promising to adhere to other parts of the accord? No one really knows whether this is sheer duplicity on the part of the North Korean leadership or a rivalry among different branches of the government, some of which might want to strike a deal and others that don’t. Given that North Korea has a young and untested leader, Kim Jong-un, anything is possible. But whatever the case there is absolutely no reason to trust the North Koreans who, under the dictatorship of Kim Jung Il, father of the current supreme leader, showed a genius for manipulating the West into reaching deals and then violating all of their commitments.