The Most Dangerous Country

September 1, 1999 Topic: Society Regions: Asia Tags: Cold WarCommunismMutual Assured Destruction

The Most Dangerous Country

Mini Teaser: A close look at North Korea, a country with a demonstrated capacity for coming up with unpleasant surprises.

by Author(s): Nicholas Eberstadt

In 1992, two years before his death, Kim Il Sung, the "Great Leader"
of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea),
began to publish a compendium of reminiscences about his life and
times. Although he inhabited a society that automatically acclaimed
his every utterance for its immortal wisdom, the old man--the only
ruler the state had ever known until then--could rightly believe that
nonetheless he had an epic story to tell.

This former Soviet Red Army officer, after all, had survived dire
perils and had gone on to savor triumphs of historic proportion. In
1950 he launched the Korean War in the mistaken hope of quickly
overrunning and absorbing the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South
Korea). Although his grave miscalculation led to an international
embroilment that devastated his country, he managed to emerge from
the disaster intact and unbowed. The world's greatest power, the
United States, had fought against him for three years and had been
unable to defeat him.

In contradistinction to other communist governments (whose doctrines
regarded dynastic succession as inherently counterrevolutionary), Kim
openly founded a socialist dynasty in North Korea, with his brother
and then later his son designated as heir to, and vanguard of, the
revolutionary tradition. And he originated a quasi-religious
philosophy, juche-thought. Juche's twenty million avowed
adherents--the entire populace of his country--had been taught that
the destiny and salvation of the Korean people, who had been
partitioned between two separate and mutually hostile states through
the settlements of World War II, would lie in an eventual
reunification beneath an independent, socialist government--that is
to say, Kim's own government, directed by Kim's own family.

Although Kim's memoirs ostensibly recounted events past, they were
suffused with the Great Leader's confidence that he knew what lay in
store for his regime--and, indeed, for all Korea. The conviction that
history was on the side of his North Korean project was conveyed by
images throughout the book, and, perhaps most significantly, by its
title: Segi Wa Toburo--"With the Century." But as the end of Kim's
century now approaches, very different sorts of images of North Korea
prevail. Some of those were conveyed in an arresting videotape
broadcast on Japanese and South Korean television in December 1998.
Shot secretly by a North Korean refugee, the video presented scenes
from everyday life in several towns in the DPRK. Western journalists
who watched the program described what they saw:

"Barefoot orphans sucking fishbones in a squalid outdoor market;
women picking lice from each other's hair; men wading into a river to
fish out the bodies of friends who starved to death or were shot by
border guards."

In one scene, an emaciated boy staggers from hunger as the cameraman
asks him where he lives. The child is an orphan and lives on what
scraps he can find in the open air market. He is clearly close to
collapse. In another harrowing scene, a small girl tries to scoop
dirty water to drink from a puddle with a plastic bag. Some of the
children said they had run away from state-run 'relief centres' where
the only food was two ladles of corn gruel a day. In some cases their
parents had died or gone away to search for food and never came back.

The images were shocking because they were so anomalous. Desperate
hunger is not supposed to strike societies that are urbanized,
industrialized and free from chaos or war. Yet urban, industrial
North Korea was--and is--manifestly in the grip of a terrible and
protracted food crisis. Pyongyang had formally issued an emergency
appeal for international humanitarian food aid in 1995, the year
after Kim Il Sung's death; international relief operations have been
under way ever since. At the end of the twentieth century, the regime
has lost the capability to feed its own populace. In fact, its
failure is so pervasive, so deep and so irremediable that we may now
begin to speak of, and to contemplate, the end of the North Korean

In the most obvious of senses, of course, that project is still very
much with us at the end of 1999. The DPRK continues to function as a
state: it vigorously controls its borders (and the people within
them); it conducts a foreign policy; it demands--and enjoys--all the
recognitions of sovereignty. Yet at the same time one can also say
that the North Korean project, in some profound and meaningful sense,
has already come to an end. For it has totally failed to accomplish
the missions for which it was ostensibly constructed--missions,
indeed, on which the DPRK's authority and legitimacy have always been

Those missions were, first and foremost, the unification of the
entire Korean Peninsula under its rule; and second, the
implementation of a program of sustained socialist growth that would
permit the state to amass steady power and allow the populace to
enjoy a modicum of prosperity. The North Korean system has not
achieved either of those objectives. But more than that: from our
current vantage point it is apparent that socialist North Korea is
systemically incapable of accomplishing those very objectives that
justify its existence. The failure of North Korea's unification quest
and of its economic formula mark the end of any positive purpose for
the North Korean state.

The Unification Project

To understand North Korea's circumstances today, we must begin with
an interpretation of its relentless, bold and yet ultimately
fruitless quest for unification of the Korean Peninsula on its own
terms. Interpretation is the operative term here, as all students of
North Korean affairs will appreciate. The North Korean government
has, for over fifty years, enshrouded itself in deliberately
fashioned mystery. By conscious and long-standing design, less
reliable information is available about the DPRK than perhaps any
other country in the modern world. (Compared with it, contemporary
China is an open book.) To complicate matters further, "strategic
deception"--that is to say, programmatic efforts to mislead potential
opponents about intentions and capabilities--always seems to have
figured prominently in North Korean statecraft. (Events leading up to
Pyongyang's surprise attack against South Korea in June 1950
constitute the most famous of those exercises, but it is merely a
single case in point.) The problematic nature of that evidentiary
record, it is worth noting, goes far in explaining why contemporary
North Korea watchers can and often do arrive at dramatically
different conclusions about the meaning and significance of given
reports about, or pronouncements by, the DPRK.

Yet I would submit that from the very inception of the North Korean
state the DPRK has maintained a consistent diagnosis of the problems
of a divided Korea, and has cleaved to a consistent prescription for
remedying them. From the very beginning, Pyongyang's leadership
regarded the Republic of Korea to the south as a flawed, corrupt and
illegitimate regime, a government with little chance of surviving on
its own and with no right to do so. And from the very beginning,
"unification" meant unification on Pyongyang's terms and Pyongyang's
terms alone.

Thus for the DPRK, the Korean War, far from constituting a
catastrophe that impelled new thinking about the unification
question, seems instead simply to have been chalked up as an
understandable miscalculation: an initial, imperfect application of a
fundamentally sound unification strategy. Over the next several
decades, North Korea systematically and meticulously prepared to
consummate that strategy by building its military might and waiting
for the crisis in South Korea or the rupture in Washington-Seoul
relations that would allow it to accomplish its mission.

The awaited opening never arrived. By the 1980s, it was apparent that
North Korea's unification policy--which at bottom had always been a
gamble--was a lost bet. Contrary to the DPRK's caricatures, the
Republic of Korea had developed into one of the postwar era's great
economic success stories. And by the late 1980s, the South Korean
political system, which had finally embraced the principles of
constitutional democracy, was steadily gaining strength, confidence
and domestic support. The U.S.-South Korean alliance, too, looked
stronger than ever. Pyongyang's allies, by contrast, had made it
clear that they would not aid the DPRK if it were to provoke another
crisis on the Korean Peninsula. In Leninist terminology, the
"correlation of forces" between the two Koreas had tilted
unmistakably against the DPRK and seemed set only to worsen in the
future. North Korea had missed its chance.

From our present vantage point, we may be tempted to conclude that
the unification strategy was doomed from the start. It was not. If
events had played out only somewhat differently, it might well have
succeeded. For several decades, after all, there was more than a
little truth in Pyongyang's view of the ROK as a fragile and
potentially unstable system. Until the late 1980s, South Korea had
not effected a single peaceful transfer of presidential power, and as
late as 1979 a South Korean president was assassinated by his own
security chief. Pyongyang's expectation that Washington would retreat
from its commitment to Seoul was not just wishful thinking: during
the 1960s and much of the 1970s--as the Vietnam debacle
unfolded--such a prognosis would have seemed prescient to many
independent observers.

Essay Types: Essay