Neil Faulkner assesses the latest Korean crisis in the light of the peninsula’s troubled history.
The death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il has put the erratic and secretive regime in Pyongyang back under the international spotlight. The great powers with an interest in the Korean peninsula – China, Russia, Japan, and the US – are on diplomatic and military alert. North Korea remains what it has been for 60 years: one of the world’s potential flashpoints. Why is this?
The problem is not simply the anomalous character of the Pyongyang regime. This, indeed, merely reflects the tortured history of the peninsula at the hands of rival imperial powers since the late 19th century.
North Korea is a paranoid police state with a massively bloated military apparatus. Reporting the death of ‘the Great Leader’, the North Korean state news agency claimed that, ‘he turned the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] into an invincible political and ideological power and made it emerge a nuclear state and an invincible military power which no enemy can ever provoke’.
It was North Korean nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 that led to a renewed freezing of relations between Pyongyang and the US. But the country’s nuclear programme was a defensive response by the Stalinist party-state bureaucracy that rules North Korea – a response to a perceived long-term external threat to the state’s existence.
This point must be stressed. Nuclear aggression would be national suicide for the dictatorship. North Korea is estimated to have enough plutonium to make around eight nuclear weapons. Its No Dang ballistic missiles have a range of 870 miles – sufficient to reach South Korea and Japan. It may have a submarine with nuclear launch capability. But that is it. The significance of Kim Jong-un’s nuclear arsenal is not that it facilitates any kind of aggression, but that it precludes a fate like that of Serbia, Iraq, or Libya.
The price has been very high. North Korea is desperately poor. Most of its 23 million people live in poverty. Annual health expenditure is just $22 per capita, and the infant mortality rate is an estimated 50 per 1,000, 12 times higher than that of South Korea. Hundreds of thousands died in famines which swept the country in the 1990s, while the dictator dined on sushi washed down with cognac.
Such is the hatred engendered by the regime that around 200,000 prisoners languish in its prisons. The military insecurity of the state is routinely used to brand dissidents as traitors. In this sense, the extreme militarisation of North Korea – specifically, the permanent state of tension along the DMZ (the Demilitarised Zone dividing the two Koreas) – serves the internal propaganda purposes of the dictatorship.
North Korea, then, is a paranoid military dictatorship based on fear. The ruling class lives in fear of both external attack and internal revolt. The masses live in fear of the secret police and the regime’s gulags.
Do not be fooled by state TV images purporting to show mass public grief for the dead dictator. You can see the real thing by looking at images of ordinary Czechs honouring Vaclav Havel. The North Korean images depict something completely different: hysterical playacting induced by fear.
But the madness that is North Korea cannot be understood except in a wider geopolitical context.
The Korean peninsula is too small to harbour a great power. Its historical fate is to be dominated by the great powers around it. Again and again, these powers have collided in a struggle for control of the peninsula.
The Japanese wrested control of Korea from the Chinese Empire through victory in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). They then consolidated their grip, and took effective control of Manchuria as well, by defeating the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Japan then formally annexed Korea in 1910, retaining control until 1945.
Korea was then carved up. At the end of the Second World War, it was divided at the 38th Parallel into Soviet and US occupation zones. Then, as the Cold War intensified, the division became permanent, with two separate states formed in 1948.
A three-year war to reunite the country between 1950 and 1953 again drew in the great powers, the Chinese on the side of the North, the US and its allies on that of the South. Millions were killed, most cities destroyed, and both countries left economically prostrate.
The Korean War ended in stalemate, but without any formal peace agreement, the tension along the border fossilised for more than half a century in barbed wire, watch-towers, and ritualised military confrontation.
How dangerous is North Korea? The question is misleading. North Korea, the deformed offspring of international superpower rivalry, is a minor state. The real worry is that the DMZ is one of the fracture lines of global geopolitics – one of the places where the shifting tectonic plates of a world system in crisis could produce an explosion.