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North Korea: Time to Break the Logic Leading to War

Perceptions of the crisis in the Korean peninsula are coloured by the simplistic assumptions that the Pyongyang government is irrational, and the Seoul government is a model of peaceful reasonableness.

Nevertheless, it is clear that currently the leadership of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship, and it is certainly to be hoped that the calls for restraint by the Chinese government will make Pyongyang step back. Chinese President Xi Jinping has also made it clear to South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye that China’s interest is to work more closely with South Korea as well a North Korea to achieve peace, stability and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

It seems superfluous to comment on the comic-opera absurdities of North Korea’s public life. Indeed the Internet film 007 v the man in Black (007大战黑衣人), by the Chinese director Hu Ge, released in 2007 bitterly satirised the bleak life and vainglorious pretentions of Kim Jong-Il’s regime; and has received a huge audience across Asia. However, the military tension on the Korean peninsula is no laughing matter, and the failure of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to provide a sustainable economy that can support the basic needs of food security, dignity and comfort for the population is a matter of grave concern.

The absence of any transparency in decision making, and the florid, reality-defying optimism of the DPRK’s press releases, mean that there are few outward signifiers of the WPK leaderships’ thinking. However, defector Kim Dong-su has described the evolution of North Korean policy: “From the mid-1990s to today nuclear diplomacy was the key,” he said, adding that the objective was “as much aid as possible”.

North Korea is certainly standing in a difficult position. It is now alone in the world in seeking a self-sufficient, central command economy; and its population can compare its sorry condition with the greater liberalism and higher standards of living in both its neighbours: The People’ Republic of China and The Republic of Korea.

Indeed, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has a justified reputation as one of the most repressive states in the world, and a society that even fails to meet the basic needs of its population for food security. What is more, the grotesque immorality of the famous kidnappings of Japanese children to groom as potential spies, and the refusal of the DPRK to cooperate with international agencies even in the face of famine suggest a collapse of any ethical conception of how governments should respect basic human decency.

As such it is easy to compare North Korea with the prosperity and relatively liberal democratic regime of South Korea, and conclude that North Korea is proof of the failure of socialism. Certainly it is correct to characterise North Korea as a dysfunctional society. And no-one should hold up North Korea as a model to be emulated.

But to understand North Korea of today we not only need to understand its history and genesis, but also how the isolation and paranoia of the Korean Workers’ Party government is encouraged and reciprocated to this day by the South Koreans and the USA.

North Korea is a “national security state”, where military considerations shape the society. It is not unique in that, for example, in different ways both Israel and Pakistan share some characteristics of societies where protracted military rivalries and bloated security superstructures have distorted the priorities of national life.

What is unique about North Korea is the Quixotic asymmetry of the military rivalry, that this tiny state challenges the USA; the extraordinary level of state control and lack of independent civil society; and the sustained effort to achieve economic self-sufficiency.

Even an erroneous theory can be founded upon a valid insight, and the Cliffite analysis that military competition introduced an element of compulsion towards competitive accumulation of the command economies, does have the merit of drawing attention to a genuine dynamic. In the extraordinary case of the DPRK, one in 25 of the male population is a serving soldier, and 20% of GDP goes towards the military; that is, North Korea is perpetually at the level of military preparedness for war.

Yet perhaps not all is as it seems, as Asia Times reported

Defector Kim Dong-su described the evolution of North Korean policy – and the North’s economy – from the heights of the 1960s and 1970s to the depths of near-collapse beginning in the 1980s at a meeting of the Sejong Society at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Kim, who defected from the North Korean Embassy in Rome, said that North Korea had focused on winning support internationally after the Korean War but that the economy began to deteriorate in the 1980s when the government spent heavily on the armed forces.

“From the mid-1990s to today nuclear diplomacy was the key,” he said, adding that the objective was “as much aid as possible”.

While the DPRK is notoriously secretive, it is known that Russia is interested in upgrading the North’s railway system to allow a transport corridor from the Eastern Russia port of Vladivovstok to South Korea, and that currently the North Korean railway system doesn’t allow trains to go faster than 15 MPH. The DPRK lacks the industrial capacity to repair its own rail system and the giant steel making complex in the city of Chongjin on the northeast coast , which exemplified North Korea’s relative economic success in the 1960s and 1970s, has fallen into disuse during North Korea’s protracted economic crisis.

North Korea lacks the military and industrial capacity to invade South Korea, even if the Seoul government were not under the American umbrella. So paradoxically they have too great a military capacity to be justified by national defence, but insufficient capability for aggression. The suggestion from Kim Dong-su that Pyongyang is playing a game of brinkmanship, trading passive-aggressive attention seeking behaviour for aid is therefore not entirely far fetched. Even the possession of nuclear weapons by North Korea, a genuinely worrying development, cannot seriously be taken as evidenced of aggressive intent, given the whirlwind their use would reap.

Given that the DPRK is locked into this dysfunctional behaviour, it is necessary to consider whether the actions of South Korea and the USA are contributing to the crisis rather than resolving it. There is no doubt that North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, and the alleged sinking in 2010 of the South Korean warship, Cheonan with the cost of 46 lives, are serious complications for normalising relations with the DPRK.

The official stance is not so helpful. The recent war games between South Korea and the USA were a massive show of force, and were provocative towards the north. And South Korea continually escalates tension itself, for example falsely claiming yesterday that North Korea was planning a nuclear test, then today being forced to retract the claim. Following the nuclear test by the DPRK in February, the U.S. responded with further economic sanctions and deployment of nuclear-cable stealth B-2 bombers and F-22 fighters to participate in the recent military exercises with South Korea.

The American government seemed oblivious to how it is received from Pyongyang: 3.5 million people died in the Korean war, and American aerial bombardment of the North caused devastating civilian losses and economic destruction. Today there are 28500 US troops permanently in Korea, and the Pyongyang government has recently observed Iraq and Afghanistan torn apart by American military invasion.

As the old joke says, Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. So while the Pyongyang government is despotic, and presides over an appallingly failed economy, the current policies of the US government do nothing to break Pynongyang out of its dangerous cycle. In contrast, China restored diplomatic and economic ties with North Korea almost 20 years ago, during which time Beijing has been able to build and exercise a moderating influence. Similar patient diplomacy paid off for the USA with North Korea under Jimmy Carter’s presidency, with an unexpectedly conciliatory response from Pyongyang once the USA offered direct talks and aid.

One of the most remarkable aspects of political discussion of Korea, is the short memories of those who laud South Korea today. Remember that for most of its history, until the comparatively recent elections in 1987, the South Korean Republic of Korea was also a harsh military dictatorship. Nigel Harris’s 1990 book “The End of the Third World” documents the appalling political repression, Dickensian working conditions, and extraordinary levels of pollution in Seoul at that time. South Korea also had a broadly state-capitalist economy, where investment decisions and macro-economic policy were controlled by the government through four giant corporations. Through the 1960s and 1970s, North and South Korea would have been recognisable as twins.

Korea had been occupied by Japan from 1910, and along with brutal political repression its economy and civil society were entirely subordinated to Japan’s. The more industrial north provided mining of raw materials and basic processing, but had no advanced manufacturing capacity, and all communication links were to the ports; what is more, industry and civic administration relied almost exclusively upon Japanese colonial expertise.

With the defeat of Japan in 1945, much of the Korean peninsula had been overrun by the Soviet Red Army, but the United States unilaterally decided to partition the country into two zones with a border at the 38th Parallel.

According to a paper written for the Federal Research Division of the US library of Congress:

By 1947 it appeared that South Korea would become the only area of mainland Northeast Asia not under communist control. According to one highly placed official, this was an “exposed, unsound military position, one that [was] doing no good.”
Lieutenant General John R. Hodge, commander of the United States occupation forces in Korea, was obliged to work under a severe handicap–a mission of maintaining peace and order until the international conflict over Korea was resolved. Possessing very limited resources, Hodge was expected to pursue the “ultimate objective” of fostering “conditions which would bring about the establishment of a free and independent nation.”
General Hodge had to contend with hostile Korean political groups. Before United States forces had landed in Korea in September 1945, the Koreans had established self-governing bodies, or people’s committees. The leaders of these committees had organized the Central People’s Committee, which proclaimed the establishment of the “Korean People’s Republic” on September 6, 1945. Exiles, abroad, mainly in China, had organized the “Korean Provisional Government” in Shanghai as early as 1919 and had sustained a skeletal organization in other parts of China until 1945.

United States ignorance of Korean politics, their unilateral declaration of a five year period of military occupation, their refusal to recognise the legitimacy of Korean authorities, their opposition to land reform, and their support for Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese made them deeply unpopular.

Once the United States occupation force chose to bolster the status quo and resist radical reform of colonial legacies, it immediately ran into monumental opposition to its policies from the majority of South Koreans. The United States Army Military Government in Korea (1945-48) spent most of its first year suppressing the many people’s committees that had emerged in the provinces. This action provoked a massive rebellion in the fall of 1946; after the rebellion was suppressed, radical activists developed a significant guerrilla movement in 1948 and 1949. Activists also touched off a major rebellion at the port of Ysu in South Korea in October 1948. Much of this disorder resulted from unresolved land problem caused by conservative landed factions who used their bureaucratic power to block redistribution of land to peasant tenants.

And they were facing economic and social collapse:

The division of Korea into two zones at an arbitrary line further aggravated the situation. There were many inherent problems in building a self-sufficient economy in the southern half of the peninsula. Most of the heavy industrial facilities were located in northern Korea–the Soviet zone–including the chemical plants that produced necessary agricultural fertilizers. Light industries in southern Korea had been dependent on electricity from the hydraulic generators located on the Yalu River on the Korean-Manchurian border; electric generating facilities in the south supplied only 9 percent of the total need. Railroads and industries in the south also had been dependent upon bituminous coal imported from Manchuria, Japan, and the north (although the south had been exporting some excess anthracite to the north).

The problems were compounded by the fact that most of Korea’s mines and industries had been owned and operated by Japan. As the United States military government let the 700,000 Japanese depart from South Korea in the months following the start of the American occupation, almost all of the mines and factories–now enemy properties vested in the military government–were without managers, technicians, and capital resources. This situation led to severe problems of unemployment and material shortages.
The months after the arrival of occupation forces also witnessed a vast inflow of population. South Korea’s population, estimated at just over 16 million in 1945, grew by 21 percent during the next year. By 1950 more than 1 million workers had returned from Japan, 120,000 from China and Manchuria, and 1.8 million from the north. The annual rate of increase of births over deaths continued at about 3.1 percent. Since rural areas were inhospitable to newcomers, most of the refugees settled in urban areas; Seoul received upwards of one-third of the total. The situation was further aggravated by scarcities of food and other commodities and by runaway inflation, caused in part by the fact that the departing Japanese had flooded Korea with newly printed yen.

The social unrest created by these developments can be easily surmised. By 1947 only about half the labor force of 10 million was gainfully employed. Labor strikes and work stoppages were recurrent phenomena, and demonstrations against the United States military government’s policies drew large crowds. Temporary stoppages of electricity–supplied from the northern areas–in the early part of 1946 and late 1947 plunged the southern region into darkness on each occasion, deepening the despair of the populace. The disillusioned and disconcerted people paid keen attention to political leaders of various persuasions who offered new ways of solving the Korean problem.

The United States then proceeded with extraordinary incompetence. The United Nations had resolved in November 1947 to support the demilitarisation of Korea after national elections, but because of the political and economic crises, and the sidelining of all Korean participation in decision making, most political parties in the South, of both left and right, and all parties in the Soviet occupied north boycotted the elections.

On April 8th 1948 President Truman ordered the withdrawal of all American troops, One week later, an independent republic of South Korea was proclaimed based upon the flawed election, an unilateral move by the USA to permanently partition the country. US troops continued to pull out and they were all withdrawn by June 29th 1949.

The USA were driven by two conflicting imperatives. They didn’t want to defend the South Korean peninsula, which they correctly judged could only be done at enormous military cost; but at the same time they did not want to encourage the unification and independence of Korea under Communist rule. So they created a puppet state, and withdrew their military forces.

But Korea was not Germany. It had been under extraordinarily harsh colonial occupation by Japan, and anyone who had collaborated with that occupation was hated. Independence was the burning national aspiration, and the artificial partitioning of the country was seen by most Koreans as compromising independence. South Korea was also predominantly rural, and economically under-developed, and unlike Germany, Korea had been a historically united nation for hundreds of years. The new American sponsored Republic of Korea had no legitimacy in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of Koreans.

We also need to look at development in the north of the peninsula during the 1940s without the benefit of hindsight. The Korean Communist Party was primarily based in the rural south, had been expelled from the Comintern in 1932, and had no links with Moscow. However, a number of Koreans had been members of the Chinese Communist Party, and had been fighting against the Japanese since the early 1930s. Following heavy losses these Korean guerrillas escaped into the USSR, where they were trained and joined the Red Army. (The USSR was not at war with Japan, so this was a respite from the guerrilla struggle)

When the USSR did declare war on Japan and swept through Manchuria and Korea in 1945 they took these “Russian Koreans” with them; and the young Captain Kim was chosen as leader of the new provisional administration of the north.

Kim had a number of defining characteristics therefore. In a nation where the only relevant measure of political credibility was opposition to the Japanese, Kim had been a guerrilla soldier since he was 21 years old. But Kim also had absolutely no political or organisational base within Korea except that given to him by the Red Army. He was also a fiercely independent nationalist and a soldier, rather than a politician.

In 1948 Kim created a professional army out of the guerrillas, the Korean Peoples Army, and Soviet influence forced a merger of Kim’s New People’s Party (based upon the army) and the old Communist Party, to form the Korean Workers Party (KWP), with Kim as its chairman.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Communist Parties followed a peculiar practice of the leader cult (In Britain, the leader cult surrounded not Pollitt, but Tom Mann), where there was a curiously impersonal celebration of the leader as a personification of the party, based upon a biography of their career in the movement, stripped of any personality. Kim Il-sung however had no political career, and the party was formed after he came to power. So in Korea the leader cult took on an even more exaggerated form, and the KWP opposed the measures taken to de-Stalinise the parties following Khrushchev’s 1956 speech at the 20th Congress of the CPSU. As a result the cult of Kim was always unusually personal, building him up as a red monarch.

So even in its earliest stages we see the characteristics of the DPRK emerging. Kim Il-sung was a nationalist guerrilla leader whose alignment with the Communist movement was largely conjunctural, and his base in Korea was from the earliest days founded upon the military; furthermore, Korea’s particular geo-strategic position meant that Kim maintained a degree of independence by playing Beijing and Moscow off one another. However, just because the germ existed from the beginning does not mean that the current outcome was inevitable.

The economic and social model imported from the USSR was successful within its limitations, the KWP became a mass party of both workers and peasants, with some 3 million members; state direction of the economy in both South and North Korea brought economic reorganisation and growth. A home grown professional and managerial cadre was forged to take over the roles vacated by the Japanese. The DPRK’s economy was more successful than the ROK’s until the mid 1960s, and comparable until the late 1970s. In the fields of education, health provision, elimination of illiteracy, starting from a very low base, enormous progress was made.

Before we look at why the DPRK entered crisis, it is necessary to look at the question of the Korean war, and how this has ever since shaped life on the peninsula.

On January 12th 1950, US President Truman declared that South Korea was outside the American Far East security cordon. We need to understand the political context that the DPRK claimed sovereignty over the whole of Korea, while the ROK had no more nor less legitimacy than the succession of the Confederate States of America in 1861. President Lincoln responded to that pro-slavery rebellion by war to reunite the nation.

What is more, in the context of the 1940s, the People’s Republic of China had recently absorbed a number of warlord polities and secessionist states that had been thrown up during the long war of independence against Japan and subsequent civil war. National unification was a necessary condition for overcoming the legacy of colonialism.

The Korean war for unification saw almost immediate and stunning success. The People’s Army started moving south on June 25th 1950, by 29th the Southern capital of Seoul was in their control, and the ROK’s army cut off and encircled north of the Han river. The war was over.

Let us draw a line there, and consider an alternative history. If the USSR had not been boycotting participation in the United Nations they would have exercised a security council veto on any military action by the UN. The USA could not have unilaterally intervened in Korea, having just clarified that it had no military alliance with the Republic of Korea. There would have been no escalation of the war, and a united Korea would have developed along the lines of other communist states.

Instead, the USA invaded Korea, the war cost Korean 3.5 million dead; the US then refused to give assurances to the People’s Republic of China that they would not advance into Chinese Manchuria, and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army were drawn into the war. The United States bombed North Korea extensively including a 1400 plane air raid on Pyongyang. The scale of the battles was equivalent to anything that occurred in Europe in the two world wars. General McArthur even threatened the use of nuclear weapons against China, and was relieved of command by the US congress.

Eventually when the hostilities ceased with a stalemate at the 38th Parallel, two mirror states were left on the peninsula, both highly militarised, oppressive dictatorships, ruling over devastated lands.

American policy in Korea can only be explained by big power politics, wanting to establish a line in the sand that they would not tolerate any extension of Communist influence. It was clearly not done in the interests of the Korean people themselves. Indeed, there was seemingly an element of cynicism, as if they had wanted to prevent the DPRK extending south they could have achieved this by simply not withdrawing their troops from the ROK in 1949.

In the light of the Korean war, the enormous losses suffered by the Koreans, the experience of American perfidy, and the thwarting of national aspirations for an independent united Korean national state, then the paranoid militarism of the DPRK is easier to understand.

In the 1980s, along with the other centralised command economies the DPRK entered economic crisis. The opportunites for growth based upon expansion of heavy industry were becomming exhausted, the economy lacked access to capital investment and high technology, what is more the maintanence of an autarchic military capablity in a small economy was disproportionately high, as North Korea was not able to leverage the reduced costs of participation in the mass production of the global market. When North Korea had a comparable standard of living to the South, as it did until the 1970s, then there was less to fear from outside contact, but as the north stagnated, there was increasing pressure towards building a walled society, and exaggerating the fears of outside contacts.

Of course to understand is not to condone or to justify. But given the history, and the political context of the juche (self reliance) policy of the DPRK, then the strategy of the rest of the world should be to find ways of engaging with Pyongyang so as to reduce tensions, and to develop bilateral and multi-lateral trade and commercial ties to build trust and make war more problematic for both sides.

A few years ago, South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, proposed a specific reunification tax, to prepare for the necessary investment in the North to bring its infrastructure and standard of living up to levels comparable with the South, based upon cost estimates of about $1.3 trillion, although other experts reckon on a cost of as much as $5 trillion. To be viable any reunification would first have to be proceeded by a period of economic and social convergence, and that would require a working relationship and trust building between Seoul and Pynongyang.

The current policy of the USA is economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation and military pressure though joint war games with South Korea. This both forces suffering onto the population of the DPRK and also entrenches the psychological siege mentality of the government. What is more, it leaves the DPRK government with only one card to play, which is nuclear brinkmanship, seeking to trade its military capability for aid concessions. Pyongyang and Washington are playing a prolonged game of nuclear chicken. These are exactly the conditions which mean that the crisis is perpetuated, instead of creating a dynamic of trust and mutual ties based upon common interest.

But it is important to see that while the Pyongyang government may be at fault, within their own ideological and social paradigm, they are in a corner. It is only Washington that has the room to manoeuvre, and the ability to reduce tension. It is in the interests of the entire region, and indeed of the world, for North Korea to be offered a soft landing to avoid either war, or an economic collapse that would send hundreds of thousands of refugees into China and perhaps South Korea.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, now is the time to offer the hand of friendship to DPRK, and seek to provide a win-win solution to the division and tension on the Korean peninsula.

One Comment

  1. Lyra Kätz says:

    North Korea is so economically and culturally isolated from the rest of the world that it’s difficult to judge their actions by the standards that we apply elsewhere.

    An American sports star (basketball or NFL or something – I forget what exactly) recently visited North Korea – yes, it was somewhat bizarre and met Kim Jong-un. he said that the North Korean leader told him that he wanted to talk to Obama and said several times “Why can’t he just call me.” It would be unwise to read too much into this (possibly inaccurate) report it is suggestive. It’s possible that Kim Jong-un wants to open negotiations with the US. He urgently needs to end North Korea’s isolation However, face is important in Korea. For Kim Jong-un to make the first move would seriously undermine his standing and he risks losing the respect of the military chiefs who maintain the regime. However, if he makes threats and maintains a belligerent posture, he can maybe push the USA into making the first move and claim that any subsequent gains are due to his strength.

    I think that it suits the USA to have North Korea as an enemy. Every regime needs an enemy and North Korea pose just enough of a threat to be credible, but not enough of a threat to be a real risk. I don’t see the USA making moves to end North Korea’s isolation any time soon. They’ll continue to throw out crumbs, but I’m not convinced that it’s in their interests to see the Kim Jong-un regime fall.

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