Friday, 9 September 2016

Notes on North Korea

It's been a while, so it's time to talk again about our friends in the North. Who else am I speaking of other than the esteemed comrades of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea? Lurid stories have done the rounds about the Dear Respected Comrade's execution of two officials by anti-aircraft gun for the crime of snoozing in a meeting. Alas, this is but churnalism, but as ever, there is a deadlier side to Kim's clownish, murderous japes: the North's second nuclear test this year. This is a big deal. Since exploding its first bomb a decade ago, Kim's regime have tested devices of ever increasing magnitude. What makes this "special" isn't just the bomb's yield, but the claim they were testing a warhead. After showing one off (allegedly) back in March, the regime wants the world to know it won't be long before they can mount warheads on their long-range missiles.

A few of quick notes to remember when we're thinking about North Korea. First things first, despite the Bond villain methods Kim reportedly employs to dispose of those incurring his displeasure, the obsession with WMD and maintenance of a grotesquely over-large military, the grinding repression of the monstrous dictatorship, its synchronised mass parades and other trappings of royal pomp, and the inimitable blood curdling warnings against the "US imperialists" and the South Korean "fascist puppet regime", what Kim and his criminal cohort isn't is mad. Despite appearances, actions undertaken by individuals, organisations, and totalitarian dictatorships are simultaneously meaningful and, within their own terms, rational.

This is true of the Kim regime. Without excusing its awfulness, from the standpoint of the regime's preservation its long-standing military-first policy aids its longevity in two ways. Across the 38th Parallel sits a not insubstantial South Korean army backed by a major US military deployment replete with nuclear weapons. Effectively being on its own since the mid-70s without serious Soviet or Chinese backing, the North attended to its own Cold War frontier at the expense of a more rounded economic development. And so North Korean economics are locked in a death spiral. Perceived military necessity consumes the country's meagre resources, which holds back economic development, and therefore undermines the capacity to sustain the military. This is where the missile and nuclear programmes come in. They seem perverse, but it holds out the possibility of rescuing the regime from utter collapse. With nuclear weapons and the capacity to reach not just targets in the South and Japan, but also US bases further afield and the American west coast, not only does the North have a serious bargaining chip in its long-term aim of a non-aggression treaty with the US, much of the military capacity becomes redundant and resources can be expended on making the transition away from autarchy to a managed market system, as per China. As this transition is affected, new berths have to be found for bureaucrats who've crawled up the military's ladder - and the odd periodic purge works to get rid of those who might prove to be too awkward.

Second, for the majority of the South's residents, particularly those born after the Korean War, and for whom the US-backed post-war dictatorships are hazy memories, the North's threats, drills, and nuclear tests are more or less part of the mundane everyday. Like most advanced democracies, the right are adept at stoking fears - this time about the North and therefore the need to take a tough line with Pyongyang, And this fear of the other is most effective among older voters who, like everywhere else, are more likely to turn out for elections.

Third, instead of laughing about Kim's grotesqueries, shouldn't we also ask about the responsibility we, as the West, have for this situation? This isn't to suggest Kim is blameless and it should be piled up at Washington's door. But this is international relations, and relations tend to have reciprocal effects. The question never asked about Korea's Cold War frontier is the dialectical interplay between either side. The North, for instance, were not the first to deploy nuclear weapons in the peninsular. The Kims are playing catch up. It's not the North that carries out massive annual military exercises designed to intimidate and punish. And it's not the North obstructing a lasting peace settlement - being left alone to repress his people is something the Brilliant Comrade (and all Stalinoid despots) desire most of all.


jim mclean said...

Passing the North Korean training fields at Middleton St George as I went to school in 1966 has given me a soft spot for North Korea, strange what influences us. The crazy thing is it is our paranoia that feeds the North, there are worse states out there, and again, as you say, not condoning them. There is also the small point every time they rattle their sabre they get some little form of appeasement.

David Walsh said...

us "East Coast" ?

Blissex said...

«the North attended to its own Cold War frontier at the expense of a more rounded economic development. And so North Korean economics are locked in a death spiral. Perceived military necessity consumes the country's meagre resources,»

That to me seems quite "optimistic": consider the very different case of Cuba. It too suffers from "its own Cold War frontier" and is poor, but is nowhere as poor (or repressed) as the PRNK. Also Cuba does not have resources as good as those of the PRNK, and they still live better. Plus the PRNK have land borders with both China, the "factory of the world", and Russia, with immense natural resource, and both have no embargo against it, so they are not as isolated, and the citizens are koreans, who have a long history of high civilization.

The «North Korean economics are locked in a death spiral» not really because «Perceived military necessity consumes the country's meagre resources» (or because they are not capitalist enough), also because most of the PRNK army is just ragged conscripts, but because it has an economically extractive and repressive feudal (not "socialist") regime, that may see economic progress as empowering alternative power groups.

Consider as parallels the feudal (not "capitalistic") regimes of Zimbabwe and Zaire/Congo.

Alex Ross said...

I think Cuba raises additional questions with regards to the lazy tendency on the left to explain away authoritarian tenancies with reference to poverty and imperialism. For example, Costa Rica is in the top ten countries in the world in terms of press freedom. Cuba is stuck at 171 (according to Reporters Without Borders - link here: Both were subject to CIA backed dictatorial regimes and started from similar positions in terms of human development. Costa Rica may not be the richest country in the world but it is an open democracy which has the edge over Cuba in terms of human development (and Cuban data is very suspect due to it being a closed society!!).

BCFG said...

North Korea’s pursuit of Nuclear arms makes perfect sense in light of the so called, laughably called, “war on terror”. Remember that Iraq was obliterated simply because it possessed no weapons of mass destruction. North Korea realised the only way to keep the murderous imperialist supremacists at bay was to develop a nuclear arsenal as fast as possible. They at least are not stupid enough to believe the imperialist powers are serious about disarmament, the only thing the imperialists are serious about is maintaining their own supremacy.

This was a product of Blair’s criminal war, a murderous and criminal war not perpetrated by some clownish bond villain but one perpetrated by good old liberal democratic, flag bearer of decency, namely our sacred home Britannia (may she rules the waves forever, god save the Queen, all hail and praise our wise leader Theresa May (not doing so would be misogynistic)).

I was on the bus home tonight which travels through a leafy party of town, I couldn’t help noticing that in almost every driveway there were at least 4 cars parked! Is the impending environmental catastrophe hitting home in that bastion of enlightened values, namely Britannia. Is it f!*k! From the lord on his yacht to the simpleton at his/her workstation they carry on without a care in the world.

I think we need to stop poking fun at foreigners, stop moaning about Islamic values (enough about ISIS already) and start to get to grips with the utter poverty , idiocy and destructive nature of our own ‘high’ values.

Let ruthless criticism start at home and if by some miracle there is time leftover to criticise others then do it!