Kim Jong-un did us a small favor by appointing an economic reformer to the country’s premiership on April 1, right in the middle of the Great Saber Rattle. We have thus been spared the naive op-ed pieces—welcoming the positive “trend,” calling on Washington to reward it, etc.—that would have ensued had Pak Pong-ju’s appointment come during a lull in tensions. Of course, Pyongyang watchers will find another reason for optimism soon enough. They began predicting great change about five years ago, when it became known that Kim Jong-un had lived in Switzerland. Having experienced life in the West, how could he not want to Westernize his country? The first official photographs of the young man in 2010 seemed to clinch things; clearly, with that face and haircut, he intended to rule less like his father and more like his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. As in: economy minded, but with policies opposite of Kim Il-sung’s. And we call the North Koreans irrational! The personality cult may be fantasy, but at least it makes sense.
Hardly had the young four-star general taken power in an orgy of militarist propaganda than he sank the better part of a billion dollars into a botched rocket launch. And still he needed only to take his wife around with him, and criticize a badly run amusement park, to evoke comparisons with Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping, respectively. Just last month his chitchat with a former American basketball player was hailed by an experienced CIA veteran as a “very powerful signal of a desire to engage with us.” We were not, I think, to understand the verb in its military sense—but the nuclear death threats started almost at once.
How much longer will we refuse to face facts? North Korea calls itself military-first, and behaves accordingly. It is frank enough in the espousal of race thinking to have won the admiration of German neo-Nazis. It does not even pay lip service to communism. For all this, America goes on stubbornly regarding it as one of two communist stragglers from the Cold War—much better armed than Cuba, but no less doomed an anachronism. Just as this fallacy has assuaged neo-con qualms about not standing up to the country, so does it make liberals feel less ridiculous when calling, after every broken deal, for still more dialogue. But I have learned that no one defends North Korea quite as furiously against aspersions of far-rightness than the NGO community. If donors are to believe that agricultural and other “outreach” projects will build trust with the state—as opposed to just minimizing its expenses—it must always be passed off as far left. This was how the New York Philharmonic managed to return from Pyongyang in 2008 with a peacemaker’s halo, like Elton John back from the U.S.S.R., when it had really just done a Queen at apartheid-era Sun City.
An upbeat outlook on one’s “issue area” is no less a career asset in academia than in business and government. The pessimist soon runs out of things to say; the optimist can go on publishing forever. Even so, there was a time when political scientists would have put a stop to all this wishful thinking. Had scholars in the 1970s known as much about North Korea as is glaringly apparent today, they would have pointed out its incompatibility with even the loos est definition of communism. But the current trend in this as in all branches of country studies is toward the application of pseudo-universal models and typologies. Some respected authority will, say, divide all dictatorships in history into those that acted out of greed, those that acted out of insecurity, and so on. Then a disciple will come along and explain which category North Korea belongs to, concluding with advice on how Washington can turn this insight to advantage. The regime’s ideology might earn mention as a “variable” to be taken into account, but that is about it.
The decline of foreign-language study has not helped matters. The Kremlinologists of old mastered Russian as a matter of course. The average North Korea expert quoted in our media cannot read the Rodong Sinmun, the Workers’ Party daily. His expertise is measured instead by the number and recentness of trips he has taken to the country. The result is an ever-growing focus on economic affairs at the expense of political analysis, which is how North Korea likes it. Through invitations to special dog-and-pony shows, the regime even helps determine which foreigners attain expert status back home. Then it turns around and sneers, through its official news agency, at “self-styled ‘North Korea experts’ who judge things according to what they hope is happening.”
Before Kim Jong-un erases all memory of this month’s unpleasantness by attending another performance of Disney characters, let me state the very obvious: North Korea has become more belligerent and dangerous since it began taking the command economy apart in 2002. Or to put things in the form of a law: the more North Korea’s economy comes to resemble the South’s, the more the regime must justify itself through ostentatious progress on the military-nuclear front. To Americans stuck in Cold War thinking, it seems counterintuitive indeed. In one East Bloc country after another, marketization led inexorably to political reform as well. But mere economic change was never going to thaw this ultranationalist state. One might as well expect a fair-trade agreement to secularize Iran.
As if the communist fallacy were not misleading enough, the regime is wrongly thought to have pledged itself to strict self-reliance as well. Hence the assumption that cross-border trade must be eating away at the very heart of the orthodoxy. I am not sure where this misunderstanding started. Kim Il-sung frequently and explicitly reconciled self-reliance with imports as well as infusions of foreign aid. The ruling ideology commits itself only to the catch-all concept of “our style of socialism,” which is why the country’s new entrepreneurs consider themselves as loyal to the state as everyone else.
Though some Pyongyang watchers fantasize about internal turf wars inside the regime between “pragmatists” and “ideologues,” there would be nothing pragmatic about abandoning an ideology that has so far done a sterling job of maintaining a stable and supportive population. The peninsula already has one economy-first state zipping around the track. There is little political capi tal to be had from entering the race a hundred laps behind, as North Korea’s party and military are well aware. A rising GDP is nice to have, of course. Calls for more consumer-goods production and a rise in living standards were typical in official propaganda under Kim Jong-il too, well before the international media started interpreting them as signs of a fresh wind. But whatever progress is made on the economic front, North Korea has to keep asserting its superiority on nationalist grounds instead, always presenting itself as the stronger and purer of the two Koreas.
This does not mean that the military-first policy serves only a domestic propaganda function. But we can take the regime at its word that it is not afraid of being attacked. If it were, it would not still be lavishing hard currency on luxury imports while its stunted soldiers go hungry. Nor is it plowing billions into armament on the remote chance of extorting a greater sum from U.S. negotiators down the road. As for the idea that the regime just wants an embassy with Old Glory hanging out front, or a piece of Obama-signed paper with “peace treaty” written on it, how we flatter ourselves. Its eye has always been on the infinitely greater threat posed by the rival state.
That threat comes not from the South’s military—which since 1953 has never retaliated against Pyongyang’s aggression with any great force, let alone launched an unprovoked attack—but from the self-containedness with which the “Yankee colony” merrily goes about its own business. Especially subversive, now that so many of Kim Jong-un’s subjects have access to outside sources of culture and information, is the South Korean public’s manifest lack of interest in either the personality cult or unification. The regime is right to believe it cannot be secure until the peninsula is unified under its own rule. This is, of course, the “final victory” that Kim Jong-un and his media keep boldly promising the masses.
During much of his father’s reign the obsession with unification exerted a mildly moderating influence. Being poor and weak, yet popular with the South Korean left, the North figured it could better achieve its goal through pan-nationalist propaganda and subversion than through naked intimidation. Things have changed dramatically in the past five or six years. It isn’t just that the nuclear program has taken such a big step forward. Pyongyang’s ally is now so obviously in the ascendant, Seoul’s so obviously on the decline; Washington’s growing deference to Beijing is no secret to anyone in North Korea. At the same time, the South Korean electorate has aged into a more conservative demographic than it has been since the 1970s. The second successive election of a pro-American president was a bitter disappointment for Pyongyang.
This could well explain certain changes in the North’s invective. Last year the death threats were mainly leveled against the then-South Korean president himself. His successor, Park Geun-hye, has been getting off lightly in comparison, for lexical more than political reasons. It is one thing to say, “Tear the rat bastard apart!”—a favorite slogan on last year’s grisly posters—but with female-specific curse words it becomes too harsh even by the North’s standards. This restraint is more than made up for with blanket threats directed in the same breath at Seoul and Washington, as if they were equally hostile territory. The party daily talked in March of leaving “no bastard alive to sign the surrender.” (Imagine, by the way, the U.S.S.R. or East Germany talking like that.) It goes without saying that we need not take all this rhetoric at face value, but the North Koreans are dead serious about wanting to intimidate the enemy state into submission.
Crazy? No. While most South Koreans’ interest in their northern brethren has waned steadily since its high point around the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, they still identify far more strongly with the race or minjok as a whole than with their own state. Millions of people still profess to regard the other Korea as the more legitimate one. Its sinking of a naval vessel and its bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 were thus widely shrugged off in the South as “mere” state-on-state violence, as opposed to Japan’s colonial-era outrages, which continue to inspire mass protests. The man in the street may claim to oppose unconditional aid to Pyongyang, but he has little stom ach for tension. “Let’s just give them some money and be done with it” is an increasingly popular sentiment. So far President Park has indicated that she will stand firm. At the next election, however, even conservative voters might well conclude that their investments would perform better under an appeasement-minded administration.
Either way, the bullying will continue. What else is a military-first regime to do? I cannot pretend to know how America can best deal with its first far-right nuclear adversary, but ceasing to pin vain, Cold War–inspired hopes on economic change would be a start. Perhaps North Korea’s recent announcement of a so-called Byungjin, or “Tandem” Policy, yoking economic growth and armament will help put an end to the wishful thinking. Whether we like it or not, these two horses are running together.