Having just returned to Beijing after nine days spent behind the Iron Curtain in North Korea, I have spent much of my time lately considering the West’s approach to events on the peninsula. This has been particularly necessary in light of another round of missile launches, which took place within kilometres of where I stayed for a couple of nights, on the east coast around the city of Wonsan.
On the days of the launches, our British tour leader, who had access to the internet and Western media, informed us what had happened: multiple short-range missile launches in and around the Sea of Japan. This was followed a day later by official state media announcements, with predictable images of the Marshall Kim Jong-Un looking grand and imperial as missiles went over his head, instilling the Korean people’s enemies with inestimable dread. The front cover of The Pyongyang Times boasted of the country’s technological innovation and therefore the apparent certainty of victory in their foreign policy and military dealings.
Both the British guide, as well as his North Korean counterparts (who are, contrary to common wisdom, civilian workers rather than government propaganda officials), were completely unmoved. I, too, was not worried a single bit, though I did think of my mother inevitably sitting at home considering the possibility I was about to be blown to pieces on the streets of Pyongyang (and on her birthday).
Such hysterical reactions amongst Westerners, the Western media and its allies in the East are not uncommon. North Korea is in many ways a type of cartoon character: the evil monster, always threatening to bring everything to an end. In the public imagination, they are a metaphoric Bond villain, one which constantly has its finger on a big red button. However, characterisations such as these are as simplistic as they are based on a profound misunderstanding of global geopolitics, as well as domestic North Korean politics.
The simple truth is that North Korea is a relatively powerless country which is merely a pawn of a Sino-American Great Game, which has trapped it in a state of economic backwardness whilst avoiding complete collapse. The respective concerns of all the major players in the Far East make a stalemate, or, to put it less pejoratively, a delicate balance of power in the region unavoidable. China does not want a reunified Korea, dominated by the South and therefore more inclined to the West than the East - with the possibility of American troops on the banks of the Yalu River. But nor does it want a particularly powerful, nuclearised North Korea on its border, hence its occasional respecting of UN sanctions - aimed to punish the country slightly, for a short time, whenever it gets overexcited - whilst propping the regime up just enough to avoid the complete economic and political collapse in which an overthrow of the system could become possible, if still unlikely. Meanwhile, South Korea is perfectly content with its status as one of the world’s major economies, and understandably does not desire the social and economic ardour of absorbing 25 million relatively impoverished (and radicalised) people into its system, which would be incredibly painful for both sides. Though it may make the odd gesture towards potential future reunification, such as the joint team at the last Winter Olympics, largely for nostalgic reasons, neither its government nor people seriously consider it a possibility, or wish it to be realised. An anti-DPRK hardliner, Hwang Kyo-ahn, is likely to be elected in their forthcoming elections. And that makes sense: the GDP of South Korea is at least thirty times greater than that of the North, a far bigger gap than existed before the reunification of East and West Germany, the effects of which still continue to be felt today. Furthermore, America sees Korea as their gateway to the East, and is concerned with protecting territories such as Guam in the Pacific Ocean, as well as allies in South Korea and Japan, whilst perhaps still at least slightly being driven by Cold War ideas regarding axes of evil. And all of these tensions and contradictory issues are in the context of a wider battle between China and America for global supremacy. The crude division of Korea along the 38th parallel and the stalemate we now have is, therefore, in many ways, a guarantor of a general balance of power in the Far East, thus - instead of bringing the world to the precipice of nuclear warfare - actually helping conflict be avoided.
Despite all of this, many people remain trapped in the notion of North Korea as a mad, bad regime which is bound to act irrationally, destroying others before themselves. There are multiple problems with this view. The first is that North Korea, compared to former socialist states which were dedicated on an ideological level to spreading the cause of global proletariat revolution, has always been a very insular society. Its idea of juche - self-sufficiency - is a rather defensive one: it is mainly about protection rather than aggression, in both economic and military terms. Put simply, apart from some references to reunification with the south, it is about being left alone by the (what they see as hostile) foreign world. To be fair, this sentiment is understandable given Korea’s long, ancient history of being surrounded by larger, more powerful rivals in China, Russia, Japan (of which it was formerly a colony) and, across the Pacific, the United States.
Moreover, in a sheerly practical sense, what logic would bring Chairman Kim to the decision of attacking the US or an ally? Could he really be so sure that China would risk a potentially global war to come to the aid of a belligerent North Korea which had preemptively attacked the US? Why would it risk ruining everything it has achieved in such a devastating conflict? Further, from the North’s point of view, if not bringing a complete annihilation to the Korean Peninsula, such an attack would almost certainly lead to US-led regime change and the total downfall of the regime. One can criticise and condemn the DPRK government for a myriad of things, but it is not stupid, nor suicidal.
The current missile strikes are ultimately rather petty acts designed to remind everybody that they still exist and are still (supposedly) willing to act aggressively. This comes at the time of annual US-Korean military exercises near the DMZ, which always inevitably rattle the North slightly. The mood in Pyongyang is pessimistic following the failure of the talks at Hanoi, especially after the initial promise of Singapore. UN sanctions continue to cripple the country, with most forms of trade, apart from some across the border with China and illegal trade at sea, virtually impossible. The sanctions are so far-reaching that even the importing of nail-clippers has been forbidden on the grounds of potential dual usage for the materials from which they are made. Power cuts, even in the finest restaurants of Pyongyang, often occur multiple times within one meal. Outside of the capital (and even inside it to an extent), there is no hint of any seriously industrialised, advanced economy. One farm-owner on the outskirts of Hamhung, North Korea’s second largest city, had never heard of the US dollar or Chinese RMB, hard foreign currency coveted in Pyongyang, and insisted on paying in ‘our money’, the Korean won, which is far less valuable in real terms. Arduous farm work in the beautiful countryside is largely done by hand: few tractors are seen and those that do exist are tragically outdated. The situation is desperate: missile launches are symbolic acts designed to strengthen the country’s negotiating hand as it goes into hard talks with the US, with the aim of achieving substantial agreements regarding the lifting of sanctions in return for steps towards denuclearisation.
North Korea is not a serious threat to world security, nor is it likely to be any time soon. Its army is largely composed of lanky teenagers wearing silly hats, holding guns which - if even loaded - are probably more dangerous to the person firing it. Most of the time they are engaged in civilian tasks like construction, or else are sitting at military checkpoints. True, the regime does have short and long range missiles, as it likes to remind us, but has absolutely no intention of using them, nor any logical reason to do so. I have often wondered if the West would do better to ignore an occasional missile launch, to deny the regime the ‘oxygen of publicity’, though this does risk escalation and a substantial increase of tensions. Perhaps the current situation we have in the Far East is about the best we can hope for in our imperfect world: a stalemate amongst the great powers, leading to a balance of power which, for the time being, allows for relative stability in the region; a disturbance of which would affect the DPRK more than perhaps anybody else.