Wednesday, January 15, 2014

What it's like living next door to North Korea

Like books that I pick up and never finish, I have a tendency to write blog posts that I never get back to. These days however I'm getting tired of headlines about Dennis Rodman's antics, and wanted to provide some more thoughtful material on North Korea. 
How do threats from the North affect Koreans and expats living in the South?

As headline became more intense and threats from North Korea more bellicose during the spring, I received some messages about my safety and whether or not I planned to leave Korea. One should note that throughout the ordeal the United States embassy never issued any travel warnings for the area and life continued as usual for expats and Koreans alike. This is not to say that people completely ignored the situation, or that I myself wasn't cautious, but I think the foreign media's portrayal of Korea as on the brink of an all out war was entirely overblown.

Local Korean news outlets were quick to point out how largely unaffected South Koreans were by North Korea's threats. One must understand that South Koreans have always lived with these threats and fluctuating tensions. At the end of the Korean War in 1953 the two countries sign an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving many issues unresolved. A few years ago North Korea actually shelled a small South Korean island; this event however did not end in all out war. Despite North Korea's declaration of nuclear power and missile launch demonstrations, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un knows he would face swift and fierce retaliation if he attacked the mainland. Both North and South Korea clearly want to avoid any real military action. 

South Korean soldier at the DMZ
It's a sad but undeniable fact that in spite of the Kim dynasty's well known human rights abuses and the crippling poverty the average North Korean citizen faces, North Korea's collapse is simply not in the interest of any other country involved in this conflict. Younger generations of South Koreans are understandably anxious about the tremendous economic and social burdens they would face if the two countries were to reunite, and China and the U.S. certainly do not want to bear that burden either. If reunification were to occur, the U.S. would also risk losing its strategically placed military bases in South Korea. If the U.S. wanted to use the same logic it used to invade Iraq, to find weapons of mass destruction and take down a volatile dictator, the war would have already begun.    

What You Don't Read in the News About North Korea

Generally the media paints a frightening picture of North Korea, but for all its brandishing of nuclear technology, North Korea is largely unstable and impoverished, and clearly could not defend itself against the military forces of South Korea and the U.S. if they launched an attack. So why all the threats? Why spend billions and starve the country to create weapons? My friend showed me this extremely interesting video lecture from Brian Reynold Myers (a professor at a university in Busan). In it he gives many insights into North Korea's culture and motivations. Even though the lecture was given over two years ago, his conclusions paint a very accurate picture of today's current situation. It's an hour long, but I think it's must see for anyone who is coming to Korea or interested in this issue. 

I'll give a brief summary for the TL;DW crowd (too long; didn't watch). He argues that North Korea's regime survives not just by the "dint of oppression" but by the people's sincere belief in the late Kim Jong Il's greatness as a leader and ideologue, and the belief that because North Koreans are racially pure, they are inherently morally pure. They believe this moral purity has made them a target for other nations like the US, which have caused North Korea's current plight. They view the current leader Kim Jong Un not as an oppressive dictator, but as a safeguard from those enemies who target them because of their purity.

He also argues that North Korean ideologies differ greatly from those of Communism and Nazism, to which they are often compared. Whereas communist leaders are portrayed as teachers, educating the masses on the dangers of capitalism, Kim Jong Un is portrayed as a protector, and very often a maternal figure, who keeps his people safe from enemies and moral impurity. Myers provides evidence of this protector status in that some North Koreans who escape into China actually bribe their way back in. 

I should pause here to say that one shouldn't look at this lecture uncritically. This particular point about Kim Jong Un being a protector has many facets, and there other well documented reasons why refugees might want to return to North Korea. As detailed in the book Escape from Camp 14, the adjustment to life outside North Korea, and particularly to South Korea's hyper competitive society, is extremely difficult and refugees often face discrimination. It's not necessarily that they long for their dictator, but many long for the simplicity of their old life and the feeling of belonging in their home country. Hyeonseo Lee discusses these complicated emotions in her TED Talk as well. 

The idea of Kim Jong Un as a protector however does explain in part how his regime has managed to last. The North Korean ideology, and even the constitution, is hinged on the presence of an enemy that threatens their values and the nation. Through his propaganda machine and his provocations toward the U.S. and South Korea, Kim Jong Un continues to create that enemy and act as protector, justifying his authoritarian rule and strengthening the cult of personality that has kept the Kim family in power. And indeed, to the outside world, this nearly religious veneration of the Kim family and military weapons is one of the most perplexing aspects of North Korean culture.

While some may still live under an illusion of superiority, through illegal cell phones and smuggled DVDs, many North Korean citizens now realize that their quality of life pales in comparison to that of their "enemies" in South Korea and the U.S. However, Myers argues that by claiming that they must use all their resources to protect their morally pure state, Kim Jong Un and his predecessors have also been able to justify ignoring the country's economic and social ills. In the past many countries have provided aid and material assistance to allay North Korea's threats and arms build up, but we know that trading aid for reduced tensions cannot last forever. 

How long can Kim Jong Un up the ante before he must act? Clearly that is the question that no one wants answered, but given what I know, I think internal disputes, such as those which led to the execution of Kim Jong Un's uncle, and economic instability could likely lead to North Korea's downfall before war does. While I believe preparation for war is still necessary, overall I think there needs to more consideration and planning for what would happen if the North Korean government, using the term loosely, were to collapse. Though a seemingly insurmountable task, what could be done to turn the country around? Given South Korea's meteoric rise from impoverished nation to OECD powerhouse in the last 50 years, I have to believe that there must be workable, even if difficult solutions.

If you want to learn more about other aspects of North Korean society and the current political situation, I would highly recommend checking out:

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