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What’s behind N. Korea’s survival?

Publication Date : 02-05-2012


The Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine developed the Failed States Index and have measured the degree of failure of states by using 22 quantifiable indicators every year since 2005. North Korea is one of the 20 countries which have been on the list of failed states for the last seven years (2005-11). All these countries are dictatorial, very poor, have experienced civil wars, and all but Ethiopia are former colonies. Excepting North Korea, these former colonies have gone through violent leadership changes since independence.

North Korea is an exception in other respects. It is a dictatorship, but a hereditary dictatorship and the only communist country. It is very poor but belongs to the middle rank among all the 20 failed states ― the per capita GDPs of these countries in terms of PPP in 2010 ranged from US$300 to $3,600. Its population is most homogeneous not only ethnically and religiously but also ideologically. Religion is officially banned; in this sense it is the most secular nation on earth. Most importantly, North Korea has not experienced any civil war or military coup d’tat and has had a “peaceful” hereditary leadership succession similar to a dynastic succession.

Why has the North Korean regime been able to survive so long despite the fact that it has been vulnerable to collapse for over the last 60 years? Recently, the view that the days of the North Korean regime are numbered and the question is when and how has become a popular subject of debate.

But if we know how the North Korean regime has been able to survive despite the fact that all communist countries in Europe collapsed in the 1990s, it will help clear up whether it will collapse or change and how soon it will happen. It will also be easier for South Korea and the US to adopt more appropriate policies toward North Korea.

The communist countries in Asia have not collapsed but they have changed significantly in terms of the above-mentioned failed states index. North Korea is the only remaining totalitarian communist state and sui generis because it is founded on a hereditary leadership.

Its basic governing principle is a self defence mechanism to deal with its own polity and the hostile and uncertain external environment. It uses two most typical psychoanalytic defence mechanisms: denial and projection.

Domestically, it justifies all its policies and denies the existence of any problems through oppression, propaganda and indoctrination. It claims that all its problems are caused by outside enemies, particularly South Korea and the US, as a typical person in denial. All policies are geared to preserve the Kim Il-sung hereditary system.

Internationally, particularly in relations with South Korea and the US, it also behaves in denial, scapegoating others: It blames South Korea and the US for any problems it faces domestically and externally. The strategies to realise its governing principle are to resort to partisan guerrilla tactics. These tactics are based on three doctrines: Ends justify means; North Korea is encircled by external enemies; and brinkmanship as an essential diplomatic tool.

One of the most successful achievements of the North Korean regime since its inception is its diplomacy. It has successfully united the North Korean people and confused and divided the South Korean people by initiating the reunification debate. Its Goryo confederation proposal was appealing to some naive and radical South Koreans, however it was unrealistic and confusing. South Korea has been dragged into a “grand” reunification debate and has acted almost subserviently and in a wayward manner.

North Korea also has made daring moves whenever faced with serious internal and external difficulties. Examples are abundant. Its constant efforts to nullify the Armistice Agreement have pushed South Korea and the US onto the defensive. Sometimes it has made calculated mistakes such as the terrorist attack on President Chun Doo-hwan in Rangoon in 1983 and the bombing of the Korean Air flight over the Bay of Bengal in 1987. It lost its image internationally but increased the loyalty of its own people.

The most successful diplomatic achievement is North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. Its justification of the nuclear programme appears convincing not only to the North Korean public but also many third world people.

Initially, North Korea wanted to negotiate with the US bilaterally, arguing that it was developing nuclear weapons to counter US nuclear threats and therefore there would be no reason to possess them if the US abandoned its threat to North Korea.

When it was forced to accept a multilateral negotiating formula (the six-party talks), it skillfully manipulated the other parties, using guerrilla tactics. It has different relationships with the other parties, and the other parties have different interests in North Korea. South Korea and the US are hostile to North Korea, while China is closer to North Korea than any other country. On the other hand, North Korea and the US have different approaches to the negotiations, while the other parties take a more flexible position on the procedural matters.

Taking advantage of this situation, North Korea vehemently pursues its goal: Keeping its nuclear programmes in lieu of a complete guarantee of its security by its enemies ― South Korea and the US The complete guarantee is equivalent to the abandonment of the US-South Korea Mutual Defence Treaty.

The US has lost the diplomatic “war” to North Korea. The last three US administrations have bungled the negotiations. No wonder Kim Gye-gwan and Kang Sok-ju, the chief North Korean negotiators, received the highest honour from Kim Jong-il for their successful negotiations on the nuclear issue. They have used all the guerrilla tactics including the hit and run, hide and seek, and one-step-backward-for-two-steps-forward as well as a refusal to play by the opponent’s rules.

Now we know why the North Korean regime is enjoying such longevity. Unless South Korea and the US find a new approach to deal with North Korea’s self-defence mechanism and partisan guerrilla war strategies and tactics, the North Korean hereditary autocracy will soldier on.

Park Sang-seek is a professor at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University. ― Ed.


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