By Philip Amur
Seeing the South Korean delegation led by Chung Eui-yong partake in negotiations with North Korea’s rocket man following the Pyeongchang Olympics was a wonderful spectacle, one which conveyed the idea that after several decades of conflict reunification or at least a meaningful truce could be reached. The reality however is better emblemized by a New York Times article title following the closure of the games which reads “With Olympics Over, Team Korea Goes Back to Being 2 Countries”.
The White House recently placed fresh sanctions onto the rogue state in response to evidence of North Korea having sponsored the killing of Kim Jong-Un’s half brother in February of 2017. At the same time, efforts are being made to extend UN sanctions on North Korean exports of oil and coal to China along with restricting the country’s ability to import energy. At first glance one might say that these measures, along with resulting talks – the latter being heavily favored by South Korean president Moon Jae-in – have made strides in achieving their intended purpose.
The Washington Post’s account of the negotiations reported Kim Jong-Un’s willingness to abandon his country’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for the West’s agreement to ensure North’s national security and leadership. From Kim’s standpoint this would make sense seeing as though his country lost considerable economic aid after the USSR’s collapse in 1991, with China growing more and more distant as a modern trade partner. A series of famines in the 90’s hindered agricultural capacity to the point of widespread famine in much of the country. Isolation has further hindered the North’s ability to gain an equal footing with its Southern neighbor with regards to infrastructural developments and technological advances. Even though a change in mindset would be beneficial to the North, it is highly doubtful that anything will change due to the state’s need for self preservation.
Victor Cha, international policy expert and former Korea advisor to George W. Bush wrote a book in 2013 entitled The Impossible State, which while examining North Korean economics from a global perspective focuses heavily on its leadership. Specifically, he focuses on how reluctance to accept outside influence is due to the fear of experiencing a delegitimization of authority, as well as the potential upheaval in passion by a formerly subservient population. This book left me with a greater understanding of why the only likely outcome of a “reformed” North isn’t a democratic regime, but collapse.
Members of the Kim Dynasty, since North Korea’s creation in 1948, have convinced their citizens of North Korea’s unique place in the world, thus justifying its isolation from the “dangers” of the outside. The ruling elite has plundered its people of food and resources, all while liquidating entire generations for disloyalty, and while censorship of outside information and Western technology has been rampant.
Even so, the ruling elite is praised heavily while Kim Jong-Un, like his predecessors, continues to be viewed as a diety. I’d imagine that losing power, along with losing luxurious delicacies such as Hennessy Cognac coupled with fleets of Mercedes-Benz limousines, isn’t an attractive option for those who find themselves in a position of indulgence. As Mr. Cha wrote in his book, when even a miniscule taste of freedom is given to people unfamiliar with it, they will likely demand more and even question their allegiances knowing how good it feels. In the context of North Korea, however, this isn’t something that a few obscenely powerful individuals would permit given that they would lose what has defined them for years.
Given this, the possibility of war being the only way to overthrow the North Korean state isn’t all that remote. For starters, satellite images have revealed the continued enrichment of plutonium in specialized facilities in North Korea, according to The Washington Post. Additionally, this is likely the one country the capitulation of which could be beneficial for the entire world. Human rights violations shouldn’t be the sole reason for catalyzing military action as has been recklessly done in the past, and in this case they aren’t. The leadership of the country in question is one that has threatened a nuclear attack on the United States and the West, kidnapped Japanese civilians from 1977 to 1983, tested rockets that have landed within a few kilometers of Russia’s Eastern port city of Vladivostok, all while engaging illicit activities such as drug production/distribution and arms trading.
While Kim Jong-Un has expressed willingness to negotiate directly between the United States and South Korea, we have to remember the circumstances due to which this “hermit kingdom” continues to exist despite nearly universal condemnation. Negotiations rely on both participants upholding their end of the bargain. If an unstable actor such as the aforementioned one does not, it is hard, for lack of a better term to imagine a peaceful outcome. If North Korea stays afloat, the communist dictator will stay with it.