North Korea is a classic ‘rogue state’, and it is the only ‘Communist’ society to have produced a dynasty, the current ruler, Kim Jong-un, being the son of the former one (Kim Jong-il) and the grandson of the first one (Kim Il-sung). It is also the darkest society on earth at night, as satellite photos have shown, about which more later.
I was once offered an all-expenses-paid tour of the nation, in the 1980s, I think, and declined the offer. So I can’t tell you what it is like, and few Westerners have been through it extensively and written about it. I have been to South Korea, however, many times, and enjoyed the experience. North Korea is a bit bigger in area but has half the population of the South, while there is no comparison in their economies and standards of living.
A thumbnail history is that Japan annexed the former Empire of Korea in 1910, and lost it at the end of the second world war, when the USA occupied the southern part, and the Soviet Union the northern part. The UN held elections there in 1948, but both sides claimed sovereignty over the whole, which led to the Korean War in 1950. I had a certain interest in all this because Australia introduced National Service for all young men as a result, and that is how I came to have an army experience. I might have had a much closer knowledge of parts of the Korean Peninsula had not an armistice been declared in 1953. There was no peace treaty signed, then or later, and technically the two countries are still at war.
South Korea (officially, the Republic of Korea) is a free-wheeling capitalist, market-driven society that owes a great deal to Japanese tutelage. I did a lecture tour there in the 1980s, and was impressed by how well the people had recovered from their war. When I first went there, in the 1960s, rebuilding was very much in process, and tent cities, or at least tent suburbs, were evident. Over the last forty years the country has brought back many of its most proficient expatriates, especially those living in the USA, and much of its infrastructure, universities, hospitals, schools and the rest, is of high standard.
North Korea (officially, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is in marked contrast. Its standard of living is low, and it is probably the last society on earth that is run in a top-down, command-economy way. The results are not an indication that this is the way to go. The ruling ideology is called ‘Juche‘, which means ‘self-reliance’, but, as other countries have found, when they get into being autarchic, or self-reliant, that it’s not as easy as it sounded when the ruler told everybody enthusiastically how good it would be for them. Housing is free, for example, as is education and health care, but there’s not enough housing to go around, and the health care is apparently not of a high standard. The electricity system is prone to outages, and there is no blaze of lights at night.
One reason is that so much goes to the military. The DPRK has the fourth-largest defence force in the world (for a country not much larger in population than Australia), and there are nearly ten million people who are in the armed forces, or their reserve, or in the para-military units. It has nuclear weapons, and missiles, and talks of using them. Not a lot is known about the new young ruler, Kim Jong-un, and the worry is that he might just mean what he says, and has some kind of fantasy about renewing the shooting war. He has already shown trigger-happy tendencies in a brief exchange of artillery on an offshore island.
Neither China nor Russia, North Korea’s two principal allies, has any interest in a new Korean War, and presumably each has told him so. Certainly China’s foreign affairs spokesman has made that clear. So what is it all about?
My guess is that we are seeing a new young ruler telling his people that the enemy is everywhere, but not to worry! He is in charge and will do what is necessary to protect them. All dictatorships benefit from making people fearful of the enemy outside. That anxiety prevents them from worrying about the rule that they are enduring. There is no Internet for North Koreans, and they know what they know only through state television and newspapers. There can hardly be a society more cut off from what is actually happening in the rest of the world. What we see of it is similarly provided by the state-run media, though Google Maps will give you a clear picture of the capital, Pyongyang.
The South Koreans have heard all the sabre-rattling before — indeed, those in Seoul are only 40 km from the border and know they are the target of artillery and missiles. The scare from the north is a daily presence. So they expect life to go on and the rattles eventually to cease. That is my view, too. But, like the USA, Japan, and everyone else, I’m not quite sure, and the best policy is to be ready, use all the diplomatic measures that are available, and hope that next week Kim Jong-un will tell his people that their determination and resolute attitude have deterred the imperialist beasts, for the moment, anyway.