History’s Thorns

Since the turn of the year there has been a tangible leap in North Korean rhetoric, to the west, and tellingly, towards its Eastern allies. North Korea, in my own living memory, has always proven an unyielding regime. Until the passing of the still ubiquitous Kim Jong Il, North Korea had maintained a greater sense of mystique. It was a regime, though hostile towards the west, that seemed more preoccupied with itself.Since the President’s son, Kim Jong Un’s, succession following his Father’s death, North Korea has, in some ways, come out of its shell. Un has employed everything from strident missile launches to stoic, super villain-like threats; these threats, something the west has been taking increasingly seriously. There are a couple of clear short term factors in these developments. Firstly, Kim Jong Un, is almost certainly a more extrovert leader than his Father, quickly quashing any suggestions of a thaw in relations upon becoming Premier. Secondly, and perhaps more pertinently, North Korea are seemingly close to becoming a nuclear power. This is far from a new development, this same alleged threat loomed in the 1990s.

Yet, South Korea’s noisy northern neighbours have largely maintained their air of mystique despite sporting their monochrome plumes with pride. Last week, North Korea, continued their aggressive posturing by ripping up the armistice agreement, which has sat in place for some sixty years since the splitting of Korea. American rhetoric, employed generally via the UN, carries an increasingly exasperated air. The US are calling North Korean threats empty – they likely are, yet a loose cannon, is still a loose cannon and with the shearing of the Korean armistice, the US, may be sucked into a conflict that although not nuclear in nature, could become very ugly.

As with almost every North/South or East/West conflict, the history of the nations proffers some real insight. This is particularly true in the case of North Korea due to its international pariah status. Sans rare documented snapshots, day to day life, let alone political machinations and inspiration are difficult to pin down. Some days back, I watched a report on the strength of Kim Jong Un’s leadership. A beach-full of people, young, old, married and military, milled in adoration of Un, who acknowledged and berated them with a disquieting flap of the hand before leaving the beach by military boat.

Peculiar scenes, but scenes that necessitate a prowl through history. North Korea is the product of, what we could describe as, the original proxy war of the Russo-American rivalry. Korea, until the war in 1950, had been under Japanese rule for thirty years prior, and prior to that had been an empire unto itself. Like many nations, Korea has experienced a relatively turbulent time in modern history. Yet, importantly, it is a nation that only became sequestered following the post-WW2 split.

The North’s adoption by the USSR has had a distinct impact which still quite glaringly manifests itself today. Despite some thawing in international relations at the turn of the the century, the recent rhetoric is a time warped relic of the cold war climate. The aforementioned clip of Kim Jong Un is perhaps evidence of a strong, Stalin-esque, cult of personality. A final clue is this – North Korea has the fourth largest active military on the planet, the product of Kim Jong Il’s military first approach (Songbun).

These observations are made more interesting in lieu of recent changes to the Korean legal system and constitution. Any and all explicit references to communism have been exorcised. The cliché regarding the DPRK is that they are inward looking, this, I think betrays the extent to which this is true. In practice, the country is still very much communist in practice, so the intent of such a shift can only be perceived as ideological. At it’s most extreme, this could be seen as a Stalinist, cultural whitewashing of Stalin.

The continued entrenchment perhaps indicates why the UN Security Council members, China included, are beginning to betray more than a bit of tetchiness. The country is roiling inwards like a dwarf star, whilst simultaneously threatening to erupt outwards. This would explain the silent showing of strength from the US, Obama said to be pursuing a policy of ’strategic patience’.

Often, I would agree with criticisms of the severity of historical crimes by big nations. North Korea however, are a unique beast. Historically, in its empire form, renowned as the ’hermit kingdom’, a more nuanced attitude is required. Unlike other US thorns, there is no dialogue beyond media machismo. Even if North Korea bravado isn’t to be believed, any threats made should be taken seriously as the potential ramifications could be disastrous.