By Patricia H Kushlis
Does North Korea’s leadership belong in the madhouse or
Alcatraz as so many of our right wing politicians, militarists and some journalists
seem to suggest? Or are they behaving as
sanely – at least from their perspective – as their accusers? Is there something important going on in
Pyongyang that is overlooked here that should be considered?
I attended an excellent two-day Santa Fe World Affairs Forum
symposium on US-East Asian relations at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico early last
week: The North Korean nuclear threat,
China’s capabilities and future intentions, reasons for Myanmar’s immense
political changes and the overall ramifications of the changing face of Asia
for US interests were at the top of the agenda.
Several years ago, then President George W Bush labeled
North Korea – as well as Iran – as the Axis of Evil. This reversed Bill
Clinton’s softer line that may or may not have been making progress towards
some kind of normalization of relations with the Hermit Kingdom. If such a sea change were to happen, our
military presence in North Asia could and should be reduced substantially. This
in itself is likely a flashing yellow light for those in the defense industry
who profit from a continued state of high military readiness in the region not
just those in Pyongyang but also our own in Washington.
No one, however, has ever satisfactorily explained to me the
reasons for Pyongyang’s peculiar actions or what might induce its secretive leaders to
change course. In essence, the Hermit Kingdom has been brushed off as the
proverbial enigma wrapped in a mystery – without further thought or
Political Science 101
But put away the swords and the blinders for the moment and go back to the basics: The first axiom of politics is a leader’s (or
collective leadership’s) determination to remain in power. That’s lesson one, political science 101. In Pyongyang, the transfer of power is
dynastic. The country may call itself
socialist, workers or communist but in reality it is governed through an age
old form of familial leadership based on an historic Asian dynastic model. Moreover, over the years, the North Korean
dynasty has been propped up by the country’s military with China’s acquiesce and
I once had a Burmese cat named Cleo who spent the first two
weeks of our assignment to Athens with her nose pointed into a back corner of a
shelf in our bedroom closet. I suppose
she must have come out when no one was looking because she clearly used the
litter box and ate her favorite food.
She ultimately resurfaced but only after we moved to a garden apartment
which allowed her to explore the garden at will sitting for hours soaking up
the Greek sun.
Fear of the unknown had much to do with Cleo’s behavior in
that temporary apartment just as it’s plausible that fear of being dethroned
(or possibly worse – think Ceaceşcu in December 1989) has been a likely
motivating factor for North Korea’s seemingly irrational behavior since the country was established in the wake of the Korean
War. This flashed through my brain when
one of the experts at the conference in describing the unique characteristics
of the North Korean propaganda barrage pointed out that the country’s threats always
concluded with the phrase: “if the Americans attack.” But the speaker added that these four final
words are not reported in the media or government statements we see in the
I worked in Moscow for two years during the Cold War as an
Exchanges Officer at the US Embassy then in Helsinki, Finland as Press Attaché
as the Soviet Union collapsed. By the time I had left Helsinki, East Germany had disappeared from the map –
reintegrated into the Federal Republic at huge financial cost to the country’s
West. Goodbye East German leadership, Stasi and military. How did this happen? Once the Soviet Union refused to continue to prop
up the dysfunctional and unpopular regime, a better life was too much of an
attraction for East Germany’s youth. The
Wall came tumbling down: the system had crumbled.
Much earlier, Greek Communist guerrillas lost the battle
to control that country in good part because of the Tito-Stalin rift in 1948 and
Tito’s decision to close off the border between Greece and Yugoslavia thus
denying the Greek guerrillas an escape route through which to resupply their
war effort by then confined to Greece’s northern most mountains. Tito’s decision, in and of itself, put an end
to the Greek Civil War. Goodbye Greek
North Korea’s dilemma
If North Korean leaders were to relinquish the nuclear
weapons option and ratchet down their bombastic rhetoric, then what would be
left to keep them in power? In essence,
those particular cats’ paws would become clawless and the cat’s jaws fangless.
Lest we not forget, the South is an economic powerhouse much
like the Federal Republic of Germany in 1989 and the North is far poorer than
East Germany was. Lest we also not
forget, South Korea’s economy is far from fragile and neither is Japan’s.
As in Berlin and along the entire German border between East
and West throughout the Cold War, the US military perches near Korea’s DMZ and sits on
bases elsewhere in South Korea with weapons and attenae trained northward. US forces are there through a mutual defense
alliance with the South Koreans signed 60 years ago. US bases are also in Japan. Meanwhile, the
Russians have all but disappeared from North Asia and Chinese-North Korean
relations are no longer as strong as they once were.
China is not governed by a dynasty – nor are
its current leaders particularly close to Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s new apparently
Swiss educated young leader who, unlike his ancestors, is not part or parcel of
the increasingly weak Communist international old-boy fraternity.
Secretary of State John Kerry just made his first trip to South
Korea before moving on to Beijing. This is not insignificant and his remarks should be read carefully.
His maiden visit there coincided with the 60th
anniversary of the demarcation of the armistice that ended the Korea War, the
60th anniversary of the mutual US-South Korea defense treaty and the
60th anniversary of the American Chamber of Commerce in Seoul.
For US domestic reasons alone, Kerry has to walk a fine line. He can neither appear to give ground to the
North Koreans who may, or may not celebrate the anniversary of the armistice by
at least attempting to test a nuclear-weaponized missile or he will be accused
of being weak. Nor, however, can he relinquish an opportunity to restart
contacts with the North Koreans that could lead to the elimination of their
nuclear weapons program. But if this happens
– and don’t think negotiations will be easy – far more than the nuclear question
will need to come into play.