Jiří Louda states that every monarch in Europe today are descendants of William I of England. Nobility would marry into this prestigious family line so that their descendants might one day be a king or queen. Many of the stories from history we are familiar with are bedazzled with romance, courtship, and beatitude. Too often, however, is it a mask of a grim truth, a gruesome notion familiar to the Ancient Egyptians and the Ancient Chinese. The disturbingly morbid notion of dynasties.
Family is your biggest threat in a dynasty. Jang Song-thaek was executed by his nephew and North Korean supreme leader, Kim Jong-un in 2013. Allegedly it was Kim Jong-un who assassinated his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in Malaysia in 2017. This has inevitably built a profile of North Korea and its leadership of disrepute, deviousness, and danger. Nicholas Eberstadt writes “for a country about which so little information is available, the international picture of North Korea is remarkably clearly drawn…Its political system is as close to totalitarianism as a humanly operated society could come.” Pile this on top of the emerging prospects of nuclear war and historical, dynastic romanticism crashes into 21st-century uneasy realism. In recent months Kim Jong-un has demonstrated that North Korea has nuclear weapons 17 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and the ballistic capability to deliver intercontinental missiles to the US.
Yet in April Moon Jae-in, South Korean president, declared “a new era of peace”. Remarkably, North Korea, arguably the most threatening nation towards the Western world, has performed an extraordinary, and somewhat curious, U-turn. Inter-Korean relations have achieved astonishing progress, and apparent inter-Korean conviviality has emerged, as demonstrated by embraces between Kim and Moon. Truce village Panmumjon has hosted multiple meetings between the two leaders and the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang saw Koreans compete under a unified flag. Indeed, this outburst of diplomatic proactiveness from North Korea’s leader laid the foundations for a summit between himself and US President Donald Trump in Singapore.
This about-turn, however, was superbly choreographed and flawlessly executed. We have to remember, of course, that as a remnant of WW2 and the Cold War North Korea has always been at the centre of an all-encompassing threat — at least from the view of Pyongyang and the Kims. China lies to the west with a stranglehold on its economy. Japan lies to the east with a historical eye on the Korean peninsula and harbouring plenty of US military power. The US also lies in wait in South Korea. Russia to the north offers the only sympathetic respite from the lions’ den North Korea find itself in the middle of. Realising the potentially fragile and explosive predicament Pyongyang finds itself in helps you to understand North Korea’s radical reaction, albeit inexcusable.
The chimerical Kim Il-sung was born into a family of activism and passionate patriotism. His staunch anti-occupation doctrine and his fierce hunger for a Korean homeland were symbolic of his communist ideology. Similar to Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, to Kim Il-sung communism was the gateway to national liberation. His disposition towards authoritarianism was honed during his time in the Korean guerrilla force fighting the occupying Japanese. North Korean propaganda embellishes stories of this time with tales of the supernatural and mythological, claiming Kim Il-sung could fashion pine cones into bullets or transform grains of sand into grains of rice. At the conclusion of WW2 Korea was divided along the 38th Parallel. Kim Il-sung was placed in charge of northern Korea along with other like-minded individuals from the guerrilla force — ardent ideologies set against the West and a mindset of defiance against Japan, and by extension the US.
Both North Korea and South Korea have had, ever since the divide, the same primary objective of reunification upon which both sides hinge their political legitimacy. But radically opposing political systems led to increased tension which drove the division greater still, eventually leading to the Korean War. But this war was not just between two contrasting political systems but between two disparate economic systems. The 38th parallel division was drawn up by two American soldiers without the consultation of Koreans or experts. The South would be under US control thus the division was drawn that the capital, Seoul, would be in the south. The relative affluence of South Korea with the military backing of the powerful US drove North Korea into a state of economic disrepair but transformed it into an authoritarian state of unimaginable social power. Kim Il-sung was forced to be practically independent of foreign aid while watching South Korea flourish. Kim’s philosophical ideology of self-sufficiency (called juche) was designed to carry North Korea from poverty into prosperity.
Kim Il-sung crafted North Korea into a textbook autocracy. Other Asian countries saw growing economies based upon modern, undemocratic political systems which China remodelled their communist ideology upon. This lead many political commentators predict that the Kim family would follow suit balancing political control and economic stability with international acceptance, yet North Korea has remained true towards its disposition. China had been in a similar situation to North Korea but it was only through its ability to develop a deterrent that allowed China to flourish — nuclear weapons.
Since the 1990s North Korea has been manufacturing nuclear weapons to achieve the same end result as China — global acceptance and national prosperity. It is part of the Kims’ meticulous plan to aggravate countries, such as the US, with threats of nuclear war. The success of Kim Il-sung’s original plan would see international acceptance from the countries that neglected it. Nuclear weapons are the single greatest threat to the world today. Thus, North Korea developing nuclear weapons cannot be left unnoticed by other countries. One of the biggest issues on the world’s political agenda is the denuclearization of North Korea. The Kim regime’s entire foreign policy for the last 70 years has been geared towards shifting international attention towards North Korea. Andrei Lankov, a North Korean expert, describes a typical scenario that North Korea manufacture to achieve this. First, North Korea create a crisis. Typically this has been driven by the nuclearization of the state which causes international tensions to surge. Western media will alarm the world to the political pressure at the Korean peninsula creating unrest. When North Korea suggest negotiations, therefore, the governments of the world are eager to quell a potential war between nuclear states. North Korean diplomats then receive maximum concessions from relieved countries.
Kim Jong-un’s charm offensive, therefore, is not a change of heart or an impulsive backpedal, but part of a thorough plan calculated over decades of the Kim dynasty. We should not be surprised by this somewhat dramatic change of events, however. In September 2005 North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong-il, agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons program. In return? The country would receive various economic and security benefits. Now, in 2018, North Korea has the ability to reach the US. This puts Donald Trump’s new administration under huge pressure, likely giving Kim Jong-un far superior negotiating power. The world would likely be prepared to de-escalate its pressure on North Korea, possibly by lifting the sanctions currently in place on North Korea, in return for the cessation of nuclear development.
Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State visited Pyongyang in 2000. In her memoirs she wrote, “I had to assume that [Kim Jong-il] sincerely believed in the blarney he had been taught and saw himself as the protector and benefactor of his nation.” While far from a North Korean expert, I believe that North Korea has no intentions of using nuclear weapons in an act of conflict. The ideology in North Korea is born out of irresponsibility and neglect from the rest of the world which has, in some capacity, discouraged North Korea from adopting Western political systems. I believe that the Kim dynasty has gone about doing the right things in a wrong, and often perverse, way. We need to take some responsibility for that and work together to bring economic reform and denuclearization to North Korea. Leave the negotiations to the governments of the world but let us be compassionate and more accepting of different, and perhaps alien, political systems.