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 examination.
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 sometimes more.
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 West.
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.Kerry's visit
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.