The policy towards North Korea has failed. It has failed because we continue to treat the Hermit Kingdom as if it is a functional state. It is a failed state built on criminal enterprise, shrouded in lies and propaganda, and victim to the dysfunctional whims of the Kim family.
The state itself was created for no other purpose than to serve as a buffer between the major blocs. As such, it is as barren as No Man’s Land. Crafted on a whim, it has been ruled in similar manner since. Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, attempted to seize the whole peninsula after Stalin doubted that the US had the spine to stand up to a new conflict. When Kim’s drive was driven back and the fragile regime faced collapse, Chinese forces, driven by a paranoid Mao whose own regime was still unsteady, invaded if only to keep American forces off his borders. Chinese forces preserved the North, though North Korea continues to trumpet how they stood against the capitalist hordes. You know, the ones who broke Japanese forces granting them their freedom for the first time in decades.
North Korea had possibility. The majority of industry and mineral resources were located there. Soviet advisors aided in their development. The “threat” to the south served to solidify authority around Kim and his government. But they turned inward. They turned inward because Kim knew that surrounding the state with enemies would turn his people to him in desperation. After the depradations of the Korean War which saw widespread death and suffering, he presented himself as their Messiah. Cult-like, the people worshipped their new god and cast reason upon the altar of preservation.
This cult is insane. They worship every single icon of their leader with grave devotion, believe their lives serve no other purpose than to suffer for their exultation of Kim. They trust no one, their xenophobia absolute following the apocalyptic battles of the early fifties. As such they do not question. In order to retain his hold, Kim created new enemies as needed among his own people. Peace is impossible. There is and ever will be evil that must be fought, and ongoing victory is impossible without Kim.
Stalinist by design, the system rewards loyalty over competence. The factories, built on heavy industry and chemicals, lost efficiency and purpose. Subsidies from the Soviets withered. The ability of the state declined. And then their god died. Reality has struck down their illusion. When the opportunity had finally come to cast off the nightmares of a generation, they instead clung to the easy lie. Kim Jong Il, the great leader’s son emerged to salvage their land.
It was the dark choice the Soviets faced. After decades of being told what to think, how to think, fighting the Cold War, enduring depredations, to then be told it was all a lie; that their lives has accomplished nothing. With the poverty of Communism and autarky, all the North Koreans had were their beliefs. The belief they were the last shining beacon of humanity, that their fight was noble, that their leader was guiding them to greatness. To accept they were broke, economically and politically. Never.
The Nineties were the crucible that truly hardened their fanaticism. As their country crumbled, their crops failed, and their allies dissolved, the sheer insularity became so intense the nation became a black hole. Millions starved, tens of thousands were imprisoned for their doubts, and their leader harnessed this rage to threaten the world.
We thought we could win their thoughts with generosity, but our kindness was exploited. We believed rational discourse and aid would lead the North away from extremism, but that served only as a facade to stabilize the regime. North Korea cannot and will not make concessions. Whether it is because they believe the insanity of their dogma or because its leaders know that any sign of weakness means their end, there is no incentive within their borders to change.
The leadership is further isolated by the capital being populated by none but the most loyal. There is no contradiction allowed. Lackeys and sycophants have become the wall of the inner keep of North Korea and further reinforce and entrench the leadership in this victim mentality. Yet it is all hypocritical. For all the accusations tossed at the west for its immorality, greed, and gluttony, the leadership, all the way up to the Kims, enjoy the luxuries of the west from pirated movies to bourbon, even turning their own citizens into prostitutes with threats of prison for them and their families if they don’t comply.
It has only worsened after the completion of the trinity by Kim Jong Un. The boy is a neophyte, so lacking in the revolutionary fervor of his grandfather or the bureaucratic experience of his father. He was thrust into power at a young age and has shown the inexperience that comes with having no former position in his family’s regime. He has taken the paranoia of the state and not only embraced the numerous prison camps housing his own people but now spread the terror to even the highest echelons of the North Korean leadership including his own family.
There is a disconnect. Kim Jong Un builds ski lodges and amusement parks, talking about opening their borders to trade and tourists. But then he militarily threatens his neighbors, firing ever more potent missiles and dabbling in nuclear weapons. He muses about liberalizing the government while murdering generals with anti-aircraft guns.
The nation has lost its sanity. Soldiers watch each other as much as they do the border. Parents fear their children are spies. Everyone screams louder than the next to prove their loyalty while whispering their true feelings in the shadows. And the euphoria of the state, how it carries these people away; reality so bitter that they surrender to sweet lies. Regimentation. Orchestration. Order.
This is a regime that cyber attacked a studio over a satire of their leader. This is the nation where foreign doctors volunteer their efforts only for Kim to be praised as if he was the source of their miraculous salvation. And with their health renewed, once more swearing to murder American soldiers. This is the realm which preyed on decades of longing for reunion by families separated by the border in order to extort money and aid.
Despite every effort, China refuses to allow the fullest of pressure to be put on their eastern neighbor. Despite the fall of Mao and the changing views of the Chinese people, the Chinese government continues to sustain their ally. Regardless of the threat of nuclear war, the Chinese obsessively support the Kims if only for that buffer, still paranoid themselves that the west wishes them harm; trading with us but limiting our influence all the same.
So what can we do? We must stand firm. We must stop listening to the shrieks of despots and stop believing we can deal with a regime so rotted that it is a wonder it still stands. We cannot accept the promises of these liars nor offer aid to these thieves. We must prepare for one day the people will either wake from their nightmare or the state will consume itself whole. Let’s not shoulder the blame for it.