North Korea may look like a country gone mad, but that is exactly why we ought to take its latest display of hubris so seriously. While it should be fixing its crumbling economy, Kim Jong-un’s regime prefers to declare a state of war with its southern neighbour and threaten the US with rockets.
To comprehend why it is doing this, and why this crisis is so dangerous, we have to understand its obsession with history. A defining moment in the North Korean narrative is the Korean War of 1950-53, when the Communist leader Kim Il-sung led the North in an invasion of the South and was pushed back by US-led forces.
Schoolchildren in the People’s Republic are taught that American troops carried out atrocities against their grandparents and that the US would do it all again were it not for the iron leadership of the Kim family. Equally important is what happened afterwards. In peacetime, the tyrannical Kim Il-sung’s power was challenged by liberal reformers, and his response was to shift the ideological justification for the regime away from Marxism and towards a unique quasi-religious nationalism called Juche.
Kim became like a god, and when he died he remained head of state, governing from the afterlife. In official accounts, the birth of his successor, Kim Jong-il, was accompanied by the appearance of a double rainbow. This secretive boy with a bouffant hairdo was cast as the god of sport, among other things.
When he played his first ever round of golf in 1994, he supposedly scored 11 holes-in-one; North Korea’s football coach said that Jong-il guided the team during the 2010 World Cup with the help of an invisible cellphone — technology that the regime claimed the leader himself had invented.
When the next in line, Kim Jong-un, came to power in 2011, the pantheon gained a more gregarious deity, who smiled a lot and visited people in their homes. North Korea is governed by fantasists, but the fantasy is bolstered by a network of gulags; hard currency raised through drug trafficking and counterfeiting money; the development of nuclear arms; and a huge stockpile of conventional weapons that could level South Korea. Moreover, all this barbarism is justified by a good versus evil struggle with the US.
The eternal fight against ‘imperialism’ legitimises the Kim family’s control of the country; when famine struck in the 1990s, the regime blamed a US embargo and credited the limited relief that was allowed into the country to Kim Jong-il’s personal diplomacy. Confronting the US is a matter of personal honour, a fact underlined by an extraordinary order given that, should war occur, a priority must be protecting the nation’s 35,000 statues of the Kims.
It is possible that the present crisis is being manufactured for the benefit of the home audience, that Kim Jong-un is reinforcing the propaganda that it is his family that protects the people from US aggression, by first stirring up aggression and then resolving it through diplomacy. But, considering the regime’s failing grip on reality, two things could go wrong.
First, North Korea might raise the stakes so high that diplomacy becomes impossible and backing down would undermine its authority. This is a regime that would allow its people to suffer rather than accept any compromise.
A second possibility is that the hermit kingdom surrenders to the mad logic of Juche and launches an all-out war on the West. Most religions have some element of apocalypse in their theology, and North Korea is no exception. If Kim Jong-un judges that the time has come to purify the South of democracy and invades, his action would surely prompt an American response that, in turn, would draw China into the conflict.
It is a terrifying thought that this slightly farcical regime could trigger the war to end all wars.
— The Telegraph Group Ltd, London 2013