To my childish eyes and to those of all my friends, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were perfect beings, untarnished by any base human function. I was convinced, as we all were, that neither of them urinated or defecated. Who could imagine such things of gods?
These are the words of Kang Chol-hwan, a North Korean defector, who fled North Korea after being imprisoned in a concentration camp for 10 years.
The way North Koreans view the Kim family as Gods gives us insight into why the Kim family has managed to rule an impoverished, starving country for so long and with little dissent. Their strategy is as simple as it is effective.
Step one is to define an outside threat, something the people can rally against. America has made the perfect scapegoat. North Koreans, from a young age, are fed lies about America to an absurd extent. I am not saying that America has had a perfect past, but one visit to the museum dedicated to American war crimes in North Korea reveals the falsehoods that the Kim regime would like North Koreans to associate with America. Photos from the museum show the following: “A life-sized American soldier yanks the hair of a young Korean woman tied to a tree as another American sinks a knife into her heart. In another room, suffused in red light as though drenched with blood, American soldiers drive nails into a Korean woman’s head. Rabid glee distorts their faces.”
Interestingly, Donald Trump’s bullying and frequent twitter rants only serves to fit America’s war hawkish, impulsive narrative further. This can be seen in the fact that Kim Jong-Un is quick to mock Trump’s aggressive tweets as impulsive and blustering.
Step two is to make the North Korean people think their only hope in defending themselves from these monstrous Americans lies with their unwavering support to super human leadership. It does not matter that they are starving, because to them, it is preferable to whatever fate will result from an American invasion.
This two-stepped approach for maintaining a dictatorship is very common throughout history and is used by practically every successful dictator. Adolph Hitler defined a threat (Jews) and positioned himself as the only one to stop it. Saddam Hussein defined a threat (Western intervention) and positioned himself as the only one to stop it. Idi Amin (a despicable Ugandan dictator who was single handedly responsible for the death of 300,000 people and is criminally overlooked in lists of history’s greatest monsters) defined the threat of African immigrants, most notably Asians, and positioned himself as the only one to stop it. The list goes on and on.
In regards to North Korea and America, though, why is the issue so complicated?
The North Korean regime has its foundations in fighting America, so it must continue these missile tests and aggressive actions in order to keep its people satisfied. Kim Jong Un does not want peace with America, because the Korean conflict is the primary thing keeping his regime in power. And, his nuclear missiles are the only thing that gives him any bargaining power. Whoever is truly in charge of North Korea (it could be possible that Kim Jong-Un is just a puppet of North Korean Generals, but for the sake of simplicity, we will assume Kim Jong-Un is in charge) is very intelligent and knows what they are doing. Since Kim Jong-Un’s concern is in maintaining power and not the well being of his people, the North Korean issue presents a different diplomatic problem than that which is normally dealt with in international relations.
Kim Jong-Un does not care about his people. This is why sanctions do not work and only serve to strengthen his regime. Kim Jong-Un and his inner circle are still fed and in power so sanctions are not a negative to him. If anything, he can point to these sanctions as further prove of the American threat. Sanctions only work when the leadership of a country cares about its people. So, when dealing with Kim Jong-Un diplomatically, we must convince him to do something because it benefits him, not because it benefits his people.
Ok, but what if we want to confront this issue militarily instead of diplomatically? If faced with a military conflict against North Korea, the United States can, and would, level North Korea to the ground. This is, though, not without cost. It is possible the North Korean military, in an act of desperation, could employ dangerous chemical weaponry and nuclear devices that could quite possibly hit the American homeland. This is not to mention the sheer destruction that would be unleashed in South Korea and Japan resulting in the deaths of millions. Let us also not forget the innocent North Koreans who would perish in the crossfire. So yes, we would win, but such a victory would come at the death of millions of people. So any decision to make a pre-emptive strike should not be made lightly.
With this in mind, is there anything good we can do? Unfortunately, in dealing with North Korea we have many bad options and the task for our nation’s leaders is simply picking the best of the worst. Here are my four favorites (or for lack of a better term, the ones I hate the least).
We could do the aforementioned military option, assassinate Kim Jong-Un while inciting unrest among the North Korean people in hopes of starting a revolution, cooperate with our Chinese allies in hopes of creating a situation where peace is the best option for Kim Jong-Un, or just continue what we are currently doing.
When we refer to the “military option” it is important to not imagine something like the Normandy invasion. War has changed drastically over the past decades and the buildup to a Normandy type invasion would remove any element of surprise. If we take pre-emptive actions against North Korea it will likely be through a sudden flurry of ballistic missiles and stealth bombers.
Hopefully, the current administration will coordinate this attack with South Korea and Japan or at least give them warning that it will take place. It would be vastly irresponsible to take such an action unilaterally and could result in unnecessary deaths in the Japanese and South Korean homeland. It is unlikely this pre-emptive attack will eliminate all missiles contained within North Korea, so it will be then the job of America and its allies to intercept any missiles launched by North Korea. Our missile intercept systems are very good, but not perfect, meaning there is a distinct, but unlikely, possibility of a nuclear missile hitting America or its allies. Even without a nuclear missile strike, a vast amount of damage will be done. South Korea estimates that a war with North Korea could result in 300,000 dead South Korean citizens assuming North Korea only uses conventional weaponry.
If Trump decides an all out attack is not his style he could try more covert operations, which brings us to option two. This is, perhaps, the most wishful option, but it still deserves mention. If the United States can somehow spark a revolution within North Korea to overthrow Kim Jong Un, a new, more peaceful, North Korea may emerge. We could perhaps financially back North Korean rebels and even attempt to assassinate Kim Jong Un as a spark to the rebellion. Unfortunately, Kim Jong Un has pretty much successfully brainwashed his citizens so they will probably not rebel. Furthermore, the United States has a very bad record with intervening in foreign governments so it is likely foolish to believe that we will succeed here when we have failed everywhere else.
Our third option rests with China. Any option that relies on Chinese and U.S. cooperation is already off to a bad start. Why would the Chinese want to help us anyways? North Korea serves as a buffer to South Korea, a country that is basically molded in America’s image. With North Korea gone, “Americanization” is right at China’s doorstep. North Korea’s constant antagonizing of America is also a positive to China as its slow climb to power puts it in direct opposition to a world, which the United States has controlled since the end of the Cold War.
So, given this context, an alliance with China over North Korea is likely going to result in a lot of give on our side. Essentially, if we are going to get China to work with us we will have to give up something. And, given China’s national focus, this “something” will likely be economic. China, with its pragmatism, will likely take advantage of our dire situation over North Korea and strike a deal heavily weighted in their favor. So, the question we must ask is: how much are we willing to hurt American economic interests for the possibility of solving the North Korean problem?
And yes, China’s assistance will not guarantee our success over North Korea, but it is, by far, the most important country to have on your side when dealing with North Korea. China has access to Kim Jong Un and his inner circle. Simply put, when China has something to say, the North Korean leadership listens attentively. Furthermore, China basically supplies all the energy to North Korea, and a complete shutoff of energy would cripple North Korea militarily.
The hard part, as previous mentioned, is getting active and deliberate support from China against North Korea. To get China to work with us will require expert diplomacy and many concessions on our part. Despite its flaws, though, this option remains my personal favorite of the four.
The fourth option of the status quo may sound lazy and uninspiring, but it does have its positives. The other three options previously listed, if done incorrectly, have the potential to cause many problems. If the military strike fails millions will die, if we cannot successfully incite rebellion we risk provoking Kim Jong Un further or getting stuck with an even more anti-American replacement, and, even if we can get China to work with us, how can we trust them and at what cost will their assistance be to our economy? Furthermore, given that our current administration is not exactly famous for its competence, perhaps the best option would be to wait for a new Presidential administration, one whose leadership is not in constant flux.
It is important that we do not let hysteria grip us when dealing with North Korea, while at the same time taking the threat seriously. If one thing is for certain, though, it is that North Korea is, and will likely always be, our enemy. As Kim Myong-choi, a North Korean spokesperson, said: “The [North] Korean people have many scores to settle with the U.S.”