Kim Possibilities

How do you solve a problem like Kim Jong-un?

Now that President Trump has decided that America needs a serious foreign policy once again, attention has returned to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea which we know as North Korea, a small country we've been at war with for nearly President Trump's entire lifetime.

That's right: on paper, the Korean War never ended.  Hostilities were suspended by an armistice in 1953, but this was never finalized by a peace treaty.  Officially, North Korea and South Korea are still in a state of war, as is the United States and the various major European powers.  To this day, armed soldiers glare at each other across the Demilitarized Zone near the 38th parallel.

Although the DPRK calls itself a self-reliant socialist state and formally holds elections, we see it simply as a totalitarian dictatorship.  The government's legitimacy is based on an elaborate semi-religious cult of personality around founder Kim Il-sung and his family.  The fact that Kim Il-sung's power was passed down to his son Kim Jong-il, and then to his grandson Kim Jong-un who took over in 2011, suggests that the DPRK government is a plain old monarchy and that Kim Jong-un is an old-fashioned absolute ruler.

As Machiavelli would assure you, getting rid of potential rivals is monarchy 1.01.  It was no surprise when Kim Jong-un's half brother Kim Jong-nam was murdered by a military-grade nerve poison in Kuala Lumpur International Airport on February 13.  Similarly, Queen Elizabeth I got rid of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, and Vladimir Putin has brought about the deaths of political rivals.  This has been a traditional, if not universal, method of holding on to power for a long time - King Solomon had his half-brother Adonijah killed thousands of years ago (I Kings 2:17-23).

An Exceptional Tyranny

The Kims may operate much like old-time kings, but Korean tyranny is exceptional in two ways - it's organized around a cult of personality that would do Stalin proud, and it operates a vast number of prison camps to contain any citizen who expresses discontent.

The Koreans are serious about their claims that any disrespect of Kim Jong-un or any of his ancestors is not to be tolerated.  Shortly before Sony released a movie making fun of Kim Jong-un, the Sony computer network was attacked and thousands of embarrassing documents were made public. CNN described our government's evidence that the attack came from North Korea.

At the same time, the DPRK government threatened violence if Sony released the movie all across the nation as had been planned.  Sony canceled the release, and the Obama administration did nothing in particular.

We tend to believe that the attack did come from North Korea because no money was made by this relatively sophisticated cyber attack.  Criminals with that degree of technical capability tend to go after money instead of just making political statements.

More seriously, it's hard to tell how many Koreans are locked up in concentration camps, but CNN estimates from satellite images that the camps confine up to 120,000 men, women and children.  Although the Soviet Union used to have many concentration camps which Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called the Gulag Archipelago, it seems that most Russian citizens today have little to fear from the government's mighty minions unless they directly embarrass or annoy someone powerful enough to hurt them.

The satirical singing group Pussy Riot's members were jailed for two years for a sacrilegious impromptu concert which mocked Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church.  In North Korea, such mockery would result in a lifetime sentence to a labor camp, along with the offenders' siblings, parents, children, and sometimes grandparents.  A lifetime sentence doesn't last as long as expected because prisoners are worked pretty hard and receive minimal food and no medical care.  The Pussy Rioters suffered no such extremes despite their public disrespect, and are freely performing today after serving only a portion of their sentences.

Another Tyrant

In other ways, Kim Jong-un is similar to Bashar Assad, the dictator of Syria.  Neither of them fought their way to power against deadly rivals, as Mao tse Tung fought against Chiang-kai Shek's nationalists; both of them simply inherited power from their fathers.  What's more, both of them were educated in Europe and have at least some vague acquaintance with the economic realities of life outside their domains.

Although Kim Jong-un's policy of total control of every aspect of society has made his country very poor overall, North Korea has enough foreign exchange to purchase enough luxuries to keep the upper crust at least tolerant of their tyrant's arbitrary rule.  Kim Jong-un kills political rivals and has an extensive apparatus of secret police to imprison any who show the slightest sign of stepping out of line; he faces only factional rebellion and jealousy instead of having to contain a large number of citizens who disagree fundamentally with his approach to governance.

The thousands imprisoned in Kim's prison camps mostly never had a chance even to think through any fundamental analysis of his government, any more than the vast majority of Soviet prisoners in the gulag were true revolutionaries.  Mostly they were just misfits and the unlucky.  The handful of people who have escaped his country tell of masses of passive, brainwashed people who really do worship their ruler because they literally know no other way; the slightest peep to the contrary and you vanish instantly.

Mr. Assad is a tyrant of a different sort.  Like any such ruler, he deals harshly with anyone who challenges his rule, but before the current conflict, Syria was not a totalist state with an all-powerful personality cult.  Mr. Assad mostly restricted his harshness to those who truly challenged his rule, hence he had no need for vast prison camps.

Today Assad, who is not even Muslim at all, is fighting an open civil war against many groups of what he thinks of as Muslim rebels - and indeed, that's exactly what most of them claim to be.  We've shown that it is quite difficult to negotiate peace with Muslim jihadists who believe that Allah requires them to kill everybody who isn't Muslim enough.  There's no doubt that Assad has deadly enemies, and, while he doesn't seem to much care if innocents get slaughtered in the crossfire, his evil is on an entirely different and far lesser level than that of Kim, to say nothing of Stalin or Mao.

The Way Forward?

Mr Assad's fight against Muslim rebels has impoverished  and destroyed his country.  The destruction and numerous defections have weakened his administration sufficiently that he had to get help from Mr. Putin's Russian armed forces to maintain his hold on power.  Kim Jong-un isn't fighting a civil war, but his bureaucratic control of his entire society makes it impossible for his economy to survive without significant help from the Chinese.  He also has to keep his citizens ignorant of the prosperity of South Korea so that they won't feel shortchanged.

Both of these tyrants depend on help from the rulers of much larger, more powerful - and better run - countries to maintain their power.  If the Chinese or the Russians decide that their clients cause more trouble than they're worth, the entire picture might change.

On the other hand, the Russians and Chinese are smart enough to know that getting rid of a tyrant is far easier than replacing the tyrant with someone who will bring the exercise in "regime change" to a satisfactory conclusion.  The fact that the North Koreans have some number of nuclear weapons and a two-million man army makes this calculation a bit tougher.

China certainly doesn't want a nuclear war.  They also don't want North Korea to collapse and be taken over by South Korea because that would lead to an America-backed rich liberal democracy on their very border.  They showed just how badly they don't want that by entering the Korean War on the side of the North when MacArthur's armies got near their border.  They demonstrated how much of a "safe space" they needed between their border and our ally by stopping the fighting when they'd pushed us back to the current armistice line at the 38th parallel.  Does anyone believe they'd be any happier today about the South taking back their buffer zone than they were then?

At the same time, they don't want North Korea to collapse and not be taken over by South Korea.  This would lead to millions of desperate starving Korean refugees flooding into China in search of food which would outweigh the advantages of the increased labor supply helping to keep wages down in their factories.  As long as they possibly can do so with a straight face, they'll prop Kim up, leaning on him as necessary to keep him from pissing off the rest of the world too badly.  All Kim wants is to stay in power whatever that may take, and accepting Chinese charity is a small price to pay to further that goal.

Russia has a similar problem in Syria, with the added complication that Muslims who can't get into Europe any more would flee Syria towards Russia.  These refugees would make common cause with the many Muslims who already live either in or next to the former Soviet Union.  The United States has the luxury of being an ocean away from these trouble spots, but Russia and China don't; the consequences of their actions happen in their very own backyards in a way that Americans have never had to worry about.

When President Trump abruptly bombed Assad's airbase in retaliation for a chemical attack against civilians, he said he'd done so because he couldn't stand to look at the TV pictures of the gassed children.  This is an understandable and even laudable point of view, but Mr. Putin has to think harder about the consequences of his decisions: he must weigh very carefully the unpleasant photos of dead Syrian children against the high likelihood of dead children belonging to his own citizens and voters.

He remembers the 2004 attack on a Russian school that left more than 300 Russian children dead.  That was a while ago, but a renegade Turkish policeman recently assassinated the Russian ambassador to Turkey in retaliation for Russian actions against Muslims in Syria and Mr. Putin was forcibly reminded of this danger via yet another deadly Islamist suicide bombing in Russia, this time in the St. Petersburg subway.

Mr. Putin is no George Washington; even less so is China's President Xi Jinping.  Before we speak too harshly about their lack of concern for human rights in benighted places, scrupulous due process, or fully free-and-fair elections, we might do well to consider their very real concerns for keeping their own countries safe before we go upsetting too many more applecarts without worrying about all the scorpions that will come pouring out.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
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