Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday dear greatleadeternalpresidentandlovingfatherofafreesocialistKoreeeeeaaaaaaaa,
Happy birthday to you!
For a man who’s been dead for nearly 17 years, Kim Il-sung’s career is going very well. He’s still president of North Korea, and it doesn’t look like he’s going to be shifted from his eternal position any time soon.
On 15 April, Kim would have been 99 had he been alive. He hasn’t aged much recently, but that might be because he’s been embalmed since his death and on show in the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang.
Kim was the father of juche, the ideology that mixes Korean nationalism with Confucianism and Stalinism to create a unique autarkic cocktail. It is extremely anthropocentric and stresses self-reliance, although it’s not really reflective of reality. North Korea was reliant on Soviet largesse throughout the Cold War, and now relies on China for its economic survival. So much for self-sufficiency, an ambitious goal given that South Korea got most of the decent agricultural land after 1953 and North Korea got the mountains.
Still, as he turns 99 in his grave, it is worth analysing the legacy of Kim Il-sung and juche. His son, Kim Jong-il, has been in power for the past 17 years (his dead dad holds a purely titular post) and he’s going to pass on the reins to the grandson, Kim Jong-un. Kim Il-sung’s 100 birthday has often been touted by the regime as a deadline for when North Korea becomes ‘a strong and prosperous country’, although it might just be preparation for a more formal handover of power or declaration of nuclear status. Despite desperate poverty and a crushing famine in the 1990s, North Korea still exists as an independent state and is nearing being a nuclear state, a very juche idea of self-reliance in national defence, having tested two nuclear devices and failed to launch three space-launch vehicles.
The problem is, it is the very uniqueness of the country and its juche ideology created by Kim that now hinders North Korean diplomacy and acceptance into the international community. Juche makes it easier to alienate and distinguish the country, while the periodic crises created by violent attacks reinforce this perception. North Korea is often portrayed as unpredictable, its leaders as insane. The DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is simply defined by its rivals as a communist anachronism in a post-Cold War world, uniting its rivals and enemies and making it straightforward to demonise.
We here at the DLR don’t agree with these assessments. Essentially, they all attempt to suggest that North Korea is not a rational actor. Now, there are plenty of problems with the rational actor model, such as bureaucratic procedures and legacy policies, but we don’t agree with attempts to brand regimes such as the Kim dynasty as irrational just because they don’t play by our rules. It verges on Saidian Orientalism. Look at these funny Koreans, with their funny political system and unusual foreign policy! Surely they are bonkers to do things like sink the Cheonan, launch a cross-border raid on the Blue House, kill South Korean diplomats in a bombing in Yangon (Rangoon) and blow up Korean Air flight 858.
Not so, thinks the DLR. North Korean policy is both rational and predictable. Its dogged pursuit of a nuclear programme against all odds and in the face of international sanctions is purely down to an assessment that they cannot trust either South Korea or the US not to invade. The country is still technically at war with the south, 28,500 US troops are based there, the US hosted nuclear weapons on the peninsula until 1991 and Washington has had a habit of invading countries recently. All of this adds up to a perceived threat that can only be countered by nuclear weapons given a large and growing technology gap between the Korean People’s Army and South Korean armed forces. What’s more, nuclear weapons, as a guarantor of state survival, would let Pyongyang stop spending so much on a million-man army, as it would no longer be needed for deterrence.
Periodic attacks such as the Cheonan are ways in which the North Koreans can remind its neighbours and the US of its presence, unhappiness with the current situation, willingness to use violence and determination. It costs South Korea money in buying new ships, beefing up technologies (such as anti-submarine warfare weapons) and focusing Seoul’s attention on a particular tactic, only for Pyongyang to launch a different type of attack for which South Korea is not ready next time. Such operations are good practice for North Korean soldiers and agents and they are low cost. What’s more, given the effective military deterrence of the KPA (Korean People’s Army), there will be no military retribution. Any sanctions are often bypassed and given the short timespan of South Korean presidents (with only one five-year term allowed), there’s always the possibility that the next administration will engage rather than confront, making any sanctions temporary.
This isn’t to defend the actions; the deaths are needless and provocative. But it’s also to deny that such actions are irrational or insane. North Korea is just as rational as any other state and very good at manipulating its detractors and allies. The DLR doesn’t agree with nuclear proflieration, but a nuclear North Korea will be no less rational than any other nuclear power, and might even be a bit friendlier if it feels secure in its stability.
So, happy birthday Kim Il-sung. You may not have left ‘a strong and prosperous country’, juche may have impoverished your population, your son’s domestic policies have on occasion been incompetent in their execution (remember the botched currency revaluation?) and North Korea’s internal repression has been among the most brutal in the world. But don’t let that spoil the celebration.