Nobody would care much about North Korea – a small and isolated country of 24 million people, ruled by a grotesque dynasty that calls itself Communist – if not for its nuclear weapons. Its current ruler, Kim Jong-un, the 30-year-old grandson of North Korea’s founder and “Great Leader,” is now threatening to turn Seoul, the rich and bustling capital of South Korea, into “a sea of fire.” U.S. military bases in Asia and the Pacific are also on his list of targets.
Mr. Kim knows very well that a war against the United States would probably mean the destruction of his own country, which is one of the world’s poorest. His government can’t even feed its own people, who are regularly devastated by famine. In the showcase capital, Pyongyang, there’s not even enough electricity to keep the lights on in the largest hotels. So threatening to attack the world’s most powerful country would seem like an act of madness.
But it’s neither useful nor very plausible to assume that Mr. Kim and his military advisers are mad. To be sure, there’s something deranged about North Korea’s political system. The Kim family’s tyranny is based on a mixture of ideological fanaticism, vicious realpolitik and paranoia. But this lethal brew has a history that needs to be explained.
The short history of North Korea is fairly simple. After the collapse in 1945 of the Japanese empire, which had ruled quite brutally over the whole of Korea since 1910, the Soviet Red Army occupied the north, and the U.S. occupied the south. The Soviets plucked a relatively obscure Korean Communist, Kim Il-sung, from an army camp in Vladivostok and installed him in Pyongyang as leader of North Korea. Myths about his wartime heroism and divine status soon followed, and a cult of personality was established.
Worshipping Mr. Kim and his son and grandson as Korean gods became part of a state religion. North Korea is essentially a theocracy. Some elements are borrowed from Stalinism and Maoism, but much of the Kim cult owes more to indigenous forms of shamanism: human gods who promise salvation (it was no accident that the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church came from Korea, too).
But the power of the Kim cult, as well as the paranoia that pervades the North Korean regime, has a political history that goes back much further than 1945. Wedged awkwardly between China, Russia and Japan, the Korean Peninsula has long been a bloody battleground for greater powers. Korean rulers only managed to survive by playing one foreign power off against the other, and by offering subservience, mainly to Chinese emperors, in exchange for protection. This legacy has nurtured a passionate fear and loathing of dependency on stronger countries.
The Kim dynasty’s main claim to legitimacy is Juche, the regime’s official ideology, which stresses national self-reliance to the point of autarky. In fact, Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, were typical Korean rulers. They played China against the Soviet Union, while securing the protection of both. Of course, this didn’t stop North Korean propagandists from accusing the South Koreans of being cowardly lackeys of U.S. imperialism. Indeed, paranoia about U.S. imperialism is part of the cult of independence. For the Kim dynasty to survive, the threat of external enemies is essential.
The fall of the Soviet Union was a disaster for North Korea, as it was for Cuba; not only did Soviet economic support evaporate, but the Kims could no longer play off one power against another. Only China was left, and North Korea’s dependence on its northern neighbour is now almost total. China could crush North Korea in a day just by cutting off food and fuel.
There’s only one way to divert attention from this humiliating predicament: Propaganda about self-reliance and the imminent threat from U.S. imperialists and their South Korean lackeys must be turned up to a hysterical pitch. Without this orchestrated paranoia, the Kims have no legitimacy. And no tyranny can survive for long by relying on brute force alone.
Some people argue that the U.S. could enhance security in Northeast Asia by compromising with the North Koreans – specifically, by promising not to attack or try to topple the Kim regime. The Americans are unlikely to agree to this, and South Korea would not want them to. Apart from anything else, there’s an important domestic political reason for U.S. reticence: a Democratic president can’t afford to look “soft.” More important, even if the U.S. were to provide such guarantees to North Korea, the regime’s paranoid propaganda would probably continue, given the centrality to Juche of fear of the outside world.
The tragedy of Korea is that no one really wishes to change the status quo: China wants to keep North Korea as a buffer state, and fears millions of refugees in the event of a North Korean collapse; the South Koreans could never afford to absorb North Korea in the way that West Germany absorbed the broken German Democratic Republic; and neither Japan nor the U.S. would relish paying to clean up after a North Korean implosion.
And so an explosive situation will remain explosive, North Korea’s population will continue to suffer famines and tyranny, and words of war will continue to fly back and forth across the 38th parallel. So far, they’re just words. But small things – a shot in Sarajevo, as it were – can trigger a catastrophe. And North Korea still has those nuclear bombs.
Ian Buruma is a professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.