Why is North Korea So Dangerous?
North Korea doesn’t have an immigration problem.
No one is lining up to move to a country known for its aggressiveness and shockingly low standards of living. For decades, it has threatened South Korea and Japan with missile strikes and it now has the ability to do the same to the USA.
The country is ruled by Kim Jong-un, a dictator with few friends outside his country. His people live on less than 5% of the average income in South Korea. Most people aren’t allowed to access foreign websites. A quarter of a million died in a famine in the 1990’s. No wonder George W. Bush in 2002 said North Korea was part of the “axis of evil.”
Why is North Korea so belligerent? Why would such a small country threaten the United States? Is Kim Jong-un really that bad? Or mad? Or is there something else going on?
To understand North Korea you have to go back at least to 1910, when the Korean peninsula was taken over by Japan. The Japanese said they came to help but that’s not how it felt to most Koreans. Most of the rice crop was exported to feed people in Japan. Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names. The young were only allowed to speak Japanese. When the Second World War began, the Japanese army conscripted Korean men and women for war work—the men in factories, the women in military brothels.
So Koreans rejoiced even more than Americans did when Japan surrendered in August 1945. They looked forward not only to peace but also to self-rule. Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill had agreed that no foreign troops would be stationed in the country. But mutual suspicion between the US and the Soviet Union meant Koreans soon found themselves living either in a Russian-controlled North or an American-occupied South. It was three junior officials looking at a National Geographic map in Washington D.C. who decided that the 38th parallel would make a good dividing line.
It would be nice to think that from the start the North was an ugly dictatorship with no legitimacy while the South enjoyed freedom under the rule of enlightened Koreans. The reality was different. Whatever one thinks of the politics of North Korea’s first leader, Kim Il-sung, he had moral authority won through years of active resistance against the Japanese. Meanwhile in the South, many of those recruited by the United States to keep the lid on the territory were either Japanese citizens or Koreans who had served the Japanese during the war. The Korean police brutally suppressed opposition to the American-sponsored regime: they destroyed scores of villages in the South and killed tens of thousands before 1950.
Then came the Korean War. Neither North nor South were innocent in its start or its conduct. One and a half million Koreans died. Five million fled their homes. Despite a harrowing monument in Washington D. C., most Americans don’t think much about the Korean War. But Koreans cannot forget so easily, and in the North especially the government is keen to remind its people of how their ancestors suffered. The US dropped more bombs on Korea than it had dropped in the entire Pacific theatre during all of World War Two. In some places, more than 20% of the population died. 10% of all Koreans were killed, wounded, or lost by the war’s end.
Surely they had suffered enough. Why would North Korea’s leaders continue, more than fifty years later, to keep their people poor by investing in expensive weapons technologies and cutting their country off from foreign aid? Greed, ignorance, and pride all play a part.
But it was not the Kim family in the North that introduced nuclear bombs to the peninsula but the United States, who since 1958 have had the capability to incinerate all North Korea in a matter of minutes.
Kim Jong-un isn’t stupid. He knows that using one of his nuclear devices would result in the total devastation of his country. So he probably won’t. But it’s hard to disagree with the lesson that North Korea’s leaders appear to have learned from American policy towards the other two countries listed by Bush as part of the axis of evil: Iraq and Iran. Iraq did not have nuclear weapons. America invaded and overthrew its government in 2003. By contrast the US has negotiated with Iran, which is within range of getting nuclear capability. The lesson: even the strongest power on earth has to respect you if you can threaten it. If you can’t, you might get trampled.
North Korea is ugly. Three generations of the Kim family have ruined the economy and strangled civil society. The current ruler, Kim Jong-un, is hard to like. We should all hope that he chooses a different, better, more humane foreign policy. But his current approach isn’t too hard too understand, however risky and terrifying it might be.