‘Kim Jong-Un Privately Doubting He’s Crazy Enough To Run North Korea’. By the usual high standards of The Onion, arguably the sharpest satirical publication in the world, this recent effort about the heir to the leadership of North Korea fell flat.
But you have to sympathise with The Onion’s writers. How are they supposed to compete with what passes for serious discussion about North Korea’s regime in the West?
A recent exchange on ABC 24’s talk and analysis show The Drum illustrates the point. In a discussion of North Korea, Tom Switzer from the United States Studies Centre referred to the leadership as ‘unhinged’.
Not to be outdone, host John Barron wondered ‘maybe the North Koreans aren’t as crazy as they’d like us to think’. Not only is the North Korean leadership crazy.
Apparently they’re so deranged and devious that they’ve deliberately cultivated this image as ruse to deceive the West.
Barron went further, asking Australia’s former ambassador to South Korea Mack Williams, ‘we have heard a lot about the North Korean leadership being reclusive, being nuts. Just how unstable is the leadership; should we believe it when we are told that these people are not logical?’
Aside from the fact that this is more name-calling than analysis, the problem with the ‘Are These North Korean’s Crazy Or What?’ thesis is that North Korea’s leaders have shown themselves to be adept at the game of Realpolitik, using their nuclear trump card to extract a string of concessions from the West. For a bunch of crazies, they seem to be very good at getting what they want.
As former ambassador Williams noted, ‘They’re certainly not crazy. If anything, Kim Jong-Il is a magnificent poker player’.
This isn’t the only questionable feature of the West’s portrayal of North Korea. Even the most basic terms of the discussion about North Korea are open to question. For instance, the CIA’s World Factbook lists North Korea’s government as a ‘Communist state one-man dictatorship’. Reinforcing this view, commentators frequently refer to North Korea as ‘Stalinist’ or ‘communist’.
But it’s questionable whether North Korea has anything to do with Stalinism or Marxist-Leninism. In his recent book The Cleanest Race, Associate Professor of International Studies at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea, Brian R Myers argues that North Korea’s ideology has little to do with Stalinism and more closely resembles fascism. More precisely, based on an extensive study of domestic propaganda, Myers argues that North Korea has a race-based ideology where the North Korean people are portrayed as pure child-like innocents, living in a harsh world and in need the protection of a strong leader.
In Myers’ analysis, North Korea’s elite adapted the race-based ideology from the Japanese, who colonised the Korean peninsula between 1910 until the end of World War II, wrapping it in Korean mythology in the 1930s. As Myers sums up North Korea’s ideology in a recent article for Foreign Policy, ‘Up close, North Korea is not Stalinist — it’s simply racist’. Indeed, Myers casts doubt on whether the North Korea regime was ever communist.
In his estimation, Kim Il-Sung’s was ignorant of Marxist-Leninism, so the party cobbled together an internal ideology called ‘Juche thought’ — Juche roughly translating as ‘subject’ — that emphasises independence and self-reliance.
But Juche Thought is strictly for foreign consumption. As Myers writes, instead ‘of the implacably xenophobic, race-based worldview derived largely from fascist Japanese myth, the world sees a reassuringly dull state-nationalism conceived by post-colonial Koreans, rooted in humanist principles, and evincing an understandable if unfortunate preoccupation with autonomy and self-reliance’.
If Myers’ analysis is right, North Korea’s behaviour, while not exactly rational, does have a rationale. It is not the work of mad men, but is consistent with xenophobic race-based nationalism.
Following this line of reasoning, Myers concludes there is little chance of a peaceful deal being struck to resolve the tensions on the Korean peninsula since any back-down or compromise would amount to the North Koreans surrendering to their racial ‘inferiors’ in the West.
Whether Myers’ pessimistic outlook is warranted is a matter for debate. And, no doubt, there will be those who disagree with his account of North Korea’s ideology. Nevertheless, his account provides a starting point for a deeper understanding of the growing danger on the Korean peninsula — something that is sorely missing from the current discussion.
Originally published on The Drum.