Wednesday, 21 December 2011

North Korea is a Chinese client state. Don't look for change to the status quo.

Kim Jong-il and son Kim Jong-un. Dear Leader and Dear Leader II

North Korea: Kim Jong-il brought state sponsored poverty and famine to his people.
by Tom Thorne
A while back a friend gave me a copy of Barbara Demick's excellent 2010 book entitled, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. This first rate piece of reportage catalogues, in poignant detail, the Kim Jong-il years in North Korea and the negative effects this regime has had on ordinary people. 
The book documents the repressed experiences of people under this brutal regime. The entire country is sunk into a stupor of suppressed thoughts and actions. It is very important to be seen enthusiastically supporting Kim Jong-il because to be critical in the slightest way is to be marginalized as a social pariah. To become a pariah means that the state security apparatus may place you on their radar. 
Government induced fear is the main ingredient of North Korean life. Individual thoughts are suppressed and even basic emotions expressed to others are always guarded and done with great care unless they be misinterpreted as " individualism" or reported as suspect to the authorities. Having real friends and relationships is risky. In North Korea fitting into rigid rules of a dictatorship is the norm. 
North Koreans live in an old style Stalinist dictatorship.
People who look the wrong way disappear into gulags and prisons operated by a security service. They have the absolute authority to arrest, detain and execute offenders of the regime. Often prisoners never returned but when they did they were "re-educated" into a shell of their former selves spouting the Dear Leader's point of view as gospel.
This atmosphere of mistrust masks a failed state in the 1990s that proved incapable of providing the necessities of life. Famine, starvation and ill health became the norm for almost a decade. Of course in a state such as this, famine never officially existed and so even while millions starved they had to support the lie that there was enough to eat.
The boss of all this repression styled himself as Dear Leader. Dictator Kim Jong-il was a weird little guy with platform shoes who took over from his father Kim Il-sung who founded the Communist North Korean state. He would always be a second banana to the godlike stature of his father.  
China uses North Korea as a buffer state.
North Korea was supported by China during the Korean War of 1950-53 as a client state. Kim Il-sung lasted until 1996 when Kim Jong-il took over. Subsequently Kim Il-sung was deified and mummified in a glass coffin even though his death showed him to be very mortal. No doubt Kim Jong-il will also be preserved and pickled for posterity.
Kim Jong-il's death this week after 15 years in power now places North Korea in a limbo as his son Kim Jong-un perhaps will take power. Of course the son is only 27 years old but is already the head of the security apparatus and a four star general in the North Korean military. 
Kim Jong-un is a pudgy porcine person who is now the heir to his father if the military remains loyal to the divine right of the Kim family. However he lacks the preparation that his father had serving his father for 20 years before taking power.
All these North Korean leaders have comic opera appearances but unfortunately there is nothing funny about the personal absolute power they  wield in this totalitarian kingdom. They control a one million strong North Korean Army that supports and maintains their Dear Leader’s power and by association their own power. 
Dangerous nuclear games at play on the Korean peninsula.
They control a state security apparatus that is loyal because they also maintain their special rarified status by persecuting the population into silence. In addition, the Dear Leaders have their hands on intercontinental ballistic missiles and many analysts believe they have nuclear weapons. They have also been recently bellicose off their coasts when they sank a South Korean naval ship. In addition they appear to have ballistic missiles capable of reaching North America.
As a result the Chinese, South Koreans and the Japanese take North Korea seriously although they are a rogue state by any definition. The Chinese formally recognize North Korea and probably see them as a remanent of old style totalitarian Communism of the Mao Zedong type. 
North Korea is a living museum of the old Communist China and useful as a Chinese buffer state. As a result the Chinese like the status quo to continue.
The Chinese also see North Korea as a convenient way to keep the real politick pot boiling in the Far East. North Korea borders Russia and themselves but this state keeps a constant tension going with South Korea because there is no post Korean War peace treaty. Technically South Korea and North Korea are still at war.
This keeps the United States on edge in the Far East dealing with a rogue state that does dirty work for China irritating the West and keeping the United Nations in a state of do-nothing diplomacy. The US has no diplomatic representation in North Korea so they remain in deep mystery concerning totalitarian bravado at work there.
What happens now?
So what will happen now?  The poverty and lack of industrialization will keep North Korea economically curtailed. The Chinese recognition of North Korea means that the status quo will continue and no real change will happen. Hence Kim Jong-un will become the next dictator probably controlled some think by family members but more likely by the military elite.
Any notions that the Korean peninsula will solve their state of war is remote. It is remote because China likes the status quo to continue for its own selfish real politick reasons. Will the North and South soften relations? Again unlikely. One thing is certain the Chinese will maintain the status quo (rogue state with nuclear weapons and large standing army) keeping the North Koreans on short leash just on this side a hot war. 
So the point of North Korea is Chinese influence maintaining an old fashioned Communist state at their back door that makes the US and the West spend billions on Pacific Far East military defense just in case Korea explodes into a hot war again or tests and maybe launches nuclear weapons. 
This idea is not so crazy. In 1950 the Chinese Army crossed the Chinese-Korean border along the Yalu River to start the Korean War. This time there is a Korean Army of one million men to do the job themselves. This fact makes South Korea spend billions on defense and serves the Chinese well.
It does very little for the North Korean population who remain largely in poverty and literally in the dark without even a basic electrical  infrastructure in place.

The lights are always out in North Korea 
when compared to South Korea.
Nothing to Envy, Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick, Spiegel & Grau Paperbacks, New York, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-385-52391-2   USA: $16.00 / Canada: $19.00.
© Copyright 2011, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved

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