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The image and reality of North Korea

North Korea 3Q

Amid rising tensions surrounding inflammatory actions by North Korea, including recent missile tests and plans to restart a nuclear reactor, Dr. Jun Kwon, a native of South Korea and assistant professor of political science and researcher of North Korean politics at the University of North Georgia, comments on the volatile situation.


Why is hostility from North Korea increasing now?

Dr. Jun Kwon
Dr. Jun Kwon

The immediate cause of the increasing hostility from North Korea is the U.N. resolution in March 2013 that increased sanctions on North Korea and the ensuing U.S.-South Korean joint military drills around the Korean Peninsula this month.

The underlying cause of the recent tensions on the Korean Peninsula, however, is North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. North Korea’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons have been driven by deep-seated fear of regime collapse caused by a U.S. military attack. The core motivation behind the nuclear saber rattling is ‘regime survival.’

North Korea may want to achieve the two goals from the recent display of aggression. First, North Korea intends to deter the United States from initiating possible attacks toward North Korea. It desires to demonstrate its resolve and commitment to respond to U.S. provocation. Second, North Korea desires to take advantage of the recent volatile situation to draw the U.S. to the negotiation table for diplomatic dialogue. North Korea wants to be taken seriously by the U.S. as a legitimate negotiating partner in easing tensions and restoring stability on the Korean Peninsula.


How does Kim Jong Un's status as a new leader influence this situation?

Kim Jong Un has seems to have firm control over the military as well as the Worker’s Party. It is very hard to imagine that his power would be challenged or questioned in North Korea. Two factors can be offered as an explanation to Kim’s absolute reign of power. First, his authority and legitimacy come from his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who was the founder of the regime and has become a god-like figure in North Korea. Kim Jung Un was chosen to succeed his father, Kim Jong Il, because he is the best qualified person to inherit the legacy of his grandfather.

The second factor can be attributed to North Korea’s political culture which is ‘undyingly paternalistic.’ The state (and Kim Jong Un) is a protector and provider for its people, and people passively accept their proper position as dutiful children. He is revered by most of the people in North Korea. The state is an extension of the family in which parents are unquestionably trusted.

People are in large measure voluntarily compliant and submissive to his leadership. In this context, mass unrest (like what we have seen in the Middle East) that threatens the regime in North Korea is highly unlikely.


How does North Korea's image differ from what's really happening inside their borders?

Contrary to the stereotypical image as a rogue state or part of an ‘axis of evil’ in American public and media, North Korea may not be very different from other countries in terms of its external behaviors. North Korea, which is very poor and has been isolated from the international community for many years, is encircled by a group of hostile countries: the U.S., and the far more economically advanced countries of Japan and South Korea. Under the anarchical structure of international politics, states are forced to constantly worry about their security and autonomy. When the survival and security of a state are threatened, everything else becomes secondary. When viewed this way, it is natural that North Korea would pursue nuclear weapons and exhibit belligerent behavior to the Unites States.

What is really going on inside North Korea may also have something to do with inability of economic sanctions to produce the changes that the U.S. wishes in the North Korean nuclear conundrum. The North Korean regime’s legitimacy is not founded on economic performance but on ideological grounds. In other words, the Kim regime is maintained by what may be termed ‘pathological nationalism,’ not its ability to satisfy people’s material need. Standing up against the sole superpower in the world is an enormous source of national pride. One should recognize that external threat (actual or perceived) might empower a regime that otherwise might experience a legitimacy crisis.



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