Originally published 12 September 2016
It’s easy to dismiss the news of yet another North Korean nuclear test. The country’s constant threats against the South and the USA can be amusing given its history of launch failures and the reality of just how badly it would lose if a conflict were ever to actually happen.
Likewise, the news that the country’s almost comedic leader Kim Jong Un has “banned sarcasm” is difficult to take seriously. That’s just the latest in a line of ludicrous news stories to emerge from the absurdly named “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”. A few months earlier a senior diplomat at the DPRK’s UK ’embassy’, which is literally just a house, defected to the south, leading the North Korean government to brand him an embezzler and accuse him of child rape.
Unfortunately what the farcical nature of North Korea’s posturing and Kim Jong Un’s increasingly ridiculous actions really serve to do is divert attention away from the very real situation within the country.
Absurdity isn’t a new thing that arrived with Kim Jong Un’s inheritance of the leadership. From the Korean War through to the 1994 death of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the state’s propaganda force turned the elder Kim into nothing short of a deity. A popular rumour states that, after his death, a flock of cranes descended to carry him away to heaven. In light of his status above mere mortals, Kim Il-Sung remains the country’s official leader to this day.
The intermediate Kim was elevated to similar, if not quite the same, status with endless stories of incredible feats from hole-in-one golf swings to controlling the weather with his mood.
It’s easy for those in the west, or indeed anywhere in the outside world, to laugh at these stories, along with the DPRK’s regular threats to ‘annihilate Washington DC‘. The whole thing comes off like a massive joke.
But for someone within the country the perspective is entirely different. Not only is the government line the only information they have access to, smuggled TV shows from the South aside, but they are also living in a climate where any questioning of the state brings the risk of a virtually endless list of possible forms of punishment.
It’s that situation within the country that really should be the West’s primary focus. The nuclear tests certainly show that the DPRK does pose a very real threat to the outside world, especially to the South, but ultimately that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do. It’s extremely unlikely, even with Kim Jong Un’s seemingly erratic leadership, that the country would ever risk using one of their devices given the scale of the response it would provoke. The public have been lead into thinking they could win that war, but the leadership is well aware of the reality.
The alarming reality that the nuclear tests communicate is not so much the military power of North Korea, but more the power the government there has over its people and resources. This is a country where food is virtually non existent for large sectors of the population, dependent on foreign aid, driving massive resources into advanced weaponry and space launch systems.
Citizens in North Korea need the government’s permission to move between towns. The state blew untold millions on a network of intercity motorways that stand empty in a country where only the elite few have access to cars, and the few who are allowed to move generally go by train. Stand by one of these highways and, with a bit of luck, an ex-Soviet military truck might drive past at some point during the day.
Even in Pyongyang, a city open only to those who conform with the state’s idea of perfection where the elderly, disabled and otherwise non-ideal are conspicuously absent, residents suffer frequent power outages. The fact a country which can’t supply its capital city with reliable electricity can manufacture and detonate a nuclear device is far more worrying than the reality of it possessing that device.
Clearly the situation between the two Koreas, in a situation where both have access to nuclear weapons, is far too unstable to contemplate any kind of intervention. As much as such a move would have far more moral and rational basis than the interventions actually carried out over the past decade and a half, the truth is that it would likely cause more harm than it would fix.
It’s difficult to see another means of helping the people of North Korea, but ridiculing the situation there certainly isn’t it. It is a place where unthinkable suffering goes on every day. The one thing that really needs to happen is much more exposure of the living conditions and the reality that exist inside that country. Similarly, perhaps the best thing the West could do is try to get accurate information about the outside world to the people trapped inside that bubble.
Even if a popular revolution ever were to happen in the DPRK, the government possesses almost unparalleled military might, meaning any such event would incur unthinkable casualties. Not only that, but the state’s control of media and information has created a situation where it’s doubtful if there would even be the public will for such an uprising.
It certainly seems that the present North Korean regime is going to be around for a while. The priority now has to be increasing the flow of information in and out of the country, and shifting the focus away from the DPRK’s geopolitical posturing and towards the very real suffering of its people.