“The country established by the will of the people, breasting the raging waves with soaring strength. Let us glorify forever this Korea, limitlessly rich and strong.”
For the third time in its turbulent and bizarre history, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (self titled, obviously) has conducted a nuclear weapons test on domestic soil. This has, of course, resulted in the usual outburst of diplomatic meetings and condemnations from most players in world politics. This time, however, a new voice has been added to the chorus.
China, who has long been a traditional ally of the Hermit Kingdom, ran an article in the state-run Global Post denouncing the tests and conveying their “deep concern” over the situation. Though perhaps not the strongest condemnation, this is still indicative of a continuing marginalisation of the DPRK on the global stage. Does this signal the beginning of the end for the alternately terrifying and hilarious regime in North Korea? Not quite. China’s condemnation is not really an indication of any decision to turn against North Korea, rather, it is a not-so-subtle message to their perennial ally on the Korean Peninsula, telling them to shut up and keep their head down to avoid attracting more negative international attention. In reality, China will continue to tolerate the actions of the DPRK until they border on actual aggression. In fact, they would probably even spring to the defence of its ‘national sovereignty’ in the event of an international intervention. There is, of course, a reason for this; if the regime in Pyongyang was to collapse, Korea would most likely be unified and administered from Seoul in the south. The result? An American-sympathetic regime bristling with American weaponry and military personnel right on China’s border; a situation that Beijing would seek to avoid at all costs.
North Korea, then, isn’t going anywhere in the near future. Does this mean that we should be worried? After all, there is a crazy guy who’s built himself a nuke living in our neighbourhood. To answer this question, it is probably helpful to understand the situation in North Korea. The society is built around Kim Il-sung’s juche philosophy, which is the belief that the Korean masses are the only ones who are in charge of the destiny of the state, and extra-territorial intervention or influence is an affront to the freedom of the people. The freedom of the people, however, is already negligible or non-existent. The DPRK is essentially a personality cult that revolves around the ‘Great Leader’ of the day; first it was Kim Il-sung, then Kim Jong-il, and now Kim Jong-un. The party demands unflinching devotion of every citizen to both juche and the Great Leader, with any form of dissidence resulting in imprisonment in a government gulag or forced labour camp. The main tool of indoctrination is party propaganda, revolving heavily around the prowess of the DPRK’s military and the infallibility of its leader. As a result, the government spends most of its meagre budget on military development, and relies heavily on international aid (particularly from China) to feed its impoverished citizens. Most importantly, Kim Jong-un’s regime is very aware of its precarious position, and clearly knows there is nothing to be gained by provoking international intervention.
The nuclear test, then, was not intended to be an act of international intimidation. Rather, it is a domestically targeted propaganda campaign, designed to reinforce and legitimise the newly minted ‘Great Leader’, Kim Jong-un. The show of force and prowess was designed to distract the North Korean public from the truth of the squalor in which they live, and ensure that, at least under Kim Jong-un, revolutionary sentiment remains dormant.
Personally, I regard the DPRK as one of the last remaining enigmas in an increasingly homogenised world. This is a country whose leader, according to North Korean official history, was born under a double rainbow on the summit of a mountain, has directed thousands of films, and controls the weather with his mood. Of course, the DPRK is a potential threat to its regional neighbours, but for the moment it poses a negligible risk to Australia, and should be enjoyed while it lasts.