If you’ve been watching the news at all you’ll know that North Korea has just recently completed its fifth nuclear bomb test on September 8th, being well on its way to becoming a nuclear power. The repercussions of this potential reality reverberate throughout the region and surely weigh on the minds of both Chinese and American strategists competing for control over the South China Sea. If China wishes to control the region’s maritime trade and natural resources, they must first push out American influence.
As long as American forces are stationed on the 38th parallel, US military commanders are going to make absolutely sure that the US and its allies have freedom of movement within the South China Sea. If the 60 year armistice between North and South Korea should suddenly end, and US forces on the 38th parallel are deployed into battle, necessary supplies, equipment, and reinforcements supplied by maritime shipping could be cut off by Chinese control over shipping lanes. If China takes the shipping lanes nonetheless, the Americans may threaten to withdraw their forces, potentially uncorking the nuttiness of North Korea on the region. In such an event, China would also have to accept shouldering the burden of dealing with the regime while putting themselves in the unenviable position of having to mediate between the North and South. But before China can do that, it must first prove to its neighbors that it can be the primary guarantor of security in the region instead of the US, and now that North Korea is going nuclear, the Chinese are going to have to redouble their efforts to make their case.
After decades of isolationism and xenophobia towards the international community, dictators Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il turned North Korea into a pariah state. Policy was formed around the twin pillars of collectivist centralization and national self-reliance to combat foreign dependency. Although the North Korean economy, culture, education system and other fundamental aspects are controlled by the state in a fashion similar to communism, a lone “Supreme Leader” has dictatorial control over the state rather than a supreme Soviet. As we have seen with communism, the dynamics of such a completely closed system are virtually guaranteed to break down and seize up over time without expansion, an option that North Korea does not have. Due to the inherent inefficiencies associated with top-down management, large collectivist movements and social programs, and the bureaucracy associated with the accumulation of 70 years worth of policies, the North Korean system began to break down and famine became widespread and regular.
When asked to characterize the North Korean style of government, you’ll often hear it described as a one-party state, a family dictatorship, or “self-reliant socialism.” But none of these terms are very descriptive or entirely accurate. To really understand what kind of government North Korea has, one simply has to read the Wikipedia entry on their official political ideology, Juche.
Kim Il-sung (1912–1994) developed the ideology – originally viewed as a variant of Marxism–Leninism – to become distinctly “Korean” in character, breaking ranks with the deterministic and materialist ideas of Marxism–Leninism and strongly emphasizing the individual, the nation state and its sovereignty. (Emphasis added)
A nationalist form of Marxist socialism? If that sounds a lot like the Nazis, that’s exactly what it is. Rather than a fuhrer, there is the supreme leader, and the official party of the state, the Worker’s Party of Korea, sounds eerily similar to the German Worker’s Party. State-run propaganda is omnipresent and centralized controls are placed on media and culture in the form of censorship and narrative building. The foundation of the Kims’ supreme leader cult is actually Korean ethnic nationalism, or the idea of the Korean people existing as their own race. Leaders like Kim Jong-Un are touted as the saviors of the Korean race, taking all of this nationalist, ethnic pride in a strangely Aryan direction. In effect, North Korea has a socialist system of government more similar to the Nazis than the Soviets.
After massive flooding in the 1990’s devastated crops as well as food reserves, the regime relented and began accepting outside food aid. What little arable land North Korea uses to grow food has been suffering from soil erosion and mineral depletion for years, an apt metaphor for the dynamics of closed systems. The current fuhrer, Kim Jong-Un, understands that the dear leader cult, the center of his power and the keystone of the North Korean power structure, will not last in its current state. Repetitions of national famine, blaming foreign actors, and beating the war drums until the food aid arrives has demoralized the people and tested their faith in the dear leader cult. Knowing that a change was necessary, Kim Jong-Un has decided to open up to capitalism.
“The main thing North Korean businesses compete on is quality, but now they’re starting to compete in terms of how their products make people feel,” Andray Abrahamian, part of an NGO from Singapore that teaches business skills to North Koreans, told Reuters.
But importing capitalism into a country also brings Western philosophy as the two cannot be separated. With a new emphasis on how products “make people feel” in addition to quality, the philosophical concept of subjectivity is promulgated and reinforced with the pleasure of consumerism. North Koreans will be able to form their own opinions concerning the service or products produced by private businesses, which are unaffiliated with the State and open to subjective debate and criticism. Concepts like consumerism, materialism, and choice are present in every society, but they are heightened and consistently reinforced in capitalist societies due to their need for continuous, reliable consumption.
Obviously wary of such implications, Kim Jong-Un has taken measures to maintain cultural obedience in a very North Korean way.
Sarcasm and other types of satire like exaggeration, double entendre, and parodies, although often associated with humor in the West have always served as surreptitious means of social criticism and commentary. The Chinese, with their communist tendencies of censoring and rounding up dissenters, have come to master the art of sarcasm as a way of getting around laws preventing the criticism of state policy and leaders. Kim Jong-Un can try as he might to stave off the subtle ideological reprogramming of a capitalist society, but concepts like subjectivity, materialism, and rationalism are all stepping stones on the path leading to the dualist, Cartesian worldview of the West. Once a society has been locked into this worldview, things like native culture and tradition begin to fade into memory and are supplanted by fads and pop culture. The ingrained operant conditioning of capitalism that rewards innovation and originality offers no social reward for cultural identity and an understanding of history. Even worse, the widespread acceptance of Cartesian, materialist thinking is the ideological foundation and vector for Brzezinski’s Western Soft Power strategy to enter a given society and manipulate popular opinion via media and social pressure.
Looking at the situation as a whole, it would appear that North Korea’s leadership has decided to dabble in capitalism while easing its stance towards isolationism. The great social, economic, and ideological walls that have separated North Korea from the rest of the world and prevented any kind of rapport or peaceful relationship within the region could be gradually coming down. If China wants control over $5 trillion worth of trade passing through the South China Sea, disarming the North Korean powder keg must be a priority. Economically incorporating the country into the rest of the region would be the best option for long-term stability.
But even if the Chinese are successful, and North Korea is reformed, there are still questions and uncertainties. If North and South Korea reconcile and end the war, expect Korean ethnic nationalism to call for reunification, a matter that could trouble China. If South Korean culture and attitudes prevail, then a pro-Western state shares a border with China. If China’s influence over the North spreads to the rest of the country, the US loses another ally on the Pacific Rim.