Images and characterizations of North Korea range from the insane to the incomprehensible to laughable. The Western media wallows in the exotic and North Korea has been the clown of the 20th century, brought forward for comic relief now and then or pasted up as a "paper tiger," to scare voters before elections or as a distraction for other important news (http://www.youtube.com/...). Today with the death of Kim Jong Il we are seeing typical images of crazy and strange North Korea. A sampling are available from YouTube postings: (http://www.youtube.com/...).
It is not only that the West sees North Korea as unusual, but as unstable and dangerously unpredictable. Japan perceives the same thing as does South Korea. In a country with a history of being invaded by its neighbors, either China or Japan, North Koreans have certainly good reason to want to be isolated. One might agree with Dr. Bruce Cummings, whose book on The Korean War details the cost in lives to the North Korean population as well as the destruction of infrastructure. Cummings teaches at the University of Chicago. He also describes the complexity of the Korean Conflict focusing on a number of factors that still afflict the area.
But is the desire to be isolated a quality of the people of North Korea or is it just a feature of the North Korean Communist Party or its Central Committee? While everyone fears that North Korea is sort of a big Jim Jones cult gone mad, we have to recall that the people of North Korea saw the madness of the Japanese occupation and the atom bombs of the West on Japan. So how should we consider North Korea?
We have to realize that much of what is written about North Korea is for popular digestion regarding potential invasion. Let's face it, North Korea is ripe for capitalism, there are millions of potential workers who will work for near nothing. The hope is that the regime will crumble like the Soviet Union and give way to massive investment opportunities. Let's look at some of this literature.
Barbara Demick’s book on North Korea, Nothing to Envy, a rather archaic throw-back to the type of literature characteristic of the Cold War, opens with an appraisal of how sad it is that one can see a giant contrast from space between a glowing South Korea and a dark North Korea at night. This reminded my wife and I of an amusing incident that occurred during our return to the Bay Area from a trip abroad some years ago. As our plane came into the Bay Area at night, the cheery United pilot remarked during his usual comments during the descent that the passengers could look to the left and see the East Bay with all its lights and roads ablaze. On the right they might see the odd light twinkling in the darkness. This was Marin County and, he remarked, “the people here are so politically correct they turn off their lights at night and sit in their hot tubs in candle light.”
Of course, he was wrong, but assumptions are hard to see through. Marin is comparatively dark at night not due to dogmatic energy commissars , but because environmentalists fought to save its farmland and created vast parks.
If we look past our assumptions concerning North Korea we might be less dogmatic. Since the fall of the Soviet Union energy use has become a sign of progress and freedom, though China makes people crazy in this regard, not because of its energy use so much or its pollution, but more due to its success.
In reference to North Korea’s self imposed isolation we might recall that Japan initiated the same situation in the 16th century when confronted with the power of the West. The leadership of the Tokugawa found that the West enslaved non-western peoples or subjugated them through a process of contact, trade and religion. This weakened colonized people first and then came military control. This was much like how the Aztecs expanded their empire as A. M. Chapman and Geoffrey Conrad have documented. Traders acted as spies and as agents of disruption bringing novel objects that both upset the normal desires people had (especially in mass produced items) and created dissatisfaction, and linked objects to delivered aspects of the Aztec religion. So capitalism and domination are not unique to the West or to our time (see my book, War, Religion and Taxation).
So by this process the Japanese in the 16th century experienced was not unique nor new, but its effects were devastating. Luckily Japan was unified after Ieyasu's victory at Sekigahara in 1600. By closing Japan’s borders the Tokugawa were able to give Japan a period of accommodation to western novelty and power, to transform her economy and military to meet the challenge. The longer Japan remained closed, the more exotic and desirable she become to the West and the more extreme became the mystery and fantasy concerning her nature in the western mind. Stories of the Japanese exotic are rife in the literature of the West in the 19th century. The same process has been taking place concerning North Korea.
The specific kind of leadership and government North Korea has today is the result of its history, and especially its most recent history with America. We must consider that from the end of W.W.II until 1987 South Korea was a brutal dictatorship. Its prison camps and torture chambers were filled with not only political prisoners but also ethnic minorities and religious objectors, in fact, anyone who dared to challenge the injustice and corruption of the regime. All this time South Korea’s government had the full support of the USA. North Koreans remember this horror and base part of their posture to the USA on this history. Suh Sung has detailed this period of terror in a book, Unbroken Spirits: 19 Years in South Korea’s Gulag (2001). It should be required reading for anyone wishing to understand North Korea today. A longer historical view also informs us about the Koreas. In the North a separate history and identity developed which had more in common with the peoples of North China and the Altai region, developing into the state of Koguryo. In the South Paekche and Silla were also local elements, which became dominated by Japan and China at various times. A north-south division has long been a political and cultural reality.
While North Korea may behave in a strange fashion at times, its political history is no less responsible toward its own citizens than the history of the South, especially the recent history that was dominated in the 1960s to 1980s by dictatorial regimes that practiced torture and mass arrest. While we hear of starvation and torture in North Korea, these are far less well documented than the recent history of the South. As for the nuclear weapons issue, we should also recall that the USA has been the only country to use nuclear weapons, and we used them on civilians. If the world is to be afraid of the use of these weapons by a renegade nation, one should look at the definition of the word in the context of the Bush Administration waging war in violation of international law and by the use of evidence it knew was tainted. We cannot expect a world of law and respect after such behavior. As Cicero stated, "There can be no peace without justice." I do not question that North Korea has problems, but that we should view the actions of the present government in the context of history, not ignorance and fear. Whoever comes out of the current leader's death, there is a possibility of dialogue.