The Real North Korea Problem

The Real North Korea Problem
AP Photo/Lee Jin-man
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The fundamental issue in dealing with North Korea sits deeper than concern over its nuclear weapons program or whether sanctions are biting hard enough to extract concessions. It’s North Korean totalitarianism. 

As North Korean leader Kim Jong Un embarks on meetings with the presidents of South Korea and later the United States, the media focus has honed on the nuclear issue and on North Korea’s human rights violations. The source of these and other problems has faded from discussion. 

That issue is not nukes; it is the fact that North Korea is still, as it has been for 70 years, a totalitarian society. There is no lingering reason today aside from maintaining its own totalitarian rule for the Kim regime to keep the country functioning as a political prison. Totalitarianism as a concept is out of fashion, but totalitarian is what North Korea remains.

Twentieth Century totalitarianism had only two versions, Stalinism and Nazism. Maoism was Stalinism in a Chinese adaptation.

Totalitarianism is not the same as authoritarianism. There are numerous examples of authoritarian regimes. Some are more closed and vicious than others. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was more violent than the Ayatollah regime in Iran. Putin’s Russia is more open than was Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. 

Authoritarianism wants only to control your behavior. Totalitarianism wants to control your mind as well. Totalitarianism’s characteristic method is terrorism. Its characteristic institutions are the all-powerful Party and the gulag. Totalitarianism’s ideological basis is worship of the Supreme Leader. Its daily life is a charade of mass unity and universal lying to mask what people really think, or might think if they weren’t propagandized beyond the possibility for independent, reality-based thought.

North Korea became totalitarian along with all the other Communist regimes after World War II. China later went in its own direction, with the Maoist nightmare followed by the era of Deng Xiaoping’s radical reforms.

There turned out to be only two exits from Communism in the styles of Stalin or Mao. The first exit was collapse, as in the Soviet Union, and the second was opening, as in China. Why the Kim dynasty didn’t follow China’s example, as Vietnam did, is an important question. The answer involves the Kim dynasty’s personal ambition more than Communism itself. Had Pyongyang followed Beijing’s lead, there would be no North Korean problem today. 

The only remaining reason for Pyongyang to pursue and keep nuclear weapons is to protect its totalitarian Communist dictatorship. North Korean leaders always have in mind the violent demise of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi. The lesson for three generations of the Kim dynasty is to build nuclear weapons if you can, and once you have them, don’t give them up. 

Pyongyang’s problem today is to escape the threat to the regime itself. The way to do that is either to keep nuclear weapons and prolong a totalitarian regime, or to give up nuclear weapons and the totalitarian regime that made them necessary in the first place. 

Giving up nuclear weapons could be done in two steps. First is to abandon the nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland -- the game-changing weapon that moved the Trump administration to enforce maximum sanctions pressure and to emphasize the military threat. Encouragingly, Kim has just announced he will do this as well as dismantle his launch test site.  

The second step is to eliminate the short- and medium-range missiles that could reach Japan and South Korea. Pyongyang could do this, because neither Japan nor South Korea wants to invade North Korea. A peace treaty formally ending the Korean War would formalize this situation. These shorter-range missiles were only steps on the road to a strategic nuclear deterrent of the United States, always the primary enemy.

Still, nuclear weapons are only the second tier of Pyongyang’s existential dilemma. The real road to solving its angst is to abandon totalitarianism, which would change everything. 

Start with small steps such as increased tourism, then unescorted tourism. Gradually allow North Koreans themselves to travel. Crucially, dismantle the gulag as soon as possible. To spur economic development and create a better life for the people, follow the Chinese model, including controlled entry into the international financial and economic system.  

What Kim Jong Un and his clique want is the key. North Korea could become a normal country -- authoritarian for years to come, but within the bounds of international norms. Or it could remain the last bastion of totalitarianism, a hermit kingdom based on worship of the Supreme Leader. 

Presently, the odds of unfreezing North Korea are not high. But Kim has near-total power and he did tell his friend, former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman, that one day he would love to see a game in Madison Square Garden.  

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