North Korea – An American Accident

Thor May
Brisbane, Australia
April 2013

The reason that North Korea exists is that America, the superpower, exists. This was true during the 1950-53 Korean War, and it is true today.

After World War II, American ignorance of the Korean peninsular was matched only by its disinterest. Without the 1945 Potsdam betrayal of Korea (Korea’s division was agreed without consulting Koreans), the grotesque American maladministration of their Korean trusteeship from 1945 (Japanese, not Koreans were the trusted advisors), the scheming of Stalin and the paranoia of Mao Zedong, the poverty stricken Koreans would have been left to their own messy little power struggle. The civil war would not have been pretty, with injustice and betrayal rampant, but it could not have matched the devastation and body count of the international conflict which devolved.

No matter who might have won an entirely internal Korean civil war, it is certain that ordinary Korean people would have eaten bitterness for decades while the elites carved out a niche, perhaps on the Japanese zaibatsu model as in present day South Korea, or perhaps on the Chinese princeling-militarist pattern as palely reflected in the present North Korean regime. In either case, it is possible that something like a civil society would have gradually evolved, not least because sooner or later elites usually realize that in complex industrial societies the terror-cum-slave state model doesn’t work very well. It is ultimately a threat to the elites themselves. Your own house is more secure if your servants can feed their children.

Well, the preceding is speculative pseudo-history. The Soviet Union’s Stalin did scheme and double-cross (futilely in this case), the conflict became a proxy great-powers arm wrestle, American bombers napalmed the peninsular to a cinder, Koreans slaughtered each other in a frenzy, Mao’s “human wave” rolled his soldiers’ corpses down to the 38th parallel (while he lost the strategic ability to reclaim Taiwan), and eventually everyone gave up, exhausted.

Fast forward sixty years. The Soviet Union’s empire is no more, and a reborn Russia is basically more interested in business than ideology. The Chinese communist state is no longer a civil war-ravaged disaster area in the hands of a psychopath. It is a prospering nascent superpower whose elites have relearned the value of money and are really interested in finding stable business partners. Japan lost a world war, won the peace for a generation, and seems to have lost its way again. However, even Japan’s geriatric leadership is no longer looking for a “greater co-prosperity sphere” built around an imperial militarist cult. Like China and Russia, the Japanese want neighbours they can do business with.

America profited handsomely from a world war, won a superpower contest, prospered for a generation, preached ideology and lost its moral compass, and is now (2013) sixteen trillion or so dollars in debt. Rationally, Americans should also be interested in other states they can do business with, and that is certainly true for a part of the American polity. America though is a divided house (even more so than the average state) since a significant part of its skill base and prosperity has been built on a military-industrial complex which needs war, or the threat of war, to survive. An influential part of the American population has been imbued with a military missionary ideology of pursuing “just war”, preferably forever since it keeps a large percentage of America’s engineers in employed, lots of otherwise dangerous fellows off the streets, and a rambunctious crowd of political junkies and industrialists in good whisky. None of this is unique to America, but the scale is exceptional, and the consequences are significant for distant populations like the Korean.

So, in 2013 where are the Koreas? South Koreans are a driven people, chronically insecure, but not from fear of the northerners. Rather, their insecurity burns as energy, fuelled from the relentless competition for status within their own society. The prosperity of the South Korean state is beyond question, their infrastructure is superb, and their lead in advanced technology is becoming ever more manifest. In other words, South Korea is eminently a state with which other countries are eager to do business. Whatever their ancient enmities, the demonstrated can-do status of contemporary South Koreans is not lost on either Japan or China. South Korea’s new leader, Park Geun-hye has been schooled since childhood in the political power plays of the region (including losing both her father and her mother to political assassins). It can hardly be an accident that she speaks Chinese, and has made a priority of establishing immediate, direct working relationships with Chinese leaders, much to their delight.

North Korea, so far as we can learn, has become the mere shell of a country. Somewhere within its borders are 22 million people who must be, as we know most people always are, ordinary folk trying to do their best with whatever fate has served up. As a group, it is clear they have been dreadfully unlucky, ill-fed, betrayed, bullied by local powers and isolated from the world. Whatever the original ideals of Kim Il-sung were before he seized control of North Korea, it is clear that his political legacy under Kim Jong-eun has degenerated into a mafia-like crew of extortionists, waving weapons and screaming a rhetoric of destruction at the world in general, while keeping their captive population in pitiful servitude. The nauseous and xenophobic ideology of the North Korean state seems to have no saving graces. This is not a place where the Chinese or anybody else can do much useful business.

In recent history, North Korea has been one of China’s few certified allies. In the late 20th Century this made a kind of sense. In the final Chinese civil war from 1945, North Koreans had given China’s communists significant help. There was a blood debt. Further, China had been dismembered and ruthlessly exploited for over a century by competing colonial powers from the West, and then the North East. Memories of the predations of Imperial Japan were fresh and bitter. Now, the United States, rampant in its unchallenged military power, seemed to want nothing less than the destruction of the new People’s Republic of China. However unlovely the xenophobic pretensions of Kim Il-sung and his descendants in North Korea might be, they at least formed a buffer between China and America, not to mention America’s new cat’s paw, the still deeply distrusted Japan. In fact, drawing on a more ancient strand of Chinese cultural logic, it wasn’t such a bad thing to have simple-minded Americans with their dangerous toys tied up in the Korean-Japanese Rubik’s cube, since their mere presence would help to keep those outer northern barbarian twisters under control. This had been a Han Chinese obsession for centuries.

Well, in 2013 the game has changed. China’s leaders are outwardly confident of their identity, and the viability of the new China. China is progressively seeing itself as a bulwark of world stability and banker of last resort. The physical transformation of Chinese infrastructure has been astounding, and a huge, relatively well educated and increasingly articulate middle class (with an investment in stability) would frankly much prefer to sip coffee in Seoul’s trendy Gangnam than pretend to respect a bunch of weedy, corrupt gangsters in Pyongyang. For these new Chinese, North Korea is not the future.

North Korea has a fresh leader. At 29, with a recent wife, he may be young enough to want to live for a while yet, or foolish enough to dabble in war without grasping the consequences. We don’t know his true level of authority. The international media has toyed with Kim Jong-eun’s image for a while, unsure whether to go for his Mickey Mouse logos and taste for basketball, or dwell on speculation about the character who lives behind the mask. On the scarce available evidence he seems to be no genius, and may well have pulled the wings off butterflies as a kid. Who knows? Maybe it won’t matter in the end. The shrill crescendo of abuse emanating from Pyongyang sounds very like the shrieks of a tatty elite which fears it may soon get a bayonet up its collective bum, Gaddafi style.

Oddly, perhaps the best friend of the North Korean regime is the American military-industrial complex. They need each other. That part of the American polity which persists in playing the games of empire absolutely craves a North Korean demon. The Middle East is a trackless waste where, in recent years, America has lost its treasure and its reputation at every turn. Heck, America doesn’t even need the oil anymore. And when it comes down to tin-tacks, the Middle East will hardly constitute a decent market for at least another generation. Africa? Altogether too grubby for the suits in Washington. South America? In Mexico and further south, they are getting uppity about gringos, and its not as easy to rig a coup there as it used to be. No, the action has to be in East Asia, and besides, the Chinese and the Japanese between them own half of the American treasury. They must be watched.

In the imperial mindset, at the end of the banquet there is nothing quite so effective for forcing foreign gluttons to their knees as power which grows out of the barrel of a gun. However, for any average American voter with a 24 hour memory of history, the enormous expense of huge American military bases in Japan and South Korea must seem like pure extravagance. Certainly the bases earn no gratitude from your average Japanese or Korean citizen. They generate deep resentment and humiliation, barely tolerated through the faded recollection of wars which an iPod generation never knew. In this context, the political standoff between Japan and China over some uninhabited rocks (Daiyu/Senkaku Islands) at least keeps the region in the American news cycle, but such stuff can’t be sold as a survival threat to the good citizens of California. By contrast, Kim Jong-eun screaming that he will incinerate America with atomic weapons is mana from heaven for the admirals who need to keep the 7th Fleet out of the hands of Bangladeshi scrap metal traders.

China in 2013 would happily erase North Korea into a dusty footnote, if it were politically possible. Kim Jong-eun and his coterie are not only bad for Chinese business, they are downright embarrassing for Chinese respectability. In fact, the North Koreans are even worse than that. If by accident or stupid design, they did lose control of a conflict scenario, it is not America which would be incinerated. From the Chinese viewpoint, it might not even be the dubious North Korean reactor at Yongbyon which poses the worst threat (doubtless it would be gutted), or a few nuclear bombs lacking a credible delivery mechanism, or antiquated long range artillery trained on Seoul. The real horror story for China could be that South Korea itself has 23 nuclear generating reactors, perhaps vulnerable to meltdown after missile or cyber attack. We saw what happened when a mere tsunami hit a Japanese reactor. Depending upon which way the wind blew after the destruction of a South Korean reactor, the Chinese citizens of neighbouring Shandong province, some 90 million people, might become very sick indeed.

The preceding analysis may or may not make much sense over a kimchi breakfast in Pyongyang. We have trouble getting inside the heads even of our friends. Second guessing the embattled North Korean elite has been a low risk foreigner’s parlour game for a generation now, so our speculation might contribute no more than a wry smile among the actual decision makers. Still, they can get it wrong too. History is full of unintended consequences. It was the Americans who unwittingly put the North Korean regime into business, and now apparently keeps it there by default. It may the Chinese who finally put aside their caution and, as an act of self-preservation, throw the North Korean regime out of power. If and when that happens, you can bet there will be a high speed rail line from Beijing to Seoul in no time flat.


Professional bio: Thor May taught for seven years in South Korean universities and for five years in China. He has been following the processes of social change in East Asia with fascination since undergraduate study in 1974. Thor May's PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of drifting through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).  


All opinions expressed here are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.


North Korea – An American Accident ©Thor May 2013; all rights reserved