National Security & Defense

North Korea’s Dark History Should Frame Any Negotiations

North Korean soldiers monitor the demilitarized zone at Panmunjom in 2013. (Lee Jae-Won/Reuters)
Talking with the Kim regime may be the right thing to do, but our negotiators must understand the monstrosity they’re dealing with.

President Trump’s decision to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un elicited a wide range of responses from experts. But one thing you hear from everyone is that the president and administration need to prepare. The North Koreans may be technologically (and morally) backward and rhetorically juvenile, but they’re also incredibly adept and disciplined at international politics. They have eaten our lunch for more than 30 years.

But before getting their facts and figures together about nuclear stockpiles and missile throw-weights, perhaps the administration should ponder a simple question that even the experts never seem very interested in.

What is North Korea?

It seems like a silly question. It’s a country, of course. But what kind of country? The labels we hear most often — dictatorship, totalitarian, communist, and “Stalinist” — have their merits descriptively or historically. But they’re all inadequate.

Those are all relatively modern terms, and North Korea really isn’t a modern country. Oh, sure, it’s got some modern stuff — mostly its thriving nuclear program — but its social and political model is ancient.

For starters, Kim Jong-un is a monarch. According to government propaganda (or really, the state religion), his father, Kim Jong-il, was a creature of divine birth, born under a double rainbow atop the holy Baekdu Mountain. When he was born, a new star appeared and winter turned to spring.

Kim Jong-un is also a divine being, with a body so efficient that he has never needed to use a bathroom. According to official myth, Kim could drive at age 3. As a student at Kim Il Sung University (named after his grandfather), Kim reportedly wrote 1,500 books and six operas in three years. North Koreans are taught that their leader is revered worldwide as one of the greatest composers ever, and his operas are “better than any in the history of music.” The first time he picked up a golf club, he recorded 11 holes-in-one and shot 38 under par.

It’s easy to laugh at this stuff — his father claimed to have invented the hamburger — but it isn’t a laughing matter, because the North Korean people believe it.

The entire country has been raised in a mystical cult. The North Koreans shed any allegiance to Marxism-Leninism decades ago, replacing it with Juche, a philosophy that elevates a “Great Leader” as a monarch over society. They took the Divine Right of Kings and replaced it with the Divine Right of the Kims.

North Korea mirrors ancient monarchies in another respect: It is a feudal society. Under a system called Songbun, North Korea divides the population into three major classes and roughly 50 sub-classes. Whatever class you’re born into determines nearly everything important about your life, and each class is largely hereditary. If your grandfather was a “subversive” or “traitor,” you’re considered one too. If your grandfather fought with Kim Il-sung against the Japanese, you’re probably a member of the ruling class. It’s possible to improve your status, though extremely difficult and rare. It’s easy to have your class downgraded, which means your children will also be downgraded.

The lowest caste of North Koreans are the slave-labor peasants, who are the first to be starved when the state resorts to man-made famine. As Nicholas Eberstadt recently wrote in Commentary magazine: “Life chances in North Korea — and no less important, death chances — turn on one’s assigned class. . . . [D]eath from starvation is almost entirely consigned to the state’s designated enemies from the ‘hostile classes.’”

The lowest caste of North Koreans are the slave-labor peasants, who are the first to be starved when the state resorts to man-made famine.

North Korea is arguably the greatest implementation of the totalitarian regime imagined in Plato’s Republic. Based on a series of myths that Plato would call “noble lies,” North Koreans subscribe to the belief that they are a superior, chosen race in much the same way Nazis subscribed to potted views about Aryans. This is interesting in its own right, but it also forms the backdrop for the regime’s paranoia about the outside world.

Of course, the regime itself also operates as an extortion racket, feeding off not just its own people, but a global black market in arms, drugs, sex-trafficking, and counterfeiting.

The regime has been willing to starve its own people in the pursuit of nuclear weapons, which it sees as the only guarantor of its sovereignty and its eventual destiny of reuniting the peninsula. Negotiating with North Korea may be the right thing to do, but our negotiators should understand the monstrosity they’re dealing with.

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