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North Korea: The Crisis of Faith

Kim Jong Il, right, and his third son, Kim Jong Un, inspecting the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex in North Hamgyong province, North Korea, early March 2010


The two Koreas are entering a dangerous new phase in their tortuous relationship. In a speech on May 24, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak suspended trade relations with Pyongyang, barred Northern vessels from passing through South Korean waters, and promised immediate retaliation for any North Korean incursions into the South’s territory by land, sea, or air. The North Koreans responded by denouncing Lee as a “traitor” and a “bastard” and announced that they would answer any Southern military moves with “all-out war.” A North Korean battlefield commander vowed to open fire on South Korean loudspeakers if the government in Seoul attempted to resume long-dormant propaganda broadcasts across the Demilitarized Zone. Since President Lee’s speech the North’s all-powerful leader, Kim Jong Il, has vanished from public view—as he has been wont to do in the past whenever he had reason to fear becoming the target of laser-guided munitions used by the South’s army and its US allies.

The proximate cause of this spike of mutual antagonism dates to the last week of March, when a mysterious explosion struck a South Korean naval vessel called the Cheonan. The ship was on patrol near the Northern Limit Line, a maritime border that was unilaterally declared by the South in the wake of the Korean War in 1953 but has never been recognized by Pyongyang. The blast ripped the ship in two, sending both halves to the bottom of the sea and taking the lives of forty-six sailors. Under the circumstances, Lee acted with remarkable restraint. He appointed a multinational commission to examine the incident and gave it all the time and resources it needed to get the job done properly.

Finally, some seven weeks after the explosion, the panel presented its conclusions. The evidence the investigators presented included fragments of a torpedo that had been dredged from the sea floor near the spot where pieces of the Cheonan had also been raised. The torpedo was consistent with a type known to have been sold by Pyongyang to other countries and bore a Korean marking. The investigators also noted that a North Korean naval task force, including several small submarines of a type that could have attacked the ship, had set out from port a few days before the attack and returned a few days later.1

Though based on circumstantial evidence, this is about as powerful a case as one might expect to see marshaled in a court of law. The investigators’ careful forensic work has made it clear that the sinking can be attributed only to hostile action; and North Korea is the only state in the region to have both the means and the motive to carry out such an action. One of the details of Pyongyang’s response was particularly revealing. Buried amid the torrent of invective was an overture: the North declared itself prepared to send its own group of investigators to Seoul to review the evidence. That offer, as of this writing, has not been accepted.


The one question that remains unanswered, of course, is precisely why the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would have dared to commit an act described by several observers as the most serious military provocation since the end of the Korean War. How the government in Seoul—as well as its US ally—chooses to answer this question will have a great deal to do with the subsequent development of events. Some analysts have speculated that the attack on the Cheonan was retaliation for a firefight that took place in the fall of 2009, when South Korean naval forces, after the usual warnings, opened fire on a North Korean ship that entered Southern waters. The North Koreans were repulsed, perhaps with some casualties. But such minor skirmishes have taken place again and again over the years. Why should the North Koreans have chosen such a disproportionate response this time around?

It is true that the sinking of the Cheonan is merely the latest installment in a long history of North Korean surprise attacks and terrorist operations. Over the decades Pyongyang has repeatedly infiltrated commandos into the South by land and sea. In 1968, a team of North Korean special forces, on an apparent mission to assassinate then president Park Chung Hee, managed to get within a few hundred yards of the Blue House in Seoul, the seat of the South’s government, before they were stopped.2 The North has also killed members of the South Korean Cabinet in a bomb attack, blown a South Korean airliner out of the sky, kidnapped South Korean citizens, and conducted assassinations on the South’s territory.

Just this past spring the government in Seoul announced that it had uncovered a plot by Pyongyang’s agents to kill a high-ranking defector who has been on Kim’s hit list for years. While such incidents have certainly deepened North Korea’s status as a pariah nation, neither Pyongyang nor Seoul is particularly eager to resort to open warfare; the South knows that its own economy would suffer incalculable devastation, and the North knows that the highly trained and well-equipped South Korean military, backed by the imposing arsenal of the US, would win any prolonged conflict. For many years the overriding pressures against war have coexisted uneasily with the North’s habit of periodically ratcheting up tensions as a way of blackmailing other powers into offering it aid or diplomatic concessions.3

But it would be wrong to see the latest tensions merely as the prolongation of a nerve-racking but essentially stable status quo. Something fundamental has changed. Today North Korea is approaching a decisive moment in its history as a state—one that greatly magnifies the risks for governments that hope to cope with the consequences. North Korea watchers are speaking of a “tipping point,” fraught with vast ramifications for the entire region.4

To some extent, of course, we have heard this before. After the collapse of the Communist system in Eastern Europe in 1989–1991 many onlookers predicted the end of the DPRK—which, in the event, proved astoundingly durable. Yet this time around there are two clear reasons why the Kim Family Regime (as many Korea watchers in the US military tend to refer to it) finds itself confronting a situation of exceptional volatility. The first has to do with Kim Jong Il himself. The continuity of any despotic system depends disproportionately on the well-being of the person at its center, and North Korea has concentrated power in its leader to a degree unparalleled in the contemporary world. In 2008 the outside world learned that the Dear Leader had suffered a debilitating stroke. During a visit to China this spring, the once-pudgy sixty-nine-year-old Kim looked ravaged and gaunt; lately there have also been rumors of his having kidney disease.

Kim has compounded the sense of uncertainty by long holding off on appointing a successor. Only recently, it would seem, has he ordered the state apparatus to begin enshrining his third son, a twenty-something by the name of Kim Jong Un, as his likely heir. But that is no simple matter. Though little is known about the future Kim the Third, his relative youth means that he is drastically inexperienced in matters of state. Even if he ascends to the throne as planned, it is likely that he would prove little more than a figurehead, opening up the possibility of factional rivalry and instability. On June 7, Kim named his brother-in-law Jang Song Taek—who had been purged just a few years ago for reasons that remain unclear—to the number two position in the regime, a move that most experts saw as part of Kim’s effort to manage the transition.

This crisis within the leadership overlaps with a second, broader trend within the country at large. Over the past decade and a half North Korea has undergone a revolutionary transformation. At the beginning of this process it was still a nation largely closed to the rest of the world, its people subject to an intricate web of social controls organized around a bizarre official mythology. The DPRK of 2010 is a place where many people have achieved a small but crucial measure of power over their own lives and have learned enough about the outside world to understand the fundamentally flawed nature of their own system.

The best account of this evolution available so far is Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, a minutely reported collective portrait of six North Korean lives based on extensive interviews with defectors from the same industrial city of Chongjin. Through her subjects we relive the economic turmoil set off by the disappearance of the Soviet empire in the early 1990s, followed, in the middle of that decade, by a largely man-made famine that took the lives of anywhere from 2 to 10 percent of the population. This slow-motion economic collapse brought down the state’s food rationing and distribution systems and made survival dependent on a radically new set of skills. Rank-and-file North Koreans responded by creating a parallel private economy, offering everything from homemade noodles to bicycle repair services.

Demick, a reporter with the Los Angeles Times, doesn’t just tell us about this process; instead, in a tour de force of meticulous reporting, we experience it up close, in all its scruffy particulars. Through her witnesses she carefully documents an entire country’s shift backward to a preindustrial past:

In Chongjin, the hulking factories along the waterfront looked like a wall of rust, their smokestacks lined up like the bars of a prison. The smokestacks were the most reliable indicators. On most days, only a few spat out smoke from their furnaces. You could count the distinct puffs of smoke—one, two, at most three—and see that the heartbeat of the city was fading. The main gates of the factories were now coiled shut with chains and padlocks—that is, if the locks hadn’t been spirited away by the thieves who had already dismantled and removed the machinery….

In summer, hollyhocks crept up the sides of concrete walls. Even the garbage was gone.

Workers leave the motionless factories to forage in the countryside. Lights flicker, then go off. Salaries dwindle and gradually disappear. Just as the infrastructure seizes up, so too does the accustomed social order. In the old days, the defectors tell Demick, “people knew what the rules were and which lines not to cross. Now the rules were in play—and life became disorderly and frightening.”

The gap between the regime’s histrionic propaganda and the ever-deepening brutalization of everyday life widens until it becomes impossible to ignore. Disillusionment comes to each of Demick’s subjects in different ways. For Jun-Sang, a privileged young intellectual, it is access to restricted foreign literature—including a book on Russian economic reform, of all things—that sows his initial doubts. He begins to tune in furtively to South Korean television broadcasts. One day, amid the horrors of the famine, he hears a starving urchin singing a paean to the glories of the leadership—and something snaps:

  1. 1

    American intelligence agencies have leaked some additional incriminating details. According to them, shortly after the Cheonan sinking Kim Jong Il visited the unit responsible for carrying out special operations. Kim commended the unit for recent actions on behalf of the nation and gave its commander a promotion.

  2. 2

    The memory of this particular attack remains vivid there, as I recently saw during my own visit to the president’s residence this spring. Here and there, on the immaculate grounds, one comes across military vehicles with mounted machine guns.

  3. 3

    See, for example, Joshua Keating, “Was the North Korean Crisis All Talk?” Passport Foreign Policy‘s blog, June 2, 2010.

  4. 4

    Marcus Noland, “Pyongyang Tipping Point,” The Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2010.

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