North Korea may be an insane country – but its insanity reflects the insanity not just of the West but indeed of our entire world. Not many outsiders have been here and the country is often referred to as the “Hermit kingdom”.
Not quite the Communist state
Kim Jong Un inherited the presidency from his father and his father likewise inherited the country’s leadership from his father: North Korea must therefore be considered the epitome of a nepotistic aristocracy that to all intents and purposes certainly contradicts the Marxist roots the nation has at times pledged itself too. These socialist roots are further undone by the existence of a caste system embodied in the idea of songbun, according to which North Korean society is stratified into 5 specific hierarchal categories: “special,” “nucleus,” “basic,” “complex” and “hostile”, with the latter two making up the lowest strata and whose members are subjected to forms of discrimination such as being denied certain educational and employment opportunities.
In addition to these evils we read of the poverty and the gulag-like prison system which is deemed to be full of these “complex” and “hostile” social pariahs, who are metaphorically sacrificed at the Kims alter to engender fear and adherence to an archetypal Machiavellian regime. The use of such abhorrent tactics are viewed in Pyongyang as being vital to the long term survival of the regime and, in addition to its recent complete economic stagnation, has many liking the Northern half of the Korean peninsula to the latter reaches of Stalin’s USSR.
Then there is the nuclear issue that has terrified half the world, with many believing the end is neigh. After all Kim Jung Un is portrayed as an irrational psychopath who inherited not only his father’s role as that of the supreme leader, but also some kind of genetic mental defect that impinges on his rationale and as such he at any moment could unleash a thermonuclear Armageddon. But precisely here is where it all starts to get somewhat confusing, because the Kims have not been involved in a hot war since 1953. A fact that seems to indicate that they don’t present the kind of threat that is attributed to them. Further evidence that suggests the Kims are perhaps quite rational actors is found in the way the US and South Korean armies appear to have no qualms about carrying out joint military exercises near the 38th parallel. This would appear to indicate that if Kim jong Un is insane, then the US and South Koreans must be equally unbalanced, otherwise they would not be willing to hold such drills with 200,000 military personal running around on the north Korean border and that every 6 months. The rationale rings: “Don’t give a crazy person who possesses nuclear armaments grounds to believe he is on the verge of being invaded”. Here we must also note that Western media does not talk about the largest drills taking place on the North Korean border, but the moment a missile is launched into the sea in response there will be outrage and opprobrium. It is however this very eloquent silence in the media that slants and distorts reality.
An interesting point that has escaped most Westerners with regards to the recent sabre rattling emanating from either Pyongyang or Washington is the crux of the actual story with regards to North Korea testing of a nuclear device. The crux here is: do such tests infringe international law? After all, the implementation of sanctions on the North Koreans has somehow been conveyed and justified in the minds of many because the North Korean tests must have contravened some article of law; but in fact, this is not the case. This misconception is driven by people making reference to the continued contravention by the North Koreans of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT): but they were never a party to it. However, the principal issue here is that the treaty in itself has never been ratified by the stipulated number of signatories, hence the treaty never entered into force irrespective of the North Korean position. Of course, it can be argued that international law comprises not only treaty law but also customary law. This is a valid point, but even here the legal threshold falls short as customary law is defined as
“Customary international law refers to international obligations arising from established state practice, as opposed to obligations arising from formal written international treaties. According to Article 38(1)(b) of the ICJ Statute customary international law is one of the sources of international law. Customary international law can be established by showing state practice and opinio juris. Put another way, “customary international law” results from a general and consistent practice of states that they follow from a sense of legal obligation.” (WEX Definition)
A rather perplexing factor is that the US itself has played no small part in preventing the adaptation of either treaty law in regard of nuclear testing, but also in regard of establishing customary law. Since the USA, in particular given its position as a member of the P5 among the Security Council, is itself not a signatory to the CTBT, hence Washington de facto denies the establishment of opinio juris where those possessing nuclear capabilities such as the USA have refused to sign the CTBT.
The question then is: why have sanctions been applied? Well, this is generally down to the role the US and key allies enjoy within the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The US under Trump, it appears, provoked the North Koreans into a reaction around which the US and its allies subsequently rallied with plenty of hyperbole (please note the situation on the Korean peninsula had remained relatively calm until the US in 2017 adopted a change in approach). The North Korean threat has since been exaggerated to the hilt. In reality there is total asymmetry between the opponents. If the North Koreans could even land a single strike against the USA is highly debatable, before we even need to adduce that a successful strike on the US would be meet with retaliation and the complete destruction of the Northern ebb of the Korean peninsula. The North Korean nuclear programme therefore can only be defined as defensive, as any offensive deployment would swiftly see the end of North Korea as we know it, this subsequently undermines their pursuit of possessing a nuclear arsenal. Given North Koreas size vis a vis that of the USA it’s clear the opponents are highly mismatched and these asymmetries confirm the irrelevance of the North Korean nuclear capability as an offensive tool.
Such logical thinking however in regard to Pyongyang has become counterintuitive in the West not merely because the regime has been portrayed as highly irrational, when in fact everything the elite around Kim Jong Un does is interlinked with promoting its own longevity. But there is an alternative facet that has been contrived into social myth, that posits that the mere possession of weapons of mass destruction constitutes an incontrovertible evil. This “truism” subsequently then clouds our judgment about what represents a “just war”, but the point of killing hundreds of thousands and destroying a country on such a premise (Iraq) is entirely nonsensical, then these are the very grounds by which we seek to limit the procurement of such weapons.
So what motivates the US to seek sanctions? The usual geopolitical factors seem to be prominent. The North Koreans in the last few years have been enjoying quiet an economic boom that has now been stopped in its tracks, while a settled North Korea equally does not sit comfortably with US calculations in regard to their more likely foe, that is to say China. Chaos on Chinas doorstep must remain an option in the minds of US strategists, who are no strangers to policies titled “constructive chaos”.
Sanctions as proof of realist brinkmanship
Sanctions in themselves are based on realist calculations, despite misconceptions in the West that sanctions are the “peaceful option”, Westerners have this stance because they are the ones who are invariably doing the sanctioning. The populations of the UK, USA and the EU member states have no clue what real sanctions feel like or that sanctions can be viewed as ostensible proclamations of war. In many cases their aim is to weaken a state as a prelude to war or to hamper progress of a prospective foe in one form or another whether economically, socially or militarily. War is total in the modern era, sanctions being indicative thereof. So where do sanctions sit in relation to North Korea? An ethical observation perhaps could reveal some light on the matter.
Here I would like to reiterate once more that the North Koreans have not been involved in a hot war since 1953, in contrast the leaders of the free world have been involved in numerous conflicts. If we take that killing is the ultimate crime that one can commit, then the damage in terms of lives lost signifies that the West is by far the greater threat to your physical wellbeing then the dictators in Pyongyang. Indeed, certain Western alliances have been entirely ruinous for numerous countries not to mention their devastated populations. In terms of ethics and morals we therefore have no claim to a monopoly on righteousness with regards to North Korea. We understand the horrendous conditions which those caught in the North Korean GULAG system are subjected to, but what do you believe is the aim of sanctions? If we seek to bemoan the harsh conditions meted out by Pyongyang upon its citizens so what do we expect our sanctions will achieve? There are said to be between 150,000 and 200,000 prisoners in North Korea: what’s the point then of enforcing sanctions with the aim to subject the rest of the 28 million population to some form of human rights depravation that is comparable with the prison inmates? Do we hope that by starving and impoverishing people still further that they will rise up and overthrow the government? And if so what would be the consequences of this? If the North Korean regime, as terrible as it is today, were to fail tomorrow, the humanitarian disaster that would ensue would reach epic proportions with untold security threats to the world, that would eclipse the mere posturing of Kim Jong Un in today’s global arena. Note there is nothing in history that leads one to suspect that the overthrow of the North Korean government would not wreak untold human tragedy. So what is to be done?
A new approach
It is clear that if we make human rights a priority then our policies must be selected with the rights of the North Korean citizens in mind. Broad scale sanctions violate such thought in praxis, also clear is that making enemies of peoples leads us down complicated routes, especially when we contrive to establish moralistic and hypocritical red lines that trigger reprisals in respect of nuclear weapons development. Please note nukes are not the problem; it is their use that is evil. Until that point they have generally contributed to peace. Was the cold war (note it’s called the cold war) standoff not the first time two superpowers refrained from killing each other due to their nuclear arsenals, the devastation they promised appeared to offer an apt substitute for a Leviathan in an otherwise chaotic ridden international arena.
We have no alternative but to accept that the North Koreans have weapons of mass destruction, and they have possessed a nuclear device certainly since 2006. Rhetoric and posturing only serves to ratchet up the tensions meaning their deployment becomes more likely. It is certain Pyongyang will not cease with their program simply because we condemn every single missile launch. Rather than underscoring our inability to effect Pyongyang’s course and therefore alerting every rogue state to the ineffectualness of our policies, it’s time to accept and ignore. Coercive policies cannot be applied in the North Korean case. What we need is a new approach; firstly, we should seek to improve the lives of the citizens living in nations such as North Korea irrespective of their leaders. We should seek to create joint ventures, from which everyone including the local population could thrive. These joint ventures should be deprived of any form of political moralism or subjected to the implementation of one policy or another. By increasing mutually beneficial business practices the fundamental nature of oppressive regimes may change. The aim is not to overthrow what we deem hostile governments only to unleash immeasurable chaos and human tragedy, but rather to first stabilize, improve the lives of the local population and then show to a regime that we pose no threat. The cooperation here is distinguishable from the liberal view in which states are forced to undertake structural reforms. Cooperation must be neutral in order for it to succeed.
Country wide sanctions are not only detrimental to millions of people and in contravention of notions on human rights, but they are provocative and disruptive to the balance of the global state system, above all they do not enable regimes that feel threatened to become more open and trusting, hence they are fundamental in perpetuating cycles of belligerence. Sadly, all the above points are a fact of our world and therefore seem to expose the real nature of the sanctions as being nothing more than realist calculations.