reasoned thought for an age of uncertainty
As North Korea and its young leader Kim Jong-un have raised their militaristic rhetoric, threatening even “thermonuclear war“, the world has been cautiously reticent in its response. Perhaps this is because it is not exactly clear what North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-un actually want. But as some examination of the North Korean ideology reveals, the answer may be surprisingly simple: money and power.
North Korea is often thought of as one of the last vestiges of communism, a relic left over from the Cold War. It is not. In fact, in 2009 North Korea updated its constitution to completely remove all references to communism, instead placing greater emphasis on the principle of songun–putting the military first. This is not the first time North Korea’s leadership has manipulated its central political philosophy for the purpose of bolstering a leader. The other founding tenet of the North Korean government, juche (or chuch’e), which emphasizes man’s power in controlling his own destiny, was manipulated to reinforce the cult of personality around Kim Jong-un’s recently deceased father, Kim Jong-il.
The political philosophy pieced together from these tenets is an astoundingly bleak one. According to the North Korean government, Juche means “that the masters of the revolution and construction are the masses of the people and that they are also the motive force of the revolution and construction.” This is an astounding philosophy, notably because it is both authoritarian and exceedingly vague, which leaves it open to manipulation by the leadership. By emphasizing the role of man in defining his own destiny, Juche lays the basis for subjecting the masses to the will of the leader, while at the same time reinforcing the moral basis of action by the leader, who is, after all, a man. In other words, it is a circularly worded totalitarian philosophy–the Great Leader determines man’s destiny, and mankind must embrace that destiny. At the same time, the cult of personality cultivated around the Great Leader reinforces the notion of his own infallibility.
According to a US government study of North Korea in 2008, “the invocation of chuch’e was a psychological tool with which to stigmatize the foreign-oriented dissenters and remove them from the center of power. Targeted for elimination were groups of pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese dissenters who opposed Kim.”
By further shedding the last remnants of communist philosophy, North Korea has emptied itself of any notions of equality, instead favoring the sogun ideology which emphasizes the importance of the military. And so North Korea has an increasingly narrow existential purpose: to feed its military and sustain its leadership. The importance of the military clearly reflects the convergence of military power and the political leadership, with Kim Jong-un acting as both general and symbolic figurehead.
As Christopher Hitchens concisely described in 2010, the North Korean system “is based on totalitarian ‘military first’ mobilization, is maintained by slave labor, and instills an ideology of the most unapologetic racism and xenophobia.” This cultural judgment accords with the US government’s assessment of North Korea’s economic apparatus:
“Members of the armed forces are among the best fed, housed, educated, and trained in North Korean society. The intent is to keep them at a high state of readiness against the perceived threat from U.S. forces stationed in South Korea and patrolling the adjacent seas and in the air in Northeast Asia.” In fact, North Korea has the fourth largest standing military in the world and lists a third of its population as military reserves.
This mixture of militarism, leader worship and xenophobia is what makes North Korea tick and defines the North Korean ideology. So what does North Korea want then when it threatens nuclear war? It is not clear they want anything, other than perhaps some more money to sustain their meager $10 billion budget (in order to raise money, the North Korean government sells DVDs of propaganda on its website). Saber rattling is not only a North Korean pastime, it is a necessary process for national self-definition and to perpetuate the North Korean ideology. Kim Jong-un will fire his missile, and finally, years after the death of Kim Jong-il, North Korea will have their Great Leader back.