The unbearable futility of trying to deal with North Korea

If there is to be regime change in Kim Jong-un land, it won't come from world powers, Patrick Brown writes. The international community, perhaps especially China, doesn't seem to know what to do in the face of North Korea's nuclear provocations.

If there is to be regime change in Kim Jong-un land, it won't come from world powers

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watches the test-fire of a ballistic missile (not pictured), in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in May 2015. (North Korean Central News Agency/Reuters)

Around midnight a couple of weeks ago, a 4.8 magnitude earthquake struck about 20 kilometres from the small island I call home off the coast of B.C.

After reaching for their phones, to find out that there was nothing to fear, people posted a flurry of jokes on the internet then went back to sleep.

A week later, another 4.8 magnitude tremor, this one set off by a nuclear test in North Korea, was followed by more jokes. A tsunami of them, in fact.

The preposterous Stalinist kitsch of its parades, the odd appearance of its leader and the quirkiness of its bombastic propaganda make North Korea easy to laugh at.

Media observers, most of whom have never set foot in the place, write glibly about the impossibility of understanding "Ruritania with nukes," with its — take your pick — unpredictable, unstable, eccentric or even lunatic leader.

In fact, North Korea is not so hard to understand when you consider the regime in terms of its one single priority: survival. From that point of view, it is one of the most successful in the world.

If Kim Jong-un makes it to his next birthday a year from now, with his head and his position as "Supreme Dignity" intact, the Kim dynasty will have outlasted 12 U.S. presidents, and six Chinese leaders.

To achieve this, the regime has used the same combination — ruthless oppression at home and provocative manipulation on the world stage — since Kim's grandfather, the "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung, came to power in the days of Harry Truman, Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin.

Loathsome and laughable though it is, a playbook that has worked for three generations of dictators is not going to change now.

Indeed, it has become even more entrenched since North Korea began developing nuclear weapons in the 1990s, and proved that it had succeeded by exploding one in 2006.

Groundhog Day

Throughout this cycle, world reaction has become reminiscent of the movie Groundhog Day, in which the same day is relived over and over again.

In fact, this time China issued a statement deploring the test that is almost identical to the one it issued in 2006. The word "flagrantly" was omitted this time.

North Koreans dance at Kim Il-sung square in Pyongyang to celebrate what the country claims was a "successful hydrogen bomb" test earlier this week. (Kyodo/Reuters)

The UN rushed in to tighten existing sanctions, which already forbid the sale of, among other things, luxury yachts, racing cars and high-end jewellery to North Korea.

South Korea resumed pumping out deafening propaganda from 11 giant batteries of loudspeakers aimed across the border.

(The broadcasts, which can be heard up to 20 kilometres inside North Korea, include news, criticism of Kim Jong-Un as "incompetent" and "childish," and music from the all-female Korean pop groups, including A Pink's immortal ballad Let Us Just Love.)

The U.S. is planning a show of nuclear-capable force similar to what it did in 2006 with the flight of two B-2 Stealth bombers near North Korea, and Secretary of State John Kerry called China to say Beijing should do more to rein in its provocative neighbour.

"China had a particular approach that it wanted to make, that we agreed and respected to give them space to implement," Kerry said. "Today, in my conversation with the Chinese, I made it very clear that has not worked and we cannot continue business as usual."

'Strategic patience'

Some of these proposed measures will irritate or inconvenience North Korea, but there's no reason to suppose any will be applied with sufficient force to change things.

Each of the key players has compelling reasons to avoid decisive action.

Barack Obama's policy of "strategic patience" is a target for plenty of bloviation this presidential election year, but it's hard to believe any successor would seriously consider military intervention in the absence of extraordinary provocation.

As North Korea's only ally and important trading partner, China is in a position to exert pressure, and has done so on occasion by cutting oil shipments.

But China seems happier to live with a difficult neighbour than see it collapse and be replaced by a unified Korea allied with the U.S.

South Korea is the most cautious of all. Emotionally committed to a united country, South Koreans fear that their own economy would be swamped in a reunification process that has been pegged as 10 times more expensive than Germany's.

Not exactly high alert. A South Korean soldier rests against his tank on Thursday at a training field near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

Meanwhile, North Korea's claim to have tested a hydrogen bomb seems to be an exaggeration, as such an explosion would have been hundreds of times more powerful than the evidence suggests.

Still, even if the weapon was less advanced than claimed, the fact remains that North Korea is gradually acquiring more nuclear expertise and material while the world is no closer to stopping it.

If there is to be some seismic shift to shake loose this regime, it may have to come from within.

In November 1989, two weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, on my way to watch another Communist regime fall in Czechoslovakia, I stopped in Bucharest for the Fourteenth Congress of the Romanian Communist Party.

Nicolae Ceaușescu, the "Alexander of the Carpathians," and "Genuine Thesaurus of Luminous Social and Political Thought," gave a six-hour speech punctuated by dozens of standing ovations.

The grotesque dictator seemed unshakably in control of his dismal police state, with no hint of effective opposition.

Even so, I was back within weeks watching it all collapse and end in front of a firing squad on Christmas Day.

I am far from predicting a similar end for Kim, but remote as the prospect appears, it seems more likely than effective intervention from outside.


Patrick Brown

Eye on Asia

Former CBC correspondent Patrick Brown has reported from world capitals and dusty backwaters for over 30 years, with a particular emphasis on Asia, having been based at different times in Bangkok, Delhi and, most recently, Beijing. He now splits his time between Canada and China as an independent documentary-maker. Follow Patrick Brown on Twitter: @truthfromfacts


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