North Korea’s military-first paradigm

In a presentation to the World Affairs Council in San Francisco earlier this year, BR Myers spoke about the way North Koreans think of themselves and how their image of their own racial purity shapes their view of the world.

While Kim Il-sung’s legitimacy had rested on two pillars: economic success and military strength, Kim Jong-il’s legitimacy as a leader rests exclusively on military strength.

This country really has nothing else with which to inspire its people with pride than shows of military or nuclear strength… North Korea has enshrined the military-first principle in the constitution. It has deleted the word communism from the constitution, as well. So this regime is looking at this military-first paradigm for the long haul, in other words.

It’s not really important [who the next leader is]… because whoever takes over is going to be faced with this same quandary really, which is: how do we go from being a military-first country, to say, a economy-first country without losing all reason to exist as a separate state. And this is why it is so unrealistic for us to expect them to trade military strength for a mere aid deal.

Let’s say we increased their standard of living by 20% over the next five years, which would be an awful lot, that would not help King Jong-il politically because North Korea would still be hopelessly behind South Korea in economic aspects, and therefore, North Korea would have no reason to exist as a separate Korean state. All that it has now, its only source of legitimacy, is the claim that it alone is standing up to the Yankee enemy — the race enemy.

So to people who are optimistic about the six-party talks or the bilateral talks or whichever talks are supposed to take place, I ask the question: where does North Korea go, if it disarms? What does it do with itself? How does it justify its existence? And none of the optimists with whom I’ve talked to has been able to give me an answer. And they may not consider this a big problem, but we can be pretty sure that Kim Jong-il realizes how big a problem it is, and this is why I am so pessimistic for the prospects for arms talks. Because you can talk a regime into doing a lot of things, but one thing you can’t make it do is commit political suicide. And this is where the left wing and the right wing and the center in America are all wrong about North Korea. The left wing is wrong because you cannot bribe or sweet talk a country into committing political suicide. The right wing is wrong because you can’t bully it into doing that either. The center is wrong for thinking that you can get the Chinese to persuade them to do it.

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3 thoughts on “North Korea’s military-first paradigm

  1. 2Pac

    This is a rather shallow reading (if not a deliberate attempt at sowing confusion) of North Korean politics and the reasons for the seige mentality that has reigned ever since every single North Korean city was bombed to rubble by the good ole’ us of a in the ‘Korean’ war. More napalm and conventional bombs were droped by the US on North Korean cities and villages than in the ENTIRE WW2 pacific campaign. Only a crazy moron would not feel threatened by the same power that continually threatens North Korea; that the Kim family has benefited by using this FACT to entrench themselves in power is who’s fault?

    Readers will be better served in reading the more sober writings of Bruce Cummings to understand why the North Korean regime has actually used nuclear tests and bellicose language to try and ease the noose around its neck and get guarentees that the us-of-a will not attack it.

    North Korean’s are as tactically resourcefull and tenacious as the Iranians in the game of geopolitics. North Korean’s do indeed think of themselves as ‘pure’ and a repository of Korean culture, much like South Koreans think of themselves as ‘pure’ and the true heirs to the Korean princely kingdoms as opposed to the ancient Korean settler colonies of — Japan. It is an issue that is not central to understanding the 1/2 century confrontation.

    One should leave the hypocritical tear-jerker about starving peasants in North Korea and twittering ‘green’ boffons in Iran at the door if you really want to know what is really going on.

  2. Norman

    Seems as though the antagonistic back & forth between the Korea’s have more to do with something other than what is portrayed. Perhaps it has to do with the pending release of documents from the Wikileaks site? No matter, there is always some reason that these moments are given much press, usually to either hide or cover up some other act that is taking place of which effects a large portion of the population of the World/a Country. This is the 21st Century, yet the Governments are still stuck back in the Cold War thinking of the 20th Century. Perhaps the average dolt believes the tripe put out, but anyone with 1/2 a brain can see through the fog.

  3. Observer

    Paul, thanks for bringing some good analysis ( as always ) to our attention.

    I agree with the above comments too : Myer’s talk is interesting, though I do have reservations, the first being that he seems to be popular with hawkish types in USA. Also, some of his rhetoric is patronising. Nth Koreans are emotional, immature,wilful, prone to childish and dangerous outbursts, dependent on a mother figure. Plus much of his analysis seems anecdotal and set up around images/notions he has carefully chosen to fit his prisms. And, there is a massive lack of self reflection in his work — if he reached those conclusions about ‘the other’, then logic would require he also applies the same standards to America and the West — what is the ‘nature’ of USA’s populations, and what does America’s ‘propaganda’ ( advertising etc ) say about USA and their psychological state and the USA’s potential to be a threat to others?

    I do find the lecture interesting, and I do think Myers has a lot to tell us; but, I also am wary of these ‘let’s analyse the inscrutable other’ types. I worry about such monolithic visions of people, that are really, just like you and I ; just mothers and sons who want to have a happy life. Remember the Communists in Europe we were trained to fear, the Iranians we are being conditioned to fear, and the Afghan villagers we can now see were no real enemy to us.

    I worry that Myers’ ‘logic’ adds North Koreans to that list of people who ‘only understand war and force.’

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