The resumption of hostilities, if it ever comes, in the Korean peninsula would not be surprising. The two nations have had scares in the past, with the North’s shelling of the disputed Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 proving to be only one of the numerous flashpoints threatening the peace of the region. When the bellicosity of the North leads it to declare a ‘state of war’ between the two nations, they are not announcing any new developments. What they are in fact doing is restating the situation as it stood before last week and as it has done for over sixty years since the end of what we call the Korean War in 1953. Since the two Koreas have never formally signed a peace treaty, the situation had – up to now – been that of an uneasy armistice or ceasefire.
The political situation is quite fluid, and the new man in Pyongyang has been keen to throw his political weight around, but the fact is that this will never lead to war: the first reason is the pragmatic one – of the massive international support for the South – encompassing the whole of western Europe and the United States: quite a formidable foe for a nation that can barely keep its own people fed to take on. While Kim Jong-un may be a spoiled princeling, he does have some rather capable advisors, and they would not let him take his country into such a scenario where they are against the entire World. The sabre-rattling they make almost inevitably precedes an attempt at negotiation with the South, or a bid to reduce the crippling economic sanctions which are ruining the economy and starving the people out.
The second reason is simpler: China’s interests are not best served by any military action. We have already seen the effect on the people of the West’s sanctions, and China is one of the few countries to help the North survive the shortages. Due to the requirements of propaganda, the rice distributed to the people must come from the North. It is a matter of pride that they can ‘feed’ themselves, and China is happy to make up the shortfall, even going as far as to ship food in encased in unmarked bags, so as to allow the government to stamp a North Korean symbol on it before dispatch. The government is so reliant on Chinese aid that they have become virtual proxies for Beijing.
And Beijing would not be happy, much less authorise, any hostilities to commence. China needs the North to appear threatening, but not to end up doing much: if they did, then the government would become a problem rather than an asset. As mad-dog desperadoes they do have their uses, but as out-and-out fighters they would quickly lose all support. It would put Chinese relationships with too many trading partners at risk to be worth doing, and the Chinese authorities are run like a corporate boardroom: this is a cost/benefit analysis that is too simple.
But the effects on the people themselves warrant the most attention. As the children of a state which is still run by a man who died in 1994 – it is, as Christopher Hitchens says in his masterful reportage on the subject in 2001 for Vanity Fair: ‘What would be the right term for this? A necrocracy? A Thantatocracy? A mortocracy? A mausolocracy? Anyway, grimy appropriate for a morbid system so many of whose children have died with grass in their mouths.’
That the Korean people are starving is in no doubt. They have poor harvests regularly, not helped by the corrupt system of state ownership of land and the use of all available people as biological machines to till the land, and strain against the forces of nature to extract the feeblest sustenance from the long-barren soil. But what is it all for? Is it purely mechanistic survival, clutching at the human race’s inbuilt propensity for self preservation, or do they genuinely love their leaders?
The emotions on show upon the death of Kin Jong-il seemed genuine enough. There was mass weeping in the streets, and all of those on show did seem to be affected by the passing of their despotic ‘Dear Leader’. But, of course, these were images carefully selected and cultivated for the rest of the world, released through a state-run news agency, which gets its running order almost verbatim from the highest echelons of the state. The ordinary people do seem to be affected, and it is mostly amongst the young, who have grown up in the midst of propagandistic education, and without the memories of yesterday, and the hope that Orwell could see in the past, as well as the proles.
However, as Hitchens recounts, there are no cracks in the facade of dictatorship: no holes beginning to show the true face of the country.
Normally, he writes, ‘someone in a cafe makes an offhand remark. A piece of ironic graffiti is scrawled in the men’s room. Some group at the university issues some improvised leaflet. The glacier begins to melt; a joke makes the rounds and the apparently immovable regime suddenly looks vulnerable and absurd. But it’s almost impossible to convey the extent to which North Korea just isn’t like that.’
With their new leader, and renewed aggression towards the West as well as the usual across the southern border, the whole country is now mobilising for a struggle. And while this nation is on the edge of Chinese approval as it is, and has little or no say in how to use its enormous army, it is still a great danger to out liberties and our freedoms. But more than that; and beyond our own selfish desires and needs, it is a vile tool of the subjugation of the people who live there, and as long as they can stare across the Chinese border to see the constantly-lit monuments to consumerism and watch the southern one: past the DMZ to the prettiness and affluence of Seoul, one wonders more about what is keeping the country together, and much less about its offensive capabilities towards others.