Perils of isolation

Published : Nov 03, 2006 00:00 IST

This book, based on archival material, is concerned with the internal set-up in North Korea, which is enveloped in secrecy and myth.

IF North Korea's nuclear test on October 9 has sent shock waves around the world, it is because people the world over enjoy the bliss which a state of denial instils. The decision to hold the test was announced in Pyongyang nearly a week earlier. The drift towards this fateful decision was evident months earlier. It has revealed, at once, the bankruptcy of the United States' policy not to negotiate with countries or leaders it dislikes; the limited leverage which China and Russia have over the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea); and a fact of international life that shocks people every time it intrudes on their bliss - no matter how poor or dependent on others a country may be, it will defy its patrons if it deems it necessary to do so in its national interest.

The Nehruvian doctrine that alliances make stooges of smaller states was untrue. Alliances are forged in the national interest, whether formally or, as in India's case with the Soviet Union, informally; compromises are made even without alliances. But when a smaller state deems it necessary it flouts its benefactor's will. Syngman Rhee released POWs (prisoners of war) against the U.S.' wishes and Pakistan made friends with China defying U.S. protests, though it was its much-allied ally. North Korea depended on the Soviet Union and China and depends, still, a lot on China and to a much lesser extent on Russia. It has defied both of them. They, on their part, are unhappy but understanding. So, is South Korea. It speaks a lot for the bankruptcy of George W. Bush's policy towards North Korea that it was opposed by South Korea, its ally and the country most affected by developments in the North.

A report by Donald Greenlees in the International Herald Tribune of October 11 sums up the situation with stark clarity and realism. North Korea is so poor that its pilots get only two hours of flying time a month. "Its soldiers sometimes have to farm their own food." South Korean and Western military officials' analysis refutes American assumptions. It is "a deep insecurity, they said, and not a desire to obtain new diplomatic leverage or grab international attention, that influenced Kim Jong Il's decision to defy international warnings and declare that the North tested a nuclear weapon this week".

"I think North Korea wants an effective deterrent against the U.S. in case of war on the Korean Peninsula," Park Yong Ok, a former Lieutenant-General in the South Korean Army who served as Vice-Minister for Defence in the late 1990s, said. "Kim Jong Il wants a nuclear weapon at hand. It's not a bargaining chip."

Besides, "Pyongyang had closely watched conflicts elsewhere in the world, particularly the invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003, with growing nervousness and wanted to acquire a trump card in the security standoff on the peninsula". It was a project of "long standing". Recent events gave it an edge.

It is this neglected past which provides a clue to North Korea's policies. The Cold War International History Project (CW IHP) at the Woodrow Wilson Centre has long been engaged in research on this subject based on archival material. Relations with China, strained by the Sino-Soviet rift, improved only in 1969, notes a Working Paper on "North Korean `Adventurism' and China's Long Shadow 1966-1972" by Bernd Schaefer.

Kim Jong Il is very much his father's son. Kim Il Sung founded the DPRK. He was an autocrat. So is the son.

The U.S. has no business preaching democracy. The DPRK and China almost went to war in 1969, around the same time that China and the Soviet Union had armed clashes on the border. Later the DPRK moved closer to China.

The Working Paper is based on archival material. So is the book, which has won high praise from the CW IHP's expert on Korea, Kathryn Weathersby. It is concerned with the internal set-up in North Korea, which is enveloped in secrecy and myth.

The one-man rule enjoys far greater popular support than is realised. President George W. Bush publicly abused Kim Jong Il in offensively personal terms, a testimony alike to lack of culture and ignorance of diplomacy; specifically of North Korea.

The massive material which Szalontai has studied leads him to conclude: "The North Korean political system should not be considered merely a personal or family dictatorship. Rooted in two powerful collectivist ideologies (nationalism and communism), it has been more able (and willing) to defy the political and military might of various great powers than certain sultanistic regimes that lacked a coherent ideology and long-term goals... . Nor do Pyongyang's efforts to develop atomic weapons, no matter how counterproductive and criticisable they are, testify that this country is ruled by a lunatic despot who may provoke a nuclear holocaust at any moment. The North Korean nuclear programme is actually less, rather than more, irrational than, among others, the weapons of mass destruction projects initiated by the South African apartheid regime."

What options do North Korea's tests leave with the U.S. now except to negotiate?

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment