Cold War Left Overs: North Korea Today

This post was written by Dr. Art Pitz on June 17, 2009
Posted Under: International Relations

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North Korea is the one remaining hot spot left over from the Cold War, and the chance of the regime changing anytime soon are almost nonexistent. To understand North Korea today, it helps to take a look at its past.  Korea was long under Chinese control and/or influence until Japan took it over in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895.  Japanese imperialism was arguably one of the worst forms of imperialism and Korea suffered mightily under their rule.

Japanese control lasted until the last days of World War II.  At that point, Korea was arbitrarily divided between the Soviets in the North and the Americans in the South.  It is doubtful that either side could have imagined that that split would have lasted so long.  It is useful to note that Korea was not a high priority for either country at that time.

It was normal in 1945 for the Soviets to craft a state in their image in the North while the South became more American.  The Soviets were led by Josef Stalin and therein lies almost all of the problems we face with North Korea today.  It is the one remaining Stalinist regime on the planet, and the Korean division is a remnant of the Cold War.  South Korea has been a stunning success story given the miserable shape it was in at the end of the Korean War.  American involvement in the Korean War along with the United Nations helped midwife this long term success.

What does it mean to say that North Korea is a Stalinist system?  “Horrid” effectively captures the meaning.  Kim Il Sung rules through a secret police and has a totalitarian regime of the worst possible sort.  Stalinism means paranoia, a passion for secrecy, no rule of law, no civil rights of any kind, and a brutal, repressive regime.  Stalin brought on famine for large numbers of Soviets and so has the North Koreans.  It is hard to find any redeeming virtues in such a nation.

It is not surprising therefore that the North Koreans would seek to have nuclear weapons.  So did Stalin.  They see having nukes as essential for their security and as useful bargaining chips.

Well, what can be done?  Containment seems advisable in such a way as to lead eventually to the mellowing of this country.  That’s what the U.S. did with Stalin and North Korea has nowhere near the power of the former Soviet Union.  We have to be very patient and into containment for the long haul.  We have some bargaining power since they are so poor and hungry.  Whatever we do has to be done in concert with China and Japan.  A lone ranger policy here would be a foolish venture.

The main concern, arguably, is that North Korea may export their expertise to other rogue states.  Iran comes to mind, for example.  It seems unlikely that North Korea would use their weapons to attack South Korea for then our nuclear arsenal comes into play.  Any North Korean attack would kill American soldiers and no American administration is likely to stand still for that.  So, our policy should be designed to do as much as possible to keep North Korea from exporting what they know.  Maybe, we can offer enough carrots to wean them off of their nuclear program though this may be doubtful.

Do you see any other options for dealing with North Korea?

Dr. Art Pitz
The Professor’s House
Know the History–Understand the Choices

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