The Explainer: North Korea

That was a scene from Team America: World Police, a tongue-in-cheek look at the War on Terror told with marionettes. Since North Korea claimed to explode an atom bomb on, the world has been frantically figuring out what should be done. President Arroyo in a cabinet meeting rather hysterically said nuclear missiles could rain down on us any minute.

So in the wake of recent headlines, let’s take a look at what makes North Korea tick, even as the nuclear countdown in our region ominously starts going tick tock.


I’m Manolo Quezon, the Explainer.


I. An Eternal President


ABOUT a decade ago I went on one of those splendid American government junkets that give writers a lifetime’s worth of curious stories.

South Korea was part of our tour. The most remarkable part of it was a day trip to the demilitarized zone –the DMZ. The DMZ is on the 38th parallel, the dividing line between the half of the Korean peninsula  occupied by Russia and and the other half occupied by the Western powers in the aftermath of the defeat of Japan. Japan had ruled Korea as a colony for thirty five years, starting in 1910.

On June 25, 1950, the Russian and Chinese-allied North Korean army invaded South Korea. Two days later, the United Nations authorized an international force led by the United States, to defend South Korea. Among the many nations that sent troops was, of course, the Philippines, which is why former President Ramos is a veteran of the Korean War and a young reporter named Ninoy Aquino got the chance, as Max Soliven once reminisced, to file extremely ungrammatical but exciting dispatches from the front.

It wasn’t until the famous Inchon landing of September 15, 1950, when Douglas MacArthur, commander of the UN forces, mounted a daring amphibious invasion that cut the North Koreans off from their supplies, that the military situation was reversed.

However, the North Korean retreat went almost all the way up to the North Korean border with China; the Chinese responded by sending troops to fight in North Korea in October. MacArthur had wanted to totally crush North Korea and possibly invade China, which had adopted a Communist government in 1949; but the Chinese invasion pushed back the UN troops and MacArthur proposed using nuclear weapons on China. He was fired by Truman on April 11, 1951. His replacement, Gen. Mark Clark, stopped the UN retreat and pushed the combined Chinese-North Korean forces back to the 38th parallel.

The DMZ  thus marks the line where opposing armies in the Korean War were located when the United Nations brokered a cease-fire on July 27, 1953. Technically, since then, the Korean War has never formally ended but is merely frozen in the longest time-out in history. Just like the American comedy M.A.S.H. keeps the Korean War going in reruns.

And so we were placed in the obligatory large, tourist bus, and chatty minders who made a grand production of the escalating security measures required as we approached the dreaded zone.

As we hummed along on the bus, with the minders reminding us that “within fifteen minutes” of the commencement of hostilities, jets could be screaming over Seoul and the capital imperiled by rocketry and artillery barrages. It seemed so improbable. But as the bus droned on, the countryside gave way to reminders that South Korea was a country that had to constantly live under the specter of conflict.

There was Deaseong Dong (“Peace Village”), a tightly-regulated village with its 98.4 meter South Korean flagpole and Gijeong Dong, which our minders told us was a ghost town with its competing –and record-breaking- North Korean 98.4 meter flagpole and loudspeakers perpetually belting out eerie propaganda music.

You might hear a composition by North Korea’s founder, Kim-Il-Sung…

Or an example of North Korean patriotic, Socialist children’s music…

At night, our minders said, lights would be switched on to simulate human habitation of the “Propaganda Village.”

Once at Panmunjeom, with its Joint Security Area, we were brought to ooh and ah at gigantic invasion tunnels constructed by the North Koreans: the menace of fanatical, Communist hordes made tangible; and then to gawk at the North Korean soldiers in their World War II Soviet-style uniforms, and the South Koreans in American-style MP uniforms glaring at each other while conducting a kind of martial choreography as they paced and peered and did the changing of the guard. The South Koreans were better equipped: they had Ray-ban sunglasses to make them look more resolved.

If I recall correctly we then toured part of the heavily-mined, electrified frontier fence patrolled by South Korean troops. An orgy of grim statistics, of course: millions of mines, hundreds of watts of power, periodic attempts at infiltration and other kinds of border incursions, all the while punctuated by American heavy metal music blasting from South Korean outposts.

The end of the tour, of course, being the unintended punchline. After a few hours of being in the front lines of the impending Korean apocalypse, we were shepherded to a kind of glorified shack in which we were encouraged to buy “I was at the DMZ” keychains, t-shirts, jackets and baseball caps.

So for half a century, the Korean peninsula has been divided while South Korea and its allies seem to be marking time until the next North Korean invasion inevitably takes place. And yet half a century of peace seems a pretty good thing. Is it really a garrison state led by a madman?

There are certainly lunatic monuments aplenty. There’s an arch bigger than the one Napoleon built in Paris.

And every citizen has to wear a Communist Party pin.

To understand North Korea we should bear in mind a couple of things.

It is the only country in the world whose president is still president even though he’s dead. The body of Kim Il-Sung, founding father of North Korea, like all the Communist greats, lies in a gigantic mausoleum in the capital. Except North Koreans and foreign visitors alike are told the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung is not dead, he’s “resting.”

Kim Il-Sung’s repose makes necessary the other thing to bear in mind: North Korea’s the only Communist country on earth, where a leader was succeeded by a son and heir. And so, North Korea has The Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung, and the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il.

A common characteristic of Communist countries is what’s called the Cult of Personality, which is necessary in nations that outlaw God and replace belief in the supernatural with faith in the scientific certainties of Marx and Lenin. We’re familiar with how the Cult of Personality consumed the Soviet Union or China, or Vietnam and Cuba; but no Communist country has gone to the extremes displayed in North Korea.

Take these examples of North Korean propaganda. Kim Il-Sung led Communist Korean forces against the Japanese, and he was set up as North Korea’s ruler by the Russians. But North Korean propaganda presents their Great Leader as responsible for everything good:

Children are happy because of Kim Il-Sung.

Rice grows because of Kim Il-Sung.

Students learn because of Kim Il-Sung.

Children want to be soldiers, because of Kim Il-Sung.

You can learn to sew, thanks to Kim Il-Sung.

You won’t catch pneumonia because of Kim Il-Sung.

There’s a flag and national seal because of Kim Il-Sung.

Military victory’s assured by Kim Il-Sung.

The accuracy of artillery is ensured by Kim Il-Sung.

You won’t trip over untied shoelaces thanks to Kim Il-Sung.

You won’t ever feel lonely thanks to Kim Il-Sung.

There’ll always be steel, due to Kim Il-Sung.

Wheat will grow, under the inspiration of Kim Il-Sung.

There will be glorious Socialist cocktail parties with Kim Il-Sung.

Because, all the world praises Kim Il-Sung.

But while Great Leader sleeps, what of their Dear Leader? We’ll look at Kim Jong-Il when we return.


II. The Dear Leader

That was another scene from Team America: World Police, in which a marionette Kim Jong-Il deals with the UN’s Hans Blix.

North Koreans are taught that Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il was born in a log cabin on the country’s highest mountain, Mount Paektu on February 16, 1942, a date chosen to make him auspiciously, 30 years younger than his father. His birth was foretold by a bird. And when Kim Jong-Il came into this world, a double rainbow appeared, there was thunder and lightning, and a new star was seen in the sky. His mother, Kim Jok-Suk who died in 1949, is portrayed as a Socialist heroine.

The truth seems to be that Kim Jong Il was born a year earlier, in 1941, in Siberia, without the benefit of natural wonders to herald his birth. He was largely educated in China. In 1968, he was made a member of the Politburo; in 1969, he became deputy director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department; by 1974 he’d been announced as his father’s official successor, and in 1984, he officially assumed the title of Dear Leader. In 1991 Kim Jong-Il became supreme commander of the armed forces; a year later, his father announced his son was in charge of all internal affairs, too.

In 1994, the Great Leader went to sleep (that is, died) and the Dear Leader smoothly took over, though he humbly waited until 1997 to assume the titles that count: General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea and chairman of the National Defense Commission, which was declared the supreme position in government in 1998.

The media loves speculating on what he’s like. We know he’s 5 feet three inches tall; like Ferdinand Marcos, he sometimes wears platform shoes to make himself look taller. The north Korean media says he wrote six operas in three years and is fantastic at golf. He refuses, like his father, to ride in airplanes, traveling everywhere in an armored train. He loves cognac and wine, lobster and other fine foods and beautiful women. No one knows for sure how many children, exactly, he has –or how many wives.

The Western media says he is a movie fanatic, that among his favorite films are Friday the 13th and Rambo, that he is a big fan of Daffy Duck. It’s known that in 1978, he ordered South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choe Eun-hui kidnapped so as to build a North Korean film industry.

The Dear Leader also loves the NBA –US Secretary of State Madeline Albright gave him a basketball signed by Michael Jordan.

The Juche tower in Pyongyang, official propaganda has it, was designed by the Dear Leader. The official ideology of North Korea, besides Communism, is something called Juche, or self-reliance. In the past, Korea was known as the “Hermit Kingdom,” and Kim Jong-Il’s regime seems to be one, too.

As a leader, he is said to be quite different from his father, who listened to people. Kim Jong-Il demands absolute obedience and doesn’t ask anyone for advice. He’s a micromanager but, as at least one observer of North Korea has argued, a pretty effective one. He’s definitely savvy: he has a presence on the world wide web, and you can even buy mementoes of his government on line.

But the Dear Leader’s rule costs dearly in human lives. While estimates vary as to the number of North Koreans who’ve died in famines since he came to power, the number has to be in the millions. And yet, despite it all, he remains in power and has pursued a nuclear program against all odds.

In 1989, the United States learned North Korea was building a nuclear reactor. The United States dangled normalizing relations and other benefits if North Korea would negotiate on the question of its nuclear facilities. The Americans seem to have understood that North Korea was looking for either a lifeline, or leverage, since the Soviet Union, its main ally, had collapsed.

Between 1992, when the UN’s Hans Blix went to North Korea to inspect its nuclear facilities –and het harassed- and 1994, when North Korea and the USA signed an “Agreed Framework,” the Dear Leader followed a pattern of giving in slightly to foreign demands, then aggressively rejecting those demands in order to negotiate new ones.

North Korea agreed to freeze its plutonium production program in exchange for fuel oil, economic cooperation, and the construction of two modern light-water nuclear power plants. It got the food and oil, but not the nuclear plants. By 1998, Dear Leader was acting aggressively again, launching a modified Taepedong-1 missile that flew over Japan.

Things went from bad to worse when George W. Bush was elected in 2000. He stopped all discussions with Pyongyang, called the North Koreans part of the “Axis of Evil,” and the North Koreans kicked out UN inspectors in 2002 and announced it was restarting its nuclear program which had never really stopped.

In 2003, after repeatedly firing missiles into the sea between itself and Japan, North Korea managed to force talks to resume with the USa, brokered by China. The talks, after many cancellations and resumptions, later expanded to include Japan and Russia.

The Taepdong-1 is developed into the Taepodong-2. The Taepodong-1 is a North Korean missile based on the Scud rocket, itself an elderly Russian design from the 1950s and 1960s while the Taepedong-2 has been in development since 1987, confirmed as having been test-fired once, but failing 40 seconds into its flight.

Expanding the range of its ballistic missiles is crucial for North Korea, because an atom bomb isn’t very useful unless you can drop it on your enemies.

In a nutshell, that’s North Korea’s strategy: to demand money, oil, and food, and civilian nuclear reactors. To keep countries in the region interested, North Korea fires missiles, and announces it has atomic weapons, which it’s been claiming since 2003.

But last October 9, North Korea trumpeted that it had performed its first-ever nuclear weapon test. The country’s official Korean Central News Agency said “The nuclear test was conducted with indigenous wisdom and technology 100 percent,” and successfully, too. Hwaderi near Kilju city, was supposed to be the location.

An earthquake with a preliminary estimated magnitude of 4.2 north of Hwaderi, was registered and the world had to pay attention. An earthquake-size jolt is an undeniable sign of an atom bomb test. And while some scientists suggest that the measurements recorded only showed an explosion equivalent to 500 metric tons of TNT, no one wants to take the risk and openly accuse North Korea of bluffing.

Pyongyang called Beijing shortly before the test, and Beijing called Washington and other capitals in turn. American President George W. Bush has had to commit to diplomacy to prevent a nuclear arms race in Asia. And after the initial jitters, the consensus seems to be, North Korea isn’t poised to start an invasion, but has also virtually guaranteed it won’t be invaded, either.

But if all-out war won’t break out anytime soon, what will tensions in the region result in? Our discussion, when we return.


My View


Kim Jong-Il’s voice has only been heard in public once: he said one sentence into a microphone in 1992: “”Glory to the heroic soldiers of the People’s Army!”

It’s all about the Army. Mao Zedong said a revolution is no picnic while Lenin pointed out you can’t make an omelet without breaking any eggs.

All these are variations on an age-old theme. The ends justify the means. The ends being, of course, for Kim Jong-Il, survival for himself, his government, and his nation with its peculiar version of socialism. The means being whatever it takes, even it means missiles and atom bombs.

North Korea uses emotional and military blackmail to secure itself. Lenin advised, “psychologically, this talk of feeding the starving masses is nothing but the expression of saccharine-sweet sentimentality characteristic of the intelligentsia.” But news of millions starving to death ensures the world negotiates with Kim Jong-Il.

There’s a lesson, here somewhere, and it’s this. So long as no one crosses a border, in the nuclear age, whoever has nukes guarantees that talk and bargaining has to be better than any military solution.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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