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China’s Choice in North Korea

TOKYO – If the most dangerous moment for any dictatorship is when it starts to reform, North Korea looks ready to turn that truism on its head. Its recent shelling of South Korea suggests that the failing Kim dynasty might set East Asia alight rather than undertake any serious reform. If peace really is the key component of China’s rise, the Chinese must now rein in their mercurial client.

Trying to understand the “Hermit Kingdom” can be like staring into a black hole. Some view the bombardment of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island as a bid to divert North Koreans’ attention from their country’s collapsing economy, or perhaps from the approaching death of their “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il, or to create a synthetic reputation as a military leader for Kim’s son and intended heir, the 27-year-old (or so) “Young General,” Kim Jong-un. Others view the attack as simply another in a long line of provocations, and thus not to be taken all that seriously.

Hwang Jang-yop, North Korea’s former chief ideologist and its most senior defector to the South, describes North Korea as a mixture of “socialism, modern feudalism, and militarism.” It has proven to be a lethal combination. Roughly 1.5 million of North Korea’s 23 million people are estimated to have starved to death over the past decade. Hunger remains widespread, if not as dire as two years ago. The standard daily ration is 150-300 grams (5-10 ounces) of corn or rice (equivalent to roughly four slices of dry bread), depending on the location. Food often remains unavailable in rural areas.

Atop North Korea’s starvation economy sits a personality cult that dwarfs those of Stalin or Mao. Ubiquitous images of Kim Jong-il and his father, Kim Il-sung, are the official symbols of a secular theocracy based on juche (pronounced choocheh), the Kims’ contribution to the world’s patrimony of totalitarian ideologies. As with the Church or the divine right of kings, the system cannot be challenged without undermining the infallibility of its perfect leaders.