The Trouble with North Korea

NEW YORK – Nobody would care much about North Korea – a small and isolated country of 24 million people, ruled by a grotesque dynasty that calls itself communist – if it were not for its nuclear weapons. Its current ruler, Kim Jong-un, the 30-year-old grandson of North Korea’s founder and “Great Leader,” is now threatening to turn Seoul, the rich and bustling capital of South Korea, into “a sea of fire.” American military bases in Asia and the Pacific are also on his list of targets.

Kim knows very well that a war against the United States would probably mean the destruction of his own country, which is one of the world’s poorest. His government cannot even feed its own people, who are regularly devastated by famine. In the showcase capital, Pyongyang, there is not even enough electricity to keep the lights on in the largest hotels. So threatening to attack the world’s most powerful country would seem like an act of madness.

But it is neither useful nor very plausible to assume that Kim Jong-un and his military advisers are mad. To be sure, there is something deranged about North Korea’s political system. The Kim family’s tyranny is based on a mixture of ideological fanaticism, vicious realpolitik, and paranoia. But this lethal brew has a history, which needs to be explained.

The short history of North Korea is fairly simple. After the collapse in 1945 of the Japanese empire, which had ruled quite brutally over the whole of Korea since 1910, the Soviet Red Army occupied the north, and the US occupied the south. The Soviets plucked a relatively obscure Korean communist, Kim Il-sung, from an army camp in Vladivostok, and installed him in Pyongyang as the leader of North Korea. Myths about his wartime heroism and divine status soon followed, and a cult of personality was established.