The regime in North Korea successfully launched a long-range missile last week, drawing ire from the rest of the international community, including a condemnation by the U.N. Security Council. The United States called the missile test, ostensibly the launch of a weather satellite, a “highly provocative act.” Even China said it “regretted” the action. The on-the-surface uniform response from North Korea’s neighbors and much of the rest of the world belies a much more complex geopolitical landscape, one the regime in North Korea has successfully manipulated to remain in power for more than half a century.
In 2007, a presidential election in South Korea handed a resounding defeat to the ruling party, attributed in the linked editorial at least in part to the government’s “favoritism for North Korea and decrease in cooperation and friendship with the United States and Japan vis-a-vis China and North Korea.” The election was sandwiched by resignations of consecutive prime ministers in Japan. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled Japan almost continuously since World War II, eventually lost power in elections in 2009. The shifting geopolitical landscape created the space for North Korea, having extracted fuel aid for cooperation, to abruptly test a rocket and withdraw from the six party talks set up in 2003. They no longer served the regime any purpose.
Though Kim Jong Il died in 2011 after ruling the country 17 years, his son, Kim Jong Un, was able to consolidate power through brute force, his family’s preferred management strategy. A failed rocket launch this April, early in the young dictator’s rule, timed for the 100th anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, the founder of North Korea, did little to weaken to his position internally. Last week’s successful rocket launch came ahead of the one year anniversary of Kim Jong Un’s father’s death as well as elections in Japan and South Korea. While the last polls of the race showed the opposition candidate surging to near the margin of error against Park Geun-hye, the ruling party’s candidate, Park ended up winning a close race. Her opponent, Moon Jae-In, the son of North Korean refugees, campaigned on a policy of rapprochement and was able to close a significant deficit in the polls as the North Koreans prepared their missile launch. Nevertheless, Park has vowed to reach out to North Korea and ease her party’s hard line stance.
In Japan, meanwhile, the LDP took the reins of power again in an election held this week. The hawkish Shinzo Abe, the first of the two prime ministers to resign in 2007-2008 in fact, will become Japan’s prime minister again. He has promised more military spending by the country, which has been severely restricted on that front since the end of World War II.
And in the background there is China and the United States. China began a leadership transition earlier this year. While the Chinese “regretted” North Korea’s missile launch last week, the leadership appears poised to keep up its support for the regime, as a buffer to the United States (and its allies Japan and South Korea, between which 63,000 U.S. forces are based). In the mix as well is an ongoing dispute over uninhabited but resource rich islands in the East China Sea, claimed by China, Japan and South Korea. President Obama’s first post-election foreign trip, meanwhile, was to Southeast Asia, part of the administration’s “Asian pivot.” Notably the trip included a stop in Burma, a country ruled by a military dictatorship facing U.S. sanctions since 1997, some of which have been lifted this year. Myanmar, the administration hopes, can become an example for other dictatorships (read: North Korea) that with at least some inkling of reform, rapprochement is possible. Myanmar at one point even tried to acquire nuclear technology, from North Korea. The hopeful policy is reminiscent of the Bush Administration’s hopes after Colonel Moammar Qaddafi voluntarily gave up his purported WMD arsenal in 2003. The move was seen as a positive outcome from the invasion of Iraq as cautionary tale, as well as an exemplar of rapprochement. We all know how that turned out.
But regimes like Qaddafi’s, or Bashar Assad’s, or even Hosni Mubarak’s or, in this case, Kim Jong Un’s, are almost always destined to perish, whether or not a “great power” tips the scale one way or the other. The North Korean regime is by far the most totalitarian on the planet, yet when the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il the tears were largely forced. It is sustained by the cult of personality surrounding the Kims, but they survive thanks also to the fantasy that American imperialists stand ready to invade and enslave the population. The presence of all those U.S. troops (about 63,000 deployed in and around South Korea and Japan) helps feed that fantasy even though neither the “imperialists” in Washington nor Beijing may be planning to invade North Korea. On the contrary, their imperial machinations create a climate in the region that helps feed the regime, often quite literally.