Understanding North Korea
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North Korean officers
A North Korean officer observing a meeting of the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) at Christmas, 1972, turns his head in anger as I snap his picture. Two North Korean guards (right) watch impassively, flanking two South Korean guards and an American MP. (Link) ©2017 John Sammon
North Koreans have mastered the stick and carrot
I thought it was pretty funny when Sony was accused of defeatism and caving in to terrorism and surrendering freedom of speech after a computer hack attributed to North Korea led the film company to withdraw (temporarily) their movie The Interview. The movie portrayed the attempted assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
Sony, a private multinational conglomerate company concerned mainly with profits and not ethics or patriotism, got called a weak-kneed sort of traitor.
Not so our U.S. Government, which for years has tried to bribe North Korea with promises of supplies and food if the starving hermit kingdom will just behave and give up developing a nuclear bomb and the missile system to deliver it.
The North Koreans make threats repeatedly to nuke the U.S. Even Isil doesn't make the same kind of threats. Bellicose bombast statements made to gain concessions, attention and respect like a spoiled child would.
Saving face and acting tough is everything to North Korea from Kim on down. How do I know? I have personal experience. I have listened to them yell and scream and watched them gesture and shake their fist at my face. I have watched in fascination a country that is as different from the rest of the world as The Land of Oz, or perhaps a world where time has stood still.
They still drive 1930's-looking cars, the few there are.
One time a North Korean delegation was conducting a tour of Panmunjom, the tiny village of tin-roofed sheds north of the DMZ where violations of the cease fire, charges and counter charges, are verbally hurled. The tour guide, conducting visitors from several Eastern European countries over on the communist side of the truce village, pointed to where I stood across on our side. The guide and his guests, accompanied by a contingent of North Korean guards, studied me closely through binoculars.
The tour guide, attempting to ridicule the U.S. more than he had already done, pointed to me and traced with a finger, outward from his face, the shape of an imaginary giant nose. I have a prominent nose, but it wasn't that big.
He was telling his guests in a mocking way what an ugly brute I was.
This irritated me. I thought for a way to respond. With the tour group watching, I traced outward from my crotch, the shape of an imaginary giant penis. The crowd laughed, much more so than the tour guide's joke had achieved. It was clear the tour guide was furious. He turned beet red. He had lost face. Finally, in frustration, he made a kick in my direction telling me what he intended to do if he ever got the chance.
This until-now unknown incident provides two important clues to the nature of North Korea. First of all, saving face or maintaining it is everything. Kim Jong-un knows his country would be obliterated if he attacked the U.S. with nuclear weaponry. He would hide in an underground chamber and reign over a field of glass overhead.
The routine threats he makes are mostly bluff, but the far greater danger is a dare-devil response, a miscalculation, that might set the spark to the Korean Peninsula powder keg, one of the most heavily armed regions of the world. It's unlikely Kim will set off an all-out war, but he could decide to try a stunt to make a statement, that could set it off.
That's the supreme danger.
A miscalculation intended as a show of bravado.
They've done it in the past, for example, a few years ago, artillery shelling a disputed island at the border of South Korea.
There are many similarities between North Korea and Nazism, besides the jack-booted precision goose step North Korean soldiers have in common with the Nazis of World War II.
Like the Nazis, North Koreans consider themselves to be a pure, undefiled race. Thus, they make fun of the noses of Americans in much the same way Hitler's thugs made fun of Jewish noses----asserting that they looked like the number six. Apparently, North Koreans consider a flat, smashed, boxer-type nose to be a thing of great beauty.
Not long ago North Korean officials ridiculed John Kerry's looks, comparing him to a wolf. Making fun of someone's looks is how the Nazis, North Koreans and the fifth grade school yard bully find a way to mask low self-esteem.
Along with racism and extremism is the North Koreans' love of patriotic inspired mythology.
Similarly, the Nazis tried to make out they were descended from a pure strain of Valkyrie-style warriors. Heinrich Himmler dispatched SS thugs to the far reaches of the earth including Tibet to dig up ancient pots to somehow confirm this ridiculous notion.
The North Koreans believe in a mythical winged horse named "Chollima," symbolizing nation-building, great economic leaps forward, construction and war heroism. To move forward quickly is to advance as they put it with "Chollima speed." All that's been offered instead is starvation.
The system ceaselessly uses drumbeat propaganda mindlessly to extol North Koreans as the world's chosen people. When you believe yourself chosen by destiny to rule, a super race, this is what you believe. The rest of the world is evil. Out to get us. We are the only heroic people, the only noble people, the only worthy people. The rest of the world is decadent, corrupt.
Close to this is the belief in a theory called "juche," which translated means self-reliance, a paranoiac insular belief that the evil outside world seeks to dominate and that to remain racially and culturally pure, a country must seal itself off, forbidding outside influences like the internet. The idea of "juche" also maintains the fiction that masses of common people determine the country's destiny, instead of the reality, a cadre of elitist government officials ruling a nation of vassal serfs.
Hitler too tried to sell the Nazi movement as working class despite the fact he and his paladins lived like sultans in palaces and drove luxury Mercedes touring cars. Hitler endlessly cited two types of supposedly virtuous Germans as worthy, workers and farmers.
Watching a North Korean officer shout and become wild at a meeting while American and South Korean delegates listen in stony silence in a tin shed in which the border of North Korea runs right through the center of the building----it becomes clear. This is no attempt at reaching understanding or truth. This is a show, theater, theater of the absurd perhaps---designed to achieve something.
Dominance, fear, concessions, and ultimately appeasement.
North Koreans have mastered the stick and carrot routine to a high art. They ramp up tension and make threats or actually make an armed attack incident in an effort to gain concessions or respect. Like the North Korean officer who got mad at my symbolic giant penis---image is everything.
That's why The Interview caused such a storm.
For Kim Jong-un and his minions, it's a way of dealing with the world in a way you want to believe the world to be---not the actual way it is.
There's no dealing with people like this. The best you can do for now is to try and keep the lid on a boiling pot in the hopes it doesn't blow off.
John Sammon, : John Sammon is a writer whose experience includes newspaper reporting, magazine writing, personality profiles, interviews, celebrity interviews (Clint Eastwood), historical pieces, investigative and crime. He was selected “Most Valuable Reporter” for California’s oldest continually operating newspaper, and covered the weekend crime beat for a daily newspaper in Nevada. If you beat your wife on Friday, he wrote about it and got you in deep trouble on Saturday. He covered business,... (more...)