N.Korea's Disturbing Rationality

  • By Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University

    June 16, 2009 12:43

    Victor Cha

    Americans largely understand North Korea as a proliferation problem, far on the distant side of the planet, with a slightly strange dictator. But in recent days, the American media and public have come face-to-face with a reality about the country that South Koreans have long understood: the disrespect for human rights and for the rule of law that exists north of the 38th parallel.

    The sentencing of two American journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, by the North Korean high court to 12 years of hard labor in prison, however, has shocked many average Americans. This is the first such fate for any American civilians in North Korea. Charged with "illegal entry and hostile acts," the two journalists have been the top news story on NBC, CNN, Fox and other major news networks for the past week. The average disinterested American has now become intensely interested in learning about the inhuman conditions of North Korean gulags and labor camps, and the fate of these two young women.

    Americans are struggling to understand why the North Koreans have chosen to take a hard line with Lee and Ling. Some naively ask if there is an appeals process in the North Korean legal system [there isn't], or if the two women lacked fair legal representation [they did]. Others reach the conclusion that the two have become pawns in a high-stakes poker game as tensions ratchet up between Washington and Pyongyang over the nuclear weapon and ballistic missiles tests.

    In the end however, there is a disturbing rationality to everything the North has done. At the core of it all is the leadership transition from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un. This is inherently an uncertain and potentially destabilizing process when it is done in the best of times, as a slow, gradual process. It is infinitely more dangerous when the transition must take place more quickly, spurred by Kim Jong-il's health problems.

    Weak and paranoid dictatorships will look to secure their external and internal environment as they brace for a leadership transition. In this regard, for Pyongyang, the nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles tests over the past two months represent an effort to secure themselves against external threats as they undergo the transition. Using the tests to demonstrate they are a nuclear weapons state sends a message to the world that they will not be threatened.

    But external security is not all Pyongyang is concerned with as it makes the transition to the post-Kim Jong-il era. The rule of his son rests on the internal stability of the regime. In addition to potential factional infighting, the next greatest threat to the regime is from the people. This is not revolution, because as the French philosopher Montesquieu once wrote, people in societies as decrepit as North Korea's seek only to find their next meal; they do not entertain grand ideas of revolution. Instead, the threat from the people is the threat of refugees and asylum-seekers, people who choose to vote with their feet and try to escape North Korea to China.

    There has been a slow but steadily increasing stream of defectors into China and ultimately to South Korea through third countries. According to the Unification Ministry, the number of refugees was a little over 1,000 from 1995 to 2001, and then jumped to average around 1,400 to 1,500 per year from 2002 to 2006. In 2007, this number increased to approximately 2,750. From 2006, China began building fences along the border to deter refuges and instituted the practice of refoulment, performing neighborhood sweeps in the Korean-speaking province of Jilin to return North Koreans to certain torture and punishment.

    Lee and Ling have been caught, both literally and figuratively, in this unfortunate confluence of circumstances. In terms of the North's internal security dilemma, the harsh sentence against the two journalists is probably meant to send a message on the refugee issue. Pyongyang is effectively telling the world news media to stay away from the Sino-North Korean border and to stop encouraging defections from the North. Sadly, this is probably an effective strategy. What journalist would entertain thoughts of meandering along the border today?

    • Copyright © Chosunilbo & Chosun.com
    Previous Next
    All Headlines Back to Top