The Mindset of North Korean Elites

On March 27 Kim Jong-un, the “Dear Respected Marshal” and leader the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, severed the last military hotline between North and South. Three days later he announced that the DPRK was renouncing the armistice agreement of 1953 and “entering the state of war.” On April 2 he announced the reactivation of a plutonium reactor closed in 2007, and the closure of Kaesong Industrial Park the next day. (Pyongyang bravely declared that it receives “few economic benefits from the zone,” where 53,000 North Koreans work for 123 South Korean companies, “while the South side largely benefits from it.”) On April 4 U.S. intelligence reported movement of a medium-range missile to an eastern location for possible testing. The next day British and Russian diplomats reported that their missions in Pyongyang had been encouraged to evacuate family members.

Two weeks have gone by. Pyongyang is reportedly calm, and there are some reports that—after some rather provocative moves—the Pentagon seems to have canceled or postponed some actions, perhaps to defuse the situation. (A nuclear-capable B-2 flew in from Missouri March 28 and dropped “inert ordinance” while nuclear-capable B-52s participated in “routine” drills and a destroyer and sea-based radar platform approached the North Korean coast.)  Meanwhile the press reports that the U.S. has ruled out hitting missiles on the launch pad without evidence of plans to attack the U.S.—surely a small comfort.

Everyone seems to agree that, since the North Koreans do not seem anywhere near to having deliverable nuclear warheads—and if they did they’d realize their use would surely doom themselves and tens of thousands of others—it’s extremely unlikely that all the rhetoric and dramatic moves will truly lead to war. But how to explain them?

One must imagine that Kim Jong-il and his courtiers are not the South Park cartoon characters created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. They are in fact “rational.” Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, met at length with Kim Jong-il in 2002 and pronounced him both “rational” and “pragmatic” (as well as “charming”). The reverends Billy and Franklin Graham, who have preached in North Korea and are seen by the Foreign Ministry as “friends of Korea” have also averred that the Kims are rational. (Yes, I agree that Albright and the evangelicals are themselves no models of rationality or morality. My point is just that the DPRK leaders are no nuttier than the global ruling-class norm.)

Those in Kim’s circle are well educated, can access the international media, and despite North Korea’s reputation for “isolation” (Korea was called “the hermit kingdom” long before its division in 1945) well aware of the outside world.  Dynasty founder Kim Il-song left Korea for Manchuria at age eight and didn’t return to 1945. Kim Jong-un, now 29 or 30, apparently spent seven of his formative years enrolled first in the International School near Bern, Switzerland, from around age 10 to 14, and then the nearby Liebefeld Steinhölzli from age 14 to 17. (He later obtained a degree in physics from Kim Il-song University.) His slightly older brother Jong-chul studied in Switzerland as well. His oldest (half-) brother Jong-nam (b. 1981) visited Tokyo from at least 1995. (Caught entering Japan on a forged passport in 2001, he embarrassed his father Kim Jong-il, was removed from his heir apparent position and now spends much of his time in Macao.)

Indeed quite a few descendents of dynasty founder Kim have spent long periods outside the DPRK. Kim Il-song’s second oldest son (after Jong-il) has been ambassador to Poland since the 1980s and his two children grew up in Warsaw. Kim Il-song’s daughter Kim Kyong-chin has been living in Vienna over twenty years as wife of the DPRK ambassador to Austria. Another daughter, Kim Kyong-hui, studied in Moscow 1968-69. Her own daughter, Jong-un’s cousin, studied in Paris (and as we will see, died there).

Clearly the elite is aware of the realities of global capitalism, and aware that the U.S., however crisis-ridden its system may be, remains a hyper-power, the world’s greatest purveyor of violence. It has over 7000 nukes in its arsenal. DPRK leaders also grasps the magnitude of the changes in China, where a “communist” party with fraternal ties to the DPRK’s ruling Korean Workers Party has maintained its hold on power while overseeing the restoration of capitalism (and coping with the stormy social consequences). Kim’s advisors presumably realize that without international relief and Chinese goodwill, the DPRK would become so destitute that social explosions would be inevitable. They know that actions seen as provocative by both the U.S. and China could result in sanctions producing mass suffering. One doubts that many in this stratum would welcome war. But then, who knows?

All the commentators state that little is known about the North Korean leadership. What do we (outsiders in general) really know about how they think?

The Songbun System

First of all we must assume that having grown up under the songbun status system, they accept it or do not overtly challenge it.  This system, little known to people outside the DPRK, places people in one of 51 categories based on songbun (background “components”). These categories were announced by the Great Leader Kim Il-song in 1957 and subsequently elaborated in party documents. The first group consists of “friendly” (or “core” forces). These as of 1957 consisted of the peasant and working classes, Party members, veterans of the wars against the Japanese and U.S., revolutionary intellectuals, etc. Kim estimated these at 25% of the population. Meanwhile “hostile” or “enemy” forces, such as former landlords and entrepreneurs, Christian missionaries, shamans, collaborators with the Japanese, etc. were about 20% of the people. The remaining 55% (including, for example) “former small venders” were “neutral” or “wavering.”

These are not all economic class categories but include “Chinese Koreans who returned from China to Korea in the 1950s,” “Buddhists and people observing Buddhist rituals,” etc. Status assignment, made at birth, has usually determined one’s eligibility for education, employment, location, housing, food rations, access to electricity, and rights to purchase certain goods such as television sets. But some argue that the recent collapse of the state distribution system, rise of the black market and access to Chinese-made electronics and social media have reduced the importance of songbun.

It should go without saying that this system of privilege by hereditary status has nothing in common with Marxism-Leninism, which has in fact long been replaced with “the Juche Idea” in official DPRK propaganda as the ideology of state. There is no pretense to either classlessness or strategy for the attainment of a classless society; the existence of privileged strata is taken for granted. Maybe the idea is that the hostile groups will either gradually wither away due to the discrimination they face or at least be denied the ability to inbreed with the “core.” The system deeply impacts the minds of many. For example, an effort to promote a cult around Kim Jong-un’s mother Ko Young-hee has apparently been stymied by her songbun. Born in Japan in 1952, in Osaka where there is a large ethnic Korean population, she moved with her family to North Korea at age nine. Koreans born in Japan hold low status. It does not help that a younger sister defected to the U.S.  There are some in the elite who would have liked to prevent the circulation last year of the documentary “The Mother of Great Military-first Korea,” in which Ko is shown as a loving wife and doting mother comparable to Kim Jong-suk, glorious spouse and comrade to Kim Il-song.

Parents are often deeply opposed to marriages with families of inferior songbun, partly because they know that any grandchildren born to offspring “marrying down” will suffer disadvantages. One prominent example: Jang Kum-song—the daughter of Kim Kyong-hui, the sister of Kim Il-song mentioned above, and her husband, Gen. Jang Sung-taek—died at age 29 in Paris in 2006. Educated in Europe, she wished to marry a North Korean man but her parents opposed the union due to the songbun gap. She committed suicide by drug overdose, a child of extraordinary privilege perhaps protesting the unfairness of the system that had coddled her so far. (Her first cousin Jong-un was around 23 at the time. One wonders when he became aware of this, and what he thought. There are rumors that his own marriage to Ri Sol-ju—who studied music in China—was opposed by his father Jong-il and concealed before his death.)

Kum-song’s mother Kyong-hui had studied in Moscow in 1968-9 alongside her boyfriend Jang; although the Kim family had reportedly opposed their relationship, they married in 1972. (It appears obvious that the songbun system produces ongoing conflicts within the elite, especially within families.) As a director of the International Liaison Department of the ruling party she promoted relations with Singapore and Thailand in the 1970s. She’s accumulated posts in industrial management and the military. She’s been described as a “personal aide” to Jung-un and has been present with her husband at meetings with Chinese diplomats. (It’s been reported that Kyong-hui has missed meetings due to depression, which would not be surprising given how and why her daughter died seven years ago.)

Jong-un’s uncle by marriage, Gen. Jang, held top party positions from the 1980s but disappeared from November 2004, probably for criticizing economic policy. His wife dropped from view too. But in March 2006 he resurfaced in the entourage of his brother-in-law Kim Jong-il then travelling in China. Apparently someone thought him indispensible to the management of the DPRK’s relationship with the PRC. Now he and Aunt Kyong-hui are regarded as Jong-un’s closest advisors.

Everybody living within the songbun system must understand that they belong to a status group which determines their options in life. They realize furthermore that their fates rest on decisions made by faceless generals in line with the Songun (“military first”) policy announced in 1995. Rare among self-pronounced “socialist” states, North Korea places military authority ahead of party authority. China’s Mao Zedong once declared “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” but added that “…the Party [must command] the gun, the gun must never be allowed to command the Party.”  In North Korea it is just the reverse. The army—led only by men of highest status, with an interest in maintaining it—eclipses the party. Wherever the young Kim goes, or at least wherever he is photographed, he’s surrounded by grim uniformed men at least twice his age. Their material interests are a driving factor in policy. The Kims have kept these brass (relatively) fat and happy with imported whiskey and luxury cars, yachts and jewelry, and all-night parties with the Leader.

The people around Kim Jong-un affecting current policy, including the handling of this current standoff with the U.S. and the South, realize that the masses of North Koreans do not have access to much of the information available to themselves. (According to one industry source, only 6% of households have television sets.) Most quite likely believe what the mass media, education system and ubiquitous propaganda organs teach: that Kim Il-song, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un are a line of geniuses who, with their boundless energy and through their ceaseless inspection tours, are personally responsible for all the DPRK’s comforts and accomplishments.  Surely most of the “core” believes that, although there must be a stratum that knows better and is quietly cynical (the alternative being suicide); and much of the “wavering” may believe too. We should not assume that people blame all hardships on the system or the Kims; quite likely, many feel a variety of religious reverence for the Kims that impedes their ability to analyze their situation. Even some of the “enemies” (if they survived the famine of 1994-98, estimated to have taken between several hundred thousand and two million lives) might accept the system, love the leader and believe what his government says.

Believing this, the elite thinks it can do pretty much what it wants to do.

Kimilsongism, Shinto, and Neo-Confucianism

North Korea, as I’ve argued before,  should be understood as a religious state.  I do not mean one in which Marxism-Leninism has ossified into a type of state religion, as it did in the Soviet Union; Marxism-Leninism really has little to do with it. Mainstream journalists refer to it misleadingly as “Stalinist,” and surely Kim Il-song emulated Stalin in forging a personality cult with omnipresent self-glorifying posters, statues etc. But while Stalin—whatever else you can say of him—took Marxism-Leninism seriously, the Kims have pretty much tossed it out.

The official ideology of the DPRK is “Kimilsongism-Kimjongilism” (formerly just “Kimilsongism”), based on the (vague, infinitely flexible) Juche concept that officially supplanted Marxism-Leninism in 1972.  The 1998 and 2009 versions of the DPRK Constitution make no reference to Marxism whatsoever although they refer to “Juche-based” socialism which is something quite different. The North Koreans wouldn’t argue otherwise.

The study of Marxist theory is not encouraged in North Korea. It’s not even possible for most. A Russian scholar wrote in 1995, “the works by Marx, Engels, and Lenin are not only excluded from the standard [school] curriculum, but are generally forbidden for lay readers. Almost all the classical works of Marxism-Leninism, as well as foreign works on the Marxist philosophy are kept in special depositories, along with other kinds of subversive literature. Such works are accessible only to specialists with special permits.”

How could any real Marxist believe what DPRK school children are taught? They’re told that the Kim family originated on Mt. Paektu, a mountain held sacred to Koreans and Manchurians for 2000 years, the place of origin of both peoples, according to their mythologies. (According to an ancient myth, the Korean nation of Choson was founded by the son of a bear who had been transformed into a woman by Hwanung, ruler of a divine city on Mt. Paektu, and a tiger. It rather reminds me of the Japanese Shinto myth in which the grandson of the Sun Goddess descends from heaven to Mt. Takachiho in Kyushu and begets two sons. One of these married the daughter of the Sea God, who turned out to be a dragon. She gave birth to the first emperor of Japan before slinking away back into the sea. Thus the Japanese imperial family also descended from heaven, and became human.) North Korean school children are now told that the Kims descended from heaven to the top of Mt. Paektu, where they were transformed into human beings.

What sort of historical materialist could accept the story that Kim Il-song during the 1940s, fighting Japanese in Manchuria, could cut down trees with his enormous sword as though he were slicing through tofu? Or believe the official biography of Kim Jong-il, beginning with his birth in a humble log cabin on this sacred Mt. Paektu? (He was in fact born in Vyatskoye, a Russian fishing village on the Amur River. His father, then a captain in the Soviet Red Army, had served in the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army in Manchuria from 1935 to 1940. He was a member of the Chinese Communist Party at this time, had been educated in Chinese from age eight and reportedly spoke Korean with some difficulty at this time.)

What sort of Marxist can believe that when the Dear Leader was born, a double rainbow appeared over the mountain peak, a new star rose in the heavens, and a swallow descended, heralding the early arrival of spring? Or believe that once when he visited Panmunjom, a fog descended to protect him from South Korean snipers, but when he was out of danger, the mist dramatically lifted and glorious red sunlight shone all around him? Or take seriously the report that he shot 11 holes-in-one to achieve an unprecedented 38-under-par game on a regulation 18-hole golf course, on his very first try at golf? Or accept the somber statement in the DPRK media, on the day of Kim Jong-il’s death: “When the Great Marshal died, thousands of cranes descended from heaven to fetch him. The birds couldn’t take him because they saw that North Koreans cried and screamed and pummeled their chests, pulled their hair and pounded the ground”?

Such attributions of supernatural powers, the suggestion that Heaven endorses the Kims, are just the beginning of North Korean religiosity. If the regime has integrated aspects of native mythology to the Kim cult, it has also drawn upon neo-Confucianism, the dominant ideology in Korea from the late fourteenth century. It formed, as historian James B., Palais states, “the basis not only of the educational curriculum and the civil service examination system, but also of ritual practice, family organization and ethical values” in the country.

Confucianism is rooted in the values of filial piety and respect for ancestors, which are viewed as essential for the workings of a harmonious state under rulers who’ve received the Mandate of Heaven. If children obey their (presumably virtuous) parents, subjects—properly educated and knowing their assigned place in a fixed class system (gentry, peasants, artisans, merchants)—will obey the ruler. But the ruler must also be virtuous. If the ruler behaves badly, or is perceived as lacking virtue, there will be disorder, signaling that Heaven has withdrawn its mandate.

That’s the gist of this essentially conservative philosophy, which Mao Zedong (to cite the example of a serious, philosophically inclined Marxist-Leninist) found inherently reactionary. (Indeed, Mao endorsed a campaign to “criticize Confucius” in the last few years of his life.) Karl Marx was a family man and dutiful son and I doubt would object to filial piety in principle. But he would certainly take exception to the conflation of filial loyalty and loyalty to a ruling family. What could be less Marxist than the practice of hereditary kingship?

But here perhaps is where the elder Kim’s innovative “brilliance” shines through. During the Sino-Soviet split in the 1950s, Kim Il-song came to advocate “the Juche Idea.” This vague concept (sometimes translated “self-reliance”) originally seemed to connote DPRK political independence vis-à-vis the quarreling PRC and USSR. But it has in practice meant the creation of a national belief system that freely combines some socialist values (violated in practice) with many elements of the native tradition. Kim advocated, for example, that women dress in the traditional chima-jeogori. (This is rather like Japanese officials urging women to wear the kimono rather than more comfortable modern dress.) His son Jong-il reiterated in 1986 that brides should, due to “traditional custom and national sentiment of the Koreans” to dress in that outfit.

Jong-il also urged all Koreans to observe the traditional observances of the Chongmyong holiday (April 6). These include dressing “in turf” and mowing the grass around the graves, and preparing special dishes including “cakes cooked with newly harvested grains.” (The DPRK media reprinted his statement for this month’s holiday, noting “it is one of the Koreans’ manners to visit ancestral graves to pay tribute to the memory of their ancestors on the day. Leader Kim Jong Il in his lifetime had paid deep attention to carrying forward the traditional manners among the people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”)

It is all about filial piety and reverence for ancestors, positively justified as “traditional manners.” Shouldn’t one revere the ancestors of the leader too?  Chinese and Soviet observers alike once looked askance at all of this, but both were obliged to accept this quasi-Marxist/neo-Confucian hybrid as an ally—a member of an imagined “socialist camp.” One can say the strategy worked. Kim’s grandson reigns in great comfort, after all, the revered heir of beloved forbears. China and Russia remain basically friendly. The Land of the Morning Calm indeed seems calm.

The Mandate of Heaven

The Great Leader apparently thought that to be thoroughly, independently Korean, the DPRK needed to draw upon its neo-Confucian heritage. This didn’t mean reviving the reverence for Confucius himself, which had occurred as temples like the Hamhung Confucian temple in Hamgyongnamdo destroyed like most other monuments by U.S. bombing. The official position on Confucianism remains that announced in 1982: “Confucianism is a religion which believed in ‘Heaven’ and theologised [sic] the feudal kingdom…Like other religions… Confucianism was used as an ideological tool of the feudal ruling class since it arrived in Korea and had a poisonous impact on the People’s ideology, psychology and ethics as well as on economic culture and technological development.” But it did mean embracing and exploiting old concepts.

It meant replacing the old neo-Confucian four-class system with fixed songbun categories, with “revolutionary intellectuals” at the top replacing the old yangban scholar-gentry, and former capitalists and miscellaneous miscreants at the bottom replacing the merchant class disparaged in Confucian thought. It meant replacing the monarchy toppled by the Japanese in 1910 with a new one claiming both ideological correctness and heavenly approval. If what emerged struck and continues to strike most Marxists as simply very bizarre, the North Koreans can defiantly proclaim: “These are our national, independent customs, and nobody else’s business!”

Korea is, however, very much China’s business. The PRC and DPRK are, as the unpleasant Chinese expression goes, “as close as the lips and teeth.” They are profoundly linked by history from Neolithic times, a shared written language (Chinese) for over 1000 years, Confucian culture, an 880 mile border, and the shared experience of fighting U.S. imperialism during the Korean War (1950-53). There are two and a half million Koreans in China. From China’s point of view, North Korea is a buffer against Russia, Japan and South Korea. The modern Chinese may not have expected that Korean rulers would, like kings in the past, seek Beijing’s approval when naming heirs apparent. But this happened with Jong-il in the early 1990s and with Jong-un in 2011. It’s a version of the old confirmation of legitimacy sought from the Chinese emperors, themselves in possession of the Mandate of Heaven.

(The Chinese leaders are in an awkward spot. Last November a delegation from the PRC delivered a letter to Jung-un from President Xi Jinping demanding that he not launch a ballistic missile. He did anyway, no doubt realizing that China’s ability to pressure the DPRK is limited by Chinese fears of catastrophe in the event of a halt in aid and trade. Beijing hopes to nudge North Korea towards its own brand of state capitalism, which it thinks will contribute to stability in the region—although the Chinese regime itself faces mounting discontent—and facilitate eventual reunification. It has to maintain friendship with this former tributary kingdom.)

Kim Il-song deftly arranged his own succession, as though it were the most natural thing in the world for the president of a republic to pass power on to his son. Jong-il less deftly and more hastily arranged the transfer of power to Jong-un.  In both instances, Heaven played a role or at least was invoked. One of Jong-il’s monikers was “the Heavenly-Descended General.” Kim Il-song, whose motto was “believing in the people as in heaven,” wrote a poem in 1991 on the occasion of his beloved son’s 50th birthday: “Heaven and earth shake with the resounding cheers of all the people united in praising him.” And as Jung-un took the throne, as mentioned above, the sacred cranes (symbols of longevity in East Asia) descended from Heaven to transport his father thence.

The image of the sun has been important in this religification. Where does that come from, if not from the next-door Land of the Rising Sun? Korea was colonized from 1910 to 1945 by Japan, with its native myth of the Sun Goddess. State Shinto was promoted among the (partly resistant) Korean population during that period, who like the Japanese were taught that the Japanese emperors were descended from the goddess. Kim Il-song was surely exposed to this notion during his first eight years. Thus it isn’t all that strange that the Kim cult similarly links the Great Leader with the sun.

The DPRK Constitution states, “The great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung is the sun of the nation and the lodestar of the reunification of the fatherland.” A monumental artwork called “the Figure of the Sun” erected to mark the 100-day memorial service for Kim in 1994, adorns a hill overlooking Pyongyang. April 15, the Great Leader’s birthday and the main North Korean holiday, is called the “Day of Sun.”

Immediately after Il-song’s death in 1994, villages and towns throughout the nation began to construct Towers of Eternal Life, the main one rising 93 meters over Kim’s mausoleum in Pyongyang. The Great Leader’s son took power, declining to assume the title of President. The Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea restricts that title forever to the Great Leader, whom the Dear Leader has proclaimed, “will always be with us.” In 1997 the DPRK adopted a new calendar, in which the first year of Juche corresponds to Kim’s birth year, 1912.  Is it not obvious that Kimilsungism is a religious cult? And that it must condition the thinking even of many who silently doubt it?

What They’re Thinking

So we have two control systems operating together: the songbun and a religious thought-control system. When young Jong-un sits down with Auntie Kyong-hui and Uncle Sung-taek, he and they and anyone else in the room realize that they preside over a very well-controlled privilege- and status-based society, in which the most discontented are the weakest, the most kept out of sight, and probably not an important threat; and where despite the hardships caused by famine and human stupidity, there remains a large class of people who dress well enough, eat adequately, have comfortable housing, and find some leisure time to enjoy sports and culture.

(I recommend, by the way, surfing youtube for examples of televised popular entertainment in the DPRK, some of which will likely surprise you. Kim Jong-un seems partial to the all-female sixteen member electronic music group, the Moranbong Band. It was just launched last July. Their repertoire ranges from the patriotic, Kim-cult material you’d expect, to themes of the Disney movie “Beauty and the Beast” and “Gonna Fly Now” from “Rocky,” to western classical pieces such as Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 and P. Mauriat’s Minuetto. They debuted last July with a concert extravaganza attended by Kim. He is clearly is a big fan and patron of the group. Having just emerged months after his coronation, it surely reflects his tastes These include a version of the DPRK anthem that begins with wistful violin and cello strings and erupts precisely midway through with the soaring strains of an electric guitar backed by drumbeat. Watch it here on youtube  or visit the band’s Facebook page At the time foreign reports emphasized the presence of an attractive young woman at Kim’s side, soon revealed to be Comrade Ri Sol-ju, his wife, and the presence of Disney characters at the event. But more attention should have gone to the performance style and choice of music. Though them, Kim seems to be signaling a period of greater artistic openness which might enhance his popularity with the young.)

Life is not a complete cultural wasteland, nor total misery for all people in the DPRK. Foreign visitors like former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and Dennis Rodman opine, on the basis of their selective experiences, that Kim Jung-un seems to be popular with the masses people. He no doubt is among some, maybe many. Maybe even most.

But the tiny group that determines policy knows the situation is dire. The country cannot feed itself. The rations distribution system collapsed in the 1990s, making it more difficult to control people. The country is in many ways dependent on China. The regime must maintain a cordial relationship with China but in doing so has been obliged to accept a flood of Chinese-made consumer goods. 60% of Pyongyang residents over 20 now have cell phones.  Although most people retain the songbun status assigned them or their ancestors in the 1950s or 60s, the status system is weakening in the face of rising market forces and social networking. Those able to, say, fly to Shanghai and back can now, regardless of songbun, make money that allows them greater comfort than status superiors.

Today’s tight grip on power could slip with the rise of a black-market bourgeoisie privy to the same international media access that only the elite now enjoy. They could learn and circulate the inconvenient facts: Kim Il-song was a major in the Soviet army with only modest attainments as of 1945; Kim Jong-il was born in the USSR, not on Mt. Paektu; Kim Jong-un’s older brother was bounced from the succession due to an ill-advised effort to visit Tokyo’s Disneyland; Kim Jong-il kept four billion dollars in Luxembourg banks…

They could spread abroad the horrifying statistics: the DPRK’s per capita GDP is less than 6% of South Korea’s, life expectancy is nine years less than in the South, the infant mortality rate over six times higher. And then there are all those reports of the Kims wining and dining while hundreds of thousands died to starvation. $ 700,000 a year spent on Hennessey Cognac? Jung-un reportedly wears a $ 80,000 Patek Philippe Swiss watch and ordered a breast pump for his wife from the Swiss firm Medela worth $ 2600.  It’s potentially the stuff of mass outrage.

But I suspect the threat of mass upheaval is not (yet) troubling the rulers’ sleep. They may suppose that the degree of religious indoctrination is such that the masses will continue to worship the Kims even if they hear some dirt about them. Of greater worry is the security of the state vis-à-vis its historical enemies, the U.S., South Korea and Japan. Those around Kim know that Washington has been divided on how to deal with North Korea, with some advocating rapprochement, others demanding regime change. Vice President Dick Cheney went out of his way to antagonize Pyongyang, declaring in 2003 that the U.S. “does not negotiate with evil, we defeat it.” Top “diplomat” John Bolton engaged in such undiplomatic talk at meetings on the DPRK’s nuclear program in 2003 that Pyongyang called him “human scum, a bloodsucker” and refused to attend meetings with him present. (Is it any wonder that North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty that year?)

There have been some periods of civil, productive dialogue. In 1994, during the Clinton administration, the U.S. and DPRK produced the  “Agreed Framework” whereby North Korea would freeze its nuclear plant program and replace it, with international assistance, with two light-water reactors by 2003 In the interim the U.S. would supply oil. Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine Albright had a cordial visit with Kim Jong-il in October 2000 in which both sides expressed optimism for improved relations. (Her visit followed the “Sunshine Diplomacy” visit of South Korean President Kim Dae-jong to Pyongyang in June.) But the deal fell apart due to Republican resistance in Congress and lukewarm support from Clinton himself, who expected the regime to fall soon. The U.S. never delivered on its commitments, and the DPRK resumed its nuclear program.

In February 2002 President Kim Dae-jong met in Washington with U.S. President Bush. Bush had of course just the year before (quite stupidly) included North Korea with Iran and Iraq as part of an “Axis of Evil.” In their meeting Bush promised not to attack North Korea, to provide food aid and engage in talks with the North. But Kim Dae-jong was to be deeply disappointed. He told Le Monde Diplomatique four years later, “President Bush did not keep his promises.” “Issues on North Korea are managed by the neo-cons,” he concluded.

In 2005, the Six-Party Joint statement laid out a plan for aid-for-denuclearization. The DPRK agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons program while the other parties (South Korea, Russia, PRC, U.S. and Japan) would provide a million tons of heavy fuel and various forms of assistance. Again the U.S. failed to follow through, accusing Pyongyang of continuing work on a nuclear weapon. The last round of talks was held in 2007. North Korea did finally announce the test of a nuclear weapon in 2009. Today the DPRK media refers to nukes as “the life of the nation” but Pyongyang apparently remains committed to the principle of a negotiated nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

An assessment of the Six-Party Talks in Xinhua’s English News in September 2011 seems fair enough.  It quotes Qu Xing, president of the China Institute for International Studies, as stating that “domestic political factors in the U.S. and ROK hampered consistency in their policies with the DPRK.” It notes that the U.S. had not responded to a recent offer by Kim Jong-il to resume talks. “In contrast to the DPRK’s wish to return to the talks, the U.S. and ROK have made no positive response and have insisted on stopping DPRK nuclear tests before restarting the talks. Resumption of the talks seems to largely depend on the attitude of the U.S. and ROK.” This reflects the general view of “Chinese leaders” who according to AP (April 14) present Washington with “a simple message: Talk with Pyongyang.”

The DPRK leadership plainly wanted and continues to desire normal diplomatic and trade ties with the U.S., and a pledge from the U.S. that it will not attack. Leave aside the bitterness caused by the Korean War, in which U.S. forces killed a million Koreans in their effort to keep the peninsula divided if not united under their terms. Pyongyang notes the not-only-recent U.S. proclivity for violent regime change, and like many governments wants to avoid the fate of regimes in Kabul, Baghdad and Tripoli. It clearly feels that nuclear brinkmanship is the best way to stave off attack. This is not irrational at all. Who aware of the last dozen years of history can deny that the U.S. is a power contemptuous of international law, waging wars killing hundreds of thousands based entirely on lies?

On April 13 Reuters reported: “The United States and South Korea offered on Saturday to keep their end of a defunct 2005 aid agreement with North Korea, provided Pyongyang takes ‘meaningful steps’ to denuclearize.” This of course raises the question—at least in the inquiring mind—of why they failed to “keep their end’ in the first place. And why did the agreement go “defunct”? And why did Pyongyang decide to go nuclear in the first place?

Anyway, might this not be what the Dear Respected Marshall has been waiting for?  Since the DPRK’s position is that the U.S. is responsible for the breakdown in the talks, a position apparently supported by China, and has in not in fact “kept its end” in the 2005 agreement, perhaps Pyongyang can now declare victory. “We have forced the enemy to agree to the resumption of talks!” the Pyongyang newscaster will announce, voice trembling with righteous indignation that it took so long. The people will be told, and probably believe, that the steely determination of the young leader has brought victory and that war, in fact, is not going to happen. Even if talks continue to lead nowhere, Jong-un will emerge strengthened, face saved. Relations with China will continue as normal, the songbun system remain in place if increasingly less effective, the Kim cult strong, the Mandate of Heaven manifest in the third generation.

Better yet: Jong-un must know that aside from his pal Dennis Rodman, the Rev. Franklin Graham, former Bill Clinton spiritual advisor Tony Campolo and conservative commentator Pat Buchanan have all suggested that Obama get on the phone and get to know him personally. What a coup (and a gift) that would be! This is unlikely to happen, but could be a wonderful surprise.

This is what–I think—the leaders in Pyongyang are thinking.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at:


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: