Domestic Politics, Pyongyang-Style

On Monday, North Korea declared that it had nullified the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War, a new level of bellicosity that raised, at least on paper, the potential for the resumption of armed conflict on the peninsula.

The fiery rhetoric seemed to foreign observers a desperate attempt to force the United States and South Korea to restart stalled talks on denuclearization, in the hope of extracting aid and concessions. But recent history suggests that it was motivated less by international politics than by domestic concerns: North Korea’s new hereditary leader, Kim Jong-un, may have been stoking fears of a foreign threat primarily to dampen political unrest at home.

The belligerent talk, and the nuclear test North Korea conducted last month, its third, are part of a pattern that began in the 1990s when the North Korean economy collapsed following the end of the cold war.

Faced with chronic famine and international isolation, North Koreans have become acutely worried about their increasing dependence on China.

The Beijing government’s diplomatic and financial support has been essential to North Korea for decades, of course. But China’s influence in the country began to take on a new dimension in 2002, when it started an ambitious Northeast Asia Project. Ostensibly aimed at better integrating its three northeastern provinces — Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning — with the rest of the country, it quickly became clear that the project also aimed to rewrite Korean history.

At issue was the history of Koguryo (Gaogouli in Chinese), one of the three ancient kingdoms of Korea (along with Paekche and Silla) in the third through seventh centuries. Chinese scholars claimed that, because part of the former territory of Koguryo now resides within China’s borders, its history ought to be considered Chinese, not Korean.

The political ramifications of this seemingly abstruse dispute have been far-reaching. South Korea charged that the Chinese government, by claiming Koguryo as part of its ancient past, was trying to undermine the legitimacy and political authority of North Korea.

The timing of China’s apparently sudden interest in Koguryo’s history is notable. It began in earnest in 2009, when the Chinese government announced an ambitious economic development program for North Korea. This project, covering the Chinese cities of Changchun, Jilin and Tumen, involved a vast area landlocked by Russia. North Korea agreed to lease the seaport at Rajin, a gateway to the Pacific, as well as sign on to various economic development projects.

By 2011, total Chinese investment in North Korea exceeded $6 billion. China, in fact, now provides an estimated 90 percent of North Korea’s energy, 80 percent of its consumer goods, and 45 percent of the country’s food.

As North Korea moves ever closer to becoming the “fourth province” of northeastern China, a pressing question Mr. Kim faces is how to sell this to his people, especially the elite. While many in the West assume that public opinion simply doesn’t matter in North Korea’s totalitarian state, the dictatorship could not have carried on as long as it has — nearly 70 years — without public support, continually manipulated though it is.

In the past, this support derived from the belief by North Koreans that the North — unlike the South, which is considered a “lackey” of the United States — was the only legitimate Korea because it abided by a core nationalist ideology of chuch’e, or self-determination.

That public conviction in North Korea’s self-reliance has become increasingly tenuous as the country’s poverty has deepened — and as the propaganda the North Korean masses (and even the ranks of the elite) hear becomes all the more distant from the reality of their lives. And that is what has the Pyongyang regime scared.

As Mr. Kim, who came to power at the end of 2011, tries to consolidate his authority, he has the added challenge of convincing North Koreans that the chuch’e principle stands firm even against the “friendly” encroachments of China.

China appears to understand Pyongyang’s dilemma, which is why it has continued its ambitious efforts to develop North Korea while shielding the new regime from internal collapse.

Stability on the Korean Peninsula is critical to China’s own security, too. North Korea provides China with a buffer between it and the roughly 29,000 American troops stationed in South Korea. While Beijing’s patience with North Korea was sorely tested after the nuclear test last month, and China has nominally agreed to economic sanctions, it has too much at stake in Mr. Kim’s government to halt or withdraw its support entirely.

South Korea remains deeply suspicious of China, but having cut off all aid to North Korea after it sank a South Korean vessel in 2010, the government in Seoul surrendered any economic leverage over the North it might have had. Although it remains to be seen what policy South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, will take toward the North, few South Koreans harbor any illusions about the dire state of the North’s economy or the tremendous costs unification would entail.

In the 1990s, more than 80 percent of South Koreans believed that unification was essential; by 2011, that number had dropped to 56 percent. Today, just one in five South Korean teenagers believe unification is imperative — a fraction of those who believed this in their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

North Korea’s apocalyptic threats may only make South Koreans — and their American allies — even more doubtful that a peaceful end to this long conflict is near. But it would be a mistake to read into them anything more than the noises of a dying regime that clearly recognizes the writing on the wall.

Sheila Miyoshi Jager, an associate professor of East Asian studies at Oberlin College, is the author of the forthcoming book Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea.

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