North Korea's State-Loyalty Advantage

By Myers, B. R. | Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

North Korea's State-Loyalty Advantage


Myers, B. R., Journal of International Affairs


Although North Korea's northern border remains easy to cross, and North Koreans are now well aware of the prosperity enjoyed south of the demilitarized zone, Kim Long Il continues to rule over a stable and supportive population. Kim enjoys mass support due to his perceived success in strengthening the race and humiliating its enemies. Thanks in part to decades of skillful propaganda, North Koreans generally equate the race with their state, so that ethno-nationalism and state-loyalty are mutually enforcing. In this respect North Korea enjoys an important advantage over its rival, for in the Republic of Korea ethnonationalism militates against support for a state that is perceived as having betrayed the race. South Koreans' "good race, bad state" attitude is reflected in widespread sympathy for the people of the North and in ambivalent feelings toward the United States and Japan, which are regarded as friends of the republic but enemies of the race. But North Korea cannot survive forever on the public perception of state legitimacy alone. The more it loses its economic distinctiveness vis-a-vis the rival state, the more the Kim regime must compensate with triumphs on the military and nuclear fronts. Another act of aggression against the Republic of Korea may well take place in the months ahead, not only to divert North Korean public attention from the failures of the consumer-oriented "Strong and Prosperous Country" campaign, but also to strengthen the appeasement-minded South Korean opposition in the run-up to the presidential election in 2012.

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For all its problems, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) enjoys one significant advantage over its rival to the south. North Koreans identify strongly with their nation (race) and their state, between which they appear to make little distinction, while in South Korea loyalty to the race militates against state-loyalty. (1) Awareness of the difference between the two Koreas can help us understand not only the overbearing confidence that Pyongyang displays when dealing with Seoul, even when requesting aid, but also the apathy with which the South Korean public has responded to acts of North Korean aggression in recent years.

In South Korea, citizens' reluctance to identify with the state is a common topic of discussion among conservatives. (2) In the United States, however, even Korea watchers tend to overlook it entirely. The general assumption in Washington is that if one of the two Koreas can count on its people in a crunch, it is the Republic of Korea (ROK). This assumption rests on a misperception of North Korea as a communist state that has failed even on its own terms. Also at work is a confusion of South Korean nationalism with patriotism, as evidenced in international press references to the ROK's "patriotic" sports fans. (3) This derives from the common tendency of native English speakers, including many political scientists, to use the words "state" and "nation" interchangeably--as Koreans do not. (4) We must therefore distinguish clearly between Korean nationalism, which is a sense of proud identification with the Korean race, and South or North Korean patriotism, i.e., loyalty to the respective state as a political entity. For clarity's sake I will resort to a redundant but common prefix and discuss ethno-nationalism. First, however,

I must take issue with the current consensus in regard to North Korea's longevity.

The perception of the DPRK as a Stalinist or hard-line communist holdout surviving by dint of exceptional totalitarianism still features in some journalism and Western conservative scholarship, but it seems to be waning, not least because it is now so easy (if still illegal) for North Koreans to cross the border or to telephone outsiders. (5) Far more popular nowadays is the notion that the DPRK owes much of its stability and longevity to its popular success in adapting communism to indigenous Korean traditions. …

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