Magazine article USA TODAY

The Dictates of (North Korean) Dictatorship

Magazine article USA TODAY

The Dictates of (North Korean) Dictatorship

Article excerpt

NORTH KOREA'S Kim Jong-un has whipped his country's military into a war-like lather. His people think war with the West has begun. At least three internal pressures help us understand why Jong-un is sounding increasingly bellicose. He is endeavoring to combat suspicions about his inexperience as dictator, to solidify his control over--and his support within--the North Korean People's Army, and to diminish focus on widespread malnutrition and civil rights abuses by the regime.

Self-preservation is a powerful motivation for any dictator. For a young one perceived as immature and weak, the need to prove otherwise can lead to extreme actions, such as attacks on South Korea or even on the U.S. military. While a nuclear attack is threatened, it is unlikely. Nevertheless, if push comes to shove and Jong-un is at risk of being deposed, the 29-year-old could take down the entire nation with him through a "heroic" attack. Indeed, perceptions of that possibility within his regime help deter challenges to his leadership. Were it not for Pres. Ronald Reagan's commitment--made on March 23, 1983--to build an extensive antimissile defense system, we would not he in as strong a position as we are today to ensure that Jong-un's rhetoric avoids becoming reality.

The North Korean People's Army consists of about 20% of all men 17 to 54. That is the highest percentage of military personnel per capita of any nation in the world. There is one North Korean People's Army soldier for every 25 citizens in the country. The army represents one of the few of secure employment and food that exists in this economically mined Communist state.

Within North Korea, considerable prestige attends association with the People's Army. It is the largest, most powerful constituency within the state and no dictator of the country can remain in power unless its ranks are not merely satisfied, but convinced, that the leader--who is the military commander--has the wherewithal to protect the army's interests and advance the country's goals of retaking South Korea and diminishing U.S. power and influence. Signs of weakness or a lack of resolve in advancing those interests and goals would invite a coup d'etat.

Like his father, Jong-un maintains a highly oppressive regime that ferrets out, arrests, incarcerates, and executes any who dissent from the demands of the state or show what could he perceived as signs of disloyalty. North Korea maintains one of the largest networks of political prison camps in the world and subjects prisoners to torture and to brutal and often lethal work details. Defectors are killed. Political prisoners are publicly executed. Those who refuse State demands are assigned to reeducation and work camps, many times never returning to their families.

A country with no sound economic infrastructure, North Korea suffers from perpetual food shortages that endanger the lives of more than 1,000,000 people within the country annually. This year, it is perceived to he about one month short of requisite food stuffs, generating social unrest that can lead to political upheaval.

Jong-un cannot alleviate the food shortages without capitulating to Western demands. If he capitulates to Western demands, however, he will cause the nation's military leaders to suspect that he is weak. If he lessens his crackdown on dissidents and critics of the regime, he likewise increases the chance that there will be assassination attempts or even a coup d'etat. Consequently, he has chosen to solidity his position as military leader and refocus national attention on xenophobia, condemning the South and the U.S. for North Korea's woes and declaring war against both, thus forcing the military to view him as a functioning commander and reducing internal attention on politically driven murder and continuing food shortages.

Moreover, the West keenly is aware that North Korea's bad behavior often is used as an inducement for the start of negotiations, which frequently have resulted in an outpouring of aid and other concessions in exchange for North Korean promises (always broken) to end their domestic nuclear program and reduce hostilities with the South. …

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