The Survival of North Korea: A Case for Rethinking the U.S.-North Korea Nuclear Standoff 1

By Kim, Suk Hi | North Korean Review, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

The Survival of North Korea: A Case for Rethinking the U.S.-North Korea Nuclear Standoff 1


Kim, Suk Hi, North Korean Review


Introduction

North Korea is often the subject of predictions based exclusively on its economic conditions and food problems. After the country lost its traditional trading partners with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries in 1989 to 1991, the debt-ridden Pyongyang regime confronted an economic crisis, food shortages, and a great famine in the late 1990s. Consequently, the leadership began appealing for and accepting humanitarian assistance from the United Nations and other donor countries, establishing a number of capitalist Special Economic Zones to attract foreign investment, allegedly selling narcotics for substantial amounts of cash, extracting economic aid through brinkmanship diplomacy and missile tests, adopting limited market-oriented reforms, and revising its constitution. North Korea, in short, has made numerous small attempts to jumpstart its ailing economy, but these measures have been generally inadequate.

As a result, two-decade-old speculation that North Korea will imminently collapse, like East Germany, is frequently repeated among academics, intelligence analysts, politicians, relief workers, and think-tank specialists.2 Significantly, persistence of this belief, especially in the United States and among its allies, is the main reason why these countries have not developed a coherent long-term policy toward North Korea, relying instead on short-term fixes in anticipation of the apocalyptic collapse. As is known, the North Korean economy is 83 percent import-dependent on China, and any economics-oriented predictions must take that reality into account. Certainly, economic conditions are the most decisive factor in the final analysis, but they are not the only factor in determining the present and future course of development of North Korea.

Crucially, in combination with economics are the cultural-historical and political- ideological factors of Neo- Confucianism, juche (subjecthood),3 and songun (military-firstism), which have contributed to the survival of the impoverished North Korean state in the post-Soviet era. Despite protracted economic difficulties, the three factors have allowed the state-regime to command public opinion and some degree of popular support in the "eroding totalitarian system."4 As such, it is unlikely that North Korea will collapse in the near future. Since the country can be expected to experience relative longevity, that justifies a strong case for rethinking the U.S.- North Korea nuclear standoff in the interests of multilateral regional peace and stability. Fundamentally, mutual confidence-building initiatives are needed to resolve longstanding security, energy, and economic issues between North Korea, the major powers, and other regional actors.

Neo-Confucianism

Since the beginning of Imperial Japanese colonial rule over Korea in 1910, the joint U.S.-Soviet liberation and division of the peninsula in 1945, the Korean War of 1950 to 1953, and the post-Korean War period, the heritage of Neo-Confucianism- the guiding ethical and political philosophy of the Choson dynasty (1392-1910)- has had a continued presence in Korea, influencing education, ceremony, and civil administration. Despite sixty years of nationally adapted Marxism-Leninism (Stalinism), North Korea appropriates the Neo-Confucian traditions of political centralization and obedience to authority.5 Neo-Confucianism, like its predecessor Confucianism, teaches that every person has a definite place in the social order and that the preservation of harmony in society is paramount.

Specifically, Confucianism promotes a value system based on harmony in human relations structured around the "three bonds and five relations," namely, ruler-minister, parent-child, and husband-wife. The five relations are ruler-subject, father- son, husband- wife, elder- younger brothers, and friend- friend. These relations are based on ideals of righteousness, affection, respect, faithfulness, and the separation of social functions. …

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