The National, Monday 08th April, 2013
By IAN BURUMA
NOBODY would care much about North Korea – a small and isolated country of 24 million people, ruled by a grotesque dynasty that calls itself communist – if it were not for its nuclear weapons.
Its current ruler, Kim Jong-un, the 30-year-old grandson of North Korea’s founder and “Great Leader”, is now threatening to turn Seoul, the rich and bustling capital of South Korea, into “a sea of fire”.
American military bases in Asia and the Pacific are also on his list of targets.
Kim knows very well a war against the United States would probably mean the destruction of his own country, which is one of the world’s poorest.
His government cannot even feed its own people, who are regularly devastated by famine.
In the capital, Pyongyang, there is not even enough electricity to keep the lights on in the largest hotels.
So threatening to attack the world’s most powerful country would seem like an act of madness.
But it is neither useful nor very plausible to assume that Kim and his military advisers are mad.
To be sure, there is something deranged about North Korea’s political system.
The Kim family’s tyranny is based on a mixture of ideological fanaticism, vicious realpolitik and paranoia.
This lethal brew, however, has a history, which needs to be explained.
The short history of North Korea is fairly simple.
After the collapse in 1945 of the Japanese empire, which had ruled quite brutally over the whole of Korea since 1910, the Soviet Red Army occupied the north and the US the south.
The Soviets plucked a relatively obscure Korean communist, Kim Il-sung, from an army camp in Vladivostok, and installed him in Pyongyang as the leader of North Korea.
Myths about his wartime heroism and divine status soon followed, and a cult of personality was established.
Worshipping Kim, and his son and grandson, as Korean gods became part of a state religion.
North Korea is essentially a theocracy.
Some elements are borrowed from Stalinism and Maoism, but much of the Kim cult owes more to indigenous forms of shamanism: human gods who promise salvation (it is no accident that the Rev Sun Myung-moon and his Unification church came from Korea, too).
But the power of the Kim cult, as well as the paranoia that pervades the North Korean regime, has a political history that goes back much further than 1945.
Wedged awkwardly between China, Russia, and Japan, the Korean peninsula has long been a bloody battleground for greater powers.
Korean rulers only managed to survive by playing one foreign power off against the other, and by offering subservience, mainly to Chinese emperors, in exchange for protection.
This legacy has nurtured a passionate fear and loathing of dependency on stronger countries.
The Kim dynasty’s main claim to legitimacy is Juche, the regime’s official ideology, which stresses national self-reliance to the point of autarky.
In fact, Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, were typical Korean rulers who played China against the Soviet Union, while securing the protection of both. – Project Syndicate
l Ian Buruma is professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College.