North Korea, an enigma

Hello All,

Does anyone know of a good website, paper, or book that offers any good analysis on the PDRK’s motivations?

Please let me explain what I mean. I see in the news the things that the PDRK says officially. Oftentimes, it is bluster and bravado. I could understand if this was intended for the consumption of their own people, but I don’t understand why they don’t take a more rational and/or realistic course with what I will call the rest of the world.

I mean, to me, it seems like insanity. They must surely be aware from their own intelligence services that most of the rest of the world doesn’t take them very seriously. So, I can’t see it as a face-saving sort of thing. I also reject the idea that they play these brinksmanship games to get what they want–they have been underdeveloped for some 50 years because of this and I would hardly consider it a successful tactic.

I am also puzzled as to why such a closed society would participate in the world cup. It seems like a profitless risk for them.

I don’t want to fall into the easy answer of saying they are all nutjobs, or stupid, or irrational. I have to think that there must be some rational explanation. So, I am curious as to what it is.


Humans are incredibly adept at the Arts of Self-Deception and Ideology.

What one person sees as utterly insane from their viewpoint, someone in another culture can see as the natural way of the world.

With North Korea in the news a lot recently, I bought a copy of Under The Loving Care Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty by Bradley Martin. It’s an excellent book; long, but not at all a difficult read. Check out the Amazon page for a better description than what I can give here in a couple of sentences.

Basically, North Korean officials know the country’s screwed without serious reform, but they know reform means some level of capitalism and giving up juche. That also means giving up some face. They crave better relations with the United States. Relations were improving under the Clinton administration, but George W. Bush fucked that up with his “Axis of Evil” comment, and disparaging comments about KJI. Also, the Kims are far smarter than what we give them credit for.

One conclusion of the book is that nobody really wants Korean reunification except for the North Koreans. For China, it means a bordering capitalist economic powerhouse with what would likely be a continued US military. For the US, it means there would no longer be any justification for maintaining military presence in what it sees as a strategic part of Asia. For South Korea, there’s the enormous economic and social costs of reunification.

I came in here to recommend this precise book. It’s very good.

I also recommend looking into think tank reports. The Congressional Research Service is a government-run think tank that puts out a lot of useful political analysis. I wasn’t able to link directly to their North Korea output, but if you scroll down to Asia, you’ll see a lot of reports on North Korea. Brookings and the Council on Foreign Relations are also great resources.

Not an expert, but…

Never underestimate the power of saving face. They leadership don’t want to admit they are wrong. Inside or outside the border.

Also, as mentioned - any reform means giving up power. In the recent NK market reforms, some people were getting rich; some, very rich. It also encouraged bribery; groups like the army had the trucks that would make things like bulk transport to market easier, some some army groups were making money renting out their trucks.

With money comes the ability to bribe, and so subvert the government. the same money that could just buy the use of trucks, could encourage troops to disobey orders, ignore illicit activity, induce coups etc. Allowing riches and the power that brings is not just contrary to their principles, but allows instability. Eventually Kim outlawed the markets, and recalled the old currency with limts, wiping out the comfortable pile of money many has saved up. They even outlaw cell phones because it makes conpiratorial activity too difficult to track.

Plus, we have this image of these juntas - Kim, Saddam, Stalin, Mao, etc. as a monolithic all- powerful leader with people all bowing down to them. All these gvernments are rife with factions, and juggling each power group and not allowing any to get to powerful is the biggest game the leader can play and they play it for dear life. Don’t give one person complete control of all armed forces. Be sure the people you split the armed forces among, are not sufficiently close that they would gang up on you. Give each faction - army, police, secret police, air force, finance - a reason to suspect the others and want you in charge more than them…

Plus, this paranoia goes all the way down to the grass roots. Trust nobody. Check on everyone. Even the army has limited access to live ammunition and every bullet must be accounted for. (Everyone remembers the lesson of Egypt - don’t review troops who have live ammunition).

Admitting problems and weaknesses, even just to the outside world, shows the leader as weak and ecourages others to think they can take them out. Maybe a good analogy is like a failed relationship - nobody wants to say the obvious and invite a breakup, so everyone pretends it’s all fine - even though everyone is plenty smart enough to know the truth.

It is now somewhat dated, but Don Oberdorfer’s “The Two Koreas” is an accessible and interesting read.


This comment has been made before, and it’s an awesomely simlistic reading. North Korea was completely treacherous, lying bastards in their negotiations. They couldn’t be trusted on any matter, and in fact gave ample notice of their intentions. The fact that on some level they may really need (and know they need) better relations with the U.S. hasn’t stopped them from continuing their idiotic wartime propaganda internally, nor kneecapping their own outreach, nor continuing their arms programs, nor their nuclear program. They may claim to want better relations, but that seems to mean nothing but America handing over lots of resources for nothing to them. I can respect that Clinton tried, but it didn’t work, and it’s better to see what really happened than engage in a fantasy.

Thanks to everyone who has replied so far. I have placed the Martin book on order.

The quote above and the post to which it refers serve to illustrate my confusion in all this. I must assume they are smart enough to know their actions do not lead to success and yet they continue on this path. I understand the importance of saving face and I also understand that even small changes in the situational dynamics could cause the leadership to lose its grip. But, if this is the case, then why engage with the outside world at all? I suppose it must be, as one responder said, a delicate game designed to keep all the various stakeholders in balance. Perhaps I will understand better when I read the book.

That said, I would offer an interesting thought experiment. I was always taught not to humanize institutions. That is, in this case, not to view North Korea as a monolith that acts in certain ways because of emotion or rational self-interest. But, rather to view such a thing as a collection of interests functioning together. However, in the case of a place like the PDRK, one is left to wonder how much of its actions are the result of multiple actors within the state and how much is the result of a single actor…

STRATFOR occasionally publishes analysis on the PDRK, its interactions with the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Korea and how the whole thing affects the U.S.

The NY Review of Books article on North Korea is of interest. Nonsubscribers can only read the first few paragraphs though. If you have some spare time, a 1 week trial to their website is a bargain at $6.

I summarize the article below - my cockeyed commentary is in brackets. To review, N Korea reportedly sunk the Cheonan, which was on patrol on a nautical border disputed since 1953: 43 died. According to info leaked [or fabricated] from US intelligence agencies, KJ Il visited the special operations group and commended them soon afterward.

Some speculate that the attack was a response to a firefight that took place in the fall of 2009, where after warnings the S. Koreans sent off a North Korean ship, possibly with minor casualties. [I speculate that KJ Il has liver disease and suspects foul play: this would be payback. But there are better explanations below.]

The 2 Communist dictatorships left standing are in Cuba and N Korea. B.R. Myers maintains that those in running N Korea actually believe their own ideology. [Contrary to popular belief, the poor rarely play a key role during revolutions. Conventional wisdom has it that a frustrated middle class is far more important. I observe that modern revolution occurs when the ruling class loses its nerve or certainty in its own righteousness. See Union, Soviet and India, British rule of.]

Old Communist ideology was grounded on claims of the superior efficiency of their economic system, something which became harder to argue by, say, 1965. In contrast, North Korean ideology is racialist: they obliquely concede that S. Korea is richer. But they also maintain that they are the embodiment of all that is proudly Korean, unlike the sell-outs in the South. Apparently a few of the key original designers of their ideological apparatus worked for Hirohito’s imperial Japanese propaganda office.


  1. Now we can understand N Korea’s hysterical press releases a little better. They are grounded on a racialist quasi-religious ideological framework.


  1. The people suffered famine in the 1980s (2-10% dead) and last fall they had their savings disemboweled. Astonishingly, the Kim Family regime ended up raising the cap somewhat. And they announced that the bureaucrat in charge of carrying out currency reform had been shot. Anyway, the populace is restless. So attempts by the center to get them to rally around an external enemy aren’t exactly surprising. Indeed, we should expect more of it [and try to avoid playing into their hands].

The North Korean government cannot change economically because more money means more freedom. To change the country means that the elite loses power, and if they lose power, they might lose their lives.

The USA needs to leave Korea. The South Koreans can take care of themselves. There are twice as many South Koreans than Northerners and undoubtably a much better equipped army. China is not going to permit North Korea to invade the south again. Doing that will touch off World War III with the United States and the end of their economic boom. Korea isn’t worth that. Why is the USA there, is Korea vital to American national security? How long will the troops be stationed there? Another 60 years? And while the USA is basically guarding a border between a nation of homogenous inhabitants, 20 million invaders from Mexico have illegally settled in the United States. Mexico is a narco-terrorist state and needs to be watched and sanctioned.

I feel for the North Koreans. They have the worst government on Earth. 10% of the population is in detention. The people have no freedoms whatsoever. They cannot travel inside or outside the country. The communistic-juche system has killed the economy. The government of NK still hates private enterprise, with them wanting to close the small free market farmers stalls that is the survival mechanism for many people. It’s an awful country, and I have read many horror stories about the place and the repression of the population.

China is authoritarian, but not repressive.

Most Chinese can leave the country anytime they want.

Chinese are allowed to make money.

There is no personality cult or “great leaders” to be worshipped.

There is an economy there with an abundance of consumer goods.

There are cell phones. There is restricted internet.

Many North Koreans see China as a free country and being an illegal there is preferrable to staying in North Korea. I just saw a documentary yesterday about NK. There was a young woman who escaped somewhere and moved to South Korea and her main comment was that there was food everywhere. That’s why most NK people leave. They are hungry to the point of starvation and know that right across that bridge or river in the next country is a bowl of rice and a warm place.

Not according to the South Korean government. After all, it is they who requested the US presence here (yes, here; look at my location).

Evidently that’s not what the South Koreans believe. They’ve requested that transfer of command be delayed. In other words, they still believe that they can’t handle it alone.

Why is the US here? You have to be kidding! Okay, I’ll play. We’re here because the South Korean government requested we be here. We’re here because we have a treaty with the Korean government. We’re here because, yes, it is a strategic spot.

Where do you get the idea that North and South Koreans are homogenous? There’s a lot more to the differences between the two countries than the populations’ physical appearances and language. By the way, the languages are diverging and have been for decades. It’s becoming pretty obvious.

I wholeheartedly agree. Koreans need the US forces here now, as they don’t feel they are ready to go it alone.

The safety net of the American forces in SK is a huge deterrent. If we’re not there and it is just NK against SK, then it’s anyone’s game as to whether or not SK is able to get outside aid and outside troops. But with American troops on the ground and in harms way, there is no question.

Someone else posted this link in another thread about North Korea…its REALLY interesting. Western reporters somehow manage to infiltrate the Korean Iron Curtain. Here’s a link to the first part, its in three parts, scroll down to watch them all. Its utterly bizarre and alien to the Western way of thinking.

I think the OP suffers from the common Western (and especially left wing) tendency to think that any approach that’s not “our” approach is screwed up and doomed. But the current NK policy seems to do a reasonably good job of doing what they want done, namely keeping the regime in power. While they cannot seem to make and export stuff (for now, at least) they successfully extract money from everybody around. China pays them to serve as a proxy army against Korea/Japan/America and the latter nations pay them “aid” which is really tribute. So NK makes money by exporting military threat and plows the income into building up bigger military threat. Pretty clever.

The worst that can happen to this setup from NK standpoint would be if China actually decides to cash in on the investment and have a real war, e.g. so that American military and will to fight were sufficiently exhausted to bother defending Taiwan. Regardless of who wins the conflict, China would achieve its goals, but Korea as a whole would be seriously screwed, the North and its leadership included. In particular, if you think about DPRK as a big mercenary outfit at the service of China, even if they fully conquer Korea, they wouldn’t have much of an army left and there wouldn’t be any nearby enemies left within their reach to justify keeping them “hired”. Which means that their value to China would become a lot, a lot less.

I think you’re completely wrong WRT China’s relationship with North Korea (selling arms to a more advanced nation like China…really?) and the outcome of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. Our response would indeed be WWIII epic.

Good answers so far. This thread may also be of interest:

Popped in to second the Stratfor website.

Also, remember that a lot of what we see of PDRK in the West is filtered through ROK &/or Western biases & interpretations.

Lately when I see the nightly news, I flash back to the fake East German news from Goodbye Lenin!