Why North Korea Will Keep Inventing Crises

Since North Korea sank a South Korean corvette in the Yellow Sea last March, the Hermit Kingdom proved once again just how capable it is of causing international consternation. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak promised “firm, responsive measures against the North.” The world’s last bastion of Stalinism threated with “all out war” in turn which prompted Korean stock to plummit in downward spiral the subsequent day. China and the United States were quick to get involved, both recommending restraint. One question has remained unanswered amid the saber rattling — just why would North Korea sink a South Korean ship anyway?

Kongdan Oh, previously with the RAND Corporation and currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a specialist on North Korean security policy. In an interview with The Atlantic, Oh insists that the internal dynamic of North Korea necessitates constant crisis. “The regime was built on lies,” she says. “And the two leaders, Kim and Kim, created one of the worst — or best — cults of personality, perpetuating that they are the most brilliant strategic leaders and the entire world is kow-towing to them.”

In reality, North Korea is a failed state. Its people are impoverished and its economy is bankrupt. Indeed, according to Oh, besides Kim’s palace economy and slush fund, “the economy doesn’t exist.”

Considering such poor leadership, the regime desperately needs to justify its very existence. The North Koreans no longer believe that the South is a slave to America. On the contrary, most are well aware that their former brothers on the other side of the 1953 demarcation line are prospering. So, rather like Airstrip One in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), North Korea needs crisis, constantly.

No ordinary crisis will do, says Oh, “given the grumbling of the technocratic level of mid-class elite who see the North’s declining power and know that there is no way out.” Instead, the regime has to foster a fear of imminent danger to keep Kim Jong-il in control. “For years, it has been one crisis after another,” from nuclear weapons to intercontinental ballistic missiles to abducting American journalists to sinking a South Korean navy vessel.

What should the West do? Oh favors sanctions that block Kim Jong-il’s slush fund. “That might be the most effective.” More important however is getting China on board. If China is to be a twenty-first century superpower, it can’t be seen as dealing with a gangster.

Not everyone in China agrees. There is still a powerful element in the military and Communist Party establishment that supports the nearby regime. But increasingly, the more internationally-oriented bureaucrats are taking over and the United States are seeing this as a chance to appease China. Washington knows that when Kim can no longer rely on Beijing, that’s the beginning of the end of his reign.