The North Korean social structure is composed of three classes. The ‘core’ class is the elites. They make up 5%-15% of the population. The ‘wavering’ class makes up about 30% - 40% of the population, and the last is the ‘hostile’ class, which makes up as much as 65% of the entire population. That means about fifteen million North Koreans are ‘expendable’ for the survival of the regime. So when North Korea is sanctioned, those are the people who feel the effects. Therefore, the regime would not suffer as a State from sanctions. The ‘hostile’ class is the class of people who are mostly living in rural areas or in gulags starving to death; and working as slaves to produce enough raw materials for the other 35% of the population to survive. That 35% of the population includes the military and the bureaucrats. The military and the bureaucrats are the only people necessary for State survival in the eyes of the regime. This view of State responsibilities to its people is conflicting with Western political democratic social contract theories and philosophical ways of thinking about the relationship between the government of a State and its citizens in civil society.
For thousands of years North Korea was caught in the middle of conflict between China and Japan. The DPRK experienced occupation and colonization by its powerful neighbors throughout history, and that history was during a time of unification with South Korea. DPRK was annexed by Japan in 1911 and in 1945 the last colonization ended when Japan was expelled. During that time there were five domestic factions vying for power, and the most powerful came from the Soviet backed Manchu faction led by the North Korean ‘war hero’ of liberation; a guerilla fighter who led forced in the Paektu Mountains; named Kim Il-Sung. During the China-Japanese conflict in China, and the civil war that followed, Kim Il-Sung escaped to Russia after his unit was destroyed and he escaped to become a Soviet Army Officer in Moscow. In 1945, after Japan was expelled, Kim Il-Sung returned to his fatherland wearing a Soviet Officers uniform. He wanted to reunify the Korean peninsula and move the capitol from Seoul to Pyongyang and impose socialism. He had the support of the Manchu Faction (his guerilla forces – who later became the KPA) and the Soviet Faction, which was instrumental in constructing their government.
In 1948 there were several international and domestic issues that led to the Korean War, which resulted in Kim Il-Sung failing to unify the peninsula under his plan. They include: 1. The Cold War Structure after Communism took hold in China, 2. US Troop Withdrawal, 3. The Declaration of the Acheson Line, 4. Kim Il-Sung’s resolve to reunify the divided Korea, and 4. Political conflict with Communists in the South. Kim Il-Sung ordered military intervention into the South and set up his HQ’s at Yonsei University in Seoul. When America stepped into the conflict, his forces were forced to withdrawal and the Chinese came to their rescue to defend them because they didn’t want the American capitalists to cross the Yalu River; which was already well past their buffer zone area, the Taedong River. After three years of bloody fighting, an Armistice was signed; but there was no peace treaty, and the two Koreas have been split ever since.
The most important thing for the world to know about North Korea is their priorities as a State. Their first priority is political survival of the Kim family leadership. Their second priority is State survival, and their third priority is economic survival. Given everything said so far, it can easily be calculated that sanctions will have no effect on the behavior of North Korea as a State. In fact, when too many of their people start dying, and social unrest is about to take place, we have observed a few phenomenon. First, the Regime conducts indoctrination campaigns. Then they send people to gulags and forced labor camps. And then they use aggression and ‘trilateral relations games’ to obtain what they want from the international community. The regime is able to operate this way due how their historical development has shaped their worldview. They want to maintain autonomy while engaging the outside world.
Kim Il-Sung began state building and had an economic plan for the newly formed DPRK; but in 1956 a domestic factional struggle took place, known as the ‘August Factional Struggle’; which was caused by domestic challenges to Kim Il-Sung’s claim to leadership. And his personality cult that had grown from exaggerations of his actions as a guerilla fighter, as well as discontent to the purges he had carried out on other factions in the newly formed government. The result was the Yanan Faction being purged, consolidation of power, and legitimization of him as the ‘Great Leader’, and the birth of Juche Ideology. Juche Ideology is the most powerful weapon in the DPRK toolbox. Born in 1955, Juche ideology in a Socialist Monarchy has served as an omnipresent form of indoctrination and groupthink which was a hybrid mix of Confucianism, Socialist Grand Family Theory, and literally means ‘revolutionary self-reliance, independence, self-defense, and self help’. Independence is the main tenant of Juche. It fit well into Socialist Grand Family Theory, which views the Party as the ‘Mother of the Nation’, the Supreme Leader as the ‘Father of the Nation’, and all the people as the ‘Children’. Social Political Life Theory sees political life as more important than the biological life of the people. This gave birth to collectivism, centered around the Supreme Leader; with his personal survival being the priority of the State. Confucianism mixed with Juche cements to idea of filial piety, loyalty to the leader, and one’s role in society.
Victor Cha, in his book ‘The Impossible State’ talks extensively on the problems North Korea has endured to exist as it does. Cha accurately states that “the primary cause for the bad economic choices of the last fifty years sits at the very top of the political structure in Pyongyang” – Cha p.138. He further accurately states on the same page that “the elite seek only to ensure their relative share of the sparse gains that could be had from the system rather than contemplating any change of it”. Further, Cha says that in North Korea, “to be rich is glorious, but political control is still their most valued currency” p. 139. Cha concludes that North Korea is a country that “wants to have their cake and eat it too” p. 147. This means that they seek to have economic benefits while remaining autonomous, and engaging in black markets activities, nuclear weapons development, human rights abuses, and carrying out terrorist attacks. This is also true. Cha makes numerous compelling arguments against the government of North Korea, which are all fact based, and would make most people think of them as an irrational actor; thus deserving of sanctions until they reform. Cha concludes that ‘there could be collapse and that it would be violent and bloody’.
Cha’s book ‘The Impossible State accounts for the facts of present day while disregarding a past that North Koreans still see the world very clearly through. For example; Cha refers to the attacks on Yangpyong Island and the sinking of the Chon Anh submarine as a “belligerent phase” (p. 159), however if these attacks were analyzed in historic context it could be claimed with some validity that these aggressive and unprovoked attacks were not designed to gain anything more than political legitimacy to Kim Jung-Un during dynastic change. Seeing the attacks this way doesn’t mean the attacks were acceptable, but it does show some covariance with actions they’ve taken in the past during dynastic change. Those acts were indeed belligerent; but labeling them as so pulls the wool over the domestic causes for those attacks, which had little to do with relations on the peninsula. The history of North Korea determines their present day actions. And their history should always be taken into account before sanctioning them. In the end, sanctions only hurt the poorest people and result in the regime acting out. Cha, like many in favor of sanctions as a tool for control, points two main reasons for sanctions: 1. North Korea’s Nuclear Program, and 2. The Gulags.
North Korea’s nuclear program could be seen as rational by some, even if it is a scary idea in itself; especially for South Korea and Japan. But it could be debated on a basic level that it is rational for North Korea to desire these weapons. For one, the weapons ensure their security concerns, and two; the weapons give them a bargaining chip. Even so, few policy makers would publicly support the DPRK getting an ‘India Deal’ on nukes. But the gulags on the other hand are another issue. There is likely no one on the planet that would support these Gulags. Cha tells horrific stories of the gulags that would make anyone want to invade North Korea to set these people free from them, - or sanction them until they conform to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. And then Cha talks about famine and how Amartya Sen said “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy” p. 189.
Cha concludes by throwing in a phrase a defector once said to him “If America does not stand up for the abused people in North Korea then what other country in the world would even care?” p. 211. The entire book makes several points that make someone feel compelled to sanction the DPRK. But what if the gulags exist as a response to sanctions just like they have nukes as a response to perceived threats? If North Korea’s goal is political survival of their regime; and the Kim dynasty; and they endure a famine or government mismanagement that results in lack of resources to sustain a percentage of the population, - then we could objectively predict empirically that in a regime struggling for survival, they would work the people to death that they cannot sustain with resources as a way of surviving as a regime; ensuring domestic loyalty through fear, and preventing domestic revolt. In regards to Cha’s book, it is very accurate but his vision of solving the ‘North Korea conflict’ is a bit too hawkish to produce positive results. He calls the Regime “coup-proof” but doesn’t seem to understand how true that really is. To his credit, Cha states in the acknowledgements section that this book was “my way of decompressing after three years on the NSC” - Cha.
Most North Korean analysis’s and experts are aware of the same triumphs and tragedies that the international community has witnessed in dealing with North Korea. The triumphs are almost always lost in political discourse. The most famous economic triumphs in North Korea since the ups of the 60’s and 70’s, and the down’s of the 90’s, occurred in the past fifteen years; and are rarely seen as opportunity in relations or negotiations. Christopher Hale, author of ‘The Aftermath of the July 2002 Economic Measures’ echoes the failures that Cha noted in regards to the measures, but also highlights the achievements that came from them. Namely, Hale writes on p. 824 “Perhaps the greatest contribution of the July 2002 reforms has been monetization”. He notes that “monetization is irreversible” and that it will “greatly influence the direction of the economy in the long term”. As a result of monetization, places like Tongil Market have been created, which is a capitalist vein in the socialist cracks of the DPRK. The only downside of monetization is that the regime can manipulate currency at its whim; but is careful to do so to prevent social unrest.
Hale notes that these changes were ones the Regime did not intend, and that even Kim Jung-Il has said “we must work out an effective economic management measure which will enable us to gain real profit while abiding thoroughly by the socialist principle.” p. 832 Hale. Hale also discusses how there are now land-lease programs, which are capitalistic in nature, which show great promise. But the Special Economic Zones seem to be the greatest hope for change in the regime. Hale notes on p. 839 “The Kaesong Industrial Park, which is mainly designed to draw South Korean investors, appears to have the greatest potential for pulling in foreign investment”. However valuable and strategic these SEZ’s are; they have rarely been functioning at capacity, - mainly because of sanctions. Very few investors are willing to invest in a country that’s being sanctioned because North Korea has often been a money pit for anyone they dealt with it. When sanctions are imposed; the SEZ’s take a huge hit. Cha writes of how Moon Pie’s were a strategic food because they ended up having a valuable place in the black market and he also mentioned the effect Moon Pies had on the North Korean psyche for desiring things from the external of the regime.
It makes one wonder if North Korean Juche is more powerful than mammonism. This is the main discourse posed in the debate over sanctions. Many people see North Korea as a rational actor, and many people know that when North Korea is sanctioned, it is the poor who suffer. And many people know that North Korea cares more about its political survival than its people, and that their elite class and the military doesn’t depend on the people in the lower class, or aid in order to survive. So the begging question seems to be, that, - ‘If sanctions were never allowed, would the effect be better or worse than if sanctions were allowed’? How powerful is Juche? Some would argue that even if North Korea became completely capitalist in nature; seemingly similar to China, that they could still maintain autonomy and isolation. As Cha pointed out, DPRK likes to deal with intermediaries when it comes to business (South Korea pays the North Korean government to pay their factory workers at Kaesong Industrial Complex).
On January 22nd, 2010, the Congressional Research Service published a lengthy analysis titled ‘North Korea: Economic Leverage and Policy Analysis’, which included four policy options. Every policy option proposed by the CRS involved some level of sanctions due to the nuclear issue and human rights violations. These policy proposals echo those of Cha and Scott Snyder. These ‘divide and conquer’, ‘carrot and sticks’ solutions once again ignore North Korea’s historical development, worldview, and historical behavior and reactions to sanctions. Reudiger Frank, Professor of East Asian Economy and Society, and Vice Director of the Department of East Asian Studies, at the University of Vienna, published an article nearly a year before the CRS analysis where he gave a different policy recommendation.
His article, titled ‘Dreaming an Impossible Dream? Opening, Reform, and the Future of the North Korean Economy’, made one wise recommendation that seemingly takes the aforementioned variables into account. Frank says on p. 5 “External pressure is not only raising fears in North Korea, it also supports anti-reform forces. A visionary US President could give North Korea What it wants and get ready to live with a stabilized, independent, economically successful and politically confident pseudo-socialist system for a couple of years. This includes accepting North Korea’s status as a nuclear power, the establishment of diplomatic relations with the US and Japan, the conclusion of a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War, membership in all relevant international organizations, loans and foreign direct investment”. Frank also recommends that ‘North Korea be admitted into the Framework of the ASEAN+3 mechanism, to provide North Korea a second chance’. This is a constructivist analysis, but how can the world know if it works or not if it has never been tried before?
Michael Bassett is a Senior Analyst at 361Security who has published several papers on North Korea in America and in South Korea