Of the myriad puzzling things in the world, one stands above all others in driving national leaders, observers, students and ordinary citizens out of their minds — exactly what makes North Korea tick? This nation of 24 million is the most isolated in the world. Very little about the rest of the world seeps into the almost hermetically sealed totalitarian country, and less comes out for the rest of us to see and try to understand. Yet, for a place which ignores the international community, it has a knack for constantly throwing the rest of us off balance.
Early this week, as the US president put the finishing touches to his annual ritual duty, the State of the Union message, the aptly-described Hermit Kingdom stole some of Barack Obama's thunder by exploding another nuclear device in its quest for The Bomb. It was North Korea's third nuclear test explosion and was performed in defiance of numerous resolutions by the United Nations. The test blast drew almost universal condemnation, even from China, the country closest to it — both physically and politically.
Nations try to make their way in the world by walking their own peculiar paths, but proximity to others and practical restraints like the need to feed and clothe their populations temper this desire and impose varying measures of conformity. Not so this outsider nation, which was founded out of the wreckage of the Second World War as a communist state allied to the Soviet Union. Its architect, Kim Il-sung, adopted the totalitarian attitudes and mechanisms of the then Soviet leader, Josef Stalin, as well as the tenets of Marxism-Leninism.
But Kim soon adopted his own ideology, Juche, which means self-reliance, and 31 years ago adopted a new constitution which jettisoned Marxism-Leninism and incorporated juche as the official state ideology. His successors, son Kim Jong-il and now grandson Kim Jong-un, have, if anything, intensified that policy. This was reinforced by the collapse of the Soviet Union 21 years ago and even a string of natural disasters, culminating in a famine between1994 and 1998, failed to erode their enthusiasm. The second Kim, in fact, adopted a policy called Songun ("military first") to strengthen his hold on the government and the country. Three years ago, he expunged all references to communism from the constitution and legal documents.
When Kim Jong-il died 14 months ago, North Korea watchers around the world were puzzled about what would happen next. They soon found out. His youngest son, Kim Jong-un, inherited the mantle and proceeded to ensconce himself in the councils of power. Very quickly, he fell in step with the old marching band and continues with juche and songun. Industry in North Korea is government business, and the most active part is military and military-related.
Its chief enterprises have been carrying out missile tests for years, sending up rockets, sometimes disastrously, sometimes successfully, as its scientists learn the hard and expensive ways of modern warfare. At the same time other scientists have conducted experiments to advance the country's programme of nuclear weapons. You can see the dual track here — small nukes that can be placed at the tip of rockets and shot off to faraway places, much as the US and other nations have pioneered and made fairly commonplace.
Western nations are very concerned about these experiments since they have no real idea of what the North Korean leadership wants to do with these things. Those leaders have been no help, spouting a continuous barrage of bellicose belligerence against the west, the United States in particular. That's mostly because the US is such a huge target on account of its oversize prominence in the world, but also because it was the main opponent of the north's desires back in the 1950s. That's when the nascent Kim Il-song regime dragooned the Soviet Union and China into supporting its plans to attack the south and unite the entire peninsula under its hegemony.
Actual fighting — fierce and brutal as it was — lasted three years at a cost of more than a million lives but ended indecisively, with an armistice. It left the two parts of Korea still technically at war with each other, with a huge South Korean army and thousands of US troops still garrisoned in the South. North Korea is one of the world's most militarised states, with well over nine million personnel on active, paramilitary or reserve duty. A standing army of 1.2 million places it fourth in the world, after China, the US and India.
Kim failed to drag the Soviet Union and the United States into direct conflict, but the Korean war set the template for super-power relations. The world ended up with smaller-scale fighting by surrogates over local or regional issues with overtones of the ideologies of the two major antagonists. Other countries were forced to bear the brunt of the fighting and the dying as well as the physical destruction while the big powers remained in the background. The Korean conflict was the seed that grew into the Cold War, which determined the shape of the world for the rest of the 20th century.
With the implosion of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a still-wobbly democracy from its ashes, the Cold War may be over in much of the world, but it still exists where it began, and the people in power in the North appear willing and even eager to prolong it. Efforts by the United States and others to persuade Pyongyang to forget its nuclear dreams and instead concentrate on improving its economy have failed as quickly as they have begun over the years.
China remains the North's most important ally, as the Russians lost interest after the collapse of communism. Pyongyang has few other allies, mostly economic and political giants like Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Even China faces continuing frustration, since North Korea keeps Beijing at arm's length and has beefed up surveillance along its northern border with China because as conditions get worse its citizens try to cross over and enterprising individuals conduct smuggling which is constantly harassed by the authorities.
Relations with South Korea showed some easing in recent years but have fallen back. The giant industrial and automotive conglomerate, Hyundai, a few years ago set up a special tourist facility at a place called Mount Kumgang, and groups, mainly from the South, patronised it. But an unfortunate incident four years ago caused the suspension of activity and it has fallen into disuse. Similarly, a special economic zone set up to attract enterprises from Russia and China appears to have run out of steam.
So the walled-off nation known as North Korea continues on its bizarre course, impervious to any external influence, be it fawning, bribery, coercion or even open threats of force. It continues to gnaw at the nerves of world leaders and provides an unfortunate impetus to tighten the screws on another country some consider a rogue regime. Iran does operate outside the mainstream and does have nuclear dreams of its own, but its leaders are considerably less inscrutable than those of the Hermit Kingdom.