One of the most pressing questions within the field of North Korean studies is how to best interpret the North Korean regime. Some scholars see the country as Stalinist with some minor indigenous add-ons or as a radical nationalist state that is eerily similar to Imperial Japan. Others interpret the DPRK as a neo-Confucian state that is more like Choson Korea than Stalinist Russia.
But one theory that is remarkably relevant for understanding recent North Korean behavior, this week in particular, is the notion that the DPRK is a “guerrilla state.”
This interpretation, first put forward by Japanese scholar Wada Haruki and Australian scholar Adrian Buzo, focuses on the makeup of the North Korean leadership during the Kim Il Sung era and how much of his inner circle, including the ruler himself, formed their kinship during the 1930s while fighting Japanese colonialists in rough and tumble Manchuria.
While North Korean propaganda predictably exaggerates the exploits of Kim Il Sung’s band of anti-Japanese partisans during this time period, those guerrilla experiences undeniably shaped and later informed North Korean domestic and foreign policy. The founding President’s leadership style was defined by paranoia, unpredictability, ruthlessness, quick hit-and-run attacks, and denial – all characteristics of a successful guerrilla fighter.
SINS OF THE FATHER
Although the young royal Kim Jong Il was as far removed from the 1930s Manchurian guerrilla experience as Donald Trump is from coal workers in Pennsylvania, Kim slyly used the history of the Kim Il Sung-led anti-Japanese struggle to solidify his succession to the throne in the 1970s.
He created revolutionary operas based on the heroic anti-Japanese partisans, which pleased a leadership that seemed to be taking increasing delight in the arts as they aged and enjoyed seeing their past struggles commemorated by the state.
Well educated in the field of guerrilla artistry, Kim Jong Il applied some of these same guerrilla tactics to his own leadership style. From reneging on the 1994 agreed framework with the U.S. to manipulating the Kim Dae-jung administration for massive amounts of aid during the Sunshine Policy, Kim Jong Il was as much a guerrilla-style leader as his father.
Guerrilla experiences undeniably shaped and later informed North Korean domestic and foreign policy
Although Kim Jong Un did not receive the same leadership grooming as his father did prior to becoming the “Supreme Leader,” he has continued many of the same guerrilla-style strategies that have long defined the Kim family regime. From ousting his uncle Jang Song Thaek from his inner circle to brazenly ordering the assassination of his half-brother in a major international airport with a WMD nerve agent, Kim Jong Un has thrived on unpredictability and callousness.
One of the defining features of Kim Jong Un’s leadership has been the widespread use of hacking. On Wednesday, the U.S. government linked the recent worldwide #WannaCry ransomware attack to North Korean hackers. In many ways, hacking is 21st-century guerrilla warfare, conducted in a hit-and-run style. It is easy to deny and hard to trace, as well as being cost-effective and requires relatively little resources. If the Internet was around in the 1930s, Kim Il Sung would have no doubt done something very similar to his imperialist enemies.
It is hard to negotiate with a country that puts a college kid in a coma for a stupid prank
This week’s release of a comatose Otto Warmbier to U.S. officials is yet another reminder that North Korea has not deviated from guerrilla leadership. Guerrillas have long been known for conducting tortuous interrogations and beatings of prisoners. Just ask any U.S. soldier imprisoned by the Vietcong during the Vietnam War.
Furthermore, the denial of proper medical care and keeping the ailing U.S. college student around for a year as a possible political tool indicates the sheer unpredictable cruelty of the North Korean regime. It is hard to negotiate with a country that puts a college kid in a coma for a stupid prank and then chalks it up to botulism and a sleeping pill.
One way to deal with a regime like this is to combat unpredictability by also being unpredictable. Luckily, the dysfunctional Trump administration may be up to the task, and the erratic nature of this administration may actually be an asset in solving the North Korea issue. Trump, by nature, is unpredictable, which does not suit the nature of addressing most governmental matters but may be, in fact, be perfect for dealing with Pyongyang.
Thus far, Trump has shown a willingness to look at the North Korea issue from a different perspective than his predecessors. His focus on China is relatively new to U.S.-North Korea relations, and the President has previously said that he would be open to meeting Kim Jong Un. This ability to switch between polar opposite sides of the spectrum would most likely get a past President labeled as indecisive.
However, that is exactly who Trump is and he needs to use his reputation as a cunning businessman to get the remaining detained Americans out of North Korea and possibly stop the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. That is a lot to ask from a game show host-turned-President, but the unpredictable character of the guerrilla-like North Korean regime may actually make a lot of sense to him.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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