Pick up an American newspaper from the early 1970s and anxieties about East Asia back then bear a lot of similarities to the situation on the Korean peninsula today.
An unstable dictator with a religious-like following and propensity for brutality had defiantly built nuclear missiles that put America and its allies at risk. His one-party state used its media to lambaste American imperialism, calling for an all-out war that would lead to its destruction. He would regularly ratchet up international tensions to show his distaste for America’s intervention in his nation’s civil war.
I’m not referring to Kim Il Sung, the ruler of North Korea at the time, but Mao Zedong, the authoritarian who successfully ruled China for almost three decades.
Although historical haruspicy to understand present regimes can be problematic, the similarities between North Korea’s political system and Mao’s China bear resemblances worth comparing. Each bears the hallmarks of what Max Weber called “Charismatic Authority,” or a political system that relies on the ascendency and glorification of the leader.
Mao, like Kim and his forefathers, was portrayed in a near-religious veneration that credited his thought and wisdom for all the nation’s gains. China was dotted with statues of Mao and common citizens adorned their homes and jackets with pictures of the so-called Great Helmsman.
Pivotal to the heroic image of the leader is a victim narrative: something to be protected from that justifies the levers of control and makes successes a mark of the regime’s ability to overcome oppressive circumstances.
Much like Kim, Mao was thought dangerous and irrational
While this may read like a primer from a political science textbook, it’s helpful in breaking free from a common paradigm that Kim is an illogical, dangerous, “crazy fat kid.” It also offers an insight into how Kim’s strategy of stoking international tensions and instability has the intention to promote domestic stability and make the leader a necessary protector of national interests.
The Kim family has held power in North Korea for over half-a-century, a stability that, on its surface, belies wanton insanity or a tendency toward self-destruction. If Kim and his cadres in Pyongyang aren’t madmen trying to start a world war, then what is the goal? What lessons can be gained from another isolated “madman,” in China in understanding North Korea today? And does China’s reform offer any blueprint for the future of North Korea?
Much like Kim, Mao was thought dangerous and irrational. Part of that assessment was based on the scant knowledge about China at the time — an isolated nation, like North Korea, that few Westerners had any direct experience of.
Policymakers and scholars alike were forced to do their best analysis based on public announcements and third-party intelligence. However, the pulling back of the Cold War curtain has allowed access to Chinese historical sources that give direct insight into the logic behind Mao’s provocations, and we know see that the supposedly irrational and dangerous actions were done with domestic and international aims.
For example, China would regularly confront American forces in the Taiwan Strait, provoking “Taiwan Strait Crises” — yet went out of their way to avoid direct conflict with Washington that could come back to hurt them. Mao would also use tension to propel his population toward grand domestic goals like the disastrous Great Leap Forward or to cull sections of his party he thought disloyal.
The timing of the tensions was important, and as an astute politician, Mao always had an underlying logic – and it had little to do with a quick trigger finger or desire to bring war to China. However, more important than the why are the insights into understanding a regime like North Korea.
First, Kim is not crazy and his actions are likely aimed at the stability and subsistence of his rule, as Stephen Haggard has argued. The possession of nuclear missiles is enough of a deterrent to rule out any likely pre-emptive military interventions and, much like Mao, Kim likely pulls from a playbook that uses tension and bellicosity effectively — war is not part of that. Kim is able to use the heightened state of war domestically to provide a drumbeat for his citizens toward domestic growth and as a way to demand they steel themselves in the face of an increasingly hostile global situation.
As an astute politician, Mao always had an underlying logic
Furthermore, the chorus of sanctions and finger-wagging from Washington only reaffirms a victim narrative that the world is a dangerous place united against the existence of North Korea.
The anti-America propaganda found throughout the country is not meant to offend Americans, it’s meant to cultivate a feeling that there is an enemy from which North Koreans need to be protected. The successful testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is a glorification of Kim’s ability to overcome these difficulties, with North Korea joining a handful of countries with an elite weapon the world wants it not to have.
If sanctions and reprimanding gives Kim the tensions he wants, how can the world coax the young leader to stop his saber-rattling and to “do something better with his life,” as Trump put it?
There’s no ready panacea for the North Korean problem. China and Mao eventually offered America an olive branch in the early 1970s. It came naturally, not from strong-arming or sanctions: The situation was reached where American friendship was a buffer against a more ready threat, the Soviet Union.
Much like Mao, Kim likely pulls from a playbook that uses tension and bellicosity effectively
Mao continued, even after rapprochement, to use America as a rhetorical straw man for the oppression of Third World countries, but the benefits of opening had come to outweigh any continued radicalism. China’s trade partners grew exponentially and Beijing was given a prestigious voice in international affairs that assured their legitimacy in a way that decades of radicalism never did.
KISSINGER IN PYONGYANG?
Any solution to North Korea would need to provide similar assurances and benefits that could be presented as a victory of Kim Jong Un and not a loss. Dismantling his nuclear weapons, President Trump’s own “red-line,” would make Kim vulnerable to a fate similar to other dictators America saw as dangerous, like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi.
Although China’s desire to prevent U.S. military installations on its border if Pyongyang were to fall does provide Kim some assurances, the notion of Beijing as a protective big brother would strike a sensitive nerve given the backdrop of Sino-North Korean historical relations.
President Trump has declared “Strategic Patience,” to be over, but what happens next is less clear. North Korean society still struggles from isolation, but the famines of the 1990s are long gone and there seems to be indications of nominal economic growth, improved markets, and even a facelift to parts of the capital’s famously bleak skyline.
The world would be safer with a prosperous North Korea who sees the international system as a pathway to growth and stability and not its own demise, as it is with a China that long put the excesses of Maoism behind it. Getting North Korea to that point, however, may be a little trickier.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons
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