Columns / November 18, 2014
North Korea’s game of chess.
By Tristan Johnston
Recently, Americans Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller were returned to the United States after being placed into North Korean labour camps for “antigovernment activities.” Bae was arrested for “conspiring to topple the government” through his church group, and Miller was arrested for “unruly behaviour” when he tore up his visa and tried to seek asylum.
North Korea is a curious oddity on the world stage. We laugh about their leaders and despair when we read about their labour camps. It’s well known that North Korea has very little in regards to resources, whether natural or human. So how do they continue to exist with stability?
It comes down to a very political reason: China likes them where they are. During the Cold War, North Korea existed as another ally in China’s neighbourhood. They continue to exist as a buffer zone. A country like China has demonstrated that it’s very concerned with their security, as they express constantly in their dealings with Taiwan and Hong Kong, and the fact that they maintain a massive firewall to keep tabs on dissent. They’re very comfortable with a highly dependent, communist ally on their doorstep.
Another reason why China wants to protect North Korea is the fact that, if they were to collapse as a nation, or gain freedom of movement, there would be massive flood of hungry, uneducated people flooding the borders of China. China already has a massive population, and they don’t want to deal with the possibility of 24-million people immigrating. They already deport defectors back to North Korea when they try to cross the northern border.
South Korea is also opposed to a collapse of their neighbour. Yes, on a cultural level they would probably want to re-unite with the North, but for the same reasons as China, they would have to deal with 24-million uneducated, poor and unhealthy people moving into their country. South Korea is one of the most technologically advanced and expensive places to live, and North Korea is the exact opposite.
These concerns are legitimate, and a comparable situation has been dealt with before. In the months before the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989, many politicians involved didn’t want the reunification of Germany to happen, including then-chancellor of West Germany, Helmut Kohl. They understood that they would have to deal with many people with a different level of education, people who were used to a communist system where the necessity of education was perceived differently. However, East Germans, unlike North Koreans, were much more aware of what was happening in the world around them, and were well-aware of the lifestyle enjoyed by those in the West. North Koreans know nearly nothing of the outside world, let alone that of their neighbours.
It is worthwhile to note in this comparison that Germany was “only” separated for 40 years, and the East Germans had better education than North Koreans. Even today, 20 years after unification, East Germany still suffers when compared to the west.
Understanding the influence of North Korea’s neighbours helps to explain their stability, but we’re still left with the question of where their income comes from. North Korea has an unremarkable cache of natural resources, and very few countries are interested in trading with them. Consequently, it’s heavily speculated that North Korea generates its own income by manufacturing drugs and printing fake American currency.
They also extract plenty of foreign aid each time they openly discuss nuclear weapons on the world stage. Very little is known about North Korea’s nuclear capability, although South Korean sources believe they have six to nine kilotons worth. There’s also speculation that they have numerous artillery pieces aimed toward South Korean population centres like Seoul. More can be said about military action, but the key desire of all parties involved is to maintain stability.
Though China has been slowly inching away, they still provide plenty of resources to North Korea, as the cost of keeping North Korea somewhat content is less than dealing with them running around unchecked.
Tristan Johnston holds British-Canadian dual citizenship, and has lived in both Berlin and Vienna for six months each.