By Constantin von Wangenheim
Despite US efforts to curb North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear capability in return for humanitarian aid, Pyongyang continues to jeopardize diplomatic relations with the United States and South Korea by neglecting prior agreements and provoking the international community through the testing of missile technologies, nuclear devices, and outright acts of war such as the shelling of South Korean islands and the alleged sinking of the Cheonan destroyer. These missile tests, nuclear, and ICBM related development were banned under UNSC resolutions. More recently, Pyongyang has threatened preemptive Nuclear Strikes, releasing various propaganda videos showing recognizable US cities in flames, and typical Americans, homeless, living and eating on the streets. Threatening to scrap the 1953 armistice, tensions on the Korean peninsula are running high. But why?
During Kim Jong Un’s early life, he was schooled at a boarding school in Switzerland, where his classmates have been quoted as saying that he had an obsession for basketball, specifically the NBA and Michael Jordan. He led a very western lifestyle; bowling alleys, beaches, jet skis- and according to his cook, Kim Jong Un said: “We are here, playing basketball, riding horses, riding Jet Skis, having fun together. But what of the lives of the average people?”
There are widespread beliefs that Kim Jong Un was the mastermind behind the attacks against South Korea under his father’s rule- namely the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of the Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. According to South Korean media, a document describing his drafting of these plans was uncovered in China, this document was most likely used to reinforce Kim Jong Un’s footing as a leader and ensure backing with solid military credentials to facilitate the transfer of power after his father, Kim Jong Il, passed away.
There are two sides to every story: whereas Kim Jong Un was brought up abroad and exposed to Western ideals; skiing the slopes in Switzerland and jet-skiing on Lake Geneva, the claims that he masterminded the attacks against the South leave us wondering where his true ideology lies. Can we expect an all-out regime change, leaning more toward those Western ideals? Or do we see the Juche philosophy, the ideology the North was founded on, remaining the framework by which the country is governed? We can discern that the origin of decision making comes from the principles of Juche, and how they apply to the leadership in Pyongyang. Whereas isolation is a problem at the systemic level, the problem also lies within borders, as North Korean citizens must be perpetually indoctrinated to remain nationalistic and proud.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea faces calamitous problems in its leadership. Granted, the North Korean regime is a hermit kingdom, and whereas the DPRK is isolated and there is a lack of a liberal approach in Pyongyang, I feel that this comes down to the leadership and system of hierarchy under Kim Jong Un; the leader is the brain, the party is the nervous system that channels information, and people are the bone and muscle.
The Juche philosophy became the official state ideology in 1972. The founder, Kim Il Sung describes it as follows: “Juche means, in a nutshell, being the master of revolution and reconstruction in one’s country… displaying the revolutionary spirit of self-reliance, and thus solving one’s own problems for oneself on one’s own responsibility under all circumstances.” The unique fashion in which this philosophy cum ideology was conveyed to the people of North Korea since its founding, made them obedient and loyal to Kim Il Sung despite mass famine and economic crises that impact the country.
The elements of the Juche philosophy are unique. The three main categories are: Chaju, the political independence of the country, Charip, the economic independence, and Chawi, military independence. Thus, it is clear that surrendering to foreign pressure or accepting foreign intervention would make it impossible to maintain Chaju (political independence). Under the belief of the DPRK this would threaten the nation’s capacity to defend the interests of the people, since political independence is seen as vital for economic self-sustenance and self-defense. The US has frequently provided humanitarian aid, causing Charip (economic independence) to come under threat and leading Kim Il Sung to fear economic subjugation to other countries, specifically the US. With economic dependence comes a degree of political dependence or influence, and this threatens the Chaju (political dependence) of North Korea. Thus, one could speculate that in an effort to redeem themselves, they continue to test missile technology mounted in a desperate effort to bolster the DPRK’s Chawi (military independence).
We can quite clearly summarize that the origin of decision making comes in defense of the principles of Juche, and how these decisions reflect on the leadership in Pyongyang. At this very critical diplomatic stage, it is important that Kim Jong Un is able to speak with his adversaries. Open channels of communication are the starting point in pursuing a stable Korean peninsula and relieving tensions in the international community. Only through dialogue can the DPRK’s ideology change, and see the eradication or at least the modification of the North Korean Juche Philosophy.
Constantin von Wangenheim, born to an American mother and a German father, was raised between Munich and Minneapolis and is currently at the Elliott School for International Affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. where he is pursuing a major in International Affairs with a concentration in Security Policy.