June 24, 2018 at: 10:31:44 AM

History and current conditions for North Korean Regime Denuclearization and Political-Social Transformation

At the conclusion of the Korean Peninsula denuclearization summit between President Trump and North Korean Chairman, Kim Jong Un, all of the prominent media outlets presented a host of experts who provided their opinions on the significance every known aspect of the meeting.  For the most part, the commentary of many of the presenters demonstrated a one-dimensional political bias rather than a strategical understanding of the social-political situation that exists in North Korea today.  Without an understanding of the historical background of the autocratic Kim dynasty and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) regime, any assessment of the potential for the success of denuclearization or the extent of a transformational government and society should be dismissed due to the exceptional complexity of the forces involved.

North Korean History

Geographically, the Korean Peninsula sits in a highly strategic position in Northeast Asia with China to its north and west, Russia to its north and east and the Japan Archipelago stretching from its northeast to its south.  It is accessible from the Sea of Japan on its eastern shoreline, the Yellow Sea on its western shoreline and the East China Sea located to the south. 

In Korea's history, the expansionist policies of its neighbors have intervened in ways designed to adversely affect its sovereignty as a nation and the integrity of its traditions and culture.  There were also religious components introduced into the culture from both eastern and western influences including Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism.                                          

In victory, following the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, Japan successfully plotted to assert itself as the Protectorate of Korea and essentially colonized the country.  It was an annexation that existed until the end of World War II, wherein the Japanese developed factories and extensive infrastructure on the Peninsula, but their ruling governance was exceptionally brutal and oppressive.  In reaction to the Japanese occupation and the strong desire for independence, various rebellious movements and frequent demonstrations and armed conflicts occurred between the Koreans and the Japanese military and government agencies.                                      

In the 1930s a Korean guerilla resistance group formed in Manchuria.  The group was supported by the Soviet Union which provided training, weapons and Communist Party indoctrination.  Among the group's members was a standout student who adopted the name, Kim il Sung.  This Kim would become instrumental in forming a dynasty of Kim dictatorial leaders that rule North Korea to this day.   He is recognized in perpetuity as North Korea’s “Leader for Life”.

Just prior to Japan surrendering to the allies, by prior diplomatic arrangement with the allies, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan.  It was agreed that Korea would be temporarily divided and separated roughly along the 38th parallel prior to a reunification program.  The Soviet Union would take control of the North and the United States the area to the South.  In 1948 when it came time for reunification, the Soviet Union scuttled the deal and maneuvered Kim il Sung into the position of Premier of North Korea.

In 1950, with the support of the Soviet Union, Kim il Sung decided to forcibly reunify Korea under North Korean control.  The North invaded the South which in turn drew in United Nations military forces, headed up by the United States military, in the effort to defend South Korea.  When the North began to suffer heavy losses, China came to the aid of the North Koreans who might have otherwise faced defeat.                                                                                                      

The Korean War came to an end in July 1953 with an Armistice Agreement between the warring parties that established the Demilitarized Zone, a cease fire and the repatriation of POWs.  A peaceful settlement that was supposed to follow has never taken place, therefore leaving the parties still technically at war. 

The Kim Dynasty Model of Government

North Korea has been ruled by the Kim Dynasty since its inception, the country controlled by what has been described as a "Cult of Personality".  The late Kim il Sung, as the first Premier, considered the founder of North Korea, formed the new country into a repressive, Soviet-style totalitarian state.  In 1994, he was succeeded in death by his son, Kim Jong-il.  When Kim Jong-il died in 2011, his son, Kim Jong Un became the head of State and ruler of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) regime.

Three specific Korean government terms define much of the political philosophy by which the DPRK governs. 

 Juche  (self-reliance):  Due to their historical experiences with outside forces and influencers on Korea's culture and security, under the leadership of Kim Il Sung, North Korea would internalize and rely to the maximum extent possible upon its own resources and talent to establish their national objectives.  That expressed objective earned the country the nickname of "the Hermit Kingdom".  This distrust has prompted the regime to primarily manifest its goals into military forces and weapons capabilities.  Surprisingly, despite their isolationist policies, North Korea has developed an advanced ballistic missile and nuclear weapons capability that the successive Kim regimes have progressively leveraged into a formidable defensive war-deterrent position.  In this highly secretive environment, the advances in these areas have confounded Western intelligence organizations whose intelligence estimates appear to be consistently lagging North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear explosive demonstrations.  The growth of these weapons developments accelerated dramatically under Kim Jong Un's regime such that many intelligence estimates now project that he has or nearly has the capability to put the entire United States, East Asia and Western Europe under threat of a ballistic missile nuclear attack.                                                                                                 

Songun (military first):  Obsessed with their national security, the Kim regimes have made the military their top priority in terms of resourcing and granting political favors.  The estimates for North Korean military spending range from approximately 15% to 22% of GDP.  With a policy of universal conscription, it has a force of approximately 1.2 million active and 7.7 million reserve military personnel out of a total population of 25.3 million.  The Demilitarized Zone constitutes a narrow area of 160 miles in length and 2.5 miles width which separates North and South Korea.  Sixty percent of North Korea's active troops are positioned along this line.                              

The Kim regimes have primarily focused on advancing their strategic weapons capabilities, I.e. ballistic missiles, submarine launched missiles and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.  Their conventional tactical weapons, however are antiquated in comparison to the technically more modern warfare capabilities possessed by their perceived adversaries.

A particular concern that must be taken into consideration is the advancement that North Korea is making in their own cyber operations and their potential for launching cyber-attacks and counterattacks to a perceived threat.  Many North Korean scientists and technology engineers have been elevated into superior elite statuses and have been incorporated into the regime's military structure and promoted with commensurate military ranks.

 Songbun (Caste system classification of the populace):  The population of North Korea is racially homogeneous, but during the Kim il Sung regime every citizen was placed into one of three major groups and 51 subcategory political and social classes.  The system fundamentally created a hereditary caste system based upon the regime's often conjured sense of historical social inequities which were incurred during the Japanese occupation.  An individual's perceived loyalty and commitment to the government's stated socialistic ideals also played a role in a person's status classification.  The system continues today.

At birth and through heredity, all North Koreans are classified as loyal or committed, approximately 25% of the population; wavering, approximately 50% of the population; or hostile, the remaining 25%.  In all aspects of a person’s life they face discrimination based upon this classification in terms of food distribution, housing, residential location, employment, education, etc.                                                                                                                                       

Despite its relative small size, geographically within North Korea itself there is segregation of the classes with most of the elite class located in the capital city area of Pyongyang.  These elites have much better access to government positions, higher paying jobs and education.                                                                                                                                                                           

Those at the peasant level in the hostile class are relegated to living in remote regions of the country and are pretty much left to themselves to fend for food access and daily survival.  This has led to wide-spread disease, malnutrition and starvation even among North Korea's military forces.  In turn, this level of the society subsists on massive corruption in terms of graft, extortion and other crimes associated with destitution.                                                                                                                        

The Effect of United Nations Sanctions on North Korea

In an effort to curb the nuclear adventurism and ambitions, The United Nations 1718 Committee on economic sanctions levied the harshest sanctions to date against North Korea.  These sanctions are presumably having an effect on the ability of the regime to maintain stringent Songbun control.  With the increasing need for the government to reach out for goods and services beyond its borders and to utilize money as a means of operating its system of granting favors to its favored class, the country may be slowly evolving into a more susceptible and increasingly permeable social structure.                                                                                                                                                    

Radio Free Asia reported in October 2017 that beginning in March, young family members of elite class families began to migrate into the cities of Dandong and Shenyang in northeast China in a region not far above the North Korean border.  These new residents appeared to range in age from teens to in their 30s.  Despite the imposed sanctions, they were reported to be renting high rise condominiums and apartments in upscale neighborhoods and making cash purchases of luxury goods.  

Meanwhile, with the advent of the U.N. 1718 sanctions, Radio Free Asia learned from a North Korean executive that the food distribution channel employed in the country for its elites, including factory workers, is being stressed to the point of near collapse.  The system distributes food stipends in the form of food stamps as a partial payment for their work and services.  As a result of the sanctions, several North Korean factories have been forced to close resulting in the workers being denied their food stamps.  Those elites who hold social services and administrative positions are also being stripped of their food stamps while technical educators in the science fields, the ranking military and the judiciary continue to receive their food stipend.  The situation is fostering an expanding internal resentment between the caste classes, even amongst the elites.

Since the end of the Korean War there have been approximately 31,000 defectors from North Korea, mostly across the Chinese border, of whom 70% were women.  In the 2014 to 2016 period, that percentage has risen to 85%.  Many of these women end up in the international sex industry or become married to Chinese men where the "one child" China policy created a huge deficit of marriage eligible females.  In North Korea the social status of women is significantly lower than that of men which deprives them of education and positions in the state-run businesses and government.  Consequently, they have become integral to the informal or "black" market which is becoming more important to the numerous Koreans increasingly suffering hunger and even starvation.  Thus far their diminished status has kept most of the market activity of these North Korean women "under the radar" to the Kim Jong Un regime. 

A recent news report surmised that the dedicated funds for Kim Jong UN's ambitious weapons testing program may be nearing depletion and that that could be the underlying rationale for his latest rapprochement with South Korea.  The article suggested that North Korea's successful effort at inclusion in the February 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea provided a source of funds replenishment even though the country remains under U.N. Sanctions. 

The overarching structure that has held the Kim regime government and North Korean society together, is described as the "Cult of Personality" in which each of the Kim leaders has been culturally exalted and deified throughout the populace.  Perpetual propaganda campaigns, political prisons and reeducation camps are designed to serve as constant reminders of the power Kim Jong Un as the DPRK attempts to maintain a hold over all aspects of the daily lives of the North Korean people.

It should be apparent from North Korea’s history and the current political and-social conditions which exist in the country, that the denuclearization process and the prospects of a radical transformation will be exceptionally complicated for both parties. The challenge will be even more so for Kim Jong Un who must open the “Hermit Kingdom” up for weapons inspections, liberate an oppressed population, defend his regime from the international criminal justice system for gross human rights abuses and risk a military coup from disgruntled senior military officers who might consider their own futures at extreme risk in a cultural reformation.  We’ve only seen the opening curtain for what is certain to become a huge global drama.  The finale has yet to be written.


This post was authored by Major General (Ret.) David E.B. (DEB) Ward, founder and CEO of StarProg, and reflect his views and do not represent the views of the United States Air Force, the Air National Guard or StarProg LLC.

The General served 36 plus years in the United States Air Force and the Air National Guard.  His assignments included a tour in South Korea (1966-1967) as a Forward Air Controller,  Commander of an F-15 ANG Fighter Group (1987-1989), State Commander of the Oregon ANG (1989-1993), and as the Air National Guard Special Assistant to the Commander, U.S. Air Forces, Europe (1993-1996).  He is a graduate of the USAF Air War College.  

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