North Korea: Where the Neocons Are Right

When it comes to their political philosophy -- summed up as "It's the regime, stupid" -- the neoconservatives had the Kims pegged.
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North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un watches what the Korean Central News Agency said was a series of high-tech military drills on March 20, 2013. (Reuters)

Like a number of commentators, I've been fairly caustic lately about how much the neoconservatives got wrong about Iraq and the "war on terror." But when it comes to their political philosophy -- summed up as "It's the regime, stupid"--the neoconservatives got a few things right. And no better proof exists than North Korea.

Democracies behave toward the outside world in one way, dictatorships quite another. That's why, to the neocons, getting rid of Saddam Hussein and making the Arab world democratic was so important during the Big Debates of the 2000s; the idea was that everything from the Arab-Israeli conflict to weapons of mass destruction would be easier to address if we were dealing with democracies, not dictators.

Little of that worked out as planned, but while all the tumult was underway in the Mideast, North Korea continued to churn ahead, its baleful behavior unchanged, except possibly for the worse. Over recent days, responding to U.N. sanctions, North Korea has announced a "state of war" with South Korea and its leader, Kim Jong-un, appeared in front of a map titled "Plans to Attack the Mainland U.S." In response, the Obama administration announced Monday it is shifting a destroyer capable of intercepting missiles to the region, joining a deployment of F-22 fighters.

The reason for this latest surge of belligerence is clear: It's the regime, stupid, just as it has always been. Pyongyang's political structure has not changed one bit since the accession of Kim Jong-un, just as it did not after Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and his son, Kim Jong Il, took over. Shaped in the coldest days of the Cold War, the North Korean regime features an enduring brand of totalitarianism unlike anything the world has seen. Even more than other dictatorships, it is sustained by pure xenophobia, a paranoia about threats from the outside world, even as Stalinism has become a yellowing chapter in the history books elsewhere. Pyongyang's statement that its nuclear forces "represent the nation's life" sounds ridiculous. Yet it is a true description of the regime's life. "You could surround North Korea with 10 Costa Ricas and they'd still feel threatened," says Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who was director for Asian affairs at George W. Bush's National Security Council.

Out in the real world, the Soviet Union collapsed, its former satellites democratized, the Chinese opened up and reformed, and even the Arab autocracies began to reform or topple. Inside North Korea, it is still 1953, and I'm not just talking about Kim Jong-un's hairstyle. The regime's ideology, called juche, is often simplistically defined as Korean self-reliance. In fact it has proven to be a kind of ideological superglue--a compound of traditional Korean xenophobia and nationalism, Confucian respect for authority, and utopian Marxism-Leninism that is able to resist the solvents of economic urgency or democratic modernization.

The role of paranoia as the lifeblood of the Hermit Kingdom is basically why absolutely nothing the United States or West have tried--no tactic, no strategy--has worked to wean the North from its nukes. Negotiation and threats, appeasement and shows of force, have all equally failed. Since the 1994 Agreed Framework, the Clinton-era pact under which the North was to get fuel oil, food aid, and billions of dollars' worth of civilian nuclear equipment in return for freezing and "eventually" dismantling its plutonium program, North Korea has used its sputtering nuclear program as a bargaining chip to gain Western attention. And every time it has failed to follow through on pledges to dismantle the program.

The Bush administration initially denounced the Clinton deal with Pyongyang. Paul Wolfowitz, President Bush's often-errant deputy Defense secretary, declared in 2004 that North Korea was "teetering on the edge of economic collapse," suggesting that a freeze in aid would bring political collapse as well. Yet the North conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, and Bush too eventually came around to the idea that the regime in Pyongyang wasn't going anywhere, so it might be better to trade off proliferation for a little food and aid. But a 2007 attempt at an aid-for-nukes deal fell apart as well. The Obama administration, confronted with another nuclear test in 2009, adopted a policy of "strategic patience" under which Washington refused to offer any new incentives to Pyongyang until the North suspended its program. That failed utterly too. Indeed, this administration has faced a worse threat--two nukes and three ballistic tests--than its predecessor.

At the same time, the regime has remained completely opaque. Cha says all the experts can detect are "aberrant signals" coming from Pyongyang. "Everybody thought the military was going to help Kim Jong-un secure power," says Cha. Instead, the three generals who were pictured standing with Kim after his father's death have disappeared from view. "No one knows why," he says.

Cha, who calls North Korea "the impossible state" and predicted its collapse after Kim Jong Il's death, admits his assessment was wrong but still says "the trend lines are not good" for the regime. "The politics is becoming more fundamentalist juche, the regime is tightening control even more while the society is moving in the other direction.... There are 2 million cell phones now in North Korea."

Yet no signal has yet emanated from the black hole in the North indicating the presence of internal ferment. And even the neocons aren't talking about forcible regime change, not with the North's vast army just across the border from Seoul. Until there is regime change, however, little hope exists that North Korea will ever stop being the world's nuclear bad boy. The neocons were right about this one.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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