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.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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