The chilling rationality of North Korea’s vile regime

Published by The i paper (27th February, 2017)

The murder of Kim Jong-nam was brutal and brazen, caught by security cameras as assassins attacked him with lethal toxins in a Malaysian airport. Minutes later he was dead, pictures of his slumped body seen around the world. Everything about the killing serves to fuel fascination with the enigmatic North Korean regime: the highly public hit, the casually dressed female killers, the claims they thought they were carrying out a prank, the nerve agent used turning out to be a banned weapon of mass destruction.

Yet while very public, this death remains a riddle. Was Kim killed because under the self-serving mythology of the dynasty that rules North Korea with such rigidity, his bloodline was purer and thus presented ever-present danger to his half-brother? Was he linked to prominent defectors who hoped to make him head of a government in exile? Was there a standing order to kill him as soon as he left Chinese soil? Or had he visited Pyongyang just three years ago, making his murder all the more puzzling?

Regardless, the killing is in keeping with the image of a state seen as mad, bad and dangerous with its maverick leadership, its murderous activities, its crazed propaganda and its alarming nuclear missile tests. The portly young despot Kim Jong-un accentuates this impression of a strange, secretive place locked away from the rest of the planet under the grip of a comic form of cartoon communism, with mass rallies and robotic citizens. He is said to enjoy bondage porn, drink heavily, and eat vast quantities of cheese -and to have ordered the machinegunning of a former girlfriend and fed family members to dogs.

Yet the reality of this regime is far more disturbing than the colourful rumours. Yes, its leader may be a bit of a buffoon, a mollycoddled absolute monarch surrounded by frightened courtiers who know the slightest dissent can end in death. But this cruel state is ruled on racist lines by a corrupt elite that keeps 25 million people trapped in terror. Its actions may be horrifying, they may be often unpredictable – but there is, sadly, a chilling rationality of self-preservation to the savagery, the sabre-rattling and the bloodcurdling threats against enemies.

Consider the facts. This is a small nation trapped between the swelling might of a Chinese superpower and the stunning success of dynamic South Korea. It has a struggling economy the size of Latvia, endured famine that killed millions and is run by a dynasty determined to retain power. Collapse of the Hermit Kingdom has been long-predicted under pressure from economic, political and technological change. Yet the regime has survived for seven decades, and its elites thrive, while growing nuclear capabilities ensure that even the world’s strongest nations handle it with care.

It might look unhinged, yet this weak, isolated nation defies forces of globalisation and modernity that march across the planet. Its government rules by fear to keep its people in line, reliant on a false narrative under which South Korea and the United States attacked the North in 1950 and still threaten invasion. The peninsula remains technically in a state of conflict after the 1953 armistice. So the dictators preach their neo-fascist nationalistic creed and keep their country on a war footing, which justifies the fiery rhetoric, the killings, the oppression, the propaganda, even the poverty.

Behind the bamboo curtain lies blood and horror. Every aspect of life is controlled by the state; I remember seeing the fear of my driver when he briefly lost a pass that permitted him to drive south from Pyongyang. Defectors have told me of hunger, rape, torture and slaughter, of friends beaten to pulp and families killed after they fled the nightmare. Those guilty of ‘crimes’ can be sent to deadly slave camps with three generations of relatives. It is thought that 120,000 people live in these hellholes, yet how little we hear of the gulags that have existed for half a century.

Those in charge are simply gangster godfathers. Yet there is no excuse for the world ignoring their crimes, nor turning a blind eye to the evils they perpetuate. Three years ago a United Nations inquiry condemned systematic human rights abuse after hearing harrowing testimonies. The report found compelling evidence of executions, arbitrary imprisonment, deliberate starvation and almost complete lack of free thought. Officials are all-powerful: one female army conscript told me her commander raped 30 of the 120 women in their unit.

Slowly but surely, this hereditary dictatorship is extending the reach of its missiles; soon they may have capability to deliver on threats to turn major US cities into ‘seas of fire’. North Korea is protected by China, fearful of American influence or millions of postcollapse refugees on its borders. Yet there is a glimmer of hope: Beijing may finally have grown fed up with its disruptive neighbour, after suddenly suspending the coal imports so crucial for Pyongyang’s foreign currency earnings. Even China has tired of the bloodstained antics.

Donald Trump thinks he can persuade Kim Jong-un to abandon nuclear weapons over a burger, even saying admiringly: ‘You’ve got to give him credit… this guy doesn’t play games.’ Yet for all the dangerous naivety of this new US president, he is right to focus global attention on a pariah state that acts with such impunity as its represses its people and eliminates its foes. Time to stop seeing these despots as crazy, to stop treating North Korea as a joke and appreciate the deadly intent that drives the world’s most revolting regime.

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