Orbiting Untruths, Ignoring Ideology: Looking Back and Re-Learning

By | December 20, 2012 | No Comments


A spy satellite, spying. Ineffectively? | image via Top Secret Writers

A spy satellite, spying. Ineffectively? | image via Top Secret Writers

If the history of US-DPRK relations has taught the world only one thing, it is this: even a country like the US, which is blessed with an abundance of information-gathering resources (e.g. spy satellites and  top analysts), is unable to to pierce the blanket of thick fog that wraps the DPRK like a fitted sheet. The recent “surprise” launching of a satellite into the high-heavens is the latest case-in-point. As SinoNK Assistant Editor Christopher Green argues in this perspective piece, this is exactly the result the Kim dynasty has endeavored to bring about, dating back to Manchurian-guerrilla founder Kim Il-sung. – Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Orbiting Untruths, Ignoring Ideology: A Three-Tiered Analysis

by Christopher Green

As a wise man once said, moving away from a large object allows for greater perspective on it. At 160cm, Kim Jong-il was hardly a towering presence, yet a little distance can still be beneficial in providing perspective on the diminutive dictator’s strategic and ideological approach to domestic and international politics.

For US government officials responsible for analyzing the DRPK, however, too much distance has not been terribly beneficial of late. Days ago it emerged that a veritable Who’s Who of the US government’s North Korea policy ranks were actually at a party in honor of the Japanese emperor’s birthday when Kim Jong-un pulled the trigger that launched “Gwangmyungsung-3” into the heavens last Wednesday.

Kim Jong Un at Sohae Space Center, 12 December 2012 | Image courtesy KCNA, via North Korea Leadership Watch

Kim Jong Un at Sohae Space Center, 12 December 2012 | Image courtesy KCNA, via North Korea Leadership Watch

Alcohol and the Cyclops: Triggers for an Office Exodus | Assuming that we can safely discard the improbable idea that the party in question was actually organized by the Japanese government to provide a smokescreen for the launch in return for progress on the thorny abductees issue, one can only look on in bemused wonder. What, one wonders, led the likes of Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Affairs Jim Zumwalt, National Security Council Director for East Asia Syd Seiler and others to raise a glass while North Korea was busy joining the space race for real?

The decision to “party hearty” was reportedly spurred on by the North Korean government’s announcement that the Unha-3 launch window was to be extended through December 29th because “a technical fault has been discovered in the first stage steering motor module of the delivery rocket.” Combined with satellite photos that showed the rocket sitting on a launch pad in western North Pyong’an Province, the official DPRK statement was enough to get the Americans popping a few corks.

In other words, the greatest minds in modern American officialdom had decided that the North Korean media was telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And this coming only days after mass mockery for a North Korean “news” story about unicorns? If the DPRK played the unicorn, then the Americans took on the role of a myopic Cyclops, allowing their huge telescopic eye in the sky to dominate their perception of events.

Criticizing the Dirt: False Dawn for DPRK Policy | It was former Korean Workers’ Party International Secretary Hwang Jang-yop who informed the world about North Korean strategic policy in great detail back in the late 1990s. He explained that Pyongyang had been developing ICBMs capable of striking the west coast of the United States since 1996 at least, and that it would not stop developing them under any circumstances. The nuclear program, he said, went even further back.

However, nobody was ready to listen. This, Hwang’s former scribe Sohn Gwang-joo mused with meditational beauty in a recent piece on the subject, was because “These ‘experts’ tend to focus on the stars when I am pointing at the moon. Some do not even look in the direction in which I’m pointing, preferring to criticize the dirt under my nails.”

It was also because South Korea was then experimenting with a “sunshine policy” of aid and assistance, making Hwang’s revelations rather inconvenient. Yet while this is no longer the case, it appears that some of the same people who were prepared to so heavily discount the words of an insider like Hwang then are perfectly willing to accept at face value a statement carried by the North Korean state news agency now and, based on that and almost that alone, head off to a party en masse. To put it more bluntly, these Asia hands apparently ascribe greater value to the words of the North Korean government than to the words of Hwang Jang-yop and others of his ilk.

Guerrillas in the Grand People's Study House | image via BBC

Guerrillas in the Grand People’s Study House | image via BBC

Guerrilla Fog as Demonstrated Intent: Worrying about History | This ought to be extremely worrying, since it betrays a possible ignorance of North Korea’s own version of North Korean history, and it is that history that is so important to those who would hope to understand the situation on the peninsula today.

For the sake of this explanation, that history begins with a “guerrilla dynasty.” This was an accurate name when Adrian Buzo used it in the title of a book on the history of the North Korean regime fifteen years ago, and it is accurate now. One of the key elements in the kind of guerrilla warfare that North Korean historians claim brought the Kim family to power is the element of surprise. This deeply ingrained principle was reflected in one anecdote Hwang Jang-yop reported to the world in 1997. As follows, from Hwang’s own memoirs:

Not so long after the death of Kim Il Sung, the ‘Dear Leader’ gathered a number of key Propaganda Department cadres together and proceeded to praise them for their sterling efforts to glorify the Party. However, Kim is said to have cautioned, ‘That is only fine for the domestic audience.’ Internationally, he urged, ‘Chosun must be wrapped in a fog.’

To put it another way, the North Korean government knows that it is important for the international community to be unable to understand, and preferably not even to know, what is going on inside the country and by what principles it is being run. Guerrilla tactics prevail. If the guerrilla wants to launch a missile with this trademark element of surprise, no easy task when it takes a week to prepare such a thing, then he or she needs to throw up a smokescreen.

This is a policy prescription that has been handed down from father to son through three iterations of the Kim family, and it has been on show throughout 2012. From the April missile launch after the Leap Day debacle to the education reform-based Supreme People’s Assembly session, from the Moranbong Band playing the Rocky theme to the purging of Ri Yong-ho, and now this last, moderately successful, satellite launch.

Conclusion | That is not to say that every single man and woman in party, military, and administrative positions of power in Pyongyang is in on some colossal post-totalitarian ruse to confuse the international community; that would be extremely far fetched. However, it is to say that the fostering of constant confusion beyond the walls of the citadel and out across the nation’s borders is the leading intention of a ruling clique for whom survival depends on keeping opponents at home and abroad on the back foot. If the international community doesn’t understand that, it quite possibly doesn’t understand anything.

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  1. Good points but it wasn’t as if North Korea’s announcement was the only factor here – don’t forget 38 north’s barrage of satellite reporting (one wonders if the U.S. government is actively paying attention to this), all the leaks in ROK media about how the rocket had been pulled from the site, Japanese officials, etc..

    to be sure though, satellites often get things wrong and so do “analysts” looking at the grainy pictures out in Virginia.

  2. Very true, James_C. But the overall trend of heavily discounting the views of certain demographics, notably North Koreans, is one that has been going on for too long now. Witness the reluctance to acknowledge the closure of Camp 22 because satellite images suggest that it is not closed. Skepticism is wise enough, but there should be a limit.

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