Never on the Verge of War: The Birth of the Young Man Doctrine

By | January 18, 2014 | No Comments



Illustration for Groove Korea | Image: James Kim

The dog days of 2013 brought the purge and death of Jang Sung-taek, a story so extraordinary that it overshadowed much of what had happened before it. Yet, in truth, it had already been a year of high strategic drama between the two Koreas. Lest we should forget, less than a year ago the Kaesong Industrial Complex was shuttered and Kim Jong-un was hosting late night meetings with his four-star generals to discuss the possibility of impending (rhetorical?) conflict.

One would be wrong to assume that these showpiece propaganda spectacles carried no repercussions, and not just in terms of lost productivity at Kaesong. Unlikely though war may have been, it appears to have been plausible enough for Lee Seok-ki, a curious, shadowy ultra-left wing lawmaker with a minority South Korean political party, to bring together a group of followers and say enough, as taped by a National Intelligence Service source, to attract the country’s first sedition charge in more than 30 years.

Amidst all the action and reaction, Co-editor Christopher Green began writing a regular column for Groove Korea, a monthly expat magazine based in Seoul. His first column looked at an image that, he claims, is partly intended to ask every one of us a salient question: “Do you want a 29-year-old man of both youth and inexperience to lead a nation in possession of nuclear weapons?” Channeling Nixon in Vietnam, the “Young Man Doctrine” was born.

Sino-NK reproduces Christopher’s columns here with the approval of Groove Korea. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Christopher Green, “We Were Never on the Verge of War,” Groove Korea, November 2013*

Bellicose, Unreasonable and… Ignorant? | Is the North Korean leadership aware of how its bellicose, demonstrably unreasonable and over-the-top approach to diplomacy is viewed from abroad? Don’t they recognize, for example, that their recent temporary closure of the Kaeseong Industrial Complex—formerly a symbol of reconciliation on the border between the two Koreas, but now little more than a hostage to fortune—will only do them harm? What about the decision to advise Pyongyang-based diplomats to consider leaving the Korean Peninsula, and then warning foreigners in Seoul that they rest in the line of fire? Surely North Korea’s leaders must not appreciate that these actions are damaging to themselves above all; for if they were cognizant of the fact, would they not change?

The answer is that not only are they are aware of this reality, but they are also comfortable with it. The North Korean ruling clique knows perfectly well how the world perceives it. The country is not a belligerent outlier throwing verbal grenades from behind a gigantic firewall of ignorance; rather, it has been exploiting a position of overwhelming knowledge dominance for years.

From its founding years, all through the disastrous famine of the 1990s and up to the present day, information about the wider world has been entering the corridors of power in Pyongyang. Ignorance has never been bliss, and the top elite has not been short of data. This is logical, for if key government officials had not been given access to knowledge of the world then they could not have done their work. Image making has always mattered as much in Pyongyang as it does in Seoul, London and Washington, and an absence of information about the opposition would have made such endeavors impossible.

In times of yore—long before you, the North Koreans or I had the internet—loyal elements in Pyongyang’s state-run media used to gather information from far and wide and distribute it in the form of the so-called Reference Newspaper. Exclusively for officials high within the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, the publication was divided into three sections: South Korean news, world news, and science and technology. Delivered once or sometimes twice a day, it was read by the privileged few in their workplaces and then returned from whence it came. It could not be taken home, and there was no accessible archive.

Dodgy Harvests, Better Harvesting | The only difference now is that the process of harvesting data has gotten easier. Today, journalists from global news agencies do much of the legwork. When photos of South Korea appear on the pages of Rodong Sinmun, the main North Korean daily publication that ordinary people are actually allowed to read, blind men did not pluck them out in a darkened room. Rather, loyal staffers scour international websites for usable content. This material is then spun into a narrative for the domestic and international audience, one that supports those points the authorities want to reinforce—for example, the existence of opposition forces protesting against South Korea’s conservative North Korea policy (a real but rather rare occurrence).

As a result of this dominance over information flows, the North Korean side is able to govern the impression of its leaders and policies that the rest of humanity receives. It is a situation rather reminiscent of the 1970s, when the US government deliberately conveyed a willingness on the part of President Richard Nixon to sanction actions that any “ordinary man” would have considered insane in order to force a conclusion to the Vietnam War. In keeping with the basic principles of the “Madman Doctrine,” former North Korean strongman Kim Jong-il, a man allegedly fascinated by the US, was portrayed for his 17 years in power as a stack-heeled shoe-wearing, womanizing madman. Later, of course, he was turned into all those things but with one additional feature: a finger on the big red button.

Now, with the arrival of new leader Kim Jong-un there is another media representation to contend with—one that, though more mundane, is no less effective. When asked what we know of the new Kim, one common answer is that he is a young and inexperienced ruler. It is an image that asks every one of us a question: “Do you want a 29-year-old man of both youth and inexperience to lead a nation in possession of nuclear weapons?”

The Young Man Doctrine: Conclusion | Earlier this year, Kim hosted faded NBA superstar Dennis Rodman in Pyongyang. What message was the international  community supposed to take away from this event? Certainly, nobody left with the impression that Kim Jong-un is a sensible man of action, someone whom, in the words of the late Margaret Thatcher, “we can do business with.” Rather, he was portrayed as an oaf, a young and inexperienced imbecile who, by completely ignoring former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson when he had visited Pyongyang just weeks earlier, implied that he prioritizes an infantile obsession with basketball over the serious business of politics.

What the North Korean leaders want us to believe, of course, is that there’s nothing we can actually do about this state of affairs. Only if we pay them enough, they say, then they can at least make the nervy young tiger sit down for a while and relax.To succumb to this public relations ruse would certainly be unwise. North Korea is not going to start a war with anybody. The reason why we should be confident about this is simple: North Korea is not one man, and Kim Jong-un, while one man, is not North Korea. He is a decision maker, but not the only one. Rather, he is the titular head of a bureaucratic entity with a long institutional memory, one that uses the knowledge it gleans from the world outside to govern what the world outside is allowed to know about it.

On April 15 this year, North Korea lavishly celebrated the 101st birthday of avuncular national founder Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994. That day’s fireworks inspired worried declarations that a dangerously youthful and inexperienced man who cannot be trusted is now in charge of North Korea, and that the international community must act fast to avoid disaster.

But that is simply not the case.

* This essay has been modified to meet the style and formatting standards outlined in the Sino-NK Style Guide. No substantive changes have been made.

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