Seeing Red in North Korea

If you could be born in any country on Earth, most of us would rank the United States, perhaps Canada, or somewhere in Europe, at the top. It varies, depending on one’s political ideology, climate preference and personality. However, if you scrolled on down to the bottom of the list, most people would say North Korea.

In near-complete isolation from the rest of the planet, the North Korean government consists of a dictatorial, totalitarian regime that controls its citizens with fear and fanatic ideology. The population reveres the dead President Kim Il-Sung as the one and only God, logically making his late son Kim Jong Il the Son of God. Out of 179 countries ranked by the Heritage Foundation on the basis of economic freedom, North Korea came in 179th. Transparency International ranked North Korea as the world’s most corrupt country in 2009.

Technically still at war with South Korea, the North dedicates a quarter of its gross national product to the military, sports one of the largest armies on Earth at 1.2 million active duty personnel and has just recently announced a missile range of 4,160 miles, capable of hitting the United States.

Scared yet? I certainly hope not. There is nothing to suggest that this bark has any bite. Yes, North Korea does have a couple of nuclear weapons; North Korea also has only one major ally — China — who is in reality less of an ally and more of a master with a leash. Still, were North Korea to engage in a major conflict with South Korea, China would likely show up. But so would we. And that is why we will not be having a major conflict with North Korea.

Neither the United States nor China is interested in a military confrontation; over the past twenty years the two economies have grown so dependent on one another that ripping them apart would just ruin everyone’s day. We rely heavily on inexpensive Chinese labor to keep our cell phones cheap, and they count on American consumers to sustain their impressive economic growth. According to the New York Times, China exported $165.3 billion in goods to the United States in the first half of 2012, just edging out the entire European Union at $163.1 billion. If North Korea starts snapping at the neighbors, you can expect China to bust out the shock collar.

Although China’s hold on North Korea is enough to keep the peace, changes within the country itself also look promising. Kim Jong-Il caused some uproar a year and a half prior by sinking a South Korean naval vessel and shelling one of their islands, but his son appears to be much more amiable towards loosening the vice on the Democratic People’s Republic.

This was, of course, officially dismissed as ridiculous. However, under their new, late-twenties, Swiss-educated ruler, North Korea has announced a plan allowing farmers to sell their harvest at market prices rather than those set by the state and, according to Reuters, keep between 30-50% of their profits. Although not substantial, it is a slight lean in the right direction. Conservative movement by the new regime is prudent, as reforming a country like North Korea too quickly has strong disaster potential. A rapid switch towards a freer market could easily end in instability, increased poverty and revolt — a dangerous temptation for a militaristic country to go full al-Assad on its citizens.

Quite simply, North Korea is a toddler. It throws tantrums, wets its diaper and every once in a while pulls the lamp down onto South Korea’s television. Although South Korea just bought child locks — longer range missiles capable of reaching the northern-most point of the Korean peninsula — from the United States, fearing serious action by the North Koreans would be skittish of us.

Any attack on South Korea’s capital, Seoul, would be suicide, especially if nuclear weapons were involved; America has 20,000 troops posted at the North Korean border, and our own nuclear arsenal is only a quick switch away. The more likely scenario is for North Korea to gradually loosen its totalitarian policies and evolve into a China-esque economy. China’s role in North Korean affairs and wild economic success, along with Kim Jong-Un’s interest in travelling to Beijing, all suggest that “Made in North Korea” may be coming soon to a store near you.

Jake Weber is a third-year literary journalism and philosophy major. He can be reached at weberja@uci.edu.