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[Epistemic status: borderline conspiracy theory, some slight additions May 1st, 2018, with thanks to J. O. & S. B.]
I just work up to the Korean War hopefully ending with the Panmunjom Declaration. This new era begins with a formerly unthinkable gesture: the two leaders of two states in a single country stepping across the border and back with wonderful hesitation. If the summit looked like it was all on script, I wouldn’t have trusted it. If the two leaders had automated away all of the unpredictable intimacy, there’s now way their hearts would be committed to peace. While there is an entirely different narrative that take the perspective of South Korean leaders attempting to reorganize the country in the wake of the impeachment of President Park in 2017, it seems more important to focus on analyzing the North Korean strategy at the moment. However, I will begin with some discussion of Moon and his his positioning for requisite context, such that I can begin the process of speculating on the contents of the Black Box that is the DPRK.
The main important factor in the South’s behavior is the fact that Moon is willing and able to reconcile with the North, whereas neither Park nor her father ever had such an intention. A good place to start looking into Moon‘s deeds is this article from last year, which reported Moon’s pledge that there would be no unilateral military actions on the Korean Peninsula committed by Southern forces. Moon was playing an endurance game after assuming office. He needed to maintain open arms ready for reunification, while also simultaneously maintaining military superiority in the South Korea-United States alliance. One can think of Moon’s strategy as similar to maintaining an uncomfortable yoga position for a long time: at once at peace, ready for reconciliation, and superior in military might. Under Moon, South Korea was able to rest in a pose of martial vigilance. Given the fact that the antecedent president to Moon was Park Gyun-hye the daughter of a notorious autocrat Park Chung-hee, Moon was the first president of South Korea that was able to plausible communicate this stance to the DPRK leadership, as until now the militarist elements of the Park autocracy were too strong for the south to plausibly commit to peace.
This is impressive and not terribly obfuscated, in utter contrast to the North’s behavior. To begin looking at Kim Jong-un’s strategy, I want to look at two quotes. First, from The Straits Times, itself quoting Kim Jong-un’s announcement that he was ready to halt nuclear tests and ICBM launches. It’s worth making sure that you have the exact (translated) words that Kim Jong-un said before we go into commentary. Specifically, I want to make sure that the phrase “The struggle of the Korean people who worked hard with their belt tightened to acquire a powerful treasured sword for defending peace was successfully concluded,” is fresh in your memory. Think about the wording outside the context of history, as though it were just extremely literal remarks about the structure of the world.
And, the second quote: Mohammad Javad Zarif recently said that, for President Macron and Chancellor Merkel “to try to appease the president (Donald Trump) would be an exercise in futility.” Try the same literal reading, as you did with the Kim quote. Try to picture a world of political communication that isn’t primarily dominated by a sense of ironic detachment from the state of the world. Imagine that one is not avoidant of consequence, or anxious about outcomes, but rather that one is attached to a concrete set of goals and objectives. America, especially Coastal America where I live, tends to forget that politics is not simply a game people play for fun. The last year of Korean history makes a great deal more if one thinks that Kim Jong-un is a man who has in fact channeled his will towards an objective of finally ending the conflict of 1953 and moving towards a unified Korea. Bizarrely, it seems as though he has done this through the normally unforgivable strategy of nuclear blackmail, likely developing a coherent strategy between 2013 and 2016.
I must conjecture that, at least from the perspective of Kim Jong-un, impossibility of Trump’s appeasement may be a feature, rather than a bug. Like any wild conjecture about current events, this is entirely speculative, but this is my best narrative about the state of play at the date of this article’s publication. I am by no means an expert on North Korea or Korean-American relations. I don’t speak or read Korean, and I haven’t studied the topic anywhere near as much as I would like to be confident in my views. This is a purely amateur exercise in analysis, and while it represents my best bets as to how this system of the world operates, I was meaningfully surprised enough times doing research on this in the last week that it would be unwise to endorse my perspective. I read about the Pyonyang University of Science and Technology today. The university an explicitly Christian organization with American ties sanctioned for operation in North Korea, a country which at least officially has implemented the Songbun class system, wherein one can easily be marked as a traitor for simply having Christian ministers as relatives. This is enough of a departure from the maximally limited view of the DPRK dominant in the American discourse to imply that such a view is as incomplete as the propagandistic, poverty concealing official narrative given to tour groups. My unknown unknowns must be assumed to be greater in relevance than any knowns. I haven’t fact-checked this as rigorously as I would like to, but give the timely nature of the topic it seems worth getting my basic model across.
Still, I am writing this because I have seen no coherent model of Kim and Trump’s behavior on the English-language internet. The only discourse that I have seen is happening in private Neither the Blue or Red American factions — as described well in the Greenhall-notjafo Model — seem to be willing to consider the possibility. The Bluestate Ideology doesn’t want to think that Trump might not only be a Cold Warrior virulent in hatred the un-American, and thus cannot consider the prospect that Trump might actually be willing to resolve the North Korean conflict without maximal bloodshed. The Redstate Ideology is averse to the idea that Kim Jong-un might be anything other than an anti-American despot, and thus cannot model his interests outside of wishing to destroy the US. Both sides deny at least one relevant party the ability to speak in subtext. Minority Western political factions simply don’t have coherent narratives around international politics : do the Identitarians think that North Korea has the right to determine its own destiny as an ethnostate? Does Social Justice imply that one should oppose imperialism at the expense of emboldening dictatorship? I have no idea, and the fact that I can’t think of a clear narrative for the stance of the alt-right or the alt-left points to their blessed irrelevance on the issue.
Let’s ignore popular American political narratives for the moment; they prioritize agreement, and thus fail to depict a world as complex as reality must be. However, I need to speak to something that the popular narratives cover that I will largely not for the purposes of this essay. Most political commentary that is not directed solely to unelected policy professionals on some level attempts to describe first a political or ethical norm, asserts that the commentary is itself part of that norm, and uses this frame control to condemn behavior that is outside of the norm while speaking from a maximally defensible position. Such practices prohibit the revelation of surprising information exterior to individual narratives. Furthermore, despite the fact that there are certainly major unforgivable crimes committed by DPRK personal that require due process, I will largely avoid spending time trying to convince you that I believe that such crimes deserve condemnation. We know that violence is bad, and that the DPRK regime is founded on unthinkable acts of violence. I am choosing to focus on the command structure of the DPRK regime; this does not imply that I am somehow endorsing the regime or its effects. Trial in the court of public opinion is subverted, not bolstered, by telling the public who and what to condemn rather than letting them see objective fact of right and wrong by their own eyes. This text—and ideally any others that I may be brave enough to write—will simply prioritize communicating a heterodox model without trying to assert the status of said model.
I believe that both Trump and Kim are basing their strategies on illegibility to external interests. They are able to play into expected narratives, but don’t believe in the script anywhere as near as much as the other actors. This gives them ample room to deviate. Indeed, flagrant disregard for customary norms and social contracts has been the only method by which Trump has been able to effectively navigate the domestic American political environment. But let’s not focus on Trump too much. We know he believes in an ontologically basic deal, and focuses intently on the deal in front of him, attempting to pour all of his compute into winning individual zero sum dominance contests. Trump is the prioritization of the working memory over all other types of awareness, driven by aggression and an intense pride. There is no need for a better model of Trump; we can explain Kim’s strategy for Trump with only this cartoonish simplification. Whether or not Trump is engaging in it with ironic detachment, he’s successfully implemented the Madman Strategy that Nixon initially formulated. Kim understands that Trump will bet everything he has on his ability to win such a dominance contest. This seems to allow Kim to control Trump’s behavior to an oddly granular degree. It’s not without risks; Trump’s desire for ego-syntonic validation could flare up at any time and lead to a new war.
Still, if Kim actually wanted a war, he would have started one by now. A critical mass of the North Korean military must be itching for a fight. As he is likely going against the military, it seems unlikely that Kim wanted a war in the first place. Beyond the evidence of his inaction, North Korea’s industrial capacity is declining. Their munitions are rusting. Their agricultural base is overtaxed. They have been weakened through sanctions for years, including recently from the PRC. There’s no way they would be able to survive a conflict with the United States without assistance from China or, to a lesser extent, Russia, and it’s implausible that either China or Russia would be able to benefit from such a conflict. If conflict was to escalate to a scale that could potentially lead to the debilitation of the United States, it would likely result in a bilateral nuclear exchange that would kill millions of people for no reason, likely containing almost the entire urban North Korean population. The only potential scenario I can imagine is if somehow North Korea and China both have a strong Marxist Internationalist hardline, but it’s highly unlikely that such internationalists would lack perception and pragmatism sufficient to reject a losing fight, and even more unlikely that they exist in the relevant decisive generations. It’s much more likely that China players are going to behave in a reasonable, self-interested way, noticing—rather obviously—that they have much to gain from avoiding a second Korean-American war. I would be much more worried about Russian or other nuclear interests attempting to use the DPRK as a pawn to provoke a war between the PRC and the USA, hoping that the two will exhaust their nuclear arsenals, leaving Moscow or another capital a singleton ICBM power. This plan is so high risk as to be almost deterministically suicidal, however. At the same time, North Korea has never acknowledged the end of the 1950-53 Korean-American war, and as such is positioned culturally, ideologically, economically, and strategically such that an eventual reignition of that conflict should be and is everyone’s null hypothesis, despite the fact that renewed hostilities is in no one’s interest.
But, rather than attempting to win an impossible fight, what if Kim Jong-un simply wants to circumvent the entire war by simply folding instead of doubling down? Provided that one wants to fold to American power without having to fight directly, Trump’s tendency to be emotionally triggered and pursue geopolitical domination is potentially a very reliable service. Provided that Kim is not suicidal or implausibly ideologically hardline, this crisis might be solved without the use of machines for burning cities simply because its futile to appease Trump, and Kim has intentionally given himself this impossible task to be able to open negotiation with South Korea. Kim is not lying when he says that the nation no longer needs nuclear weapons; in fact they have already served their purpose by goading the Unites States and the international community into pressuring Kim to begin to fold at least part of his regime. Given the fact that Kim is not demanding the removal of American troops from the Korean Peninsula as a precondition for denuclearization, this seems like a reasonable null hypothesis. The assumption, generally is that Kim will never give up his nukes as they’re vital to the survival of his regime, citing the precedent of Muammar Gaddafi’s denuclearization of Libya. What if the survival of his regime is inessential—even detrimental—to his own survival?
It is far easier to lose face in capitulation when the choice is between sudden death and prosperous life, rather than autonomy and subordination. The army of North Korea does not march overland much, but it certainly does stand guard on its stomach. In order for the North Korean economy to stabilize, it must demilitarize or integrate with the outside world, and likely both. Regardless of whether or not the claim that Kim’s recent commitment to shutter his main nuclear testing site was a move to ease tensions with the outside world, or driven by the mountain that contained the test site collapsing in on itself, as Wen Lianxing’s team at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei has conjectured, Kim’s contextualization of the shuttering of the test site seems best explained by this attempt to lose a negotiation with grace. Effective politics is almost always done through contextualization rather than action. Kim must be modeled as attempting to appeal to a probability space of possible relevant parties, engaging in strategic ambiguity so as to avoid being pinned down by one faction in his country as a member of another, hostile, faction. Unless the North Korean monarchy is implausibly absolute, we must model Kim as always at risk of looking like good prey for adventurist factions with much to gain and little to lose but their likely rather unpleasant lives. It's likely that Kim is far more personally threatened by elements in the North Korean civil service and military than South Koreans or Americans.
My estimate is that Kim’s basic strategy was/is to continue the nuclear provocation until eventually the United States would be forced to send a senior diplomat—in this case Mike Pompeo completing a strategy likely set in motion by Rex Tillerson—to begin the process of brokering a deal between the two countries as sovereign powers. Kim needs North Korea to be able to operate as an autonomous state until he can guarantee his own safety, and potentially the safety of other individuals in his circle of concern—the exact side of which I am somewhat agnostic about given the lack of personal displays from Kim. Somatically, he seems to have a great deal more empathy in his eyes than his father or other high-ranking DPRK military or party personal, but this is of course a highly subjective intuitive judgement on my part. Potentially, the details of the eventual deal between Kim and the Americans are all worked out in advance, and the Trump-Kim summit next month is just a quick reality show. Trump likely does not know this, but as Trump himself has said, “he’s not going to get played,” which is effectively code for Trump precommitting to not being surprised during the meeting. Provided that Kim has a clear picture of what Trump’s desires are, this means that the deal is as good as precommitted, even though it is likely not explicitly so. Given the remarkably good outcome of the Kim-Moon summit, I am putting high likelihood on this outcome. Trump’s potential military aggression provided plausible deniability inside of the DPRK regime for Kim to begin the reintegration process by unifying Kim with the rest of the DPRK as they were all under the same American existential threat.
Additionally, Kim has already successfully developed the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal to the point that it can legitimately threaten the United States, leading to a situation where the potential pre-commitments made by Pompeo cannot constrain Kim’s optionality to launch a first strike, giving Kim a decisive advantage that may be necessary when dealing with the US, a power that lacks the cultural unity and self-interest of South Korea. This potential for a first strike effectively ties Trump’s hands, provided that Trump is a sufficiently rational actor to abide by at least a minimax strategy—something that is remarkably debatable in light of recent threats to scrap Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal. By ensuring that the summit with Trump is to occur in person across the DMZ, Kim has the potential ability to save his own skin by defecting to the American side if somehow he is betrayed by ideological hardline interests inside his own country. This is likely unnecessary, and the logistics of this would be extremely difficult, but not inconceivable, and this additional strategy would simply be an additional security policy. There is also, of course, a profit motive on top of existential threats. Jyong Se-hyun, speaking to the South China Morning Post, noted that Kim Jong-un could potentially make a play to open the country up to foreign investment and copy the same strategy as Deng Xiaoping, while being able to take all of the credit for the accompanying prosperity with his already mature personality cult. Under this model, reunification is unlikely, but denuclearization and a formal termination of the 1950-53 war leading to closer relations and potentially eventual freedom of movement between the two Korean territories while Kim is able to successfully trade on maintaining the DPRK’s sovereignty while also simultaneously integrating the allegedly Marxist state into a global capitalist economy. I find the Deng possibility significantly more likely than a model that assumes Kim is running a strategy more similar to Gorbachov’s.
All of this comes down to Kim and Trump’s psychology, and Kim is far more of a cipher than Trump. I must build a case to explain why Kim Jong-un wouldn’t want a war. I need to build a clear model of Kim’s environment, position, as well as his reactions to both. In order for my theory to make sense, Kim must have had a way to see that the DPRK as he inherited it was locked into a suicidal strategy. He must also have had a way to not personally identify with this suicidal strategy, leading to an attempt to leverage the regime’s own suicidality into the preservation of his life and the lives of others. Most tragically, a member of the Kim Dynasty or a major military leader giving enough of a damn to fold the regime is likely the world's best hope for a resolution to the ongoing conflict without a major attack on Seoul or another civic center outside of North Korea, in addition to large numbers of North Koreans dying in the accompanying invasion. Given the fact that the DPRK seems to effectively be a massive gulag, I see it as unlikely that strategies such as Kang Chol-hwan's media drops will be able to produce sufficient coordination within the territorial confines of the state. The center of power is not likely to shift from Kim or other members of the DPRK elite, leading to a situation where it is almost always better for individual citizens to defer gratification and gather resources, or attempt to escape the country, rather than building coordinated opposition interior to the country. Media drops are an extremely valuable method for easing the pain of future re-integration, but I see it as highly unlikely that they themselves are sufficient for developing a coordinated opposition inside of the state if dissidence is punished as severely as reports suggest. If there isn't a way to build an insurgency inside of the DPRK, then an attack would have to be spearheaded by an outside power, leading to a situation where the retaliatory capacity of the DPRK arsenal comes into play to terrible effect, at minimum killing millions in a localized war and potentially breaking out into a regional or global conflict. This creates a situation where the most effective plan is attempting to directly influence the present and future leaders of the country, thus potentially the best strategy is figuring out how to have Dennis Rodman bring his friends along with smuggling in information from the outside as in the Kang strategy, as other other options seem to reliably lead to at least one megacity being destroyed and the war environment selecting for further brutality, as in the case of the circumstances that led to Kim Il-sung rising to power in the first place.
The rest of this document will be a historical analysis of Kim Jong-un’s position with ample digressions for context. However, if you already have a sufficient grasp of the topic that the above description makes sense intuitively, it might make more sense to just keep yourself glued to the news. I want to start this section with a story from “Kenji Fujimoto,” the pseudonymous Japanese personal chef of Kim Jong-il. “Fujimoto” stated in his account of his time as a servant of the Kims that Kim Jong-un remarked once: "We are here, playing basketball, riding horses, riding jet skis, having fun together. But what of the lives of the average people?” According to the article linked above, the quote has become a favorite of analysts, suggesting Kim’s isolation and potential leadership abilities, but I think it is perhaps a better example of the sort of naive rationality that might have not been beaten out of the boy by a fully militaristic education. Given the fact that Fujimoto apparently stopped working for Kim Jong-il in 2001, Jong-un would have been rather young at the time. The key question is whether or not he came to accept the hierarchy of the DPRK state as an ontological primitive, or if he managed to hold onto the basic naive rational assumption that the world can and should obey a basic ethical logic.
So let's look at how that hierarchy works and how Kim fits into it. Firstly, need to establish that North Korea isn’t a fascist or a communist state, rather it is a semi-theocratic monarchy with the Kim family as divinely ordained by the revolution. The document Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideological System is perhaps the most direct evidence, with the ideological system in question being Juche, which I will cover in more detail below. It was originally proposed in the 1950s under Kim Il-Sung, but was later made official by Kim Jong-il in 1974 before being updated a number of subsequent times. In the version I’ve taken from the notes to Atsuhito Isozaki’s Understanding the North Korean Regime, Principle Ten states that: “We must pass down the great achievements of the Juche revolution and Songun revolution pioneered by Great Leader comrade Kim Il-sung and led by comrades Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, inheriting and completing it to the end.” The term “pass down” is a method of legitimizing hereditary succession—fairly obvious when paired with the now normalized succession of Kims I-III. Furthermore, Principle Nine states “We must establish strong organizational regulations so that the entire Party, nation, and military move as one under the sole leadership of the Party.” Given that Principle Three is “We must make absolute the authority of the Great Leader comrade Kim Il-sung and comrade Kim Jong-il and the authority of the Party and defend it to death,” it’s fairly obvious that Principle Nine is establishing a clear chain of command for the tripartite state. The civilian Party and the military are directly subordinate to the Supreme Leader, who has been normalized to a hereditary member of the Kim family, appointed by the previous supreme leader, themselves definitionally born of the revolutionary bloodline.
Given that North Korean philosophy dictionaries state that the Ten Principles are “The ideological system by which the whole party and people is firmly armed with the revolutionary ideology of the Suryeong (supreme leader) and united solidly around him, carrying out the revolutionary battle and construction battle under the sole leadership of the Suryeong,” and several sources I’ve found cite it as effectively supreme law in the country, it’s clear that the formal structure of the state as a monarchy is legible to the population. Kim Jong-il’s sister, Kim Yo-Jong was the delegate sent to South Korea for the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics where the Koreas sent a united team. This implies that the Kim Dynasty appears to be reasonably unified in activism to attempt to unify Korea. This is a radical departure from previous policies instanced by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and the fact that the policy change was possible without also delegitimizing the authority of the monarchy is notable. We must attempt to understand how Kim Jong-un came to power as hereditary supreme leader by understanding something of how the system that empowers himself came to be. The following descriptions of DPRK ideological concepts are attempts at discerning the literal content of documentation. Like any state religion, the interpretation of the literal content by living persons is obviously more strategically relevant than the letter of the law. However, Kim, by playing into the explicit narratives of his sovereignty, is likely able to exploit the fact that the North Korean state cannot verbally and directly oppose its foundational ideological principles.
The role of the supreme leader is legitimized by Juche, the North Korean state ideology, which can be understood of as a radical idealist metaphysics. It can be loosely can be loosely translated as “Self-Reliance,” and is derived from the Japanese “Shutai,” a transliteration of Marx’s use of the German “Subjekt.” The word Subjekt is equivalent to its English cognate, as in subject-object relations. Kim Il-Sung, the founder of the North Korean state, outlined three principles of Juche in a 1965 speech: political independence, economic self-sustenance, and self-reliance in defense. However, the method for attaining this is mediated through the will of the Kim family, rather than through the acquisition of the means of production, allowing collective betterment as in orthodox Marxism. It’s a rather abstract book supporting an abstract ideology.
To quote from the official English translation of On the Juche Idea: “As the leader said, the Juche idea is based on the philosophical principle that man is the master of everything and decides everything.” Juche philosophy, thus, is idealist rather than materialist, and the overall state ideology asserts that the only way that the mass democratic movement is able to successfully gain sufficient power to attain the ideal sponsored by Juche is by the masses mediating their behavior through the idealized persons of the Kim dynasty. Quoting again from On the Juche Idea: “The leader [Kim Il-sung] gave a new philosophical conception of man by defining independence, creativity and consciousness as the essential features of man, the social being.” These traits are given by fiat, through the leader. This relationship is stated explicitly multiple times throughout the book, for instance here: “How the masses are awakened to consciousness and organized in a revolutionary way, and how they perform their revolutionary duties and historical mission, depend on whether or not they are given correct leadership by the party and the leader.” The masses may be able to reshape the world, for they are men, but they must be led in order to be effective at this objective. Self-reliance depends on a sovereign who is at once the general correlate of the regime’s success, and who is additionally separate from the regime. The Juche idea resembles Neoreaction far more than it does a reasonably functional socialist state trending towards full or even partial communism. Socialism or even potentially full communism is to be willed into existence by the supreme leader, but even while socialist or communist outcomes are potentially superior to other organizational systems in this model that values centralized coordination and the construction of an ordered anthropocentric world above all other things, the state of the world is seen as non-deterministically computed through the will of the sovereign. As with any monarchial system, the output is equal to the personality and skill of the individual implementing it, and as we can see from the reports of refugees from the prison camps, the first two Kims were certainly willing to use pure sadism as a tactic to reshape their society.
It’s worth looking at the process that led to the end of a unified Korea to explain how this is an intuitive metaphysics to emerge in the North Korean context. When Kim Il-sung was born in 1912, Korea was a Japanese colony undergoing assimilation, but the Japanese occupation was hardly the beginning of Korea’s loss of autonomy as the native Korean monarchy was being intentionally subverted by virtually every great and regional imperial power active at the end of the nineteenth century. While the Korean Monarchy was already in the Qing sphere of influence as a tributary state, at least from my inexpert vantage, the point at which the Korean Monarchy became terminal was the assassination of Empress Myeongseong, orchestrated by the Japanese minister to Korea Miura Gorō. The assassination is the first point at which the Japanese Empire no longer had any plausible deniability as to its intentions in destroying Korean sovereignty. The assassination of Empress Myeongseong led to King Gojong and the crown prince governing from the Russian legation in Jeong-dong, as attempting to target them inside of the legation would be a direct act of war against Russia for the Japanese. This implies that from the perspective of the sovereign Gojong, the Korean state required protection from a superior military power to successfully maintain its existence. King Gojang’s decision as to which regionally interested power to collaborate with was forced, given the need for an expedient reaction to the Japanese threat, and given the fact that Korea was supposed to be officially independent because of a treaty that Qing Chinese representatives had signed guaranteeing Korea’s independence following the first Sino-Japanese War. The war, despite its name, had in fact broken out in Korea a mere year earlier and concluded just months before the assassination of the Empress, and which was prompted by Korea’s request for aid from the Qing in suppressing a Neo-Confucian peasant rebellion. Korea, by the end of the nineteenth century, was simply too small to assert its independence when surrounded by massive and aggressive neighbors. Japan, after the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, was the unquestioned military power in the East Asian region, formally made Korea a protectorate, and had taken over police functions inside of Korea—an obvious symptom of total loss of independence. In 1910, Korea was officially annexed by Japan. Korea was forcibly mobilized as a Japanese colony through the World Wars. The Soviet Union officially declared war on the Japanese two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, leading to a rapid opportunistic advance by Soviet troops across the Korean peninsula while Soviet forces also attacked the Japanese regime in Manchuria. The Soviet-Japanese war lasted a grand total of three weeks and three days, and at its conclusion the Soviets accepted the American suggestion to divide Korea into separate American and Soviet sectors at the 38th parallel. The Moscow Conference of 1945 established that a joint commission of Britain, the U.S, the Soviets, and the PRC. were to attempt to establish a single free government in Korea. The British and the Chinese were unsurprisingly marginalized, and American and Soviet military occupations were established. Notably, they were given a budget of five years to hold a trusteeship over the country before independence could be established. Unsurprisingly, the War of 1950-53 started right on schedule.
If we focus back on the emergence of the Kim dynasty, we need to get a clear picture of the life and times of their founder and how his biography served as a legitimation of their claim to Juche. Enter Kim Il-Sung, born 15 April, 1912 Anno Domini, or Juche Year 1, depending on your messiah of choice. The story’s murky, but I’ll go through it best I can. He’s born in North Jeolla, in what would eventually become South Korea. He claimed to be raised Presbyterian, and his family ran to Manchuria in 1920, either to escape famine or persecution for resisting the Japanese occupation. By ’26 the kid is 14, and apparently founds something called the Down-With-Imperialism-Union that’s considered the predecessor to the Workers’ Party of Korea. Given the lack of information, I like to think that this is sort of like George Washington’s high school debate club being considered the direct successor organization to the US Congress, but Kim definitely joined the Chinese Communist Party (the Korean Communist Party had gotten kicked out of the Comintern for being too nationalist and thus wasn’t cool enough) and got to work as a member of various guerrilla warfare organizations attempting to damage the Japanese Regime. In 1931, this all got more difficult when the Japanese planted some dynamite on their own railroad tracks in what came to be known as the Mukden Incident and claimed it was Chinese dissidents, giving themselves an excuse to set up a puppet state in Manchuria. Some League of Nations investigators called the Lytton Commission figured out it was a false flag the next year, which led to them kicking Japan out of their club. It was during this period that Kim managed to have his first major early success: the raid on Pochonbo, where his gang attacked a small Japanese colonial village, making off with four thousand yen (apparently about 16,000 2015 USD according to a conversion at historicalstatistics.org) and burning down various municipal buildings, among them the police station, post office, foresters' office, local elementary school, and fire department. Reading accounts like this makes me realize just how much The Good, The Bad, & The Weird wasn’t exaggerating how much Japanese occupied Manchuria was effectively a Western, while also being narrated as being similarly heroic by the North Korean regime when, in actuality, it seems nasty, brutish, and depressingly small-time.
The Japanese eventually chased him and his unit out of Korea, whereupon he apparently joined the Red Army and served until the end of World War Two, ending up back in Korea when the Soviets pushed south. Kim was now an experienced fighter living inside of Soviet Korea, one of the twentieth centuries greatest paradoxes: an almost honestly anti-imperialist colonial occupation. Kim was going to exploit this situation for all it was worth. Terentii Shtykov, the Soviet ambassador to Korea and the general in de facto command of the Soviet occupation due to his connections to Josef Stalin, appears to have supported Kim in his rise. While the party has now largely edited Shtykov out of history, he was in effect the DPRK’s first supreme leader. However, Kim Il-sung managed to successfully inherit the position of Sovereign from Shtykov and reassert the DPRK as an independent state rathe than simply a Soviet protectorate. Kim Il-sung used Shtykov’s connections to travel to Moscow in March of 1949 an attempt to persuade Stalin to allow him to begin military actions against the South. However, from an official (read: highly idealized) transcript of their conversation, Stalin ad Kim both agreed that the war was inevitable. Border clashes were already breaking out on the 38th Parallel, and guerrillas were already maintaining operations behind enemy lines. America often likes to pretend that there was not a direct line of conflict from the Second World War to the Cold War, but the conflict is one continuous mass of strategic actions, rather than two discrete periods of hostility. The Korean War is the only time that the great powers of the Cold War ever went head to head in any meaningful sense, with the United States engaging in combat with a pre-nuclear PRC.
Stalin was not initially willing to authorize military action against the south, but the situation changed by the next year. A likely major persuasive force in this negotiation was the recent victory of the Communists in the Chinese Civil War, which certainly must have increased the strategic authority of East Asian guerrillas by a great deal. Stalin, for his part, was likely quite concerned that the Americans would attempt to remilitarize the Japanese, and use them to limit the Soviet Union’s Asian sphere of influence. Additionally, the Soviets had detonated their first atomic bomb in August, 1949, breaking the American nuclear monopoly. The codes used to communicate with the American embassy in Moscow had also been cracked, leading to Stalin correctly assuming that Korea did not have the importance necessary to warrant a nuclear conflict. Kim Il-sung also seems to have directly lied to Stalin, as evidenced by an official Russian summary quoted on page ten of this linked document. Kim suggested that the war might be won by supporting already active elements behind enemy lines in about three days, and that the Americans wouldn’t be interested in intervening as the South Koreans would welcome their communist “liberators.” Given his wartime experiences, Kim cannot honestly have thought that Korea was ideologically unified enough to want to embrace a new communist government immediately, and I might have to conjecture that Kim was able to play Stalin by letting him oversimplify the Korean perspective. If Syngman Rhee was willing to massacre over 100,000 suspected political in his own country in one of many incidents to come, and still hold onto the South Korean presidency until 1960, Kim was either lying or implausibly fundamentalist in his Marxism.
The critical thing to take away from all of these details is that Kim Il-sung correctly assessed the strategic landscape, noticing that his position in the world was to be canon fodder for the major powers of China and Russia against the major power of the United States and potentially relevant Japanese allies. By giving lip service to these power plays, he was able to deny the material reality of the war in order to make a direct claim to lead the necessary—potentially suicidal—resistance to the South’s expansion by leading a disposable buffer state. Kim's first steps at asserting Korea as an independent state came, again, under cover Stalin’s sphere of influence, allowing supposed loyalty to the overall Communist cause serve as a cover for Korean nationalism. Indeed, if Kim had not been able to begin the war on terms that clearly made him a client of the Soviets but reasonably independent, he would never have been able to get the assistance from the CCP or Moscow necessary to successfully maintain North Korea as an independent state. When Shtykov was dismissed following a poor military performance during earlier phases of the war, Kim Il-sung was able to exploit the chaos and take command of the government during the decisive phases of the war, most importantly the phases after the PRC directly sent some of its forces into the fight—the People’s Volunteer Army—following their conditional that if South Korean/American/United Nations troops crossed the 38th Parallel, they would entire the fray, tilting the odds in favor of the Communists and providing an environment within which Kim Il-Sung would be able to reliably gather moral authority. The 1950-53 Korean War Wikipedia page gives a pretty good picture of how absurd it is that North Korea survived the chaos of the war as a society at all:
Almost every substantial building in North Korea was destroyed as a result. The war's highest-ranking U.S. POW, U.S. Major General William F. Dean, reported that the majority of North Korean cities and villages he saw were either rubble or snow-covered wasteland. North Korean factories, schools, hospitals, and government offices were forced to move underground, and air defenses were "non-existent." In November 1950, the North Korean leadership instructed their population to build dugouts and mud huts and to dig underground tunnels, in order to solve the acute housing problem. U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMaycommented, "we went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, some way or another, and some in South Korea, too." Pyongyang, which saw 75 percent of its area destroyed, was so devastated that bombing was halted as there were no longer any worthy targets. On 28 November, Bomber Command reported on the campaign's progress: 95 percent of Manpojin was destroyed, along with 90 percent of Hoeryong, Namsi and Koindong, 85 percent of Chosan, 75 percent of both Sakchu and Huichon, and 20 percent of Uiju. According to USAF damage assessments, "eighteen of twenty-two major cities in North Korea had been at least half obliterated." By the end of the campaign, US bombers had difficulty in finding targets and were reduced to bombing footbridges or jettisoning their bombs into the sea.
Kim Il-sung’s draw against the Americans was an existence proof of Juche in practice. It’s hard to think of survival under these terms as anything other than a remarkable victory against every other country involved in the conflict. Kim managed to reassert North Koreas independence to the same degree as the Joseon, something unseen in living memory. The Juche idea is that survival might have been caused by his will, rather than in spite of it. Juche is dialectical idealism, rather than dialectical materialism, suggesting that as the Soviet and American materialist policy was defeated by the independence of Juche, ideals are stronger than matter. By embracing the Juche system and cutting the DPRK off from the world as the proverbial hermit kingdom, there were little or no attack vectors by which large countries could subvert Kim Il-sung’s sovereignty, leading to him focusing for the rest of his life on the consolidation of power within DPRK borders.
Of course, Kim Jong-il wasn’t in the picture until comparatively recently, and because of the intricacy of these ideological systems I’ve had to address this entire set of topics more nonlinearly than may be comfortable for some readers. The vast majority of this ideological system was in play by the time that he reached adulthood, and it was not he who was the heir apparent to the chair of the party, but rather his half-brother, the now-assassinated Kim Jong-nam. Little is known about Kim Jong-un’s early life, but by far the likeliest story is that he was educated in Switzerland at English language schools under pseudonyms during the span of the 1990s. He was apparently a quiet child, interested in basketball and under the watch of a bodyguard masquerading as another student. In 2000, he abruptly returned to North Korea and likely attending Kim Il-sung University for a degree in physics, as well as Kim Il-sung military university for officer training. This was shortly before Kim Jong-nam was arrested for attempting to go to Tokyo Disneyland under a false passport in 2001, so potentially his acting out was symptomatic of already having been delegitimized by his father and other stakeholders in the regime, leading to the likely reality that Kim’s recall in 2000 was timed so as to prepare him as a backup heir. Kim Jong-nam himself claimed in 2012 that his father had reacted poorly to his changes from his time overseas, and thus terminated his siblings time outside the country. One might imagine that Kim Jong-nam simply stopped attempting to be a good heir around that time, leading to increasingly self-defeating behavior as his removal from dynastic power was already determined. Also, out of a minor need for levity, I feel a need to note the degree to which Kim Jong-il’s naming tendencies remind me of the many George Foremans the Nth.
The medieval Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldun, in the Muqaddimah, made the point that states founded by formerly nomadic conquerers tend to follow a three-generation pattern. The first generation are conquerers who begin the dynasty, who were hard enough men to conquer settled peoples. Their children are raised by the conquering (or in North Korean terms revolutionary) dynasty, who train their direct descendants to imitate themselves properly. Then, the third generation, raised in the state’s prime, is frequently raised in the luxury of a golden age and fails to maintain the harsh standards of their nomadic ancestors. From the perspective of maintaining an independent state, Kim’s likely lavish upbringing is a strategic disaster. However, from the perspective of folding the state with an ethical mind, it potentially produced a sensitive individual with intense personal preference that he assumes is not inherently evil, as well as perceptive abilities that are able to react to the kinds of threats inherent in a life of palace intrigue. A former classmate of his remarked that he spent a great deal of time in school in Switzerland drawing detailed pencil drawings of Michael Jordan for hours. This kind of self-directed, contemplative behavior was likely upset when he was sent to the military university and rejoined palace society. This breach of social contract may have provided a healthy degree of paranoia while leaving his perspective primary in his own ontology, as opposed to filtering his assumptions of right and wrong through an authority figure. In short, I think that Kim Jong-un may in fact retain a conception of justice, even if it is an alien justice to my norms. We can either interpret Kim Jong-un’s reactions to the circumstances of power that were thrust on him as opportunistic hedonism, but this is an entirely implausible idea given the fact that he has begun the process of giving up his asymmetric leverage by meeting with Moon. Instead, it seems like the only real option is to think that Kim, after being brought back into the palatial fold, maintained a strategic will and a desire to reconcile the contradictions in his life, simply waiting for an opportunity to run a strategy such as the one that is currently playing out. I am not suggesting that somehow this was a masterplan designed to the letter in advance, rather that it seems more likely that Kim Jong-un has been observing a set of heuristics that led him to take opportunities that could lead to this de-escalation of tensions, if only because this would grant him more autonomy and less psychological pain from causing the suffering of others in the long run. His father, Jong-il, certainly did not take such opportunities, and instead simply engaged in private cruelties. Kim Jong-il played the role that was expected of him, whereas Kim Jong-un seems to have held onto an independent mentality, separate from the will of the crowd.
I have been somewhat intentionally leaving out the other major narrative of North Korean ideology as it does not seem to have come into play anywhere near as strongly until the reign of Kim Jong-il There is a second narrative other than Juche in play in the interpretation of the 1950 War: Songun, or “military first" which you might have noticed as an untranslated term in the above quotes from the Ten Principles. Songun means that after the revolution is completed—something that the North Korean state seems to waffle about a great deal—the process of constructing a new society begins with the military, asserting that the military is the primary source of power in the country. Far more than Prussia ever was, North Korea is a military with a country, where the military is given first priority in everything from information to food. It’s a much simpler idea than the metaphysics of Juche, but in effect its equally as important to the country’s positioning even though I don’t find it terribly compelling. However, it's important to note that Songun didn’t appear as official government doctrine until after the death of Kim Il-Sung. The country was certainly militarized due to situational need, but the military was not given official status to the same degree as party ideology and the Kim Il-sung cult of personality. I conjecture that Songun as an ideological system is an attempt to claim that the Korean People’s Army is the source of ideological legitimacy, rather than the Kim bloodline, as an effort to create a military junta external to the monarchy. In such a position, an individual or set of generals would be able to depose or puppet the monarch and govern from a position of relative security. Songun, as a narrative, has been an attempt to describe the origins of the North Korean State in terms of the anti-Japanese Occupation forces that Kim fought with, rather than Kim specifically, positioning the military as an elite force, able to compete as a separate sovereign to the Revolutionary Bloodline. Ironically, I must note that Kim Il-sung may have attempted the same strategy as his son, attempting to pursue nuclear development in the 1990s, the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction potentially providing the plausible deniability to talk with Jimmy Carter in 1994. Kim Il-sung’s death on July 8th of that year is potentially suspicious, but as was 82 at the time this is not terribly suspicious, additionally as nuclear weapons were not pursued following Kim's death until 2006.
The more I look into this, the more that it seems that Kim Jong-un was intentionally eliminating all threats to his personal rule from the first days of his administration. He inaugurated a “Day of Songun” in 2013, while also keeping his birthday off of the Revolutionary Calendar, seemingly managing to create a holiday associated with him while also giving lip service to the Songun ideology. However, a more interesting element of Kim Jong-un’s purging of his uncle-in-law, Jang Song-thaek in 2013 as a counter-revolutionary. Jang appears to have taken a great deal of de facto control over the country during the decline of Kim Jong-il’s health, while also maintaining a strong relationship with the military. Jang had been communicating directly with the highest levels of the Chinese state, seeming to hopefully create a stronger relationship there. Kim Jong-un’s half brother, Kim Jong-nam himself stated that he was living under Chinese protection, strengthening the idea that this was an attempt to remove Jong-un from power and reposition the country as a junta-led client state for Beijing. Given the fact that he had a relatively legitimate claim to the title of supreme leader, and was clearly inside of the PRC’s sphere of influence, it is not surprising that the DPRK eventually managed to have him assassinated in 2017 using the bizarre method of two women, one wearing a “LOL” shirt, delivered a VX nerve agent, both of whom claimed to think they were filming a prank video for the Chinese market, the flagrant subtext of which may just be my apopheia acting up. Under the internal logic of the feudalist state, Kim Jong-nam was a pawn that could easily be transformed into a claimant the throne, and by primogeniture could easily be used to unseat Kim if elements internal to the DPRK coordinated with outside support. It is difficult to think about the unkindness of feudal politics from a secular, republican vantage, but it is necessary to note that from the vantage of most systems of succession, it is Jong-un who is the pretender, not Jong-nam.
Quoting again from Isozaki:
At the Third Congress of the WPK in September 2010, at which Kim Jong-un appeared in public as Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, the WPK Charter was revised for the first time in 30 years. At the time, North Korea only released the Preamble to the Charter, and it showed the terms “Songun politics” and “Songun revolution” as being newly incorporated into the Charter whereas the term “communist ideology” had been deleted. It was inferred The Structure of the North Korean Regime 21 that the Charter had been revised in preparation for the transition of power from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un. This method of making necessary revisions to the Charter varied from the way in which the regime handled the succession of power by Kim Jong-il after the death of Kim Il-sung. This process-oriented style of legitimization is one of the characteristics of the regime in the Kim Jong-un era.”
The military was setting itself up as an intermediary between the official ideology and the monarchy. One could easily interpret this as the military attempting to strengthen their position to oppose the Kim Dynasty. A more charitable interpretation is a desire to use the military to assert independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, either by attempting to directly enter the Chinese sphere of influence or by maintaining a domestic military buildup. Nuclear weaponry, bizarrely, seems to have served the purpose of actually being the sword by which Kim defended peace by avoiding giving the military control of the country. Such military control would have likely ceded Korean autonomy to the Chinese or potentially provoking a war with the Americans, whereas maintaining the monarchy would have let Korea retain its independence by being incompatible with ether the PRC or USA operating system. This would be the obvious strategy that would preserve the position of the military by ceding control to the Chinese sphere of influence, and given that broadcasts such as this one were being aired in 2013, it seems rather likely that the military was pressing for a war independent of the monarchy. Such a war would provide a plausible excuse for a coup, as the military itself had a stronger tie to the revolution’s practical skills than the as-yet-untested Kim Jong-un. While it doesn’t exactly mean anything concrete, the DPRK did indeed declare a “state of war” in March of 2013, along with threatening a nuclear first strike ambiguously against US/SK targets. Pursuing autonomous nuclear development at the expense of relations with great power states managed to produce a scenario where Kim was still clearly the sovereign, and North Korea was still clearly an independent state. Kim Jong-un did not start the North Korean nuclear program, he simply appropriated it at an opportune time as it was the only policy that wold maintain his autonomy, and also be able to be communicated internally to the Party and Military as a pursuit of both Juche and Songun. Beyond this example, I am sure that there are other threats that Kim Jong-un neutralized to his personal rule, this one just seems more obvious than most, and bizarrely the official narrative that Jang was in fact a traitor makes sense on the grounds that Jang was in a position where treachery to the DPRK regime would have let him personally profit. It's also worth noting that Jang’s apparent strategy of using Kim Jong-nam as a pawn while also selling out to the Chinese is not a remotely insane plan for trying to either survive as an individual, nor an insane plan for maximizing the number of Korean citizens who survive and prosper. It’s also worth noting that I don’t actually believe that Kim Jong-un had the foresight to really think through the implications of neutralizing the threat of Jang and focusing on nuclear development. Its far more likely that he was just trying to preserve his own freedom of action, and managed to notice a specific strategy to optimize for that in relation to Trump. In a way, it doesn’t matter if it was intentional or not, just whether or not Kim was able to execute the strategy.
If we want to try to analyze this chronologically, North Korea in 2013 was ready to go to war March. Tensions increased at least until the end of May, as the DPRK continued engaging in missile tests, until by June the pattern abruptly halted and they reached out to begin conversation with South Korea concerning the Kaesong Industrial Region. By the summer, the Pyongyang-Seoul hotline was restored, and the two Koreas were able to talk to one another again, instead of the North intentionally avoiding communication to increase the likelihood of a conflict. I would conjecture that this shows that the Jang rebellion had failed by the summer. Jang himself was executed in December as a denouement to the likely attempted coup. Kim Jong-un seemed to go through a long period of dormancy after that, including a three week period of absence from public life in September of 2014. The next year, Kim made the bold and unsubstantiated claim that he had a thermonuclear bomb, along with pictures that clearly did not show a hydrogen bomb in 2016. The nuclear testing resumed in earnest in 2017, perhaps in anticipation of the termination of the Pax Obama. The election of Donald Trump was sufficiently unexpected that the opportunity could likely have not been predicted, but the need for more military buildup in light of a likely more aggressive American government under the American Republicans or Clinton would be sufficient cause for Kim to think that it was necessary. Trump’s election was a godsend, then. One imagines Kim experiencing a sudden breather, where the palace intrigue has finally calmed down, and there are no obvious threats besides a bellicose American “dotard” who can provide a much needed narrative to keep internal DPRK coordination up, while pursuing diplomatic efforts to align with the south simultaneously, most obviously through Kim Yo-Jong’s attendance of the 2018 Seoul Winter Olympics. Thus, I think Kim pursued the Geopolitical Domination as a Service plan once it was clear that Trump was predictable.
I feel a strong need to not obfuscate the level of brutality that was present in the neutralization of this plot. One of Jang’s cronies, the deputy security minister O Sang-hon, was burned alive by Kim's regime. I am stuck trying to analyze these chapters in world history like a good utilitarian, trying to discern whether it was right to burn one man to set an example in order to avoid burning Seoul. The weighing of homicides against urbicides simply illustrates the ethical quandary at hand. If one inherits the throne of a sadistic prison state, thus also possessing the opportunity of dismantling it only if one plays along for a great deal of time, is the ethical thing to do to engage in a deferred gratification strategy and become the local power through any means necessary, before implementing something in line with your values? How can Kim have accomplished this without becoming the character he's played so well? If Kim is acting out of an ethical imperative, how does he remember it when there is no way that he could hold himself to such a standard reliably? Kim Jong-un may be the greatest Wallfacer that the twenty-first century has seen thus far, complete with the curse that he will never be truly trusted as he must always hide something. He must always maintain plausible deniability that he is acting in all relevant narratives until the decisive moment when he can limit his optionality to the one thing he always seemed to have wanted: survival, at least for himself, and I hope for others. The troublesome thing is that until the process of peace and reconciliation continues further, everyone must take Kim’s actions almost entirely on faith. His behavior is necessary, but not remotely sufficient to prove the hypothesis I’ve presented here. However, if one day Moon and Kim can speak freely, perhaps the whole exhausting story can come to light. Then I can see how right or wrong I was to hope for these men to pursue peace for its own merits.