By Sander A. Diamond, Professor of History
In the 1960s, British comic Peter Sellers starred in a farcical film, “The Mouse That Roared,” a comedy about a mini-nation that somehow acquired an atomic bomb.
Fifty years later, we have a case of life imitating art. North Korea is a roaring mouse. Labeled “The Hermit Kingdom,” a description that conforms to its isolation from the main current of world events, it is a totalitarian regime led by Kim Jong-un, the proverbial loose cannon.
The entire North Korean economy supports the military establishment, a serf-like labor force confined to collective farms and factories. Here, weapons are produced and exported overseas. While other communist states such as Vietnam and China have enjoyed prosperity, North Korea remains poor. Just across the 38th parallel is South Korea, where a population of 49 million enjoys a high standard of living, the average per capital income being $28,000.
Though smaller than Mississippi, North Korea is armed to the teeth with an unknown number of atomic bombs and the ability to deliver them. The image it projects in countless propaganda clips seen on TV in recent days is a leaf out of another age. In the old Soviet Union and Mao’s China in the 1950s, we saw generals, chests filled with medals in off-green uniforms, clapping and shouting in unison when their venerated leader appeared. Today, we see Kim Jong-un looking down in a Red Square-type setting on his troops, 1.1 million in all, as they parade past followed by Soviet-style missile carriers and heavy guns, the types the Russians used in the siege of Berlin in April-May 1945. Even the capital of North Korea, Pyongyang, has the stamp of the old USSR: high-rise buildings the Russians used to call Stalinist Modern.
Although North Korea is modeled after the world of Stalin and Mao, it differs from its ideological mentors in one very significant way. In the USSR and China, leaders began their careers in the nascent years of the revolutionary movement and those who followed worked their way through the ranks of the party bureaucracy. North Korea is ruled by a dynasty established by the current leader’s grandfather, who began his career as a revolutionary and came to power in 1945. When he died, his son assumed the leadership of the state and the party and recently, the torch was passed to his son.
The entire world is trying to divine the intentions of the new 28-year-old leader who talks about war as it if was a parlor or video game. Whether all of the blustering and military action is being used to consolidate his grip on the military power or pry economic concessions from the United States, no one can say with certainty since few people outside “The Hermit Kingdom” know exactly what is going on behind the drawn curtain. Here, the ghost of Stalin is alive and well.
Short of a highly unlikely military coup, we have to take Kim Jong-un at his word. And if and when this crisis passes, we can expect Kim Jong-un to repeat his antics again. At 28, he has a lifetime ahead of him to threaten the world.