North Korea is at it again. On Feb. 13, two women killed Kim Jong-nam, half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, at a Malaysian airport, by wiping the internationally-banned nerve agent VX on his face. South Korean and US intelligence sources allege the North Korean leader personally authorized the attack, possible due to fears over a future succession struggle. This latest international incident is not the only provocation creating press for the North. According to ABC News, on Feb. 11, North Korea’s conducted its latest ballistic missile test, one that US officials claimed demonstrates a “serious threat” to the United States. In an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter claimed that the US was prepared to shoot down a North Korean missile launch if it was coming at the territory of its allies.
To an inexperienced observer, such rhetoric may reflect a cause for serious concern. Nevertheless, this sort of saber-rattling is nothing new on the Korean peninsula.
Such provocations are part of a pattern of North Korea’s predictably unpredictable behavior. Just this past year, geology monitoring agencies across the world detected a 5.1 earthquake that North Korea claimed was the result of hydrogen bomb testing. Indeed, if such claims are later proven to be correct, the test would mark a massive increase in the North’s nuclear capacity. Three nuclear tests were conducted in the past decade, and those actions are not the only time the North has angered its neighbors. In countless instances, North Korea has stirred up provocations, demanding concessions for a return of stability on the peninsula. Whether it be a rocket launch over sovereign Japanese territory in 2009, or the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan in 2010, North Korea is using its nuclear arsenal as a bargaining chip to demand concessions. The ghost of Kim Il Sung remains smiling over his beloved grandson.
It is clear now, however, that many of the past tests and experiments, such as the ballistic missile test, was most likely nothing of the kind, and was instead a repeat test of the sort seen multiple times in the past decade. If anything, it recalls the satellite launch in 2012, which failed only 90 seconds into its flight. In all, events such as this reflect the overarching culture of illusion and proxy governance that exists north of the DMZ and reveals a government that is allergic to reality.
Amidst rumors of getting plastic surgery to resemble his grandfather, Kim Jong-Un rules his people with a lovely smile, distributing cookies to malnourished children and saluting his scrawny soldiers ready to die for his divine causes. Opening extravagant water parks and ski resorts when millions of his citizens are starving, Kim portrays a gilded North Korea that fools no one but his own citizens. Pursuing a decades long “Juche” ideology which preaches self-reliance, Kim constantly places his nation in a state of red alert against an increasingly nebulous “imperialistic threat.” After all, the only thing that would unite the populace better than against Kim would be a foreign threat.
North Korea’s tests and rhetoric are obviously a pose, but what it reveals is a government much more interested in appearance than reality. If the rumors that Kim Jong-Un has gotten plastic surgery were true, it would not be surprising, given that his role in the government is very much a photo-op per day, standing at desks or in daycare centers, or hospitals without electricity, to give the illusion of stability and progress.
In this way, the poses and pretenses of the Kim regime, like that of his father before him, reveal a government which has no ideological center, nor any hope for future growth, but exists as near to one-dimensionality as is possible in government. If there had been any legitimacy to the Juche philosophy, it died with Kim Il-Sung. The remnants of his country exist only in marble or steel (assuming those monuments aren’t just painted cardboard).