Who’s Afraid of North Korea?

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D.

As part of CTU’s backgrounder, “Global Security Series – The North Korean Threat,” Dr. Morag lifts the veil on North Korea’s alarming attitudes, politics and history. From its military capabilities, to its cultural sensibilities, Dr. Morag underscores what exactly makes North Korea so ominous. Here, he explores the dictatorship’s dangerous preoccupation with racial purity, as well as its tendency to ignore the real and immediate needs of its population. This combination of paranoia, fear and poverty can lead to dire consequences.

CTU Security Studies degree - North KoreaThe Next So-Called Aryan Race?

North Korea works hard to remain a mystery to the United States, and yet there are some inescapable truths that all Americans should know. Among these is the country’s central preoccupation with racial superiority, a baffling complex with very real potential consequences.

Despite the fact that North Korea is ostensibly a communist dictatorship (and communism, among other things, divides society by classes, not by nationality, race or ethnicity), some studies suggest the country is nonetheless obsessed with the idea of Korean racial purity and sees itself as the guardian of the Korean race and culture. If this analysis is accurate, it means that the regime ensconced in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, views its role in an irrational fashion (i.e., protecting the Korean race against those who would supposedly corrupt it, rather than ensuring the welfare of its people).

This attitude harks back somewhat to Nazi ideology, and it was this same desire to supposedly safeguard the Aryan race that led Adolf Hitler to embark on a course of destruction against others and ultimately against Germany itself. This aspect of North Korea’s worldview leads to further concerns that the country may lash out at its perceived enemies (the United States, South Korea and Japan) without any rational reason for doing so.

A Suffering People

Although the dictatorship seems to view its subordinate population as superior, it does not do much in the way of providing for it. North Korea is a very poor country with a population of 23 million people. Due to the inefficiencies involved in a communist centralized economy (of the kind that has long gone out of style in China, and previously went out of style in the Soviet Union when the country still existed), massive military spending and underinvestment in industry and agriculture, among other factors, North Korea’s GDP per capita (a measure of the average income per person) is only $1,800.  This is roughly equivalent to average income levels in Kenya, Senegal and Tanzania.

North Korea’s long-suffering population has also experienced several severe food shortages and famines. In the mid-1990s, North Korea experienced a major famine that is thought to have caused anywhere between 900,000 and 2.4 million deaths due to starvation or illnesses related to malnutrition. In 2011, North Korea issued yet another appeal for food aid. A U.S. delegation arrived in the country in May 2011 and expressed concern that food aid was being diverted from the needy population to the military and elites in the country.  Overall then, North Korea’s struggling economy—and the inability or lack of desire among political leaders to do something about it—means that North Koreans will have to struggle on for some time to come.

Image credit: Flickr/yeowatzup