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Will there Ever Be Closure in North Korea?

One of the most interesting things about the US renormalizing relations with Cuba, is that the very same three marines who lowered the flag at the embassy in Havana in 1961 were part of the flag raising ceremony in August of 2015. This not only served as a nod to honor the servicemen who participated but was an international message as well. To Cubans, bringing in the same soldiers who brought the flag down to assist in raising it once again sends the message, ‘This period in our relationship is over, let’s move on’. There’s a degree of closure within that small act. It provides to the public a personification of the two governments reconciling their fallout, which thankfully was only political and not nuclear. Yet this message falls on more ears than just Cubans.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is another relic of the Cold War era. Like Cuba, the DPRK is home to a single party communist regime, governed by a cult-of-personality leader that acquired office through nepotism. While both countries have been isolated from the US for decades, as Sam Cho from the Diplomat pointed out, the key difference between their reintegration into US and international politics lies in nuclear weapon capability. The DPRK is not the only nuclear power with whom the US has had strained relations.

Reaching the landmark energy deal with Iran required extensive agreements, assurances, measures, and protocols against weaponizing uranium or plutonium. Additionally, it took the diplomatic jockeying of the P5 (US, China, UK, Russia, France) plus Germany. Even with all the physical and political capital spent on this deal, a number of polls show American’s still generally distrust and oppose both the agreement and US involvement with Iran.

While the US’s relationship with Iran has been tenuous, the DPRK has simply been an antagonist to American interests since the Korean War’s end. Key to internal stability in the DPRK is the ability to unify the people through external security threats. Working with the US would compromise that security and contradict the philosophy of self-reliance known as Juche pioneered by Kim Il-Sung. Essentially it would destroy the state.

So how can we get the feeling of resolution or closure that accompanies the progress with US-Cuban relations? Though generally an optimist, I feel the options with the DPRK are much more limited than they were with either Iran or Cuba. State ideology, economic turmoil, and isolation concoct a potent and volatile mix. Going to war with the DPRK will result in the use of nuclear weapons. Even if the threat is false, the stakes are too high not to assume the contrary. DPRK ideology limits the amount of assistance that will be accepted from other countries, who themselves are struggling to justify support even on humanitarian grounds. Without war or a diplomatic transition to the international community, the last main path that could lead to a change in the DPRK status quo would be an internal collapse brought on by revolt. A difficult proposition when the state executes high ranking dissenters openly and frequently. This path too carries with it a “suicide” risk. Fearing a collapse, the DPRK might intentionally provoke an external conflict it knows it will lose, only to rally the people and go out ‘honorably’ fighting for its ideology and cause.

Disturbingly, the risk for a self-induced destruction is very real. The DPRK is at a crossroads where pride meets necessity. A recently discovered plan to attack South Korea is the sort of domino that would set of a chain of events leading to DPRK destruction. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention lists a number of indicators for suicidal intent. Behavior includes aggression, isolation, and recklessness while mood lists anxiety, humiliation, and irritability as indicators. The parallel between this list and the DPRK’s actions is not perfect, but since the state is predicated on and literally dictated by a single individual’s whims, it warrants consideration.

Little closure is found in suicide. To the individual it might seem like the only way out of a predicament, but to observers it is almost invariably an avoidable tragedy. The conflict between communism and capitalism might seem irreconcilable, especially for North Korea. Yet the Juche ideology allows Kim Jong-un limitless power within the DPRK. As a god-like figure he can mandate whatever he deems appropriate and has a propaganda machine to promulgate his message. China has proven that communism and capitalism are not mutually exclusive. As North Korea’s closest ally it will be through China’s voice that the DPRK is talked down from the ledge.

William A. Mogtader is an associate editor for the Journal and second year graduate student pursuing a Masters in both International Relations and Business Administration. His primary interests of study include trade relations, historico-cultural narratives, and German studies. He subscribes to the Constructivist school of thought and believes peace is achievable through a better understanding of the unique interactions between actors.

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