Commentary | 11 May 2017

North Korea's historical hall of mirrors

Originally published in the Nikkei Asian Review

Originally published in the Nikkei Asian Review

No country should be perceived as an artificial construct. That warning especially applies to North Korea. It has long served as an acceptable blank page for caricature projections of communist dystopia, Asiatic tyranny and other vices. It conveniently serves as a bogeyman country.

Even among those who study it closely, North Korea represents a freakish outlier in East Asia, a self-impoverished hermit nation, armed to the teeth, which imprisons its own people while belligerently threatening others. That impression rings true at many levels, willingly reinforced by the regime's militant spikiness.

Another staple impression of North Korea is that it is "frozen in time." That was certainly how I felt as a regular visitor there over the last decade, even as the country's socialist economy was undergoing a visible transition to a more market-based one.

Crossing into North Korea by train, the contrast between the drab, low-rise smear of Sinuiju and China's bustling frontier town of Dandong spoke of a 50-year time lag. Trundling on past the collective farms, where ragged workers toiled in fields with their hands, it felt more like a gap of centuries.

North Koreans are real people, not cyphers or wraiths. But they are trapped in a system that in a fundamental sense looks backward rather than forward. It is a country where the passage of time and public life is marked by anniversaries; with a leader who is dressed and groomed to reflect the faded glory of his grandfather as he looked when the state was founded in 1948. When Kim Il Sung died nearly half a century later in 1994, North Korea's clock stopped. Everything since has been a marking of time, like rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic, which coincidentally sank on the day Kim entered this world: April 15, 1912.

Constructs can also be helpful. At a deeper level, North Korea is the phantom state of East Asia. The living apparition of a past that South Korea, China and Japan cannot put behind them. Each of its Asian neighbors sees a distorted reflection of themselves in the North Korean hall of mirrors.

When South Koreans look at North Korea, there is no single vision. Older folk are more likely to see the enemy from a bloody civil war fought to a stalemate 64 years ago whose hostilities never formally ended, another ossification of time. For younger South Koreans the estrangement is more profound and pitiful. Some simply disown the distant, flawed reflection of themselves. Shame is a common emotional response to the negative image of their country that their Northern compatriots project to the world. South Korea's new President, Moon Jae-in, himself the child of North Korean refugees, aims to straddle the perception gap through engagement. But the South Korean public has grown wary of embracing the North, and North Korean defectors often struggle to assimilate in South Korean society.

For Japan, North Korea recalls the worst aspects of its 20th century colonialism and militarism. A Japanese diplomat once confided to me that the Kim regime resembles the desperate predicament of the pre-war imperial Japan that was captured by military interests. In North Korea itself, the animus towards Japan is all-pervading; an indicator that the psychological stain of colonialism has not been expunged despite decades of purging. The regime plays to this xenophobic view of history even as it emphasizes a racial blood bond with the South.

When China looks at North Korea it evokes the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. This arouses nostalgia in some. But for many, North Korea is an echo chamber of Mao's excesses, which China is still unable to confront head-on. Back-to-the-future authoritarianism is a growing fear in today's China. For young Chinese, North Korea embodies the embarrassing drabness of their parents' generation. They prefer to glimpse it receding in the rear-view mirror.

Though the image varies with the beholder, North Korea presents a wormhole to the darkest episodes of East Asia's recent past. It is the revenge of history, always spoiling for a comeback. It is the region's guilty conscience, reflected back in nightmares. It is the country that glares accusingly from cardboard boxes under the shiny escalators of an economic miracle.

Then how does North Korea see itself? Self-reflection is actively discouraged by the regime. Instead, a hostile world, led by the United States and its Asian "stooges," is blamed for all the country's ills. Pride and victimhood are the dominant emotions. Shame, too, for those old enough to remember when North Korea was a genuine contender for the legitimacy of a unified Korean state.

Few can privately maintain that fiction now, owing to the illicit spread of South Korean cultural products across the 38th parallel that divides the two Koreas. To hide the shame, the regime needs external enemies. It extolls a perverted pride in nuclear weapons and missiles, which is its final redoubt of comparative advantage. Kim Jong Un may be sane, within the bounds of North Korea's survivalist logic, but sometimes whole countries can go mad.

If North Korea disappeared overnight, East Asia's security tensions and nationalist enmities would not vanish with it. But it is important to see it not as an outlier state, so much as historical relic. A snarling pariah it may be, but correctly understood, it should also be a window to its neighbors of the skeletons in their own closets. While North Korea exists, it serves as a festering symbol of unrepented sins and unfinished business. A phantom with no intention of going gently into the night.