How do you solve a problem like Korea?
North Korea has metamorphosed from the embodiment of evil into a symbol of hope in what the New York Times called ‘a headspinning makeover’. At the start of 2018, President Donald Trump was threatening Kim Jong-un with a nuclear attack and US analysts were predicting 100,000 dead within the first day of the ensuing war. Yet two months later, Trump was heralding Kim as a ‘very honourable man’, laying the basis for June’s Singapore love-in. What’s going on? What should we make of what one Korean American writer, Suki Kim, has called the ‘the world’s most inscrutable country’?
North Korea has been described as a hermit kingdom, its isolation even portrayed as an ideology of self-reliance. Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick describes a poor, undeveloped, repressive, famine-prone country in which 11 million people (40 per cent of the population) are undernourished, while schoolchildren sing: ‘We have nothing to envy in the world.’ Visits to Pyongyang – accessible only from Beijing – are carefully staged and, for the past 50 years, it has been the quintessential pariah state with Kim Jong-un the latest leader of the first ‘Communist dynasty’.
While life is undoubtedly bleak, Kim’s decision soon after coming to power in 2011 to allow a modicum of economic liberalisation – such as allowing individuals to trade basic goods and giving managers of state-owned enterprises more autonomy – has raised living standards a little. On the other hand, sanctions imposed in response to North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme have hit hard, cutting exports.
But there’s more to it than that. After their defeat in the Second World War, the Japanese occupying forces were thrown out of Korea and, like Berlin, the country was administratively divided between the Soviet Union in the north and the United States in the south. The subsequent war, involving Chinese and British troops, led to the deaths of over 2.5million people and the country being split along the 38th Parallel. Technically, the war ended with an armistice, not with a proper peace agreement, although the two sides agreed to talks on formally ending the conflict at a historic summit in April. While South Korea has flourished, with per capita GDP similar to countries in Western Europe, North Korea remains desperately poor. Reunification is a long-held aspiration for many, but it would also be extraordinarily difficult, both politically and economically.
With Kim Jong-un holding hands with South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, is national unity finally possible? Is North Korea directing world events or is it simply a stage for global politics? What is the role of China? Is Trump really bringing peace to the region?