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5 misconceptions about North Korea explained

Yesterday, the North Korean Ambassador to the UN gave a tense press conference in which he issued a statement promising that his nation would exercise the full right to self-defence in the event of an attack from the US.

He also affirmed that in his view, the threats from the US justify North Korea’s weapons programmes as it has shown that such things are necessary in order to both deter and defend against an attack.

The ambassador went on to warn that nuclear war could break out in the Korean peninsula at any moment because of the current tensions. He did not however, ‘threaten to unleash nuclear war’ as some in the mainstream media have suggested.

The short statement can be seen in its entirety below:

With so much disinformation about North Korea being spread by both its detractors and supporters, it is important to clarify some common misconceptions.

1. North Korea Is Dangerous

The United States, South Korea and Japan certainly believe North Korea is dangerous but does this correspond to objective realities?

Since the armistice which brought hostilities on the North Korean peninsula to an end in 1953, North Korea has not been engaged in direct combat with any nation in any meaningful sense.

North Korea has however engaged in various attempted assassinations and kidnappings over the years. Some such assassination attempts have been proved, for example the 1983 attempted assassination of South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan in Rangoon. Others such as the recent killing of Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother in Malaysia, remains shrouded in mystery.

The closest North Korea has come to war, until the present, was in 1976. That year, North Korean personnel killed two US servicemen in the Demilitarised Zone separating the two Korean states, by hacking them to death with an axe. War nearly broke out, but was ultimately avoided. North Korea later admitted responsibility for the killings.

So is North Korea dangerous? In a military sense, no. In respect of targeted killings, most of which failed, one could say that North Korea is unpleasant, but not nearly as unpleasant for example as the CIA which has a far larger and more successful track record of orchestrating political killings and the deposing of world leaders.

When one compares the amount of wars the US has started or been involved in since 1953, there is no contest. According to this analysis, the US is vastly more dangerous to global stability than North Korea.

2. North Korea Does Not Have WMD

Many anti-war activists throughout the world, remember that in 2003, America and Britain invaded Iraq on the basis that it had weapons of mass destruction. This turned out to be a total lie and many said so at the time.

Today, many accuse Syria of having weapons of mass destruction, when in fact Syria has never had nuclear weapons and all of its chemical weapons were removed from the country in 2014 in an agreement overseen by both the US and Russia and welcomed by China. 

Unlike Iraq and Syria, North Korea has weapons of mass destruction. North Korea openly admits this.

In 2005, North Korea announced it had functional nuclear weapons and conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. This contrasts for example with Israel which is almost universally thought to possess nuclear weapons but has never officially admitted to having them nor has Israel ever signed the Nuclear non-Proliferation Agreement (NPT).

North Korea threatened to pull out of the NPT in 1993 and eventually did so 10 years later.

3. North Korea was a Soviet and is a Chinese Ally 

After the end of hostilities in the Korean War (1953), neither China nor the Soviet Union became fully fledged allies of North Korea.

At times both countries even desired regime change in Pyongyang because of North Korea’s refusal to adopt either Maoist Chinese Communism nor Soviet style Marxist-Leninism.

North Korean founder Kim Il-Sung  coined his own communist ideology called Juche. It was yet another way of asserting North Korea’s status as a state that was independent of both its large superpower communist neighbours, China and the USSR.

In many ways, after the Sino-Soviet split of 1960, the Soviet Union was closer to North Korea than China was, although both countries continued to aid North Korea. China’s relationship with North Korea continued to deteriorate after Nixon ‘opened up China’ in the early 1970s.

Even so, North Korea was never a strong ally of the Soviet Union in East Asia, certainly not the way that North Vietnam and later a united Vietnam was.

In the final years of the Soviet Union, Moscow began cutting aid to the country. In the 1990s and 2000s China generally stepped up to fill this void.

Under Vladimir Putin, relations did begin to improve. A newly elected President Putin visited North Korea in the year 2000 and the visit was widely seen as successful. Still Moscow and Pyongyang cannot be considered allies nor even partners.

4. You Cannot Visit North Korea 

You can, unless specifically barred from entry, passport holders of any country, including the United States and Japan can go on one of the increasing numbers of guided tours for foreigners.

It isn’t possible to wander around on one’s own, but you can certainly see North Korea. Some have even illegally taken non-authorised photos. Of course certain authorised photo opportunities are widely available.

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5. North Korea Isn’t Free

This question is a matter of perspective. North Korea is among the most closed states in the world. Contact with the outside world is limited and the free speech enjoyed by Russians and Syrians living in government controlled areas does not exist.

Being wantonly idealistic, one could say that North Korea is a crime-free paradise, a shelter from a violent world where life is more mechanistic and safe than in many countries. The clean and crime free Pyongyang is world’s away from the violent crime and theft capitals of the west like Chicago, New York, London or Paris.

Being wantonly pessimistic, one could say that North Korea is a hermetic hell hole where Facebook, Twitter and Instagram aren’t available, where intentional travel is restricted and where interacting on a global scale is simply not possible.

The truth is psychologically in-between. The aforementioned perspectives rely on fact but ultimately, it would probably be difficult for a non-North Korea to adjust to life in the country. I certainly could not live there, although I could easily live in Russia, government controlled Syria, the US or most major European cities without needing to altar my work or lifestyle to any significant degree.

But no one is asking people like me, or the majority of people reading this to live in North Korea. This is something people tend to ignore when excoriating the at times odd and at times alluring scenes which transpire in North Korea.

Moreover, it is impossible to have a rational debate about any society without first understanding it for what it is, rather than judging it based on the misconceptions and mythologies which have been built up around it.

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