What does North Korea want? Internationally isolated, the North Korean regime has a long history of confrontation with the outside world, having threatened to engage South Korea and the United States in another war on numerous occasions. North Korea successfully tested its first nuclear device in 2006; most recently, its provocations have included a third nuclear test in February 2013 and a renewed threat to turn Seoul “into a sea of fire.” Stories from North Korean defectors reveal a life of desperate poverty and unimaginable repression. To Westerners, this belligerence and isolation in the context of such national suffering have often seemed baffling, even shocking. Guessing what motivates the regime, and what its inexperienced leader Kim Jong Un might do next, has become almost a parlor game.
To the south, meanwhile, sits a country where conditions could not be more different, and one where the threats of its neighbor to the north have been met with surprising calm, even indifference. “North Korea threatens to start a nuclear war, while South Korea dances to ‘Gangnam Style’,” observed German journalist Ullrich Fichtner about South Koreans’ reactions to North Korea’s rantings this spring. “War has never been this close, but Koreans in Seoul confront their fears by going about a bizarre version of everyday life, complete with truffle pasta and super-smart phones.” South Koreans even seem indifferent to the plight of the North Korean people themselves. Shin Dong-hyuk, whose biography, “Escape from Camp 14,” written by journalist Blaine Harden, focuses on his early life spent entirely in a North Korean prison camp, bitterly suggested in a recent interview that “South Korea should be put on trial next to the North Korean regime for turning a blind eye” to North Korean human rights violations.
The strange contrast between the two Koreas — and the dynamic between them, one of total preoccupation from the North and apparent nonchalance from the South — is striking, a vexing clash of worldviews with major implications for the stability of East Asia and beyond. But it may not be as mysterious as it seems. The attitudes of the two nations can be understood as faces of the same coin, one that is a product of a war fought over 60 years ago in which neither side ever actually admitted defeat — and which North Korea continues to fight today.
For decades, the most important struggle for both of the Koreas has been the contest for legitimacy. The people of the South understand that this contest is decisively over, and now worry more about their own prosperity than the blusterings of their neighbor. The North, however, has so far refused to come to terms with its defeat. For us to navigate its continuing threats, we need to realize that the conventional explanations of the regime’s behavior—as recklessly seeking to maintain its hold on power and privilege, or as rationally responding to threats posed by hostile powers like the United States—miss something important. To North Korea, the main security threat is not the United States. It is the prosperity, wealth, and prestige of South Korea.
Which would become the legitimate Korea? As surprising as it may sound today, the answer at first appeared to be the North.
The origins of the Korean conflict can formally be traced to the end of the Second World War, when the Korean peninsula was liberated from Japan and divided at the 38th parallel by the victorious United States and the Soviet Union. This new occupation—with the Soviets in the northern half and the Americans in the south—reinforced a divide that had already grown in Korea under the stresses of Japanese colonial occupation and created two partisan camps with the support of two rival patrons.
Their diverging visions of Korea’s future made the possibility of conciliation and unity increasingly remote and exploded into war when North Korea’s leader Kim Il Sung, with the backing of Joseph Stalin, launched an offensive across the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950. Unlike WWII, which ended with formal surrenders, the Korean War ceased with only a military armistice in 1953 and with the peninsula roughly divided where the war began. To this day, no peace treaty has ever been signed to bring the war to an end. What followed, instead, was a long and simmering confrontation between North and South that took the form of a contest for legitimacy: two implacable regimes, each holding half the peninsula and each claiming to be, simply, Korea.
For South Korea, this meant defining itself in opposition to the communist North. The South Korean regime fostered an anticommunist worldview that portrayed anyone with sympathies for or connections to the communist North as an enemy of the state. In practical terms, this also meant becoming inextricably intertwined with US interests and policy in the region.
North Korea, similarly, defined itself in opposition to the South. In contrast to capitalist South Korea, Pyongyang’s leaders adhered to the orthodox Stalinist concept of all-round development and national economic self-sufficiency. In the Stalinist system, the losing side was not only deprived of power, but was physically eradicated. Nearly 100,000 “hostile and reactionary elements” were rounded up, imprisoned, and executed in 1958 and 1959. The personality cult of Kim Il Sung was forged from this bloodshed, and, by 1961, his supremacy was secured. Kim based his claim to legitimacy in large part on the fact that his regime had broken decisively with the Japanese colonial past, in contrast to the former collaborationist “lackeys” who filled the ranks of South Korea’s ruling elite. The North thus staked out the territory of true Koreanness, sponsoring immense pageants and cultural performances designed to fuse the image of the Kim Il Sung with lush evocations of Korea’s patriotic past. South Korea, meanwhile, was portrayed in the North as a land devoid of national identity, its “Koreanness” spoiled and compromised by years of American “domination.”
Which would become the legitimate Korea? As surprising as it may sound today, the answer at first appeared to be the North. Postwar South Korea was a bleak and depressing place devastated by the war. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in US military and economic aid, it had little to show for it; its per capita gross domestic product in 1961 was less than 100 US dollars.
By contrast, North Korea was relatively flush. It had been able to rapidly rebuild with generous help from its communist backers. It had bigger industries and better roads, and its people were better fed; its gross domestic product per capita was twice that of the South. North Korea attracted so much attention as a model “socialist” state that, in the early 1960s, many wealthy Korean families living in Japan decided to return to the socialist fatherland.
Nevertheless, there were already signs that the North’s ascendancy could not be sustained. By the late 1960s, production rates there began to slow. By the early 1970s, thanks largely to the export-oriented growth strategy of South Korea’s president Park Chung Hee, the South began to rapidly catch up. As South Korea’s fortunes rapidly rose, North Korea’s fell, fueled by internal deficiencies in the North Korean system and overdependence on foreign aid. By the mid-70s, the South’s gross domestic product would pass the North’s and never turn back.
By the 1990s, the contrast between the two states could not have been starker. One was a regional power, prosperous and democratic with a growing international reputation. The 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul vividly showcased to billions around the world that it was no longer the poverty-stricken Asian war victim of the past, but a vibrant, rich, and modern society.
The other Korea had become an aid-dependent nation racked by poverty, isolation, and repression. The demise of Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s and China’s abandonment of the “friendship” price system, and their demand for hard currency instead of offering exports on credit, resulted in a steep decline in the North Korean economy. A series of floods and misguided agricultural practices added to Pyongyang’s misfortunes. The result was famine on a massive scale from 1993 to 1998, in which an estimated 2 million of its 24 million people died. In the eyes of the world, the contest for Korean legitimacy was over. The South had won.
There is only one nation on earth that does not see it that way. Today, the reversal in the fortunes of the two countries—South Korea’s prosperity and cultural power seen next to the calamity of the Kim dynasty’s unrealized utopia—is what explains North Korea’s fury, and its extraordinary refusal to open to the rest of the world.
To enact vital reforms that might improve the lives of its citizens, including loosening state controls, would also mean exposing them to what has happened to their Korean “brothers” just south of the demilitarized zone. Rather than a cultural wasteland and pawn of the West, South Korea is a rich and free nation, one that is enjoying a surge of economic, political, and cultural power not just in Asia, but around the world. The more North Koreans know about the South, the less likely they are to put up with the conditions of poverty and repression at home.
South of the border, the end of the legitimacy contest has had different effects—often manifested as a surprising lack of concern about the North’s dangerous-sounding bluster. The streets and alleys of Gangnam and Myeongdong, Seoul’s premier shopping districts, were still bustling with carefree shoppers the day Pyongyang threatened to launch a nuclear strike against Seoul in March. The Choson Ilbo, a major South Korean daily newspaper, quoted a government source as saying, “We’re seeing a bizarre phenomenon where people are reacting very sensitively to even the slightest malfunctions at one of our nuclear power plants, which are relatively safe, while there is not much awareness about the risks of North Korean nuclear facilities, which pose a far greater threat.”
Such seeming indifference to Pyongyang’s threats also extends to South Koreans’ lack of interest in Korean unification. In the 1990s, more than 80 percent of South Koreans believed that unification was a vital national goal; in 2011 that number had dropped to 56 percent. It is lower yet among young people. Today, just one in five South Korean teenagers believe unification is imperative—a fraction of those who believed this in their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. For younger generations of Koreans without memories of the war and national division, the prospect of national and personal sacrifice for unification with beleaguered North Korea hardly seems a worthy goal.
But north of them live more than 20 million people still under threat of starvation and imprisonment, ruled by a totalitarian regime that is becoming a rogue nuclear power. To bring this regime back into the world requires attention to its real concerns. Since North Korea’s leaders understand that their true security threat is internal—namely, that its people will discover they have decisively lost the legitimacy contest—the uncensored flow of information to the North Korean people is what they fear most.
The barrier does, indeed, seem to be slowly breaking down. Thanks to the spread of technologies like radio broadcasts and digital media and the emergence of a small activist community of North Korean defectors in the South, who maintain clandestine links to friends and family in their native country, it is becoming possible for unauthorized knowledge about the outside world to directly reach the North Korean people.
The real question that North Korean leaders are faced with today, then, is whether they can swallow their pride, admit defeat, and embark upon a path of incremental reform—carefully buttressed and shielded by China. This will be the real test of Kim Jong Un’s regime, the key to peace and stability in Northeast Asia, and the final resolution of the long, damaging endgame of the Korean War.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article and subsequent correction wrongly characterized a 2012 book about North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk. The book, “Escape from Camp 14,” is a biography written by Blaine Harden.