North Korea in the cave
Looking into North Korea has always been illegal in South Korea. Even now, reading the Rodong Shinmun (Pyongyang’s propaganda newspaper) or listening to North Korean radio is all but taboo for ordinary people here.
To the eyes of many South Koreans, North Korea-watching is like being the slaves in Plato’s well-known ``Allegory of the Cave” section of The Republic, trying to see the source of the shadow play or the firelight. The point of the allegory is to describe how reality might be quite different from normal perception.
Since Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, and his cohorts wrongly assume that the possession of nuclear weapons would resolve any or all outstanding matters, such as diplomatic normalization with Washington in the long run, it is safe to say that the Allegory of the Cave remains the apt description in understanding one of the poorest and most clandestine states in the world.
In this vein, Kim’s nuclear ambitions bear a striking resemblance to the mentality of the prisoners who live chained to the wall in the dark cave.
First, Kim is watching the world as shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of the firelight behind them and then begins to ascribe forms to these shadows. The ailing leader, aged 70, is looking into the world through the prism of pseudo-reality, which does not correctly explain the true reality, like the shackled citizens who are not permitted to look backward.
Second, it is no coincidence that having the fundamental nature of a nationalistic regime in pursuit of military independence, Kim has been widely known to be a very ``bizarre” leader who usually spends more time working at night than in daytime. Some left-leaning pundits are fond of comparing the codger of the Stalinist to a thief who stole the candlelight to read the Bible but they’re not aware of the fact that Kim did not give any attention to the wisdom of words in the Bible at all.
Instead, it turned out that the moonshiner has successfully finished reading on piles of books related to nuclear weapons program in the dim cave. Furthermore, the dead-on-arrival ``juche,” or self-reliance, ideology failed to light up the darkening cave full of brutal inequalities and absolute corruptions. No wonder that North Korea’s sclerotic system is blinking red.
Third, Kim may believe what he himself saw and experienced only. So even though he is completely freed from his chains and looks backward, he would come to understand that the shadows have no existence of their own that does not derive from the firelight. He acts as if he were a frog in a deep well, where the frog thinks of its own tiny sky as the whole one. In addition, it is not an exaggeration, in my own governmental experiences, to point out that none of the reform-minded apparatchiks around Kim dare to convince the dogmatic dictator that he perceived only illusions for fear of being killed.
The nuclear weapons program is a clear allusion to the external guarantees of regime survival. Just as Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea, had once rushed into an indigenous nuclear development based on an adaptation of Soviet models out of the fear of the collapse of his regime, so Kim Jong-il has since spent a few decades sparring over what it would take to develop nuclear weapons in the wake of his father’s sudden death in 1994.
While a few South Korean leaders have played pivotal roles in achieving the miraculously economic liberalization and political democratisation in South Korea, the Kim dynasty in North Korea has failed to rescue the shattered regime from great peril since the internecine 1950-53 Korean War. The cave is no longer a haven for Kim Jong-il and his heir apparent Jong-un, 29, especially in the era of the Internet where the true colour of a Kim should be inevitably revealed over time.
Given the North’s moribund economy and broken community sinking fast, it is clear that the reclusive leader has eventually failed to sense an undercurrent of the free society by indoctrinating the already brainwashed people with false ideas. More concerned about the uncertain future of the regime rather than about the starving people’s fate, his grotto mentality can by no means resolve the worsening famine of the populace without a huge relief from outside, as evidenced in the period of ``Arduous March” in the early 1990s.
Yet assuming that the notorious tyrant may later travel out of the cave to witness daylight and look upon the rapidly changing world illuminated by the sun (NOT indicating the late Kim being exultantly acclaimed as the ``Sun” of the nation), Seoul and Washington should be ready to lay the ground for a comprehensive solution to Pyongyang’s never-ending lust for advanced nuclear weapons.
Above all China’s pernicious influence on North Korea is already set in stone. Unless the United States and South Korea alike take it for granted the possession of North Korean nuclear weapons, it is time to smoke the phantom-like leader out of the impoverished cave.
Lee Byong-chul is senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation, a non-partisan policy advisory body based in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.