One Kim to Rule Them All

One Kim to Rule Them All
(Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt, March 6, 2022)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he researches and writes extensively on demographics and economic development generally, and more specifically on international security in the Korean peninsula and Asia. Domestically, he focuses on poverty and social well-being. Dr. Eberstadt is also a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR).

His many books and monographs include “Poverty in China” (IDI, 1979); “The Tyranny of Numbers” (AEI Press, 1995); “The End of North Korea” (AEI Press, 1999); “The Poverty of the Poverty Rate” (AEI Press, 2008); and “Russia’s Peacetime Demographic Crisis” (NBR, 2010). His latest book is “Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis” (Templeton Press, 2016).

He has offered invited testimony before Congress on numerous occasions and has served as consultant or adviser for a variety of units within the US government. His appearances on radio and television range from NPR to CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.”

Mr. Eberstadt has a PhD in political economy and government, an MPA from the Kennedy School of Government, and an AB from Harvard University. In addition, he holds a master of science from the London School of Economics.

In 2012, Mr. Eberstadt was awarded the prestigious Bradley Prize.


Robert R. Reilly:

Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director. Today, we have a special guest, Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt, holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he researches and writes extensively on demographics and economic development generally and more specifically on international security in the Korean peninsula and Asia. Dr. Eberstadt is also a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR).

His many books and monographs include “Poverty in China” (IDI, 1979); “The Tyranny of Numbers” (AEI Press, 1995); “The End of North Korea” (AEI Press, 1999); “The Poverty of the Poverty Rate” (AEI Press, 2008); and “Russia’s Peacetime Demographic Crisis” (NBR, 2010). His latest book is “Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis” (Templeton Press, 2016).

Dr. Eberstadt has testified numerous times before the U.S. Congress and has served as the consultant or advisor for various elements in the United States government. He has a PhD in political economy and government, an MPA from the Kennedy School of Government, and an AB from Harvard University. In addition, he holds a Master of Science from the London School of Economics. Today, we are going to be discussing the problem of North Korea with the enticing title: One Kim to Rule Them All. Nick, welcome.

Nicholas Eberstadt:


Thank you so much, Bob. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, for joining me and for risking the time of this presentation. North Korea, formerly the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, often known as DPRK, is what we might call a small country far away about which we know little. This phrase, which was faithfully used in an earlier time, you may know little about North Korea, and you may not be interested in North Korea, but to paraphrase Leon Trotsky, North Korea is interested in you.

And the DPRK is interested in the United States because it is planning to have a nuclear showdown with our government and with our country. It is planning to point a nuclear pistol at our heads, and it is working as assiduously as it can to develop the capabilities to bring about a crisis in which it will face and face down the United States in a nuclear contest in the Korean peninsula. It is preparing to fight and to prevail in a nuclear showdown or show-off in Korea. That is a big claim to make, and I have chosen my words carefully, and I will try to back up what I have just said to you with a little bit of evidence and analysis in the next few minutes.

The History of North Korea

The DPRK, North Korea, was founded at the end of World War II out of a fateful division of the Korean peninsula, that occurred at the time of the Japanese surrender. It was only supposed to be a temporary division of the two parts of a single country, a place that had been a homogeneous entity. Actually, they called themselves an empire for hundreds of years before that. The U.S. State Department was given the assignment of drawing a temporary line of partition so there would be a northern and a southern zone to the Korean peninsula where the victorious U.S. forces and the victorious Soviet forces would temporarily process surrendering Japanese imperial troops. It was conquered by imperial Japan. It was one of their possessions.

But as fate would have it, we moved into a Cold War rather than a happy peace after 1945, and these two supposedly temporary zones of processing became states. One state in the south, obviously, is the Republic of Korea, which is now a prosperous and flourishing economy, an affluent society, and a constitutional democracy. Also, for reasons we will get into, [it is] a treaty ally of the United States with a military defense pact. North of this processing line, now known as the DMZ demarcation line, demilitarized zone, is the place that became the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, originally a Stalin-era Soviet satellite, in 1948 [it was] established as a separate independent Stalin-style state in the northern half of the peninsula.

The Korean War (1950-1953)

The story of North Korea cannot be disentangled from the story of the Kim family of Pyongyang. There have been three generations of rulers in this Kim family to date in North Korea, and the first of these, the founder of the of the Stalin style dynasty, was Kim Il-sung, a nom de guerre. He made it very clear very early on that the division of the Korean peninsula was unnatural. This was in effect a civil war between contesting parties, and he wanted to solve the civil war by a unification of the peninsula.

And he had a very, very clear idea of how to solve the unification problem and how to unite the peninsula, and we got more of an inkling of what he had in mind in June of 1950 when a surprise attack by North Korean forces swept across the line of demarcation and began what turned into a three-year global conflict known as the Korean War. It could have been a very short campaign if the United States had not intervened, but the United States did intervene to support the south, and one thing led to another.

By 1951 and ’52, troops from more than a dozen countries besides the U.S. and the ROK [were] fighting on the side of the South Korean forces. And in the north, Mao’s People’s Volunteer Army had poured in hundreds of thousands of troops. The Soviet Union claimed to have stayed out of this conflict, but we now know was secretly and surreptitiously sending jet fighters and others to their aid. The war dragged on for years and years. It was finally settled in 1953.

It was settled after Stalin died. Stalin liked the bleeding of the U.S. and of the Red Chinese forces, and it was settled because Dwight Eisenhower became president, and let it be known that if the ceasefire did not come into force, he was planning to use atomic weapons to bring some clarity to the situation. Very quickly after that, a ceasefire was established. Among other things this deeply impressed upon the North Korean side the tremendous importance of nuclear weapons in great power politics.

Stalinism with North Korean Characteristics

The North Korean side never gave up its claim for uniting all of the Korean population under the rule of the DPRK, or more specifically under the rule of the Kim family. That is why we say one Kim to rule them all. And as the post-Korean War era unfolded, the North Korean state began to depart from its Stalinist original stamp to gain its own special characteristics. They were all based upon the original Stalin-style state. I have got to be very clear about that, but a Stalin-style state with Kim family characteristics is a regime that has, if this is imaginable, an even more totalitarian claim and grasp on its people, and an arguably more durable base for maintaining its power and its continuity.

So why do I say that? Well, we know the basic schema of a Stalin-style state. It has got a party. It has got a vanguard Marxist-Leninist party or an elite party. It has gulags. It has secret police and the apparatus for monopoly of violence and for inflicting terror upon the population to control. The Kim family took that original model, and they improved upon it, so whereas the let’s say the Stalin style state would have one secret police, one KGB, the North Korean government decided it was good to have many of them, to have a number of competing secret police forces, which would not just surveil the population but also surveil each other and report up to the leader. [This] is one of the important reasons helping to explain why two generations of dictators, of supreme dictators, died safely in their own beds. We are now on dictator number three, Kim Jong-un.

Terrorizing the Populace

Another variation in the North Korean model had to do with how terror would be inflicted. In the Stalin-style terror, people would be taken away from their families in the middle of the night, and we know all about that, and read and heard about all those tragedies and those crimes against people and against humanity. The North Korean approach to terror was terror with family values. It was informed by Confucianist notions, so if one were in the crosshairs of the North Korean terror machine, it was not just you [who] would be put into their North Korean-style gulag, it would be your family. If you were at risk, then your wife and your children were at risk, your parents were at risk, your cousins were at risk.

And the threat of exposing one’s family and loved ones to state terror turned out to be a very effective threaten indeed. It helps to explain why so very few defectors have left this awful, police state, because they know that if they go and they do not bring their whole family, they have got a very good idea of what is going to happen to the family.

North Korean Ideology

A third differentiation from the Stalinist original had to do with the evolving ideology of the North Korean state. Marxism–Leninism was good while it lasted, and it keeps on making recurrent eruptions throughout history. We cannot go for very long in the 20th or 21st century without a new, often unexposed cohort discovering this toxin, this ideal, whatever you want to call it.

But as we saw from the collapse of the of the Soviet Union and from the collapse of the Soviet satellites, the drawing and staying power of the somewhat intellectualized ideology of historical determinism and class struggle has its limits. North Korea pulled a sort of a switch with its ideology. It started out with Marx and Lenin and Engles and Stalin in the classrooms and in the public squares. Then it got rid of them, and instead it just had Kim family members; Kim number one, Kim Il-Sung, Kim number two, Kim Jong-il, now, of course, the third one, Kim Jong-un.

Juche thought

It switched from a sort of a bureaucratic socialist model to an imperial dynastic model, which would have been obviously anathema to Lenin or even to Mao, and there is a lot more staying power it seems in the sort of quasi-monarch way of organizing a society and organizing a polity, and they made their polity one which increasingly emphasized racialism and the racial destiny of the Korean people. They call it Juche thought, and Juche thought actually is fairly coherent. It can be a little bit tedious to read, but there is a coherence and a logic to it. And to spare you from having to go through these volumes and through all the propaganda, I will give you the elevator version.


The elevator version holds the Korean race – and let us call it what they say it is, a Minjok, a race of people. The Korean race has been abused since the beginning of history by big powers that have exploited it, and we know who the big powers are, China, Japan, [and] now the United States of America. And the Kim family, especially the first family, the first leader of the DPRK, Kim Il-sung, the – let us call him the Moses of this movement – brought North Korea’s population into a safe haven, a promised land, where the people were protected against the abuses and depredations of the evil races that were always exploiting Korea.

But the struggle is only half over because only half of the Korean race lives under the benevolent care of the Kims of Pyongyang, and the unfilled revolution, the unfilled mission, of the Korean people is to reunite, to throw off the oppressors of the oppressed half of the Korean race, and at last to have a paradise where all Koreans can live independently in a socialist paradise supervised by the DPRK, and of course, by the Kims of Pyongyang.

Racial Socialism

This is the ideology, and it may not sound very appealing to you, dear listener, but if we use history as any guide, nationalism, the hum of racialism, the draw of racialism to emote, and to move people, and to risk their lives has been pretty powerful. We saw that in the 19th century. We saw that in the 20th century. We may be a little bit tone deaf about this ourselves now, but I can assure you that there are a lot of people in Asia who are not yet tone deaf to the hum of nationalism.

Now, the phrase national socialism has already been dibs by somebody else in the last century, so I do not think we can call the North Korean system national socialism, but why don’t we call it racial socialism? So this police state using Stalin style techniques, improving upon them to build a racial socialist apparatus had an unconditional objective of absorbing the South Korean population on its own terms. There is no room for compromise in the North Korean view, the North Korean official view of unification, because compromise would be evil, compromise would leave part of the Korean race under the oppressive control or the bayonets of the imperialists in the south.

And if the North Korean regime were to accede to this, were to agree [that] we will have some coexistence here indefinitely, that would also undermine the north’s own legitimacy and authority because remember the North Korean government has demanded extraordinary sacrifices and hardships from its own population, not just the huge slaughter that came from the Korean War, but the sacrifices in what they called the building of socialism, more recently in the 1990s the terrible North Korean famine, the only famine ever, by the way, to befall a literate, urbanized population in peacetime. None of those sacrifices could be justified if at the end of the day they say we are going to live and let live somehow. It would be subversive for the leadership themselves, so the leadership is bound, determined, and indeed impelled to pursue unconditional unification.

Divergence of Fortunes

Now, as we look at this, it is very much like imagining that a shrimp is going to swallow a whale. North Korea has got a smaller population a much smaller population. Its economy: to put a round number on it, its GDP is approximately zero. It is an impoverished society, a famished society, and not so much of an international poster child for emulation, whereas the south is affluent, it has risen from desperate poverty into the ranks of the aid-giving Western societies. It is a technological innovator. We see all of this with our LG phones and many other parts of our apparatuses in our daily life. It is a constitutional democracy, and has been for more than a generation.

The idea that a small, impoverished country could defeat a large one may seem outlandish to us, but does not seem outlandish to the North Korean leadership because they believe that they have an ideology which makes them pure and righteous, and the other side corrupt and rotten and pampered and spoiled, and they also believe that the other side has no will to fight.

North Korea’s Missile Program

Now, because of the tremendous divergence in economic fortunes between the two Koreas over the course of the post-war period, the north has lost the option of a second conventional war against the south. The north simply does not have the resources or the prospect of being able to defeat the Army of the Republic of Korea, a modernized, modern army, in a conventional war. And as I mentioned already, their ideology is not a great piece of salesmanship for most people who live in an open society, so instead the North Korean government has been pushing along the only avenue where it believes that it can gain an advantage, and this is in nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons, ballistic missiles, and the like.

For over 30 years, the North Korean government has been attempting to perfect long range, as well as short-range and intermediate-range, ballistic missiles that can deliver not just a regular atomic weaponry but hydrogen bombs, thermal nuclear weapons, not just locally in the Korean peninsula or more regionally in Japan but all the way to the United States of America.

Why North Korea Threatens the United States

Why is that? Because the North Korean government is very much aware that the U.S. is South Korea’s nuclear protector. Through the military alliance that emerged, that was forged after the ceasefire, the United States is committed to protecting the ROK from foreign invasions. That would be the north in the first instance.

The North Korean regime believes that through psychological warfare and through other irregular methods of competition they would have a fair chance, as I mentioned already, of taking on South Korea mono a mano if the United States were not involved, and the logic of developing a long-range nuclear capability is the logic of attempting to threaten the United States so that the U.S. will break its treaty commitments with the ROK and exit from the Korean peninsula, bring out its troops, end its nuclear umbrella.

Psychological Warfare

How is this fanciful idea supposed to work? Well, I will give you just one of many different possible scenarios to give you an example of the way that this might be thought through. Let us say the North Korean government creates a provocation back up north. Let us say they pretend that they were bombed or attacked, have footage to suggest this to the international media, and they say that matching words with words, and actions with actions, we, the North Koreans, are going to take a limited retaliation against the south. And they deliver a barrage of artillery against an American base somewhere in the south or rockets against an American base, killing many people there, including many South Koreans.

South Korea is a very cosmopolitan country now. Maybe they would kill many people from other countries as well. What happens then in the U.S.-ROK military alliance? An American president might have to make a decision. Do we respond and escalate and risk a general war in the Korean peninsula or that the allies surely win, but maybe at a fearful cost, or do we hesitate and try to off-ramp, cool things down, talk things out, which might seem very much to be the responsible thing to do? That might be the responsible thing to do, but it might also be something that would suggest that the alliance has no credibility whatever. And once an alliance has no credibility under such circumstances, its lifespan becomes very short.

There are many other sorts of scenarios like this that one can imagine in which the North Korean government would bring about a crisis that would draw the two sides to the brink of what could be a nuclear war but might not even have many shots fired. Ideally, it would be a sort of a Sun Tzu thing where they win a victory without many arrows being launched, and with no intention of actually seeing an exchange of nuclear weapons. So that would be a way of preparing to fight and win a nuclear confrontation in the Korean peninsula against the United States despite the U.S. absolute preponderance of forces.

Splitting the U.S.-ROK Alliance

So, for 30 years, the North Korean side has been methodically preparing its nuclear arsenals and its delivery systems for the day when it can, North Korean strategy would hope, choose a place and a time to devise the crisis, which would help to break the alliance. There are, of course, other ways of attempting to break the alliance, and in the last several years, we have seen the North Korean side encourage some of these less militaristic approaches.

The End of War Declaration

One of these is the end of war declaration. [This] is the notion that some of the contestants in the Korean War would declare a peace to have occurred, that the Korean War is over, we are now in a post-Korean War era, and the possibilities of détente are really quite enthusing. The North Korean side has encouraged the idea of an end of war declaration for years because they have hoped that this would provide a sort of a logical basis for the argument that there is no need for U.S. troops, U.S. military guarantees, or a U.S.-ROK alliance with the south. And the current government of the ROK seems to be quite enthused by this notion of an end of war declaration and has been trying to encourage a U.S. ally to engage in this. So far, the United States has politely deferred from this, but it is clearly something which the North Korean side would like to use as an instrument to help dislodge the United States from the Korean peninsula.

This brings us more or less up to where we are now.


The North Korean government has been less aggressive and less menacing in the last two years, in let us call it the COVID era, than previously. Why has the North Korean government been so quiet? I cannot tell you for certain. I have not had that chat with Kim Jong-un myself, but my hypothesis is this: with the COVID threat and the lockdowns that were forcefully implemented to protect most critically the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s economy and society have been under severe strain, and the North Korean economy has lost a great deal of its capabilities, losing economic capabilities in the self-imposed lockdown is a much more severe lockdown than the sanction impact that the international community attempted to impose in consequence of North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats.

The Ongoing Economic Crisis

This ongoing economic self-imposed COVID crisis has reduced the state’s capability to pursue many different ambitions, including maybe possibly, maybe perhaps its WMD missile and nuke programs. Over the last two years, we saw what might look like a sort of forbearance on the DPRK’s part when it came to nuclear and missile testing. The main weapon that was used internationally by the North Korean regime during this period was the first sister’s loudmouth. Kim Yo-Jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister, had quite a bit of sharp propaganda to inflict upon people in the south and people in the U.S. and elsewhere, but unlike sticks and stones, words cannot really hurt you.

More Testing?

We are starting to see now in early 2022 what may possibly turn out to be a resumption of North Korean missile testing. In the first two months of this year, we had a number of short-range ballistic missile tests. Then we had an intermediate range ballistic missile test in February. We cannot tell you what this means. One possible portent we may have in front of us is we may be seeing signs that the North Korean economy is recovering from the COVID crisis, and that the North Korean state is no longer entirely overwhelmed by this domestic crisis and is getting back onto its feet.

If the North Korean state is getting back onto its feet, I think we should be prepared to expect the familiar North Korean state international menace playbook to resume: more testing of ballistic missiles, more testing of nuclear weapons, and more nuclear diplomacy North Korea style, which means using these capabilities to threaten the international community, to threaten South Korea, and to threaten the United States. Thank you for your attention. It has been a pleasure to have a chance to share some of my thoughts and analysis with you.



Robert R. Reilly:

Nick, thank you very much for that comprehensive overview of North Korea and what animates the Kim regime. Can we discuss, aside from talking about what you have so far, what are the demographics of North Korea? That is a situation which you have paid some close attention to as well as South Korea.

Nicholas Eberstadt:

The North Korean government operates as maybe the world’s best practitioner of strategic deception, so the strategic deception that I mentioned initially was about the launch of the Korean War back in June of 1950. The North Korean government was entreating South Korean counterparts to a to a roundtable conference where they were supposed to hash out their differences, but instead launched a surprise attack.

The North Korean government in a much more pedestrian way uses strategic deception with regard to information to misinform or blind outsiders about its own strengths and weaknesses and intentions and strategies, so all information for the DPRK government is a weapon, and that is one of the reasons that the North Korean regime has never ever published a statistical yearbook. It has been in power since 1948, and there has not once been a statistical yearbook published. North Korea’s population situation is a matter of considerable uncertainty given this approach to quantitative facts.

United Nations Population Fund

Back in the late 1980s, the North Korean government gave some few tidbits about its demographic situation to the United Nations Population Fund because they wanted some technical assistance to help with the census. They had not taken a census for the first 40 plus years of their state existence. On the basis of that information, some of us did a reconstruction of North Korea’s population situation, and we were able to see that up to that point, demographic trends in the south and the north in the post-Korean War era were fairly similar; educational progress, declining birth rates, improving health levels. Remember this is all before the famine.

Because the North Korean government had no demographers when they gave these numbers to the United Nations, they did not realize that they were accidentally revealing the size of their armed forces. Up until 1970, their numbers showed total civilian population. From 1970 till the end of the 1980s, their numbers showed only the civilian population. Well, if you knew what you were doing, you could reconstruct total population, subtract civilian, and guess what you had.

We were able to show that the North Korean armed forces as indicated or implied by North Korean statistics had grown very, very substantially in size from the 1970s through the 1980s up towards the end of the Cold War period. And needless to say, my North Korean friends were not terribly happy about that. One of the things that North Korean officials, I think, learned from that experience was that population numbers were not just dry as dust and irrelevant, population numbers were political just like economic figures were political, and they themselves had to improve them.

And so, in the period since that release of information to the UN, the North Korean government has held, conducted and released two censuses. They are full of inconsistencies and odd quirks, and the easiest way to explain the quirks – this may not be the correct way of explaining them, but the easiest way of explaining them is to suggest that in the first census, the North Korean government was trying to hide the military, and in the second census, the North Korean government was trying to hide the famine. The most recent census was held in 2008, and they have not held one since then. I cannot tell you why they have not. I can tell you that the more information you release to the outside world, the more difficult it is to falsify the demographic situation.

How Big is the North Korean Military?

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, the standard number that is usually given for the size of the North Korean military is a million. Does that still obtain?

Nicholas Eberstadt:

It is very hard for someone like me to verify that since I have got no security clearances, and I deal with open-source information. The last information that I could use myself in trying to reconstruct was for the 1980s, and by that time our own reconstructions for the late 1980s suggested that just about 1.25 million persons were in the non-civilian population. Basically, back in the late 1980s, that would have been the equivalent of kind of USA 1943, not ’44, but a total war society that was on a military footing. There is not a lot of evidence to suggest that the North Korean military has demobilized since then, so it seems it is quite possible that the North Korean government has the third or fourth largest military force in the world now.

Soviet vs North Korean Threats

Robert R. Reilly:

You seem to discount the pursuit of a conventional war as a means to achieve the objective of unification. I remember some time ago reading the statistics concerning North Korean artillery in their caves and bunkers, which if used, could take out Seoul within the space of an hour. Now, I do not know what their objective would be, the political objective in completely destroying Seoul, which is the main population center of the south, but as in the Soviet case in the Cold War, they were building nuclear forces to deter U.S. nuclear forces and allow them to enjoy the conventional military superiority they had over NATO countries, and obviously, then use the political leverage that gave them. Is there any analogous situation here?

Nicholas Eberstadt:

Absolutely. We got a clue about the North Korean objectives and strategy in let us say a spontaneous civilian uprising in the south from the Rangoon bombings in 1983. And those with long memories may recall that then-military strong man running South Korea, this is before the democratic era, Chun Doo-hwan visited Myanmar/Burma. And at a shrine much of his cabinet and many people with him were killed by a terror bomb. It missed him. This bomb was set by North Korean agents to destroy the entire leadership of the South Korean government at that point.

That was not the only thing which was part of this same plan.

The Fog of War

At the same time, a little less known incident was North Korean frog men caught off of the shore of the southern city of Busan in South Korea. It turned out that those frog men were supposed to blow up city hall. Why blow-up city hall? Because all of this was supposed to be a spontaneous South Korean insurrection against the south, against the South Korean puppets who were being supported by the bayonets of the imperialists, and to lead to an uprising in the south.

The actual objective there might not have been to see demonstrations in favor of Kim Il-sung in the streets, I am sure they really thought that was going to happen, but to create a sort of chaos and a plausible fog of war in which there would be a paralysis in the south, and the enormous North Korean forces could come in really kind of unopposed. And that sort of a scenario or a game plan may still be very much in the minds of North Korean leadership. Get the United States out, encourage something that will be like a chaos in the south, and with chaos or paralysis, we can come in more or less unopposed with large forces and take what is ours.

The China Factor

Robert R. Reilly:

In the dire straits in which North Korea has found itself, during COVID and the repeated famines it has undergone, the failure to really employ any market reforms that would increase productivity [has created a situation in which] it would seem that the only way that they are able to sustain this modern ICBM nuclear weapons development is with the aid of China, and that North Korea is only so big a problem as China allows it to be because it, after all, is the whale in the neighborhood, and North Korea is the shrimp.

I might also ask you to comment, does the problem that North Korea presents, it certainly complicates the situation for the United States, Japan, and our allies, and exacerbating that problem, it allows China a certain plausible deniability. I mean I was rather stunned when I was in China as a guest at the Central Committee for Foreign Affairs section that a Chinese official headed the temerity to say we can do nothing about North Korea, that is your [problem], you are the ones who need to [deal] with that.

Nicholas Eberstadt:

Chinese and North Korean Animosity

Yeah. Well, so my impression is that there is no love lost between the Chinese and the North Korean leadership, and they actually detest each other. The North Korean leadership, first of all, has this racial animosity towards great power. It has got a deep historical resentment of the way that pre-communist, imperial China degraded and exploited the Korean population in the tributary system. One of the worst political words that you can use is translated as a flunkeyism, but that is a kind of a weird translation of the old imperial, tributary ideology, so it is being a servant of the great [foreign power].

And there are plenty of reasons for resentment as well in more recent times. You can go back to the 1990s and see that the famine was actually triggered by a Chinese shutdown, [a] drop off of food supplies to the north. The North Korean policymakers were ultimately, obviously, responsible for this problem, but it was precipitated by a Chinese decision. And of course, on the Chinese side, I mean think of what it would be like to live next to Joey Gallo in the next apartment except that Joey Gallo has nuclear weapons.

China’s Odd Calculation

I mean there is plenty of reason for animosity. And they both say pretty nasty things about each other off the record, and sometimes it even gets into the press, but that being said, they have a long border, and they have to have some sort of a modus vivendi. And from the Chinese standpoint, the modus vivendi or the logic seems to be, as best as I can understand it since the authorities of Beijing are almost entirely opaque about this, as long as the North Korean side causes more trouble for the U.S. and the Western alliance than it causes for China, it is okay.

Now, it is a sort of an odd calculation because that is a dog that is not biting me right now, but it is a nuclear-armed state that is right on the border. And back in the 1960s, there actually were little military shootouts along the border between the Cultural Revolution China and the North Korean side. My guess would be – it is only a guess – that the Chinese leadership is a little bit afraid of North Korea, strange as that might sound. The North Korean economic aid leash from China gets longer or shorter it seems at different periods of time.

Defunding North Korea?

But the North Koreans are Koreans. Remember they are, at the end of the day, Koreans. They are smart, enterprising people. Their government operates under very different strictures and objectives from anything that we are immediately familiar with, but the North Korean government is always trying out new means of funding itself. Those means do not usually include attempts at economic reform since they have seen how that ends in other parts of the world, although they have had limited forays with pragmatism that have not worked so badly. They have been very inventive overseas in finding new sources of funds from, let us say, friends in Iran, from having a homework club together, let us say.

The North Korean government has become quite adept, we hear, at cyber fraud. Before it was adept at cyber fraud, it became quite inventive in insurance fraud in the City of London, but nothing ever rests. There is always activity and churning, and if you wish to look at it this way, a certain sort of brilliant enterprise that is empowering the state.

Can China Cut North Korea Off?

Robert R. Reilly:

But if China chose to cut off the energy supplies and the food that it gives to North Korea, that would be catastrophic for North Korea, or am I overstating that?

Nicholas Eberstadt:

It would be. It would be pretty severe. It would be pretty severe. One thing, however, to recognize is that the North Korean government has been absolutely brilliant at catching aid from the international community. There is a genius, a real inspired genius to their ability to take aid from other countries without surrendering their allegiance or affection. Back in the classical Cold War era, North Korea played Moscow against Beijing, getting aid from both and declaring allegiance to neither. In the 1990s, when Chinese aid went down, and Soviet aid, of course, had gone away altogether, the North Korean government succeeded in obtaining aid from, of all people, the South Korean government that they were sworn to destroy. And there was a sunshine policy, which Japan and the USA joined.

After that, we saw, as I mentioned, the homework club with Iran and other sorts of illicit activities, and drugs, and other things providing resources, so I would tend to agree with you that a cutoff of existing Chinese supplies to the DPRK would be devastating now, but I just would not rule out the possibility that this state, which seems to have nine lives, would land on its feet in a way that might surprise us, in coming up with new sources of aid from abroad that we would not have thought of.

North Korean Technology

Robert R. Reilly:

And the sources of technology that they are employing? For instance, they said recently they were testing cameras for the spy satellites they were launching with their missiles, very sophisticated stuff, which they do not have the ability to produce themselves, right?

Nicholas Eberstadt:

Well, they have borrowed. They have begged, borrowed, and stolen a lot of technology internationally. They have their homework club, [which] has also included scientists from the former Soviet empire, of course. And they have gotten a certain amount of international assistance from technological cooperation, technical assistance with the outside world.

I mean do recall that there is, for example, a place in North Korea called the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, which is a private, Western-funded university. I think the reason for this or the explanation of this is these are people of faith who are hoping that they are going to be doing some sort of evangelization in the DPRK, but that has been an aperture for not just training in cybercrime, but in other sorts of technological areas as well. The North Korean project is constantly looking for new sources that it can exploit internationally.

The Nuclear Threat

Robert R. Reilly:

Do you think that the North Koreans seriously consider the use of the nuclear weapons that they have developed, or do they just want to develop them to the point that they are serious enough to enjoy the political leverage to break the alliance in the south? Kim Jong-un would know [that in] a nuclear war, that his country would disappear.

Nicholas Eberstadt:

As a distant observer from the outside, the circumstances under which I can most easily imagine North Korea detonating nuclear weapons against enemies would be one in which they were almost certain would elicit no response. They would have to feel very confident that there would not be a retaliation against the DPRK for doing something like this.

The North Korean government seems, and is, tremendously aggressive in its posture against the south, in its posture against the United States, and other sorts of foreign international life, but it is an aggressiveness that also has a certain caution. Conservatism is not the right word, but it is prudence. Prudence is a better word. It makes usually small steps to make sure that it can make gains and then consolidate them.

When it takes big risks, it takes those big risks because it thinks that there is not going to be a big response. The surprise attack of 1950 is a perfect example of that. They thought they were going to be walking into South Korea. They thought that Dean Acheson had more or less said South Korea was outside of the U.S. security perimeter. If the Americans had indicated that South Korea would have been within the U.S. security perimeter, it is much harder to imagine that that surprise attack would have taken place. This is to say that it may be difficult for us to imagine a scenario in which a North Korean nuclear weapon would not meet a devastating reprisal. If the North Koreans can figure out a way where they would get to launch or detonate a nuke and not be punished for it, I think that would be their ideal scenario for use of this as opposed to a threat of this.

South Korea’s Elections

Robert R. Reilly:

I see. Now, as you know, there is going to be an election in South Korea for a new president. To what extent in the campaigning is this end of war declaration an issue, or is it?

Nicholas Eberstadt:

Usually, politics is pretty domestic in most democracies, and in South Korea, elections probably have been settled mainly on domestic political issues rather than international political issues, I am calling North Korea an international issue even though strictly speaking this would be a divided country and maybe a domestic issue, but the question of North Korea has come up in the current election and seems to be one of the salient issues that the two leading candidates are debating about. One candidate being from the ruling party, which embraces this so-called general sunshine approach of reconciliation. They would [not] call it appeasement, [but] their critics would call it [appeasement]. The leading opposition party is critiquing this, arguing that it is at best fanciful, and at worst dangerous for the security of the South Korean citizens, and raising big uncertainties about the future of the U.S.-ROK alliance.

South Korea is a very polarized country. If you imagine this, it is an even more polarized country than the USA at the moment, and there are people who are very strongly in favor of the sunshine, reconciliation, appeasement approach, and others who are very, very skeptical of this, and think that a more traditional deterrence approach is necessary to protect against the DPRK.

Japan and South Korea

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, these recent launches about which you spoke, Nick, certainly have gotten the attention of Japan, South Korea, and the United States. And it occasioned a meeting of our Secretary of State, Blinken, and the foreign secretaries of both Japan and Korea together. And before Blinken joined the meeting, apparently, those two foreign affairs ministers spent some time together. That is, of course, a very hot button relationship between Japan and South Korea because of the history of Japanese occupation. Is it the case that the very threat that North Korea is presenting may help overcome those resentments and bring a closer relationship between Japan and South Korea, which is necessary for their mutual defense?

Nicholas Eberstadt:

Well, this gets back to the whole question of polarization in South Korean politics. At the risk of way oversimplifying, we can see that there is something like a continuing civil war going on, an unfinished civil war in South Korean politics too, with people who on one side look at what they call the conservatives as being the descendants of, they would accuse, of Japanese collaborators in the imperial era. And on the other side, the people who would look at what they would call the progressives or the left wing, and they would say that they are the sympathizers and stooges of the communists and the oppressors in the north.

I mean these arguments can draw blood pretty quickly and get out of politeness pretty quickly. The North Korean government likes to make the propaganda accusation that the South Koreans will be the puppets or the servants of the Japanese previous imperialists, and that there is no good reason for Koreans of any sort, north or south, to be cooperating with these erstwhile oppressors, and there is enough historical bitterness there, as you indicated, that they can sometimes exacerbate spats or disputes that may be going on between the south and Japan.

My guess is that the progressive side is a little bit more weary of cooperation with Japan than the conservative side as we look towards the future of this North Korean threat, but we have to recognize that in both so-called conservative and so-called progressive circles in the south that there is a very unproductive attitude towards looking at past injustices or events, incriminating about these when a more forward-looking alliance would look at the threats that they face right now. Think of the difference between France and Germany after World War II when the French had plenty to be bitter about, and compare that to South Korea and Japan today, a lot of little squabbles as opposed to building statecraft for security for a region.

Appraising U.S. Policy

Robert R. Reilly:

Let me close with this question, Nick, if I may. Considering all the complexities that you have presented and the idea that the United States is now pivoting to Asia because of the threat that China presents, our long-standing defense agreement with South Korea, as well as our relationship with Japan, the repair of the relationship to the Philippines, appraise the United States’ current policy to South Korea but within the context of our major concern in that area.

Nicholas Eberstadt:

My impression is that at the moment, the United States has an unusually limited amount of bandwidth in dealing with international troubles and challenges and problems. And I would say that that that is not so much because of the changing straits of the USA or the changing capabilities of the USA, but I would say it is growing pains of this administration, and certainly the war against Ukraine is not increasing the bandwidth of the administration to deal with international problems.

With regard to Asia thus far, the administration has focused not entirely but very, very largely upon China questions, and seems to be relieved in deferring other problems to the future. The fact that DPRK was not in its familiar, menacing, shakedown mode when the Biden administration took office was a sort of a relief I think for policymakers because that was one less thing they have to deal with right now, and the administration was sufficiently happy to put North Korea on the back burner that more or less took in the U.S.-ROK presidential summit last year. They more or less took the South Korean side’s talking points and made them into a joint declaration. That is fine if you wish to defer a problem until it becomes unavoidable. My worry is that North Korea wants to become unavoidable and will be unavoidable sooner or later.


Robert R. Reilly:

Great. Well, I am afraid we are out of time now, and I should like to thank Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt [of] the American Enterprise Institute for speaking to us about the problem of North Korea: One Kim to Rule Them All. I invite our viewers to go to the Westminster Institute website and our YouTube channel, not only to watch this program but the other programs that we have done on the Asian region, Japan, Taiwan, China, as well as on the Ukraine-Russia problem that Nick briefly mentioned. I am Robert Reilly, your host. Thank you for joining us today.