While the dictators of Europe often get the most attention, the Kim family has actually been far more successful in terms of maintaining power, to the point that it has not only managed to exist well into the twenty-first century, but it has also managed to develop its own nuclear weapon program.
The existence of North Korea's nuclear weapon program is one of the reasons for the country's extremely serious economic woes, because its desire to expand its weapons programs has led Western countries to impose increasingly harsh sanctions (Kim & Chang 1). However, while these recent sanctions have become more biting and precisely targeted in order to impose hardship on particular members of the regime, it is also important to note that the United States has imposed economic sanctions on North Korea consistently since the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. This means that at no point in the country's history has it even been free from economic sanctions, a fact that helps partially explain both the regime's animosity to the West and the continued difficulty that the regime has had in maintaining a stable, productive economy.
However, while the United States and its allies have made it difficult for North Korea to exercise certain options in improving its economy and the welfare of its citizens, it would be naive to blame the poverty and hardship faced by regular North Koreans on the United States, because no amount of sanctions could top the kind of repression the North Korean government engages in itself. As mentioned above, religious practice is entirely circumscribed within the context of the state's control. On top of this, the government has been careful to quash any signs of internal dissent. For example, while "North Korea has not been without dissent, both overt -- food riots in Hamhung and Sinuiju, prison riots, suspected coup attempts in 1970, 1992, 1995, and 1998 -- and covert -- including political satire and listening to short wave radio," the regime has always succeeded in repressing this dissent, often through the use of violence, including slave labor, torture, and summary executions (French 273).
As a result, North Korea has had to maintain an image of the West as their internal ally in order to continue justifying its treatment of its own people. Even its nuclear weapons program does not seem aimed at actually using it so much as it for forcing Western powers like the United States into a better negotiating position. Even though North Korea's ideology is based on an idea of complete self-sufficiency, in reality the country has to rely on food and economic aid from a number of other countries, which has at times included the United States (Kim & Chang 131). This reality has presented successive Kim regimes with fairly few options when it comes to dealing with other countries, because they have had to maintain a posture of belligerence in order to pacify and repress their own population while at the same time attempting to secure assistance from the very countries they have been challenging.
Over the last two decades the nuclear weapons program has become the central bargaining chip in this process of international negotiation, as Western powers promise more aid in response for North Korea's willingness to abandon or halt its nuclear weapons program (Kim & Chang 132). However, these negotiations have only had limited success, because it seems as if North Korea is willing to restart its nuclear program once it has secured the temporary assistance it requires. Furthermore, North Korea has frequently shown a willingness to redirect aid aimed at the general population towards its military, so that only the military benefits from these international diplomatic transactions (CIA.gov). This is on top of the fact that North Korea already spends large sums on its military, which includes roughly 13 million male and female soldiers available at any given time (CIA.gov).
Because North Korea spends so much on its military on top of having a poor climate and extreme political isolation, management of the economy has proved extremely difficult. Crop failures are frequent as the entire food system is extremely unstable, and because the economy is so closed off from the rest of the world, it undergoes frequent shocks and upsets without the ability to distribute these upsets across a larger system (CIA.gov). Furthermore, because the government attempts to maintain strict control over the flow and sale of goods, it has ended up inhibiting many local economies that might have sprung up otherwise. While it has taken steps to liberalize its economy by allowing small private farms and farmers markets, these experiments have been experimental and small scale, and thus have not yet contributed to the country's economic well-being (CIA.gov).
In recent years the government of North Korea has gradually opened up its borders to tourists and journalists in a sign that it might be attempting to integrate itself with the modern world, but this opening up has not meant that the regime is any less repressive, or is any less intent on developing nuclear weapons. Understanding the historical, political, and economic context of North Korea suggests that this process of opening up is an important shift in policy, but it will only be meaningful if some progress can be made to move beyond the decades old conflict between North Korea and the West. In particular, it seems as if the only real hope for North Korea to expand its economy to the point that it can actually provide for its population is for it to give up its nuclear weapons program, because this program represents the primary hurdle to expanded aid. While this does not seem likely any time soon, over time as the regime finds it increasingly harder to maintain its grip on power in the face of economic woes and the increased desire for democracy that comes from new technologies like the internet one can presume that North Korea will eventually be forced to come to some kind of understanding with the West. Ideally, this understanding would be based on mutual assistance and a proactive desire to improve the lot of everyday North Koreans, rather than in response to the collapse of the regime or a reopening of hostilities on the peninsula. While the future of North Korea remains uncertain, a look at the country's various political, economic, and demographic factors help one understand the forces that have shaped the development of North Korea all the way up to the present day.
Armstrong,, Charles. "Trends in the Study of North Korea." The Journal of Asian Studies 70.2
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