There’s long been an idea that North Korea’s erratic behaviors are part of a mad genius-strategy that involves gaining political leverage and controlling the population. Every faux nuclear threat and publicity stunt is designed to maintain a system of control. Given recent circumstances, however, we must now consider that these strategies are more about madness than genius.
North Korea currently faces two major problems that threaten to make an already destabilized country into a failed state. The first serious dilemma is that their one-and-only great ally, China, is no longer an ally in any true sense. China has agreed to initiate sanctions on North Korea’s mining industry, specifically to curb their nuclear program. The North’s mineral exports are an important part of their economy, and this will endanger the integrity of the entire country. It also reinforces the truth about China’s relationship, which is that they see the North as a reliability and not an ally.
The second dilemma comes in the form of the schizophrenic jailing of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbler last month to 15 years hard labor. The crime being a foolish prank—the alleged confiscation of a poster from a wall in the Yangakkdo Hotel. This comes after Korean-American Kim Dong Chul was also arrested for similar preposterous reasons.
These actions show a deliberate disregard by the North Korean authorities in keeping their fledgling tourism industry alive. A country desperate for revenue cannot afford to have what had been a growing income stream of courting curious foreigners to be suddenly ruined. No doubt, some dedicated adventure travelers will continue visiting, but the element of safety those like myself once told prospective tourists is no longer there. My reasoning before was that you’d only get in trouble for doing something blatantly dumb, like trying to sneak over the border to take covert photographs, or deciding to proselytize and leave bibles—the types of behaviors that would get you arrested in many other countries, not just North Korea.
It’s now clear that my reasoning is no longer valid, and any element of safety is now gone. North Korea has made it clear that any visitor can become a political pawn as soon as a minor infraction occurs. While stealing a poster is dumb, a country that is not dangerous and hostile would punish such a person with a fine, a one-day jail sentence or a travel ban. 15 years of hard labor, whether true or not, is inexcusable. Nobody will think of North Korea as a travel destination the same way again.
When I was in North Korea during Kim Jong Un’s inauguration, there was a great deal of optimism in the air. Many were hopeful that the new Kim would roll back the nuclear program while simultaneously opening the country up to more foreigners, improving the economy and world-standing while slowly pulling back their iron curtain. At that time, thousands of foreigners were in the country—the most at any point in history—and the future looked bright. Now it’s apparent that things have only gotten worse, and North Korea is now facing an economic nightmare situation.
I’ve long considered that the key to North Korea’s future was the population slowly acclimatizing to the outside world (through global community efforts, tourism, etc), combined with progressive reforms to very slowly reintroduce the country and its population to the rest of the world; while reforming in a way similar to how China did it.
That one day, after 10-20 years of this, there would be a Starbucks in Pyongyang filled with foreign-exchange students, and nobody would be thinking twice about it.
If this is no longer possible, then what’s left is a much uglier path toward reform, which is the aftermath of a failed state. That the country will simply implode. That the economy will become so bad that citizens will be forced to start pushing against the government. That the infrastructure will fall apart so badly that after the state begins to resemble Syria, there will be nowhere left to go but forward. That perhaps China will eventually step into the ruins of North Korea to assume control.
The third path to reform includes the aftermath of war. That is the worst of all scenarios. However, given China’s latest actions, it is clear that if the North decided to finally pay a marching visit to Seoul, that China would no longer have their backs. It would be a short conflict with millions dead. However, the Kim regime would be finished at the end of it.
Obviously, the first path to reform is what I had been hoping for. Sadly, with genuine madness dictating the future of the country, we can’t expect this best outcome anymore—just as we can’t depend on people on an individual level who suffer from schizophrenia or erratic behavior to make the best choices in their own lives. In many ways, North Korea is a reflection of mental disease on a macroscopic level.