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The North Korean threat remains live

Most Jews around the world rarely have occasion to think about it. But make no mistake: The regime is fanatical enough to deliver on its lurid warnings.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 25, 2019. Credit: Kremlin Presidential Press and Information Office via Wikimedia Commons.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 25, 2019. Credit: Kremlin Presidential Press and Information Office via Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

“We should regard it as the first and foremost requirement of our life and the most precious honor and duty of revolutionaries to devotedly defend the Party Central Committee, and safeguard Kim Jong-un politically and ideologically at the cost of our lives.”

That sentence, taken from a lengthy article published by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), a mouthpiece of the North Korean regime, perfectly encapsulates the Pyongyang regime’s raison d’état. North Korea’s subjects—please don’t call them “citizens,” as their status is more akin to slaves—are duty-bound to live, breathe and die in the service of the ruling Kim dynasty, itself a bizarre and disturbing combination of medieval autocracy and Mao-style communism.

Other passages in the same article give a flavor of the quasi-religious fervor which the regime’s propagandists attempt to whip up.

“All the people should make full preparations for all-people resistance and turn out as one in the sacred war for defending the country to create the myth of war victory in the great era of Kim Jong-un, if the U.S. imperialists ignite another war on this land,” it states, inadvertently admitting that the creation of “myths” is one of the goals of the state. It claims as well that “Kim Jong-un has strengthened the Peoples’ Army into an elite revolutionary army that has been fully prepared politically, ideologically, militarily, technically and morally, and our defense capability into the most powerful one with which no one can match.”

One individual who agrees with that assessment is Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who visited Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang last week and similarly praised the North Korean military as the world’s “most powerful.” Shoigu was not in North Korea to exchange pleasantries over tea, however; as Ukraine’s armed forces launch a fresh offensive to dislodge the occupying Russian military, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime is eager to purchase more deadly weaponry to prolong its aggression against its southern neighbor. The Russians have already purchased thousands of drones from their Iranian ally, used to devastating effect against Ukrainian civilian targets, and North Korea offers even richer pickings.

Indeed, Kim duly obliged his Russian guest, escorting Shoigu—the first Russian defense minister to visit North Korea since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991—to a defense equipment expo as the regime celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, which it deems a “victory.” The devastating arsenal surveyed by a grinning Shoigu included the ballistic missiles banned through the passage of nine U.N. Security Council resolutions since 2006, all with Russian and Chinese support. And the message this spectacle sent was unmistakable: not only should the Ukrainians be on their guard, so should the United States and its allies.

In the 18 months that have elapsed since the launch of the Ukraine invasion, Russia has not become nearly as isolated as Western leaders would like us to believe. The Russian economy is staggering under the effect of Western sanctions. Still, its political and diplomatic clout still counts in Africa and in large swathes of the Middle East, where local leaders have provided Putin with some semblance of respectability, while China has aligned itself with the Russians in part because of Bejing’s desire to incorporate democratic Taiwan under its rule. When it comes to Russia’s hard power—its military capabilities and military readiness—Iran, Belarus, and now, North Korea are its most reliable allies, unencumbered as they are by any rhetorical response from the hated West.

It’s easy for the ruling circles in North Korea and Iran to give their backing to the Russians because they hardly have to worry about public opinion. In both states, any protest or expression of dissent is met with torture, murder and disappearances. The difference, though, is that the cracks within the Tehran regime have enabled the protest of ordinary Iranians, with anti-regime demonstrations reaching an unprecedented crescendo over the last year, along with present-day expectations that these are on the cusp of revival.

In North Korea, there are no protests—at least, none that we know about. Whereas in Iran, protesters invariably find ways to post material to the Internet even when the authorities shut it down, in North Korea, no one outside the regime’s inner circle has unfettered online access. Human-rights groups say that USB sticks are the main means of distribution for censored material, from articles in Western outlets to Western movies and TV series. But even that is extraordinarily risky. “The government stepped up the crackdowns on foreign media,” In Kyung, who escaped from North Korea in 2017, told the human-rights group Liberty in North Korea. “After witnessing a public execution in 2012, I didn’t dare watch any of the CDs of soap operas I had copied.”

Ultimately, what makes North Korea so terrifying—the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is its official name, despite being distinctly undemocratic and ruled by a wretched individual who is more of a tsar than a president—is its core nature. To my mind, it is not a country so much as it is a concentration camp with a seat at the United Nations. For decades now, the regime has operated at least five such camps, some of them the size of large cities, where up to 120,000 people have been incarcerated, tortured and exploited as slave labor. Just as brutal is the principle that anyone who speaks out against the repression—the camps, the enforced hunger, the lack of any freedom of movement—risks the punishment of their entire family. The basis of the regime is its “Songbun” system of social organization, which divides North Korean subjects into three categories: “loyal,” “wavering” and “hostile.” Being classed in the latter two is effectively a sentence of death after a lengthy period of detention and torture.

Most Jews around the world rarely have occasion to think about North Korea. There are no Jews there, and the regime, while ideologically aligned with Israel’s deadliest adversaries, has never made the Palestinian cause its centerpiece. Yet make no mistake: The threat is a live one, and the regime is fanatical enough to deliver on its lurid warnings. This is why the fighting in the south and east of Ukraine is of truly global significance: Any battlefield successes for the Russians will be embraced by the North Korean regime, which wants nothing more than a compromised, divided West facing off against the authoritarian coalition of which it is a part.

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