The favourite public portrayal of North Korea in the Western world, and particularly in the United States, is that North Korea is one of the most backward countries in the world, incapable of advancing its own development, and led at the present time, by a political infant, Kim Jong Un, inclined to buffoonery. This carries on a long inclination to characterize the country as an inscrutable dictatorship, previously led for many years by Kim Il Sung and then Kim Jong Il, and unpredictable in its behaviour.
In the United States itself, and much of the Western world of course, there is now a fairly strong sense that the country has been able to develop some kind of nuclear weapons capability, but that this is largely seen as dependent on the knowledge and capabilities of other countries. Yet there has always been the feeling that in the last resort, the government, whether led by Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il or, especially now, by the latter’s son Kim Jong Un, can in the last resort be controlled by its apparent allies like China. And this is particularly felt now, as China has an interest in the maintenance, or at least stability, of the present global economic system of substantially capitalist relations.
In that connection, it is not surprising that one of President Obama’s first initiatives, following last week’s obviously surprising cybernetic attack on the Sony company, destroying Sony’s ability to distribute its film on Kim Jong Un, was to appeal to China for its intervention in the matter.
The successor regime of Kim Jong Un has been portrayed as largely opportunistic, led by a virtual boy lacking political maturity, even as, in accordance with long time communist economic development doctrine, it is acknowledged that an emphasis has been placed on industrialization and on some accompanying level of persistent scientific development.
Further, in relation to this latter, it has been well known that North Korea has always been anxious to develop some form of nuclear capability, an orientation re-emphasised in recent years as the leadership has been determined to retain a certain autonomy of action vis-à-vis its perceived patron China, especially as that country has sought to modernize its economy through integration into the global capitalist economy.
The present contretemps is caused by what is presumed to be a Korean government decision to take retaliatory action against Sony for a comedy film to be widely distributed, about a plot to assassinate Kim Jong Un, who is portrayed either as a virtual child or a buffoon. But the Korean responsive intervention in the Sony technological system, to the extent that the system was hacked and sensitive data posted online, has surely surprised the owners of Sony who probably not in their wildest dreams thought such a thing within the capability of the backward North Korea.
In some measure then, hard as it is to recognize and say it, the present contretemps is a kind of wake-up call for those who, given their portrayal of a country like North Korea, and of its leadership, sought, in the perception of that leadership, to trample over their sensitivities, by exhibiting world-wide a portrait of itself that diminishes it to a status of buffoonery and ridicule. And that the Sony company did not anticipate the use of a highly technological approach of technical intervention and destruction, is reflective of the extent to which it felt that it could (in North Korea’s eyes) seek at will to make a laughing stock of a country not sensitive to the intricacies and tolerances of a liberal political and cultural environment.
Indications are that interventions by the United States government to seek an indirect intervention by China to inhibit any such future actions by the North Korean government are unlikely to be productive. China, perceived as a diplomatic protector of North Korea, has its own sensitivities to the way in which it may, or may not, be portrayed in the Western world; and more importantly its sensitivities to the complexities of a political system in the North which is still stabilizing itself after the death of Kim Jong Il, the father of the present leader.
President Obama’s approach to the Chinese government to intervene with Kim Jong Un is therefore likely to be taken by that government as not something that it would wish to be seen to be doing. And this is so particularly as the cause of the present situation is one indicating a kind of Western insensitivity to the cultural norms of other countries, even when in the West what the Trinidadians would describe as picong – the use of the language and methods of ridicule – is completely acceptable.
In addition the Government of China is well aware of the changes emerging in its part of Asia which it now wishes the West to recognize as being subject to its own legitimacy of diplomatic intervention. These changes now relate to first, how North Korea will emerge in the diplomacy of that area, how much legitimacy should be allowed to the United States as a intervener in the area, the extent to which the US will have a say in the evolution of China-Japan relations, and what place the lesser states of both Koreas, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos will have in the diplomacy of the area.
So the apparently amusing to some, and shocking to the United States, demonstration by North Korea of its use of technological capabilities to reach beyond the area right into the United States itself, will probably initiate a new set of diplomatic interventions in the area, even as China appears to insist that it does not, in this time of American embarrassment, wish to be seen as acting on behalf, or as a diplomatic handmaiden, of the US. And this is so even as it is now widely known that China has its own reservations about the conduct of policy, particularly military policy, by the new, and some would say immature, regime in North Korea.
We in our part of the world can, it seems, only watch the situation as it evolves.