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Asian Perspective 38 (2014), 487-491 REVIEW ESSAY North Korea in the World: Plus Change? Walter C. Clemens Jr. Does the old saw—plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose— apply to North Korea? Yes and no. Here are some partial and sometimes conflicting answers suggested by a sampling of recent writings.1 Armstrong, Charles K. Tyranny ofthe Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013. Jager, Sheila Miyoshi. Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013. Johnson, Adam. The Orphan Master’s Son. New York: Random House, 2012. Lim Dong-won. Peacemaker: Twenty Years ofInter-Korean Rela­ tions and the North Korean Nuclear Issue. Stanford, CA: Wal­ ter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, 2012. On Korea 2013: Academic Paper Series. Vol. 6. Washington, DC: Korea Economic Institute ofAmerica, 2013. Park, Kyung-Ae, ed. Nontraditional Security Issues in North Korea. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013. Park, Kyung-Ae, and Scott Snyder, eds. North Korea in Transi­ tion: Politics, Economy, and Society. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013. Yes, continuity persists. As Sheila Miyoshi Jager underscores, an unending conflict continues more than six decades after the 1953 Korean armistice. Yes, as Charles Armstrong reminds us, North Korea has continued to make the most of a very weak posi­ tion. Yes, aspiring peacemakers like Lim Dong-won still hope to implement a version of the Sunshine Policy to open up the North. Yes, as the essays in On Korea 2013 make clear, China and other 487 488 North Korea in the World actors concerned with North Korea do not like what they see there but muddle along without taking any decisive action. Yes, as sev­ eral contributors to North Korea in Transition explain, life in North Korea continues much as it has since 1946. Bruce Cumings goes further: He notes the contemporary parallels with the cen­ tralized power and rituals characteristic of Korea for centuries. Yes, as Nicholas Eberstadt argues, economic reforms in the North have been halfhearted. He even contends that foreign eco­ nomic and humanitarian assistance have put off real reform. (However, as John Park argues, pressures from economic sanc­ tions may have moved North Korean and Chinese businesspeople to new forms of entrepreneurial activity.) Last but not least, Adam Johnson’s novel portrays how concentration camps and perpetual anxiety over one’s personal and family security remain constants in North Korea. His narrative comes to life in frequent reports of purges and executions in Pyongyang. But no, things are not always what they seem. To be sure, an entourage of old-timers and family friends escorted the hearse of Kim Jong-il in December 2011. Signs were that his chosen son and appointed successor, Kim Jong-un, would continue the dynas­ tic system, assisted by an older regent, like the young kings Sejong (in 1418), Sunjo (in 1800), and Kojong (in 1864) before him. Within two years, however, many of the old-timers had been purged and the apparent regent executed for treason. While North Korea remains an Orwellian nightmare, the impact of cell phones and greater access to computers and other information sources can only erode the regime’s centralized controls. Dynasties, bureaucracies, and political systems may hold fast, but surely the personality of the central dynasty is an important variable—one that can change the game in fundamental ways. Thus, Kim Jong-il seemed introverted but calculated in his deci­ sionmaking. His son appears far more extroverted and—at least to some outsiders—reckless in both internal and foreign affairs. Who knows how important the wild card of personality will prove? As Terrence Roehig points out in the Park and Snyder anthology, Kim Jong-il elevated the Korean People’s Army (KPA) to a much greater political role than before. If pushed too far, its leaders might try to oust the last remnant of the Kim dynasty and intro­ duce a more sober form of governance. Alternatively, if the KPA Walter C. Clemens Jr. 489 remains obedient, Kim Jong-un might push his generals into actions that cross some red line of South Korean and US forbear­ ance. Either way, the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2288-2871
Print ISSN
0258-9184
Pages
pp. 487-491
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-22
Open Access
No
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