North Korea

Goodbye Stalin, Hello Hitler

Heil Kim. Source: Reuters

North Korea does bear comparison to a former German state – but not the one you might think.

The division of Korea into two states – a communist North and a capitalist South – after the Second World War invites comparison to the postwar separation of Germany. But it is a mistake to think of Kim Jong-un’s regime as a failed communist state like East Germany, said Korean expert Brian Myers in an interview. Rather it is a right-wing, ultra-nationalist, racist regime that bears more of a resemblance to Nazi Germany.

Failure to recognize the real nature of the North Korean regime can lead policymakers to the wrong conclusions about how to handle the growing crisis on the Korean Peninsula, said Mr. Myers, a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea and author of “The Cleanest Race.”

His analysis comes as provocative comments from US President Donald Trump, who this week threatened to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea in a row over its nuclear arsenal, unnerved government leaders and international investors.

Seeing North Korea as a failed communist state is as mistaken as viewing Iran as a Buddhist state.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel criticized Mr. Trump for his rhetoric, saying the democratically elected president seems to be responding in kind to the North Korean dictator.

Mr. Trump’s bombast was not helpful, Mr. Myers said. North Koreans have heard 25 years of threats from the US and hinting at nuclear war only serves to unsettle South Koreans.

North Korea’s actions must be viewed through the prism of its ultranationalist ideology, the professor said. Like the Nazis, Mr. Kim’s regime is focused on “ultimate victory” – in this case the reunification of Korea under North Korean leadership. So the latest threat by North Korea to bomb the US-governed pacific island of Guam is part of its strategy to drive a wedge between the two countries. Guam is a credible target and as a US territory, its residents are US citizens.

Is the superpower really ready to sacrifice the lives of its citizens for South Korea? Prying apart the US and South Korea may not seem realistic to us, but it is plausible enough for the highly intelligent leadership in Pyongyang to make the effort.

Here is where it is important to correctly identify the ideology at work: As a rule, North Korea is wrongly seen as a failed Communist state, like the post-war East European countries that subjugated their people with oppression and surveillance. But the ultra-nationalist state is actually built on a leadership cult more like that of Hitler than on the Marxist-Leninist systems in Eastern Europe.

Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goring, and Field Marshall Keitel looking at map on table in 1942, when most Nazi armies were fighting against Russia on the Eastern front.
Same mindset, different time period. Source: Picture Alliance/Everett Collection

Mr. Kim is the incarnation of all the national virtues, and, like Hitler, of the national rage against oppression by foreign powers. In Hitler’s case, it was the injustice of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. For North Korea, it is the division of the country imposed by the United States and the Soviet Union after World War II. Their “ultimate victory” is the withdrawal of US forces and the elimination of the South Korean state.

The world has been slow to understand this threat because North Korea’s own propaganda toward the outside world has maintained some lip service to communist ideology, even though Marxism-Leninism ceased to play any real role in the 1990s. Recently the racism that is the real basis of the regime has become more open, as in some offensively racist comments about former US President Barack Obama.

Also, it suits other interested parties to maintain this façade of communism. China can get more domestic support for North Korea if it’s about helping comrades, while even the US is happy to keep it as a Cold War conflict between communism and capitalism.

It’s unlikely that North Korea will actually choose to attack South Korea, but there is a danger if they are compelled to choose between attacking and a loss of face. Forcing Pyongyang to make big concessions could threaten the legitimacy of the regime.

Mr. Myers is cautious on how to resolve the situation. Sanctions are good but they are not likely to really bite. China has little to gain by letting North Korea fall, and Beijing would be happy to see US troops leave South Korea, given its clear desire to dominate East Asia. Threatening trade sanctions against China in order to force its hand on North Korea comes under the category of the “almost criminal optimism” that German historian Oswald Spengler once referred to.

There seems little that is actually negotiable with Pyongyang directly. The nuclear program will remain nonnegotiable, and any form of ceasefire, let alone reunification, would entail the withdrawal of US troops. Unfortunately, the lesson from history is that extreme right-wing regimes often fall only after a military defeat.

Perhaps sanctions will work in the end, said Mr. Myers. It would also be helpful if South Korea developed a “constitutional patriotism” of the kind that once united most social democrats and Christian democrats alike. This would send a strong message to Pyongyang, forcing it to make concessions as a delayed reunification makes it difficult to justify the economic sacrifices in the North.


Martin Kölling is Handelsblatt’s East Asia correspondent, based in Tokyo. Handelsblatt Global editor Darrell Delamaide also contributed to this report. To contact the authors:

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