The leadership of many Western nations that attempt to navigate the choppy waters of 21st-century international diplomacy routinely sets forth measured, fairly neutral statements in response to another country’s actions.
Against this backdrop, a recent (June 24, 2009) statement from North Korea’s Central News Agency seemed like a throwback to another era: “If the U.S. imperialists start another war, the army and people of Korea will...wipe out the aggressors on the globe once and for all.”
This stunning assertion came just days after Japanese intelligence sources reported that North Korea would soon fire a missile toward Hawaii, possibly on July 4, America’s Independence Day. U.S. President Barack Obama, in a CBS News interview, responded that his administration and Armed Forces would be “prepared for any contingencies.” A Pentagon spokesman called the threat “silliness” (Fox News).
The next day, marking the 59th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, Pyongyang’s rhetoric continued. This time, it threatened a “fire shower of nuclear retaliation” for any attack. State news sources were filled—more than usual—with venom against the U.S. for its military action in 1950, and with charges that Washington is seeking another opportunity to show aggression toward North Korea.
What has led to this exchange?
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as North Korea calls itself, is one of the planet’s most unusual countries. Westerners find a visit there to be a surreal experience.
One of a handful of remaining Communist nations, it practices arguably the purest form of this ideology found anywhere. It is considered Earth’s most isolated country, sometimes uncharitably labeled the “Hermit Kingdom.” The government has complete control over television, radio and the press. Average citizens live without Internet access, other than rare public terminals connected to a state-filtered network. Cellphones have been banned for years.
State-provided housing features built-in, pre-tuned radios that pipe in daily pro-government messages. Residents cannot turn the radio off or adjust its volume.
Cities feature large monuments commemorating the Korean Revolution or extolling Kim Il-sung, who led the nation from 1948 until his death in 1994 (he is still considered to hold the title of Great Leader, the “Eternal President of the Republic”). The skyline of Pyongyang, the nation’s capital, is overshadowed by the unfinished, 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, on which construction was halted in 1992. The giant structure is often digitally erased from official photos.
Later this year, at a massive stadium in the capital (reported capacity 150,000), one of the grandest manmade spectacles on planet Earth is scheduled to take place: the Arirang Mass Games. Over 100,000 participants will take part in a seamlessly choreographed mix of gymnastics, dance, performance and graphic arts, and music. Previous Mass Games marked anniversaries of important events, or birthdays of leaders past and present.
Life in modern North Korea still reverberates with flashbacks to the Korean War. This pivotal confrontation involved the United States, China and North and South Korea, with the Soviet Union backing the North. The “police action” resulted in millions of casualties. In Pyongyang’s view, the war has never ended. North Korea’s former president Syngman Rhee never signed the United Nations-supervised armistice that split the Korean Peninsula into two regions, with a demilitarized zone between them. Reunification of the peninsula is a central goal of the North’s regime.
Tens of thousands of American troops are still stationed near the border, charged to protect South Korea from its neighbor. Since the end of the war, generations of North Korean children have learned to fear and loath America. One propaganda poster features a drawing of a grinning American soldier holding a Korean infant over a well, while the child’s struggling father is restrained by another soldier in the background. A starkly painted slogan across the bottom reads, “Do not forget the U.S. imperialist wolves!”
North Korea also holds a unique worldview. The philosophy of juche, meaning “self-sufficiency,” defines its approach; another creed, songun (“military first”), makes national priorities clear.
The government paints a very optimistic picture of the nation, as would be expected. Its official website describes a society that seems to approach utopia:
“The…gap between the rich and the poor is an acute social problem of worldwide concern…socialist Korea in the East is free from the so-called social problem—the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
“In this country there is neither a man who has a villa or a deluxe house worth millions of dollars, nor a man who makes enormous profits with means of production at his disposal. All of its people live evenly, without a remarkable distinction in their life, for all means of production belong to public ownership…
“Employment is vital to people’s life. In Korea the state pays great attention to this issue…manifested by the absence of even a single unemployed man in this country.
“The state also takes responsibility for the provision of shelter, an indispensable factor in man’s existence and activity. It allocates colossal amounts of state fund to the building of dwelling houses, which are provided to not only white- and blue-collar workers but cooperative farmers free of charge.
“Korea is the ‘country of education’ where all people learn to their heart’s content. A dense and well-regulated network of educational institutions enables its people to get access to all levels of education, ranging from preschool education (at kindergarten) through primary and secondary education to tertiary education, at the expense of the state…
“The Koreans get enormous benefits from the state in the matter of food. The state buys cereals from cooperative farmers at a high price and supplies them to all the people at a low price. Also noteworthy in Korea is its universal medical care system that has long been in force. People enjoy medical check-up, experimental test, medical treatment, operation, hospitalization and medication free of charge.
“Korea is the first country in the world that abolished taxation. It is commonplace in any country that the burden of tax…grows heavier along [with] rising prices, whenever there occurs an economic crisis. But Koreans have been unfamiliar with the word ‘tax’ since 35 years ago. All of them are enjoying benefit from such social policies as recuperation and relaxation systems, a paid leave system, and social insurance and security systems.
“In socialist Korea the people are free from worries about food, clothing, housing, medical treatment, children’s education and tax, all living an equal life; they are masters of the state, and politics for people is administered. Such a dreamlike reality is attributable to the fact that the Juche idea, which regards man, the masses of the people, as the most valuable, is the guiding ideology of this country.
“Socialist Korea is advancing vigorously, without the slightest vacillation in the face of any trials and hardships of history, making great strides in its endeavors to build a great, prosperous and powerful country by means of the single-hearted unity of all its people and with the backing of their full support and trust.”
Street demonstration: South Korean conservative activists burn a North Korean flag during a protest against North Korea’s nuclear tests in Seoul (June 3, 2009).Source: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
Such ardent nationalism notwithstanding, compared to its liberal, free-trade oriented counterpart on the other side of the 38th parallel, North Korea’s economy is in ruins. Its estimated per capita gross domestic product in 2008 was $1,700 USD. Compare this to $26,000 USD in the South, a figure approaching par with New Zealand, thanks to global exports of electronics and automobiles (CIA World Factbook).
Massive flooding in the mid-1990s led to a famine believed to have taken millions of lives—up to 10 percent of the population. Due to a chronic inability of farmers to meet the staple food demands of nearly 24 million residents, North Koreans are still in grave peril: “Today, most North Koreans live on less than 1700 calories a day. This puts the population at severe risk of malnutrition and infection and perilously close to starvation in some areas. A North Korean child can expect to be up to 7 inches shorter than his South Korean counterpart and 20 pounds lighter by adulthood” (The American).
Perhaps the most troubling of Pyongyang’s recent decisions is to begin pulling back from accepting international food aid from the United States and other donors. Defectors maintain that, in keeping with the songun dictate, much of the food previously shipped to the country was diverted to the military.
U.S.-Korean tensions have been simmering for the better part of a decade. In 2002, then-President George W. Bush described North Korea as part of the “Axis of Evil,” along with Iran and Iraq. (He later softened Washington’s position by removing the nation from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a step Japan opposed.)
October 2006 saw the nation provoke worldwide outrage with its first nuclear test, which violated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty it had signed years before. A second underground test took place on May 25, 2009 (America’s Memorial Day), followed by a number of offshore missile tests. Two days later, the Central News Agency reiterated that it was not bound by the 1953 armistice that set its southern boundary.
Why now? Kim Jong Il, son of Kim Il-sung, holds the DPRK’s highest office, the chairman of the National Defense Commission. Known to the people as the Dear Leader, he reportedly suffered a stroke last year, prompting pundits across the globe to speculate about a successor. It may be that the most recent posturing and shows of military prowess are intended to counter the perception that Mr. Kim’s failing health will translate to faltering morale or weakness in the nation as a whole. (Mr. Kim’s son is expected to succeed him, extending 60 years of family rule.)
What would prompt a nation with a yearly military budget of perhaps $5 to 7 billion USD to threaten the U.S., which spent $623 billion on defense in 2008—more than all other countries on Earth combined?
Strategists and specialists on North Korea speculate as to what the nation will do next. However, those who understand biblical prophecy would not be surprised that Pyongyang, along with other governments, is engaged in saber-rattling toward the United States and other Western powers.
Jesus Christ foretold that the time leading to “the end of the world”—more accurately, the end of the age (Matt. 24:3)—would be characterized by, among other things, “wars and rumors of wars” (vs. 6; Mark 13:7). These most recent threats have done much to prompt rumors of war.
America, dealing with the worst economic downturn in a century and waging war on two fronts, faces many huge issues. The last thing Washington needs is to expend time and energy responding to a bellicose regime 7,000 miles away.
With the Cold War threat of large-scale communist expansion fading into distant memory, in many respects, North Korea seems irrelevant. However, with every provocative act, Pyongyang seems to shout, “We are still relevant!”
The notion of nuclear weapons in the hands of an angry nation requires Washington to stay engaged, further stretching its problem-solving resources. Any flare-up of hostilities between North and South has the potential to heighten tension between the U.S. and its allies and those with a warmer relationship with Pyongyang.
North Korea cannot be ignored.
Is there a way for a nation to achieve peace and be rid of threats from other powers? Historically, there has been. God promised the nation of Israel (not the modern state, but the historical confederation of 12 tribes) that He would prevent other nations even from coveting their land (Ex. 34:24). The New Testament confirms that “lusts”—coveting what belongs to another—is the root cause of war (Jms. 4:1-3). One of the benefits God extended to this nation, during times that its people were generally following Him and His laws, was “rest from all their enemies” (Deut. 25:19; Josh. 23:1; II Sam. 7:1, 11; I Chron. 22:9).
But as the great nations of the West drift further from any semblance of biblical standards of conduct, they can expect no rest from adversaries far and near.
To learn more about what will unfold on the world stage, read David C. Pack’s book America and Britain in Prophecy.