The Hermit Kingdom Bursts Upon Us

Bruce Cumings is the author of "Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History" (W.W. Norton, 1997)

North Korea is in the midst of an acute humanitarian crisis, a food shortage caused by severe floods in 1995 and 1996, fuel deficits that have drastically reduced chemical fertilizers, years of agrarian mismanagement and a general lack of arable land. Packs of people roam the mountains, searching for edible plants, wild roots and even tree bark.

The World Food Program has warned that food stocks are running out, with government rations down to a daily handful of rice or cornmeal. It has appealed again for additional American aid.

“Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il met the third anniversary of “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung’s death on July 8 by announcing a formal end to the period of mourning, with his assumption of his father’s remaining titles rumored to be in the offing. Meanwhile, North Korean generals warn ominously that “dark clouds of war are rushing toward our motherland,” prelude to a coming “final battle” with their enemies--including the U.S.

Should Americans care about this food crisis, prepare for another Korean War or go about their summer unconcerned?


Sir Thomas More’s classic “Utopia” was literally “no place,” and that’s what North Korea is for most Americans. More’s tight little island was fully egalitarian, except for the privileges of the elite; so is North Korea. Utopia also was isolated and self-sufficient.

Kim Il Sung cut his small nation off from the world in search of personal power, but also in search of an old Korean ideal: that of a self-reliant hermit kingdom, a land unbesmirched by the foreign. This is a cardinal virtue among a people that has preserved its integrity and continuity in one place since the early Christian era. Much like Thomas More, in today’s “borderless world” we observe this recalcitrant country with a mixture of fear, wonder and sardonic discomfort. Why worry about it? Won’t it collapse?

All through the 1990s, we have had predictions of North Korea’s collapse. Yet this is a country that does well in crises and badly in the humdrum dailiness of competing with its neighbors. It is the only postwar communist nation to have had its territory occupied by foreign armies (during the Korean War), and in that war the U.S. Air Force exacted an appalling cost in North Korea, including the aerial destruction of major agricultural dams that provided water for 75% of North Korea’s food production.

Yet the elite and the people survived, living in caves, eating bark torn from trees, foraging mountain roots. Today’s North Korean generals lived through that war as young officers. Why would they fold up their operation because of a peacetime food shortage? Backed up to the wall, they will fight.


In post-Cold War Washington, Seoul, and Pyongyang, hard-liners and soft-liners have competed for the ear of the top leaders. The hard-liners dance to the drumbeat of increased tension and impending collapse; the soft-liners play the violin of diplomacy and “soft landings” for Pyong-yang. Usually this awkward minuet means that nothing gets done; governments dither, inertia rules and massive amounts of grain sit rotting in expensive warehouses. If Washington reaches out to Pyongyang, Seoul cries foul. The State Department says one thing, the CIA says the opposite. Last fall, State Department officials rebuked hard-liners in Seoul for wanting “to throttle North Korea” and provoke its collapse by denying it food aid.

In recent weeks, Seoul has proclaimed that there is no food problem in the North. Meanwhile, the Pentagon projects North Korea’s imminent collapse, and when Pyongyang’s hard-liners think they won’t get what they want, they threaten to derail the nuclear agreement. President Clinton was right to move toward a bit of independence from Seoul, trying to be an honest broker and making it harder for the South to dictate the pace of engagement with the North. Still, American food aid to North Korea has been much too little and soon it may be too late.

Apart from its bluster, North Korea always has been deeply insecure, seeing a thousand threats from the world beyond its moat of isolation. To compensate, it projects a fearsome image. Its fate now is to be surrounded by former friends and relentless enemies who have prospered mightily in the commercial “dailiness” now transforming East Asia. The food problem is unlikely to lead to collapse, but with enough help from the world it could bring Pyongyang out of isolation, which is the only way permanently to solve the food crisis and the seemingly endless Korean conflict. Much more important, Kim Jong Il’s failed Utopia contains 23 million innocent people who need to be fed. It is time for a massive effort to aid the people of this odd, dangerous, exasperating, anachronistic and faintly poignant hermit kingdom.