In 2006, Pluto was downgraded from a planet to a dwarf planet, failing to meet all the criteria of a (then) newly established definition of planet. These days, some should like to do the same with North Korea, another strange, cold and distant place. Like Pluto, North Korea easily exhausts the quotient for weirdness in our national psyche. Yet here the parallel ends. We were sure, after all, that Pluto was harmless, but our laughter in response to jokes about North Korea comes tinged with nervousness. Elaborate illustrations in news magazines show the ‘arc of destruction’ covered by North Korean ballistic missiles. A river of reports flows forth from newspapers and think tanks, citing estimates of the numbers of nuclear weapons the North might have, their destructive power, and the likelihood they will end up exploding on our shores.
All of this ignores the fact that the North’s strongest card is not nuclear. Its strength does not come from chemical weapons, arrays of artillery or brigades of mobile missiles. This small, sad country’s best weapon is not something stashed deep in a granite mountain or smuggled to a rusting port in the hold of a tramp freighter. To find it, no spies need be recruited, no costly, esoteric intelligence collection systems deployed.
The basis of the North’s greatest strength is deceptively simple. People who are irritated pay attention. Whatever its shortages of raw materials or food or electricity, Pyongyang has a limitless capacity to vex and confuse anyone not North Korean. Friends and allies, doctors and candlestick-makers alike—all are eventually flummoxed in their dealings with the North. Most of us crave validation, positive reinforcement, stroking. So, undoubtedly, do North Koreans in their fitful dreams. But awake and perpetually on guard, the regime in Pyongyang knows that as good as love and brotherhood may be, for a poor, weak piece of mountainous real estate like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, nothing is better than keeping everyone else off balance and royally annoyed.
This ability to use terminal vexation as both spear and shield is not innate; it is learned. Years ago, the North Koreans were taught—and the lesson has been endlessly reinforced—that the world rarely rewards them for good behavior, because whatever they do is never deemed good enough. If they “behave,” many North Koreans believe that they will become part of the superpower woodwork, something to be ignored and scuffed by the furniture on the way out. Misbehavior, however, is another story. Behave badly—always careful to choose the time, always retaining control of the situation—and North Korea knows from experience that attention will be paid, even over the grinding of big power teeth.
If North Koreans inhabit the most isolated country on earth (hyperbole widely accepted as fact), then it must also be true that we are isolated from them. Isolation, after all, is a two-way street. In this case, however, the proposition is not symmetrical. DPRK experts tune in outside radio and television, read outside books and newspapers detailing our politics and society. To learn about them, we pick through chicken entrails. The North Koreans reap tactical benefit from our ignorance. We, on the other hand, have developed a fog of myths about them as a substitute for knowledge. These myths, handed down from administration to administration, are comforting in their long familiar ring, but make it difficult for us to avoid walking in circles. The North Koreans move nimbly through this fog, like Drake’s small ships among the galleons of the Spanish armada. Yes, at times they step on their extremities, but don’t we all?
Earlier this year, Western pundits tumbled over each other proclaiming how bad the North Koreans were for having tested a nuclear device (again). The UN Security Council passed another resolution. Very tough stuff! What a relief, finally, to have something else to focus on besides the hairstyle of the North Korean leader. And today that tough resolution is…where is it? Herein lies another source of North Korean strength, one that grows in direct proportion to what is perhaps our biggest weakness. Public discourse about the North in most of our enlightened world is crippled, condescending, irrelevant, and, like heartburn, episodic. The reading public in the United States thinks that North Koreans live in a blasted landscape, similar to the moon, and that all but a privileged few are hollow-eyed and slack-jawed, starved by evil leaders who—and this is shocking, so you’d better sit down—“do not care” about their people.
We could define Pluto out of existence. We cannot do the same with North Korea, even if at times our fondest hope is to hold our breath until the country goes away, no longer to be an irritating reminder of some distant reality that does not bow to our greatness, our goodness, our majesty, and our will.