North Korea is truly an enigma of the modern world. From its closed political and social system to the brutal and decades-old oppression of its people, one struggles to find a country of similar function and standing today. Indeed, North Korea has little to no parallel in the contemporary world – but that’s weren’t always this way. A quick survey of recent history reveals a country more similar to North Korea than most would think.
Democratic Kampuchea was the formal name of what is today known as Cambodia under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge, a group of left-leaning nationalist guerrillas who fought in Cambodia during the Vietnam war, took control of Cambodia in 1975 and, under the leadership of Pol Pot, ruled until 1979. During this time, the Khmer Rouge embarked upon a reign of terror against the general populace – against anyone seen as a threat against their vision of an agrarian, socialist utopia. Over the span of four years, between 20% and 25% of the entire Cambodian population had been killed – as a result of starvation, malnutrition, torture or arbitrary execution.
There are many comparisons to be made between the Democratic Kampuchea and North Korea. Like Kim Il-sung’s camp, the Khmer Rouge had their origins in guerrilla warfare and traditions and, much like North Korea’s political identity, the Khmer Rouge identified as communist revolutionaries aiming to create a self-sufficient, socialist society. More relevant to this examination, however, are the similarities between the dispositions of the respective populations. During their reign, Khmer Rouge stripped the population bare. The people had no means of protest – no means of resistance – no means to call for even the most basic of human rights. Throughout the slaughter, though the people were unable to defend themselves, the international community was either unable or unwilling to help. For the people of Kampuchea alive during this time, there was no tangible hope of liberation.
While, admittedly, the case of Democratic Kampuchea is an extreme example, there are echoes of a similar situation in North Korea. For one, much like the people of Kampuchea, the people of North Korea are completely disarmed. Subjugated and oppressed for generations without end, the North Korean populace do not know of the concepts of civil disobedience, popular dissent and, perhaps somewhat famously, the idea of human rights. Though not as inconceivable as in Kampuchea, the likelihood of any significant protest, social movement, or resistance is quite unlikely in North Korea. If North Korea is to change, it will not be due to the efforts of the people. Instead change will likely result from the efforts of either the leadership or outside forces. The million-dollar question is: which one will it be?
Perhaps Democratic Kampuchea can offer us further insights. Needless to say, change in Cambodia did not come from the people. In the same breath, however, change did not come from the Khmer Rouge, either. In fact, substantial change only occurred when, in late 1978, Vietnam launched an invasion of Cambodia. The invasion itself came as a result of numerous border skirmishes by Cambodian forces against Vietnam, after which Vietnamese leaders decided to remove the Khmer Rouge from power. Vietnam began the invasion on December 25, 1978 and, after two weeks, with the blood of millions of Cambodians on their hands, the Khmer Rouge were driven out of power. In essence, the Cambodian genocide and the rule of the Khmer Rouge only came to an end via military intervention by a foreign country – such intervention, it is worth noting, was condemned by the United Nations.
While the jury is still out as to how the North Korean endgame will take its shape, the comparison with Cambodia gives us historical perspective. Change will not come from the people in North Korea – for the same reasons why change could not come from the people of Kampuchea. Substantial change is also unlikely to come from the leadership, for reasons that I argue here. This leaves only force – of one sort or another – as the most plausible catalyst for substantial change in North Korea.
There is, however, also reason to believe that North Korea may not go the way of Democratic Kampuchea. In the fallout of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, in which China then invaded Northern Vietnam, North Korea sided against Vietnam and sympathized with China and the Khmer Rouge. North Korean officials no doubt understand fully the chain of events which caused the fall of Kampuchea – namely, the constant and decidedly irresponsible military provocations against its socialist but impatient neighbor, Vietnam. North Korea only has to ensure that its own provocations do not trigger or warrant a similar military response – though, as I argue here, North Korea may not have to commit provocations in order for the next Korean War to begin. Nevertheless, this historical precedent implies that change in North Korea is unlikely to come from within. Rather, it will be forced from the outside – whether by economic sanction or military sanction. Whether this precedent holds true in reality, however, is truly anyone’s guess.