BEAM: Getting to know North Korea - News and Tribune: Columns

BEAM: Getting to know North Korea

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Posted: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 7:06 am

Threats to the United States come and go. Regimes fall. Revolutions occur. Dictators die. As in the past, the enemy of our enemy is our friend. That is, until they too decide to become our enemy. Then we need to find some new friends. 

And all the while the majority of Americans are overwhelmed by the mundane aspects of our ordinary lives. We don’t have time for all of this. And when we do opt to find out what’s going on in the world at large, we are relieved to get the news from either our Facebook feed or “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

As a consequence of our inability to learn about these international conflicts, our elected officials make the decisions for us with very little public input. Drone strikes and international aid. Prolific posturing and delicate concessions. Democracy has been substituted by a few key players’ decisions, at least at an international level.

Since the Korean conflict, presidents have declared war against other nations, not our elected Congress, even if Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution says otherwise. 

Where are the checks and balances in that?

Funny I should mention the Korean War. What’s going on in that peninsula now is a direct result of American decisions after World War II. When Allied powers divided the country into a Soviet north and a U.S.-supported south, ultimately they birthed the problems we face today. 

Take their leader Kim Jong Un, the grandson of the man who came to power in 1948. Sure, we all think we know about the little despotic leader with the chubby baby face and the equally childish attention-seeking behavior. Let’s face it. Jong Un looks more like a comic book villain that runs around with Boris and Natasha after a moose and a squirrel than the man who could start World War III. 

But that’s just it. He can start World War III. In November 2010, Jong Un’s now-deceased daddy had already gotten away with bombing the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing four South Koreans. Most analysts agree that earlier that same year the autocratic regime also torpedoed a SK Navy ship that cost 46 seamen their lives. 

Incidents like these can lead to far-reaching consequences. I bet no one thought back in 1914 the assassination of a Serbian Duke could lead to one of the deadliest conflicts in recorded history, claiming the lives of more than 37 million worldwide. 

In the instance of North Korea, America has started to take notice of their increased rhetoric and bellicose actions. When the US. has more than 28,000 troops in South Korea, not to mention that other bases in Japan and possibly Guam are within striking distance of the newly moved North Korean Musudan ballistic missiles, our country has every right to worry. 

Besides North Korea’s promises of imminent destruction to the west, the scary part lies in their neighbor to the north. With the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid Treaty, China could very easily become entangled in this conflict. Even though in recent days the communist government released veiled statements that seem to condemn the hermit kingdom, you wonder how far they will go to protect a pro-Chinese buffer state from failing. Chinese troops have begun to move toward the North Korean border, some say to control the influx of refugees if hostilities do commence. But who knows their true motivations? 

So how should we as ordinary American citizens process these threats? With education. We need to understand the motivation behind North Korea and if our government is truly pursuing the best policies. 

First things first: We need to know about North Korea the country. According to a May 2006 National Geographic Society Geographic Literacy Survey, only 70 percent of the Americans asked could correctly identify North Korea on a map. In the future, check out a satellite photo of nighttime in Asia. Among the grouped specks of light, you can see a large dark area on the upper part of a pointy cape. That’s the nation threatening the U.S. with rants like “the moment of explosion is approaching fast.”

Likewise, we also have to understand that these supposedy intimidating tirades are nothing new for North Korea. In the past, they’ve issued these statements for several reasons. Living in the country isn’t all caviar wishes and champagne dreams. On the PBS website, author Cat Wise revealed that 60 percent of N.K.’s population relies on government food rations. This aid only counts as a third of the World Health Organization’s minimum average energy requirement. Stunted growth results from this malnourishment, affecting more than 30 percent of N.K. children. Wise said on average, North Koreans are 6 inches shorter than South Koreans due to this nutritional deficit. 

Starvation can’t make for a stable government. Taking away their people’s freedom seems to help make up for this deficit. Amnesty International is one of the many organizations that condemn the country’s human rights record. No freedom of speech or movement, forced prison and concentration camps for dissidents and torture have all been documented by those who have managed to escape.

Diversion is a wonderful tool to quell the repressed and bring the people together as a nation. All the saber rattling also justifies their need for spending the few funds they do have on militarization. 

In addition, there’s an international benefit. The North Koreans have been playing this game long enough to know how to work the system. In the past, they’ve used their nuclear ambitions as leverage for greater concessions from other countries. Money and food, not to mention repression, are needed to maintain their authoritarianism over the people. While conditions are rough in N.K., the rest of the world just wants the government to pipe down. 

So what do we do? Nations and the UN pay them off for their supposed cooperation. 

But come on, one can only take so much. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like blackmail. And that’s exactly what North Korea is doing. However, if matters do escalate, I also don’t want Seoul turned into a giant radioactive hole. 

Education can only get us so far. Hard decisions remain even when we have the facts. Until the first shot is fired and we know their true intentions, maybe ignorance for most of us is bliss after all. 


— Amanda Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville native. Contact her by email at



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