North Korea has threatened to send missiles to Guam, Hawaii and the US mainland – presumably by air mail. The country is broke, its weaponry is archaic and its computer technology little more than an old space invaders game nicked from a London pub in the 1980s. And yet it has ramped up its war on the rest of the world. Why?
One novel explanation comes from a website run by North Koreans living in exile. It says that Pyongyang’s declaration of “Grade 1 War Readiness” has a specific and surprising translation: it means that the country is preparing itself not to defend its citizens or even the motherland but rather the “dignity” of the ruling Kim clan – including all the artwork that depicts them. The phrase “Grade 1” refers specifically to the Kims and, from that proposition onwards, things get really weird:
North Korea has declared a Protection Order regarding the portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, as well as related images and artefacts. An emergency meeting was convened among North Korean officials stationed abroad in relation to the recent declaration of ‘Grade 1′ War-Readiness by the Supreme Command of the KPA, according to our sources. Contrary to expectations, the meetings were not concerned with the state of war-readiness within North Korea.
From today, night security will be organized in order to protect the portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il kept in the offices of North Korean officials stationed abroad from attack. In addition, Pyongyang has ordered for any items containing the likeness or words of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il to be given special protection. The source added that within North Korea too, a state of emergency regarding the protection of monuments and artefacts related to the dignity of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il has been issued.
This explanation of North Korea’s increased war preparations – that it wants to protect all the sculptures, paintings and tea coasters bearing Kim’s image – might seem far-fetched, but it’s actually based in a serious reality with potential consequences for the rest of the world. Knowing that North Koreans are expected to revere statues of the Kim family, South Korea has responded to recent attacks from the communist state by threatening to blow those artworks up. From the Chosun Ibo newspaper:
The statues are considered sacred in the North, and any damage to them could deliver a huge psychological impact. “If North Korea launches another provocation, our military has developed a plan to respond with air-to-surface and surface-to-surface missiles to strike not only the source of provocation as well as support and command forces, but also some statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il,” a government source here said Sunday.
The North Korean dissident website concludes that this is the real context for the threat to strike the US mainland with missiles: it’s terrified that Seoul is about to demolish some of its 35,000 statues of the Kims.
As I’ve argued many times before, we don’t need to worry too much that North Korea is going to trigger World War III. It cannot deliver on its threat to wipe out California and its military posturing is about a) reminding the rest of the world that it exists and b) asserting political integrity at home. But how remarkable to imagine – if this is indeed true, and there’s always reason to be sceptical about anything involving North Korea – that the latest geopolitical crisis is informed by the threat posed to some tacky communist artwork. Of course, regardless of the theory’s veracity, it’s also absurd that a Marxist state should regard statues as icons worthy of starting a war to save. Communism is supposed to be a materialist doctrine that has no space for religious worship, and yet it is so often communist regimes that embalm their leaders or cover the landscape with shrines to tin-pot heroes. As ideologies go, it wins top marks for enthusiasm but a big fat zero for irony.