The conventional view of North Korea is that it is an insane society run by an insane set of rulers, the primary villain being Kim Jong Un.
By any normal standards the first of these propositions is true: North Korea is an insane society, but it is an insanity with long historical roots all across the world.
The second proposition is false, however; Kim Jong Un is anything but crazy. He is playing the hand he was dealt and trying to preserve his and his family’s hegemony over an unstable situation so that they can continue to live off the essentially uncompensated labor of the typical North Korean.
The insanity thesis is straightforward. A small oligarchy lives anywhere from enviable comfort to spectacular luxury by keeping the great bulk of North Koreans in an abject and deprived state. What small surplus the miserable North Koreans generate is siphoned off for military purposes and to keep Kim living in the lap of luxury.
This does seem crazy to modern eyes, but remarkably it is the history of most societies, East and West. Virtually all institutions attempt to collect power and wealth, and in much of history, women. As princes and bishops were living comfortable lives in the Late Middle Ages, they also conspired to siphon off the surplus of an equally destitute population to build grand monuments to themselves, a process that continues in modern times.
The Vatican alone is estimated to be worth $10 to $15 billion, which does not count the value of its art or land. Dedication to poverty is apparently a good business.
The Eastern world is no better, with the powerful becoming increasingly wealthy over time, and indeed making the availability of women through capture a strong motivating force for young men to go to war.
In all these cases, and throughout most of history, rulers were able to exploit the ignorance of the masses. The astonishing thing is how much has changed in so much of the world, and one of the reasons it has changed is the increasing availability of knowledge. To put it pithily, people object to being ripped off once they become aware of it. This is why in those societies that most strongly bear the imprint of this sordid past, the continuing control of the means of information is critical.
This is why China employs upward of some 2 million people simply to patrol the internet to suppress information (and thankfully for its competitors, this also suppresses innovation — one of the reasons China will never surmount the West economically). This is why various countries with dictatorial regimes systematically engage in censorship and thought control, and this is why North Korea is such a closed society.
Kim Jong Un (to personify the government in his form) is acutely aware of the hideous scam he is pulling on the rest of the North Korean people, and he is deathly afraid (literally, as it turns out) of the power of the word rippling through the suppressed population. North Korea is a tinderbox waiting to explode, and all it will take is a match. And so matches must be suppressed.
But how long can this go on?
As all societies are increasingly finding, technological advances are making the preservation of masses of woefully ignorant and thus compliant people more and more difficult. Kim wants nothing more than to just be left alone to continue his predatory violence against his own people.
For various reasons, if all the regime did was continue starving and executing innocent people, the international community would pay him no mind (which is one indication of why much of the international community is deserving of contempt). Quite the contrary, it is the “madness” of building nuclear bombs and delivery systems that is bringing the North Korean regime all the attention.
But, isn’t that more evidence of madness? No; it is the opposite. Kim Jong Un’s endgame is international guarantees that the regime can continue its murderous and predatory ways, and continue to live in the lap of luxury. He is angling for negotiations that will guarantee his existence in exchange for giving up his nuclear ambitions.
What other purpose could his nuclear ambitions have? At some point he might be able to harm the U.S. or one of its allies, but that would come at the cost of much of North Korea being turned into a nuclear waste zone. That truly would be madness. The only value of this “crazy” move is to preserve his own safety. He is thus crazy like a fox.
And when these things come to pass, the “international community” will face a profound moral question: How many innocent North Korean lives is it acceptable to sacrifice to keep Kim Jong Un in power and to remove this nuclear threat?
I am not sure how that calculus will come out. There is a reasonable chance that the international community will think that quite a large sacrifice of North Koreans is worth making. What another dark mark on humanity that would be.