After nearly a month of silence, North Korea has finally spoken out about Travis King – the US soldier who dashed across the border while on a guided tour from South Korea.
To the dismay of observers, however, the press release by the state-controlled media outlet, the Korean Central News Agency, offered no details as to his current condition or whereabouts.
North Korea’s own narrative portrays its people as the purer of the two Koreas, forced to live in an evil world led by its ultimate adversary, the United States
The North Korean announcement did, however, state that King entered the country hoping to seek political asylum, because he was seeking to flee ‘inhumane maltreatment’ and ‘racial discrimination’ in the US army.
It isn’t surprising that North Korea is trying to accuse the US of racism. The North has always viewed the United States as an antagonist determined to instigate regime change through sanctions, joint military exercises with South Korea and Japan, or by complaining about human rights breaches. And this all-encompassing view has become a convenient excuse to justify any hostile manoeuvres of its own: a missile launch; venomous statements about race; or a refusal to come to the negotiating table.
At the core of North Korea’s isolationist worldview is juche, enshrined as the state’s guiding ideology in 1955 by Kim Il-sung, the country’s first leader. Juche is predicated upon economic, political, and military self-reliance. You don’t need to be a foreign policy expert to recognise that this is a recipe for disaster. North Korea’s economic autarky led to severe famine in the 1990s and it is playing no small role in the country’s contemporary economic failures. Yet, as academic scholarship has highlighted, juche is also imbued with ideas of nationalism and race. North Korea’s own narrative portrays its people as the purer of the two Koreas, forced to live in an evil world led by its ultimate adversary, the United States.
Not only is North Korea’s ideology imbued with racism; the regime is also no stranger to accusing others of racism to fulfil its geopolitical goals. In 2020, Pyongyang used the riots engulfing the United States following the killing of George Floyd to admonish Washington as a human rights violator which needed to remedy its ‘poor human rights situation before accusing others’. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry also did not hold back at the time, saying ‘American society is rife with extreme hate and racial discrimination.’ Three years on, the same rhetoric is being repeated.
Why now? North Korea’s statement about Travis King comes at a time when the hermit kingdom’s relations with China and Russia are warming. Earlier this week, Kim Jong-un exchanged letters with Vladimir Putin. Though they weren’t the oleaginous ‘love letters’ he once exchanged with Donald Trump, the North Korean leader asserted the ‘invincibility’ of his relationship with Putin and vowed to ‘smash the imperialists’ arbitrary practices and hegemony.’
Russia and North Korea’s largely transactional relationship benefits both sides, albeit unequally. By bolstering its ties with its Cold War patron, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Pyongyang can guarantee Moscow’s support in blocking any actions that seek to curtail the former’s nuclear and missile ambitions. In return, Russia gains a friend in North Korea at a time when both states have few global allies. More importantly, Russia can obtain North Korean ammunition to use in its war with Ukraine, despite the sub-optimal efficacy of the munitions. The US Treasury recently sanctioned three firms, run by a Slovak national, for facilitating illicit arms deals between Russia and North Korea, and abetting the evasion of unilateral and multilateral sanctions.
This week, the UN Security Council will meet to discuss North Korea’s human rights situation for the first time in six years. This timing is key. 2024 will commemorate ten years since the completion of the landmark UN report on North Korea’s human rights situation. Ten years ago, Pyongyang rejected the report, instead chastising the United States as ‘a special-class human rights abuser that should have been brought to the International Criminal Court.’ Similar rhetoric will likely feature ten years later.
With the UN Security Council at its most dysfunctional since the post-war inception of the United Nations, little will be achieved. China, wishing to be seen as a neutral actor — when it is anything but — opposed the meeting even before it even began, on the grounds that it would heighten ‘confrontation and antagonism’. Russia and China will likely repeat their mantras urging the United States to refrain from imposing further nuclear or human rights-related sanctions on the DPRK.
As for the fate of Travis King, whether North Korea releases him soon or not, the regime will no doubt carry on exploiting his cross-border bolt across the border for geopolitical purposes.
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