Saturday, February 16, 2013

Through My Empirical Lens: A Bitter Butter Battle in the 21st Century

Through My Empirical Lens

Nick Dobis

A Bitter Butter Battle in the 21st Century 
Photo Via
This week North Korea initiated its third, and largest, nuclear test in defiance of sanctions and stern warnings from the United Nations. The test was the first under the reign of Kim Jong-un, who became the nation’s leader after his father Kim Jong-il died in December 2011. The following evening President Barack Obama spoke to our nation in his State of the Union address. With the economy,  Afghanistan, education, infrastructure, and gun violence highlighting most of the address,   North Korea’s nuclear goals managed to make a footnotes length in Obama’s speech:
Photo via

“The regime in North Korea must know they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only further isolate them. As we stand by our allies, strengthen our missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.”

But if past actions taken by our country and the UN remain the blueprint for handling the rouge nation, it is likely Obama’s assurance this week will merely fade into rhetoric. Since the cease-fire halting the Korean War was signed in 1953, each attempt to isolate North Korea has only laid more bricks for nuclear brinkmanship. I want to make clear I don't support a North Korea who desires to reduce Seoul to ashes, but I think it’s time for our country, and the world for that matter, to come to grips with three realities regarding North Korea:


As President Obama noted in his State of the Union Speech, further provocations will only lead to further isolation for the communist country. But after reviewing the country’s profile in the CIA’s World Fact Book (because who else would know more about another country), one must wonder if the tactic of isolating them is counter productive and taking its toll on the wrong people. According to the Fact Book, North Korea “faces chronic economic problems. Industrial capital stock is nearly beyond repair as a result of years of underinvestment, shortages of spare parts, and poor maintenance. Large-scale military spending draws off resources needed for investment and civilian consumption. Industrial and power output have stagnated for years at a fraction of pre-1990 levels.”

With their last recorded GDP at $40 billion in 2011 they rank 103rd out of 229 countries, with Sudan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Nepal, El Salvador, Burma, and Panama ranking higher. Despite their stagnated economy, the government has yet to yield its saber rattling. Isolating North Korea hasn’t stopped their pursuit of nuclear proliferation, but instead has fueled it. The desperate economic situation is ultimately Kim Jong-un’s and his leadership’s fault, but the sanctions have certainly pushed them into a corner. They have made it easier for its leadership to vindicate funneling almost all their funds into its military.

Photo Via


When I discuss this topic with friends and colleagues, some ask “If the people of North Korea are starving, why don’t they revolt?” It’s honestly a good question with many complicated answers. One of those answers I believe has a religious explanation. Although according to the Fact Book “autonomous religious activities are now almost nonexistent; government-sponsored religious groups exist to provide illusion of religious freedom”, there is and has been a long Confucian tradition in the country. In Confucian tradition, there are the Five Great Relationships (Father-son, Elder brother-younger brother, husband-wife, Elder-younger, and ruler-subject).

It’s that last Great Relationship I believe the regime has warped to their advantage. Since the North Korean people are so isolated from the rest of the world they believe their government is fulfilling its fatherly role, defending them from the US and its allies. In turn, some may believe it's their responsibility to fulfill their subject role and submit to their ruler. Since the North Korean people have been indoctrinated to believe their “Supreme Ruler" is also a divine being, they will likely continue to follow their leadership blindly. Their borderline brainwashing is best exemplified in this segment from the documentary "Inside North Korea". In the film National Geographic’s Linda Ling poses as a doctor to travel with the renowned Nepalese eye specialist Dr. Sanduk Ruit. She captures chillingly revealing images of the North Korean people in 2007. (The segment of relevance begins at the 2:11 mark in the video).

Watch Complete Documentary


Even when the world was hours away from annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev still maintained a direct line of communication over the telephone. Obviously it wouldn’t be accurate to make a direct comparison between the two nuclear crises, separated by both time and completely different dynamics. But President Obama won his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. Despite being loathed by many conservatives in our nation, the president is viewed globally in a largely favorable light. With the help of China, North Korea’s closet ally, President Obama needs to use his diplomatic skill sets to walk North Korea away from the nuclear edge.

There is a great possibility though the President won’t accomplish this goal in his final term. Why? Many in the Republican Caucus wish to re-designate North Korea as an official sponsor of terrorism. Appeasing Kim Jong-un may poison the well for any or all of Obama’s domestic policy ambitions, a political calculation he and our nation cannot overlook.

My favorite Dr. Seuss book is “The Butter Battle Book”, a children’s book written in 1984 reflecting  the heightened concern over nuclear war with the Soviet Union. In the book, the Yooks and the Zooks dispute over the proper way to eat toast, butter side up or butter side down. Eventually the conflict escalates into an arms race. The book ends with a classic Seuss “UNLESS” moment with the two opposing generals standing on the great divide they built between their people, ready to see who will drop their bomb first. I cannot say we stand on this same brink with North Korea...yet. But perhaps the time has come to realize we both want stability and security, no matter how that toast gets buttered.

Photo Via Good Reads

No comments:

Post a Comment