North Korea and Syria are two powder kegs in the world at the moment. By comparing these two states we may be able to find solutions to the two crises.
The North Korean crisis is directly related to the division of Korea into two separated states by the Allied Powers in World War II in 1945, whereas the Syrian crisis was touched off by a domestic democratic movement influenced by the Arab Spring in 2011. The main cause of the North Korean crisis is the North Korean regime’s complete distrust and antagonism toward South Korea and the US. Since the US and China are allied with South Korea and North Korea respectively, they are deeply involved in the inter-Korean conflict.
In the Syrian case, the democratic movement turned into an inveterate antagonism between the Alawites (a Shiite sect) and the Sunnis. Since the al-Assad regime is supported by the Alawites, the democratic movement turned into a sectarian war between the Shiites and the Sunnis within the country and in the Arab world — the former supported by Iran, the leading Shiite state, and the latter by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni neighbors. Antagonism between the US and Russia is also pulled into this domestic conflict in which the US supports the pro-Western rebel forces and Russia directly supports the al-Assad regime. Russia wants to keep Syria as its foothold in the Middle East. In contrast, the US is interested not so much in supporting the democratic forces as in preventing the Islamic extremist groups, particularly the Islamic State group, from taking over Syria and spreading their influence to other parts of the world. There is a similarity between the Syrian and the Korean situations in this sense. The only difference is that in the case of the Korean Peninsula, the US and China are the main external competitors, whereas in the Syrian case the main non-Arab competitors are the US and Russia.
Kim Jong-il and Basher al-Assad share a similar view of the outside world. Al-Assad once said that “the conflict in Syria is due to enemies outside of Syria and they would be taught a lesson.” Kim will completely agree with this view. Both look for a scapegoat for their internal difficulties. The North Korean delegation told Assad in 2015 that North Korea and Syria are targeted because they are among those which enjoy real independence.” Real independence implicitly refers to WMDs (nuclear and biological weapons). It should be noted that North Korea has once aided Syria for the latter’s development of nuclear and missile programs.
North Korea and Syria also share similarity politically: Both are ruled by a totalitarian dictatorship. Kim Jong-un and Bashar al-Assad are political twins: They will never abandon their absolute political power in any circumstances. They identify themselves with their own state, and therefore they are willing to die with their own state. On the other hand, it is much easier for Kim than al-Assad to indoctrinate his people because Koreans are secular and homogeneous but Syrians are divided into different religious and sectarian groups which seek autonomy.
The North Korean regime is strongly and tightly armed with one single ideology and spiritual determination. They are juche ideology and the partisan spirit. Juche ideology stands for the independent spirit in all aspects of the state -- political, economical and socio-cultural. This ideology also justifies North Korea’s independent nuclear power. The most important codes of conduct of the partisan spirit are the will to persevere despite unbearable odds and commitment to solidarity. Ba’athism can be the comparable Syrian ideology but is much weaker and run out than juche ideology.
Moreover, Kim Jong-un is supported by a ruling group composed of dedicated former anti-Japanese guerrillas’ descendants and other highly indoctrinated communist party leaders and their families. On the other hand, al-Assad is protected by the intelligence agency, the high-level military and secret police elites as well as various Alawite and Shiite groups but their loyalty has been weakening. These indicate that the North Korean leadership is more consolidated and secure than the Syrian leadership, and therefore more dangerous and risky to eliminate Kim than al-Assad by force or subversion.
Both Kim and al-Assad reject Western civilization and rule of law, but support strongly the main principle of the Westphalian state system (national sovereignty and principle of non-intervention). They also reject Western democracy and American hegemony. Most leaders of the non-West support their position. Ironically, most Western leaders are reticent about the two crises. Perhaps, they are either too preoccupied with their own problems or feel guilty about the application of the Western standards of the nation-state to non-Western states. They, particularly the leading Western states, adopted the principle of self-determination at the League of Nations and the UN according to the Westphalian state model. It is ironic that the Korean people who had enjoyed a single nationhood for almost 13 centuries (676-1950) live in two divided states while the Syrian people who have lived as one nation only since 1941 are still fighting for nationhood. Most failed states are the former Western colonies which became independent states after WWII according to the Western concept of national self-determination. Syria is one of them.
If a state fails to guarantee 7 kinds of human security (economic, food, environmental, personal, community, political, and health security defined by the UN Human Development Report), it is no longer a state, because they are the raison d’etre of the state. North Korea and Syria have failed to meet all these standards. It is no surprise that North Korea strongly supports the al-Assad regime and opposes humanitarian intervention. Other non-Western states including China and Nigeria also support the al-Assad regime. They reject Western values and norms, Western democracy and American hegemony.
How to resolve the two crises is a common task of the Western powers which created Syria and the two Koreas.
By Park Sang-seek
Park Sang-seek is a former rector, the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University and the author, Globalized Korea and Localized Globe. -- Ed.