How Does the Partition of Korea End?

North Korea has a large military but few other trappings of civilization.

We humans tend to believe that the life we experience today is “normal” and that it will go on like this indefinitely. Evolutionary psychologists probably have some pat explanation for this, but we don’t know what it is. We do know, however, that many things thought permanent were anything but.

In the late 1960s, a Soviet historian named Andrei Amalrik wrote a prescient essay: Will the Soviet Union survive until 1984? At the time, it seemed laughable, but the KGB didn’t think it was funny, and Amalrik did a couple of stints at the Kolyma concentration camp before being exiled to the Netherlands. He was dead by 1981, in a car crash that, although certainly convenient for the KGB, was probably just a car crash.

In 1984, grinning KGB goons told Scharansky, “It’s 1984, Amalrik’s dead, and we’re still here.” The eternal workers’ and peasants’ revolutionary state, like the thousand-year Reich that was modeled upon it, seemed destined to last forever.

Amalrik admitted that he had nothing in the way of evidence. Just observation and logic. And he said logic guaranteed that a state built on terror and oppression could not stand forever. As it happened he was off by only a few years, although he was thwarted in his desire to live to see “the end of… the Russian Imperial state.”

I have been hearing and reading a great deal about the so-called “liberalization” of Soviet society. This idea may be formulated as follows The situation is better now than it was ten years ago; therefore ten years from now it will be better still. I will attempt to show here why I disagree with this notion. I must emphasize that my essay is based not on scholarly research but only on observation. From an academic point of view, it may appear to be only empty chatter. But for Western students of the Soviet Union, at any rate, this discussion should have the same interest that a fish would have for an ichthyologist if it suddenly began to talk.

The fish had this to say about the long-term prospects of his fishbowl:

I have no doubt that this great Eastern Slav empire, created by Germans, Byzantines and Mongols, has entered the last decades of its existence. Just as the adoption of Christianity postponed the fall of the Roman Empire but did not prevent its inevitable end, so Marxist doctrine has delayed the break-up of the Russian Empire, the third Rome, but it does not possess the power to prevent it.

Carrying this analogy further, one can also assume that in Central Asia, for instance, there could survive for a long time a state that considered itself the successor of the Soviet Union, a state which combined traditional Communist ideology, phraseology and ritual with the traits of Oriental despotism, a kind of contemporary Byzantine Empire.

For all that Amalrik and other dissidents, exiles and refuseniks experienced the USSR as a nightmare regime, that was not the experience of most Soviets. Especially Russians. They lived their lives, they did their best, they loved their country and its culture and some of its institutions, and they cultivated a healthy sense of humor about the unloveable parts. Most of the fish loved the fishbowl. Many today are nostalgic for it, because it wasn’t all KGB guys with coshes and steel-toed shoes: it was a proud, strong nation, and for some Russians today the USSR with all its flaws has the same appeal as the Lost Cause of the Confederacy (with all its flaws!) had to generations of American southerners.

Yet it still came crashing down; Amalrik, almost alone of the tens of thousands of historians, economists, and other experts in the USSR, had it right.

An Army with a nation. Will fight for food.

Which brings us back to the starvation state, North Korea,

The division of a single nation into separate states is a force like the chemical bonds between atoms in a molecule. It is stable right up until the moment that it is not stable.

Then, the bonds break with a great release of energy, and reform in new ways.

In chemistry, this reaction is predictable with mathematical certainty. In statecraft, it is not.

What, then, are the beliefs and guiding ideas of this people with no religion or morality? They believe in their own national strength, which they demand that other peoples fear, and they are guided by a recognition of the strength of their own regime, of which they themselves are afraid. ….

Under this assessment it is not difficult to imagine what forms and directions popular discontent will take if the regime loses its hold. The horrors of the Russian revolutions of 1905-7 and 1917-20 would then look like idylls in comparison.

It should be noted, however, that there is another powerful factor which works against the chance of any kind of peaceful reconstruction and which is equally negative for all levels of society this is the extreme isolation in which the regime has placed both society and itself. This isolation has not only separated the regime from society, and all sectors of society from each other, but also put the country in extreme isolation from the rest of the world. This isolation has created for all from the bureaucratic elite to the lowest social levels an almost surrealistic picture of the world and of their place in it. Yet the longer this state of affairs helps to perpetuate the status quo, the more rapid and decisive will be its collapse when confrontation with reality becomes inevitable.

Amalrik, in that last paragraph, is predicting the exact sort of preference cascade that actually occurred in the USSR and Eastern Europe in 1989-92. As it happened, restraint by Soviet and particularly Russian leadership ensured that the transition was largely peaceful.

But Amalrik saw coming for the USSR what no one had seen coming for Rome:

Evidently, if “futurology” had existed in Imperial Rome, where, as we are told, people were already erecting six-story buildings and children’s merry-go-rounds were driven by steam, the fifth-century “futurologists” would have predicted for the following century the construction of twenty-story buildings and the industrial utilization of steam power.

As we now know, however, in the sixth century goats were grazing in the Forum just as they are doing now, beneath my window in this village.

The USSR, unlike North Korea, had many strengths in natural and human resources; there is a lot of ruin in a nation, and a lot more in a large and forward-looking nation than there is in a small, isolated and regressive land.

One wonders if the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as the world’s most backward and inbred absolute monarchy styles itself, can survive until 2024. And what terrors will be unleashed by its long-delayed expiration.

Amalrik’s essay is available online:


34 thoughts on “How Does the Partition of Korea End?

    1. Hognose Post author

      I actually first got it as a mimeographed samizdat, translated into Czech. My Czech teacher, Jan Beneš, said, “Oh, that’s been exactly translated into English,” and sent me to an emigré bookstore for a copy, very thin paperback.

      Years later, as my parents closed the Hyannis house for the last time, it was one of the books in the nightstand in the room I shared with the Blogbrother down there.

  1. Don edward

    A) Not in our lifetime.

    B) With thermonuclear warfare

    3) It’s Trump’s fault.

  2. Trone Abeetin

    I’m not so sure that whatever happens will be in South Korea’s favor. The ChiComs won’t allow it.

    1. Hognose Post author

      The ROKs don’t want unification. They saw what absorbing the lost generations of Ossis did to the Federal Republic of Germany, and the East Germans were miles ahead of the Norks in physical and mental health and education. It would impoverish all Korea for 50 years.

      1. Jimmy the Saint

        Like as not, it will get rammed down their throats. China is the 800lb gorilla in that region, and whatever it wants, it will get.

  3. Scott

    What is the real population of North Korea? It seems that a nation where most of the population lives at near starvation levels would not have a birthrate sufficient to maintain, let alone, increase the population. If that is the case, then I question how effective North Korea would be in a land war. They may have missiles and nuclear weapons, but the effectiveness of those weapons is up for discussion. Launching missiles across the border would not take much in the way of effectiveness, but South Korea probably has a superior defense,thanks to the U.S.

    At some point, you have to put boots on the ground. So back to my question. How many North Koreans are there?

    1. whomever

      The CIA Factbook says the NK population is about 25 million. It doesn’t list the size of the military.

      The Font of all Knowledge, Wikipedia, says the active military is 1.2 million, but there are also 600k reserves and 5.9 million paramilitary, whatever that means (some are not even armed). It’s the largest per capita military in the world.

      South Korea has 630k active, but more reserves, and less paramilitary.

    2. Blackshoe

      The KPA isn’t even that good anymore, TBH. It used to be that the people were starving, but the Army was fed. Then about 10 years ago or so, reports started coming out of Army units in rear areas and along the northern border with China struggling with food problems. Then, a few years later, you started hearing similar reports from forces on the DMZ. However, the caveat then became “but the Special Forces units [world’s largest SOF corps, BTW] are still in good shape!” Then you started hearing about SOF units in the northern areas raiding farms for food. And lately, the reports have been about fraggings in units on the border, and units that protect KJU being disarmed and/or having their ammunition taken away from them.

      There is zero, none, nada, nil doubt about the North Korean’s ability to capture the South in a 1950s Redux scenario-they cannot do it. Period. Stop. Halt. We know that. As best we can figure, they know that, as well.

      However, they can still fight and lose while killing lots of people in South Korea, Japan, and probably the US, as well (there’s one scenario out there describing this happening when they realize they can’t survive much longer; it’s known as the Gotterdammerung Scenario, and it ends as happily as any other Wagner cycle).

      The problem comes when it is understood that the Norks are fighting not for an economic goal, but to preserve a sense of inherent ethnic Korean identity that they feel the South has abandoned. These guys aren’t the Soviets (albeit big fans of Stalinist security states), they’re closer to the Imperial Japanese (of both WW2, and frankly, Meiji-vintage) in the sense of preserving a goal of ethnic superiority and isolation. B. R. Myers’ has a great book looking at DPRK ideology called “The Cleanest Race”. They view that contact with the West will destroy the inherent Korean qualities they hold most dear (and I’m not actually sure they’re wrong, honestly). Therefore, there is no way to reconcile their state with the rest of the world, and nor can they continue as things are going now. They are doomed to fail, and they know that. But when they go, they can inflict massive amounts of casualties to the evil rest of the world when it happens (noteworthy that their propaganda makes fun of the Soviets for surrendering without a shot, a mistake they don’t intend to make).

      So, to echo others: How does the Partition of Korea End? Badly, and very, very bloody.

  4. Aesop

    Badly, all around.
    I’m expecting the national equivalent of a T. rex‘s epic death throes in a Ray Harryhausen epic FX shot.

    If any sanity prevails, and it doesn’t end in a collection of spastic nuclear flashes, hopefully the ROK and PRC come to some agreement, and the ROK border moves halfway up the peninsula, while that of PRC moves southward to meet it.

    Don’t particularly care what they do with the leftover Norkians.

    Second best choice would be that somehow they light themselves off, and the former PDRK becomes a radioactive Forbidden Zone for some decades (Planet Of The Apes scarecrows optional, but both apropos and aesthetic, thus highly advised), and stands as a warning to other children with matches.
    But that’s naked optimism talking.

    Saw all I cared to of the country from the North end of the truce table in Panmunjon, just to say I was there. Won’t particularly miss it once it’s gone, nor will anyone else.

  5. Keith

    Well as a child of the Cold War (born 1964) I never ever thought I see the IGB or the Berlin Wall come down without at least a devastated central Europe and several million dead/wounded/displaced people. Thank God it happened they way it did. As far as NK is I’ve been told by more than one vet of SK that the main reason we are still there is keep SK from overrunning NK. Any thoughts from any of you who have been posted there?

    Keep your powder dry and your faith in God.

    1. Hognose Post author

      I have had recent and troubling information from Korea, actually. Exercises have become highly formalized, and the high command (US and ROK alike) act as if there’s no possibility of war, and they’re just going through the motions.

      No one ever got attacked without relaxing and not worrying about it, when he should have been preparing.

      1. Haxo Angmark

        when/if the Norks attack they’ll go thru the South like a hot knife thru warm butter. DC will have to make a quick call between pulling the US tripwire force out, or nuking the North.

      2. Sommerbiwak

        Laziness abounds.

        The bestest koreans are acting much more confrontational and aggressive than the DDR has ever done. For example the Norks like to take hostages, shell ROK positions which the south returns in kind. The descent ballistic missile tests, the assassination of the Kim half-brother etc. etc.

        And the north is in a much worse economic position than the DDR ever has been in. They have a big army. Maybe undertrained and underequipped, But with enough desperation they might throw their nukes and send human waves southwards. In the end they are very probably going to lose, but having inflicted heavy damage until then.

        But the US and ROK armies make themselves comfortable in the armistice, because the war will never come. Right.

        What is the U.N.’s take on the current situation? Are the swiss and swedes still in the DMZ? What do they report?

    2. PBAR

      I was an exchange student at the Korean Air Force Staff College a few years ago. We definitely aren’t there to keep the South from going North. The Korean AF is far more paranoid about the Japanese attacking then they are of the North.

      I think the basic problem with the South is a significant majority of the people in the South aren’t willing to fight for the entity that is Republic of Korea. They’ll fight in a heartbeat to defend the Korean race/people but not so much for the country of the Republic of Korea.

      My impression is that the current ROK military outside of their SOF and perhaps Navy is soft.

  6. Don edward

    I’m a Cold war baby too. Dad was a cold war soldier in Germany in the early fifties. My sats she almost dropped me when Pres. Kennedy was assassinated.

    My Dad loved speaking German to my brother and I when my mother wasn’t around., in the back of my mind I thought of him as a bit of a traitor for doing so. Just when I entered school I was often thinking about my future service in Vietnam, day dreaming of helicopters and elephant grass. I would get goosebumps reciting the pledge of allegiance and thinking of the day I would do it in uniform.

    Many of the neighbors were WWII vets and if we were good we had a chance to see their war trophies, long bolt action rifles and dark bayonets. Pistols wrapped in oil cloth stored in a dresser. Shiny medals and pins held in shaking hands. We would rush home and tell mom about all the “guns” we saw. “That’s nice honey.”


    My Vietnamese GF has many times told me about stories of younger girls in the northern part of Vietnam being kidnapped across the chinese border to be sold as brides in Best Korea. Its something they really fear.

  8. Tennessee Budd

    Cold War baby here, too. Saw trawlers trailing my carrier many times, trying to pick up our trash. A couple of years later, no more USSR. After having them for a boogeyman all my life, it was a bit disorienting.
    “My Dad loved speaking German to my brother and I…”
    Wow–“speaking German to I”, mon? Who knew Jamaicans spoke German?

  9. RostislavDDD

    Grinned. I constantly see in the runet people predicting the death of America. The economy will collapse under the weight of debts, California will separate.
    The secret with these “dissidents” is simple. These are the twins of people that betrayed the US, passing the secrets of the Soviet nuclear program or engaged in terrorism in the “Red Army Fractions.” In any society and any state there are educated people who hate the state and loyal citizens. Which underestimate this shit.
    That is why in Russia the “liberal opposition” zero chances to become the head of the country in a democratic way. Moreover, even 3-5% of them are mostly “protest voting”. Support would be more if the liberals did not constantly confirm that they were thieves, liars and adherents of democracy only until they took power .. True children of Lenin, like Almarik.
    I recommend comparing the texts of this philosopher, with the philosophy of Lenin before the revolution.
    In the Russian blogosphere, I am known as a consistent anti-communist. That is why the false “liberals” are Russian or American, cause such disgust. You read the speech of the next “defender of civil rights,” and before eyes the philosophy of the future killer from the Cheka.
    It’s so simple, to kill bad people who are interfering with building a path to a brighter future. Especially if you just give orders, the fools of the followers get dirty.

      1. RostislavDDD

        I did not understand the question. However, if we talk about Pravda …
        I’m already a big boy, and had few illusions in life, but the Western press in a certain crisis managed to disappoint me.
        Do not read Pravda if there is a Washington Post or Forbes.
        An article entirely consisting of delirium, fictions and distortions – from the author who knows nothing about Russia.

        And now compare with the text of the professional (in my opinion did not avoid small mistakes, but it is the errors of the professional analyst, and not the shit of the journalist’s brain)
        I’m thinking of signing up for a Warontherocks :)

  10. Kirk

    About North Korea, I wouldn’t predict shit.

    The problem with trying to do so is that you simply cannot even begin to comprehend what thought processes are going on up there, in the minds of the leadership. It’s too alien. What seems logical, and a progression from A to B to C is not to them, and the result is that when you try to interpret what is going on up there in terms you and I could comprehend, your expectations of what is rational are just too far off.

    Think about it: In some crevasse that passes for logical thought, the North Koreans thought it would be smart to assassinate a potential heir to the helm of the North Korean government, a client of their largest patron, and then do so with VX nerve agent in a third country that has served them well as an intermediary. Where the hell does any of that even begin to make sense, on any level?

    It doesn’t. But, it did, to someone in the North Korean government.

    That’s why you can’t predict what the hell they’re going to do–They’re genuine Crazy Eddy’s.

  11. Bill Robbins

    I went to S. Korea in 2010 with my Korean War vet father (since passed away) as a guest of the Korean Government, which still sponsors annual trips (at least they did) in thanks to returning vets of the UN-member forces who fought in the conflict. While touring the truce site, I was struck by the miniature stature of the North Korean guards, as well as by the scratchy-woolen-looking (like the military clothing items that I used to pull out of my father’s foot locker), loose-fitting, vintage-looking uniforms and equally vintage sidearms.

    Why the West still tolerates nut-cases like Fat Boy is beyond me.

  12. Ray

    WHEN the north attacks the south it will be a suicide mission complete with unlimited nerve gas attacks, Nukes, genocide of the southern population and death for any US POW’s, and in its last days, suicide and mass murder of its own people. Insane doesn’t EVEN begin to cover how the “leaders” in North Korea think. WHEN they attack. Not IF they attack. Then the surviving “leaders” will demand food, porn, hookers and booze, to stop the “punishment”.

    1. Aesop

      Only if they’ve found a way not to disintegrate under multiple applications of 100,000,000 degrees centigrade.
      They’ll get the first hit in, and after that the new name for Norkistan will be “yuli”, which is the translation of “glass”.

  13. Docduracoat

    The killing of the Dear Leaders’ brother makes perfect sense.
    He was the only person who China could install as the leader if they decided to do regime change in North Korea
    Killing him means that there is no Chinese puppet available to replace Kim Jong Un
    He lived under Chinese protection and could only be attacked while in a third country
    The use of nerve gas also makes sense as they send a message that they have nerve gas and are willing to use it

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  15. Bart Noir

    Hognose, I am wondering about the weapons in the two pictures. The first is Nork army, right, but the guns don’t quite look like the Bren guns which they converted to fire 7.62×39 from AK magazines. Then again, they sort of do look like it.
    And the second? Again, Norks? With belt-fed DP machine guns, in modern times? Not DPM? I wonder if they still have that problem with overheated recoil springs.

  16. Aitch Too Ess

    There is a really good blog on first-hand reports of life in the former Soviet Union and all its client states. Called ‘The Eastern Border’, it is written and hosted by a Latvian history student who has made it his project to document life in the former Iron Curtain by gathering firsthand accounts. It is an excellent blog and highly recommended. It’s full of notional information, anecdotes and vignettes.

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