Exploring North Korea’s History and Evolving Threats – VCU News
North Korea is not usually high on the list of travel destinations for most graduate students. But Benjamin Young’s trajectory was anything but typical, and after earning a bachelor’s degree in history, he joined a trip organized by a Canadian organization to the Korean-speaking region of northeast China and South Korea. North, where he meticulously practiced his Korean dialogue.
“Looking back, I can’t believe my parents let me do this,” Young said. But a lack of scientific expertise on the country had piqued his interest. His travels led him to seek his own academic answers, complete master’s and doctoral programs in North Korean history, and study as a Fulbright scholar.
“North Korea is definitely a unique country,” Young said today. Assistant Professor of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness at Virginia Commonwealth University L. Douglas Wilder School government and public affairs. “It’s definitely a black box in many ways. It can also be a Rorschach test. You see in it what you want to see.
Investigate a mountain of mystery
Understanding North Korea is a challenge Young takes pride in, and he has become an expert on the country, speaking to national and international news outlets – and gathering information in any way he can; defectors, historical archival documents, as well as people who go there. He recently published his first book, “Guns, guerrillas and the big bosswhich examines North Korea’s foreign relations with developing countries during the Cold War era.
Young sees the past as essential to understanding the present. He specializes in international relations and Cold War studies and studies the importance of mountains in North Korean ideology, particularly that of Mount Baekdu, which serves as an important political metaphor. Long considered a symbol of strength and longevity, the mountain is the basis of a cultural ritual of power. Before a major missile test, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un usually visits Mount Baekdu, considered the spiritual cradle of the Korean people.
State-controlled media then publish photos of him, majestic atop a white horse, riding among the snowy slopes. Connecting North Korea’s proud history to its present, the significance of this act solicits the leader’s trust in his people, who are taught to see Kim as god incarnate. It’s a powerful display to behold and a reminder of North Korea’s supposed greatness, Young said.
“North Korea is a country that mixes Marxism-Leninism, Korean nationalism and militarism in an ideological mix that has made the government extremely brutal and the country resistant to outside pressure,” Young said. “Nationalist symbols, such as Mount Baekdu, play an important role in North Korea’s political culture and internal affairs.”
What kind of threat is North Korea?
It is almost impossible to talk about North Korea without reflecting on the militant power of the nation, which devotes 20-30% of its gross domestic product to national defense. This contrasts with the 10% to 20% of its non-road routes which are paved. Fierce independence and the desire for self-reliance have trumped economic prosperity, Young said.
North Korea has spent decades developing its nuclear program, conducting its first
nuclear test in 2006 and its most recent and powerful test in 2017. According to state-controlled media, this test included a long-range hypersonic missile, which experts say could potentially escape US detection in intercontinental launch case. Despite warnings of increased economic sanctions from the international community, Kim pledged to continue expanding his nuclear arsenal and advanced weapons programs.
While President Donald Trump has spoken with Kim and even traveled to meet him in the DMZ in 2019 to discuss nuclear de-escalation, Young said President Joe Biden is taking more of a stand-by approach.
“North Korea presents a unique security challenge to the United States and its regional allies in Northeast Asia,” Young said. “With its nuclear weapons, cyber operations and missile systems, North Korea’s asymmetric military capabilities should not be underestimated.”
Another example of international conflict Young investigated was the assassination of Kim’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in Malaysia by North Korean agents. Young was interviewed for a recent iHeart podcast titled Big Brother: North Korea’s Forgotten Prince which explores the murder-for-hire plot that eliminated the rightful heir and leader of North Korea.
What is the North Korea-China connection?
Next spring, Young will teach an elective on China and North Korea. Tentatively titled “Maoists and Missiles”, the course will be a survey of security issues surrounding the two countries. In his other courses, such as terrorism, cybersecurity policy, and legal issues related to homeland security and emergency preparedness, Young uses North Korea as a way to talk about state sponsors of terrorism and of the use of sanctions in American foreign policy.
When Young discusses North Korea with his students, he strives to dispel misconceptions about the country. Young notes the importance of recognizing that North Korea remained unique compared to other communist countries.
“It wasn’t like the Soviet system and never was like the Chinese system,” Young said. “A lot of students tend to think that North Korea is just a pawn of the Chinese leadership. And that’s not at all true.”
Young sees the relationship between North Korea and China as one of long-term mutual convenience, with both countries supporting each other’s revolutionary ideologies during their respective civil wars in the mid-20th century. Besides ideological solidarity, North Korea and China also share an interest in limiting the presence of American troops in the region.
So while North Korea operates politically independently of China, there are ties that raise security concerns for the Western world. Young recently published an analysis in Foreign Policy magazine, titled “North Korea knows how important its cyberattacks are.”
“Many North Korean hackers study at Chinese tech universities and then bring their skills back to their home country,” Young said.
The technological resources provided by China benefit the modernization of the North Korean economy. According to South Korean research from 2016, at least 600 to 1,000 North Korean cyber warfare operatives operate in China. And most, if not all, of North Korea’s internet traffic goes through China, Young said. His assessment is that China not only knowingly supports North Korean cyber warfare efforts, but is advancing those efforts “as a force by proxy to weaken and frustrate U.S. interests.”
Young’s upcoming special subject class on China and North Korea is something he’s excited to share with Wilder School students in homeland security and emergency preparedness. While cyber warfare attracts less attention than missile launches, Young believes that public awareness of cyber operations is essential for the United States to effectively assess North Korea’s full threat profile.
North Korea serves as a case study for students to evaluate and develop innovative solutions to counter modern terrorism. It’s a skill set that Young considers essential to combat changing types of security threats and best prepare students for successful careers in homeland security and emergency preparedness.
“North Korean hackers are the 21st century version of guerrilla fighters, moving in the dark and striking at the most vulnerable points,” Young said.
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