The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, better known as “North Korea” is led by Dear Respected Comrade Kim Jong-Un, Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army. About 4600 miles away, the Syrian Arab Republic is led by President Bashar al-Assad, a leader with a much shorter title. Although the two countries are geographically distant and not often considered to be politically linked, they share a unique feature: both are run by leaders whose titles were heirlooms.
These two “democracies” are extremely relevant in today’s international affairs despite their relatively tiny economies. The population of both countries combined is 44.28 million. In comparison the population of US is 326.3 million. Economically, Syria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2010 was $60 billion. North Korea’s GDP in 2015 was $16.12 billion. Comparatively, the GDP of the US is $18036.7 billion. Two Davids standing on the same ground as Goliath. These heirs have leveraged Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) to stay in the international spotlight.
In 1953, Korea was divided into two with the establishment of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Syngman Rhee became the president of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and Kim Il Sung became the ruler of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea); North Korea was determined to follow the communism it found in the Soviet sphere, while the South was inspired by US capitalism. The 38th parallel separating the two countries also symbolized an international divide: the US supported the South, and China supported the North. The image of North Korea as a land of famished children and oppressed people was not always the case. In fact, during the 50s and 60s, North Korea had a fast growing economy while South Korea struggled with a lack of agricultural resources and was dependent on significant US aid; at the time, North Korea was an enviable land. However, South Korea developed technology and saw economic growth in the early 2000s, while North Korea withered into the state it is in today. Under the leadership of President Park Chung-Hee, South Korean policies focused on looser policies for economic giants, which allowed it to compete in the world market with companies like Samsung and LG. Furthermore, instead of taking the advice of the US to crackdown on corrupt businessmen, South Korean policies took their bank shares and invested them in import-substitution industries. This unconventional method proved effective and the South Korean economy grew exponentially within just a few decades. Meanwhile, North Korean economy dwindled rapidly. Regardless of the state of the nation, the Kim regime continued to stay in power.
While Japanese rule in Korea led to a civil war, after the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the French-ruled Syria managed to gain independence with the help of Britain, while remaining intact. In 1943, the country had its first election. However, the initial years of independence were not calm. After many coups, Baathist army officers took control of the government in 1963. Three years later, Salah Jadid led an internal coup and Hafez Assad became the defense minister. In 1970, Hafez Assad overthrew then- President Nur al-Din al-Atasi and became the president of Syria. He continued rule until his death, when his son, Bashar Assad took over.
The current leaders of both countries have kept the same ideologies of their fathers but have changed priorities in their domestic, defense, and foreign policies. Despite domestic and international resistance, both leaders have also managed to remain in power.
Domestically, Kim Jong-Un has not alleviated the humanitarian crisis faced by his people. In fact, during his leadership, the number of executions has been staggering. The Dear Respected Comrade even had his own uncle executed. However, when he first came to power, he did put effort into improving public infrastructure. Still, there has been no noticeable difference in the treatment of North Koreans or the overall quality of life in the country. Many have suggested that due to the relatively short transition period from Kim Jong-Il to Kim Jong-Un, the current leader does not hold the same level of respect that his father once did. He also does not have the close-knit advisors that his father had.
Domestically, Bashar al- Assad has a bigger problem on hand than his father Hafez did decades ago. There is no debate that Hafez al- Assad in the Hama massacres showed little regard for his people’s lives, slaughtering 20,000 Syrians. About three decades later, in 2016, his son dropped 13,000 barrel bombs onto his own people. However, with the current war in the region, and especially its role as a proxy war for Russia, US, Iran, and the Sunni countries in the region, the level of chaos is incomparable. In the beginning of his rule, Bashar al-Assad suggested his openness to a more democratic nation, while specifying that it would not look like Western democracy. However, over time, the young leader has used the barbaric tactics of his father and simply worsened the situation. A part of this may be due to the fact that Bashar al- Assad was not groomed to be the next leader, but only became so after the death of his older brother Basil al- Assad.
Both heirs have undoubtedly committed human rights violations. North Korea has been under continuous scrutiny by organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for its concentration camps. However, recently, especially after the April 2017 chemical bombings, human rights violations in Syria have garnered much international attention. Regardless, both countries have not shown much regard for international shaming. Both leaders also continue using the methods of torture utilized by their fathers.
With regards to defense policy, which is tightly interwoven in the foreign policies of both countries, Kim Jong-Un and Bashar al- Assad have become more aggressive than their fathers and have relied more heavily on WMD programs.
Since losing wealth and power, North Korea has resorted to brinksmanship–making threats that are only significant due to the nuclear power it possesses. This tactic was also utilized by the current dictator’s predecessor and father, Kim Jong-Il. In 2012, North Korea fired multiple artillery shells which resulted in a retaliatory attack by South Korea.
While the country has made brazen threats, the US stance on the issue has been heavily influenced by North Korea-China relations. Until May 2017, there was little evidence that China will abandon its “little brother”. In fact in 2016, when Kim Jong Un conducted nuclear tests, Chinese politicians continue to visit North Korea and deepen relations, instead of reprimanding the country. However, as Kim Jong-Un continued to invest and hasten its nuclear program, its relationship with China has been significantly strained. In contrast, the previous Kim dictators had been very careful to not upset China.
An easy example of what North Korea-China relations would look like to the West if the country did not have nuclear weapons can be found by looking at Syria-Russia relations. President Assad has been surviving solely with Russian support. Publically, Russia has vocalized repeatedly throughout the war for NATO to stay away from Syria. The current chaos in the country has become the home to a proxy war where US-Russia relations are being challenged. Despite Russia’s comments towards NATO, American involvement in the region has increased under the Trump administration. In order to protect its ally, Russia has continued to send military arms to Syria, allowing it to combat the rebel groups in the region. Russia is involved in Syria to protect its access to the Black Sea- more specifically the port of Tartus- which is only possible through the Mediterranean Sea. Furthermore, with the Assad regime gaining power in the region, there is little reason to expect Russia to stop supporting Bashar Assad.
The Syria-Russia alliance dates back four decades and has only been strengthened by. US involvement in the region. Although there are other countries where the government targets its people, like the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, it is the involvement of major powers in this proxy war that has kept Syria at the center of global issues. On the other hand, the horrors in North Korea are not new, but the country gained attention as Kim Jong-Un has heavily focused on improving its nuclear program.
Although both chemical and nuclear bombs are WMDs, the reality is that nuclear bombs create a bigger existential threat for the entire world. As the threats made by the Kim dynasty become more and more tangible, the international community has become more involved. Simultaneously, as the North Korean’s capabilities improve, Kim Jong-Un has been more brazen and willing to separate from his country’s ‘big brother’, China. The reality is that both countries are slaughtering their own people, but nuclear weapons seriously challenge other countries’ citizens and therefore give Kim Jong-Un more voice in the international arena. The chemical bombs that Assad has been utilizing, although horrific, mainly call for international human rights intervention. There is little threat to the outside world and thus the conversation has more heavily involved Russia. Without Russia, there is little chance for Assad to survive; however, Kim Jong-Un is outdoing his father’s legacy and creating a more robust nuclear program, albeit more dangerous, international ground.