North Korea

Last month’s transition of power to the new collective leadership of the Politburo Standing Committee shows how China may hold the key to taming the madness of the North Korean regime. In the past few weeks, North Korea has declared that it is in a state of war with South Korea, and has threatened to wage nuclear war against the United States. As world leaders try to figure out how to respond, many are turning to China, North Korea’s closest ally, in the hope that China’s new leadership can ease the escalating tensions. China does indeed have a special insight into the psychology of North Korea’s leadership. But it is an insight that those in Europe also share. Both have experienced the catastrophic consequences which occur when a pathological individual gains power.

In a recent article, Financial Times journalist Gideon Rachman pointed out that the policy of mutually assured destruction, on which the entire edifice of nuclear deterrence is based, requires that both sides are sane[1]. Nuclear catastrophe on the Korean peninsula will be avoided, analysts say, because the leaders in Pyongyang wish to survive, and do not wish to bring about the annihilation of their people. The history of Europe and China however shows that such comforting assumptions may simply not be true.

China and Europe – A Shared History

North Korea’s current behaviour should prompt us to remember Hitler’s actions in starting WW2, and in prolonging that war until Germany lay in ruins.

As Sebastian Haffner demonstrates in his chilling book ‘The Meaning of Hitler’, Hitler’s plan, long before he rose to power, was to restart WWI and win it, this time, for Germany. Hitler’s personality was disordered in such a way that no actions on the part of the allies could have deflected Hitler from his goal, or altered the inevitability of war. The consequences for Europe, and for Germany, of Hitler’s rigid pathology were catastrophic.

photo credit: Ebola Cereal via photopin cc

photo credit: Ebola Cereal via photopin cc

Under Mao, China too suffered the devastating consequences of pathological leadership. Mao, like Hitler, suffered from dangerous personality disorders that meant that under his rule, large scale violence was inevitable. Mao’s narcissistic and psychopathic personality and his love of violence are well documented.  Mao derived great personal pleasure from extreme violence. In his disordered mind, extreme violence was simply something to indulge in to satisfy his narcissistic fantasies and relieve the boredom he would suffer in a peaceful world. ‘Long-lasting peace is unendurable to human beings,’ he wrote. ‘When we look at history, we adore the times of [war] when dramas happened one after another…[4] The psychopathic manner in which Mao pursued rapid industrialisation during the Great Leap Forward was an unmitigated disaster. At least forty-five million people died in the famine that followed[5].

After a brief waning of his power, Mao reasserted his authority by launching the Cultural Revolution, and continued to foment violence until a state of virtual civil war engulfed the country. By the time of his death in 1976, up to half a million people had been killed, and the Cultural Revolution had brought China to the verge of anarchy and economic ruin.

Keeping Pathology Out of Power

Europe’s response to the catastrophe of Hitler was the strengthening of democracy in Western Europe and the adoption of strong legal protections for individual human rights. China’s response to Mao was the development of a system of collective leadership within the Party and the effective elimination of the cult of personality. Both responses were designed to prevent a single pathologically disordered individual from ever again gaining total power and being in a position to murder millions.

The disorders of personality from which Hitler and Mao suffered are such that the individuals concerned are psychologically incapable of changing course. Such dangerous personality disorders are terrifyingly commonplace. According to psychologist Robert Hare, psychopathy is so common that each of us is likely to meet one or two psychopaths every day. When such everyday psychopaths hold power, the lives of millions lie in the balance.

The international response to North Korea needs to embrace what science knows about human psychology – particularly the incidence and consequences of dangerous personality disorders. Only cooperative international action, based on such an understanding, can hope to prevent the pathology of North Korea from spreading beyond its borders.


[1] North Korea tests the limits of a MAD world, Gideon Rachman, Financial Times, April 1, 2013
[2] Quoted in Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The unknown story, Vintage, 2006:13
[3] Quoted in Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The unknown story, Vintage, 2006:42
[4] Quoted in Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The unknown story, Vintage, 2006:14
[5] Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine: The history of China’s most devastating catastrophe, 1958–1962, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2010
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