So North Korea is on the warpath. Actually, North Korea has never been off the warpath. No, North Korea isn’t on the warpath. Well, it might be, but it might not be. It depends on what you read. If you’ve been living under a nuclear-proof rock for the past month you might have missed the news that WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE or WE ALL MIGHT DIE or WE ALL MIGHT BE ABOUT TO POTENTIALLY DIE so a recap might be useful. Basically, the last couple of months have seen an escalation in the rhetoric of the North Korean leaders – culminating in the severance of a hotline with the South and rumours that the North has moved a missile to the East Coast.
But, the thing is, we don’t really know what to make of these statements as we’re not very good at understanding North Korea and its leaders. Why? Well part of the reason is that we struggle to relate to the political system in the country. In the western world of democracies with comparatively frequent changes in government – think Italy – comprehension of supposedly all-powerful dynasties has faded from our collective conscience; by and large they are a thing of the past. And this brings me to Classics. We might associate Greece with the birth of democracy but the reality is that only a minority of the citizens of the Greek city-states enjoyed democratic governments – and the world outside of Greece was a world of kings.
The increase in hostile rhetoric from North Korea coincides with the death of Kim Jong-il and the succession of his (then) 29 year-old son Kim Jong-un; this calls to mind one of the ancient world’s more important power transitions – the 336 BC murder of Philip II of Macedon and the accession of his son Alexander, initially just the plain old ‘third’ but later the ‘Great’. Alexander was just 20 at the time of his father’s death, barely out of boyhood but thrust into a world of battle-hardened men, like Parmenion and Antipater – his father’s chief advisors. Why should these men, both powerful nobles in their own right and senior generals with impressive military records, respect such a young king? Royal blood counted for something, but it was hardly a guarantee of a long and happy reign since assassination was an ever-present threat for Macedonian monarchs. Beyond bloodline, royal authority for Alexander ultimately required the young man to prove himself within the Macedonian social system – and not just prove himself competent, but demonstrate his superiority. Two years into his reign, he invaded the Persian Empire – the greatest, most powerful empire the world had ever seen. Why?
Our most influential ancient source, Arrian, ascribes this decision to Alexander’s pothos – his longing or yearning – for conquest, a deep desire to win glory to rival that of his great hero Achilles; his analysis of Alexander’s character continues to shape the way that modern historians write about the Macedonian king. But this is too simple. Arrian places no weight on the fact that Philip had begun preparing for a war against Persia and had, in fact, sent an advance force of some 10,000 men into the Persian Empire, nor do the military campaigns in Thrace and Greece which prefaced the Persian campaign, carry any real importance in his understanding of Alexander. I don’t doubt for a second that Alexander wanted to win glory through military conquest but the ultimate reason for this is that Macedonian society, his society, saw it as the ultimate way to gain honour. Alexander’s father Philip had turned an unimportant kingdom on the fringes of the Greek world into the dominant power in Greece through clever diplomacy and conquest. He walked with a limp and had lost an eye in a siege; he was a warrior-king who led his troops into battle from the front.
In hereditary monarchies, the first point of comparison for a new king is with his predecessor; when the society seems to have valued the predecessor, the successor must conform to the established model of monarchy – initially at least. In ancient Persia, the Achaemenid kings wrote inscriptions which emphasised that they were building on the work of previous kings:
‘Artaxerxes, the great king, proclaims: With the protection of Auramazda, this palace which my father, king Xerxes, made, I completed it.’ A¹Pa, Kuhrt (2007), p.316.
By doing this, the Achaemenid kings attempted to highlight continuity; the monarch may have changed, but the role of the king within society had not. Alexander, then, had to be a warrior-king – it was the only kind of kingship that the Macedonian nobility would accept. So the invasion of Persia may have satiated personal desires, but a more important reason lay behind it: the need for Alexander to prove himself as king and as (at least) equal to his father within a society which placed tremendous stress on the military aspects of life – hunting and, most obviously, actually fighting.
What’s the point of all this – apart from the obvious attempt to make Classics seem relevant to the modern world? Well, the classical world offers a reminder that aggressive statements and actions are first and foremost addressed to an internal audience. In that sense, perhaps the recent North Korean statements aren’t really about altering relations with the South and her allies; perhaps we should see them as a product of internal manoeuvrings and pressures. Kim Jong-un has to prove to his people, and specifically to the army high command, that he can stand up to the United States; fail to do so and he will look weak – and, as we know from ancient Macedonia, weak leaders don’t last long. This is not unique to Kim Jong-un, how often do we hear British politicians promising to ‘stand up to Brussels’, but the militarised and isolated nature of North Korean society inevitably produces more extreme actions.
Does this help policy-makers? Of course not. After all, it fails to resolve the ultimate dilemma – respond and risk radicalising moderates, or ignore it all and risk giving radicals the confidence to demand more. But the real point is that we needn’t necessarily think of this as being a real change North Korean policy; perhaps it is simply the result of internal tensions as a new leader attempts to fill his father’s shoes and win the support of powerful figures within the system – it need not signify a long-term change in policy. Understanding the pressures that new leaders face within hereditary systems helps to explain the external presentation of the dynasty. Of course, Kim Jong-un could be a psychopath intent on destroying the world, but he need not be the caricatured Bond villain that North Korean leaders are often presented as. Alexander the Great completely transformed the Macedonian monarchical system, but he was only able to do so because of the prestige he gained by acting like a traditional Macedonian king in the early part of his reign.