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The Hermit Nuclear Kingdom

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North Korea is the most secretive country in the world today, with its main railway lined with walls so high that its foreign passengers can’t see the countryside. It is also, as Brad-ley Martin’s book makes clear, the most repressive and brutal country in the world, with entire families sometimes executed if one member gets drunk and slights the Dear Leader. It is at the same time by far the most totalitarian, with nearly every home equipped with a speaker that issues propaganda from morning to night. It is the country most defiant of the West, whose leaders not only counterfeit US $100 bills but also are building nuclear warheads. North Korea is also, along with Iraq, the country where President Bush has most seriously bungled US foreign policy, and has made the world more dangerous and unstable. Finally, North Korea is perhaps the least understood place on earth. There is no firm agreement on such basic facts as whether Kim Jong Il is a playboy or a savvy leader who constantly monitors the Internet and CNN.

Bradley Martin’s book, which took him twenty-five years to write, helps to resolve any uncertainty. Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader is, from all I have read, simply the best book ever written about North Korea. Relying largely on extensive interviews with defectors, Martin portrays North Korean life with a clarity that is stunning, and he captures the paradoxes in North Korean public opinion—people often revered their “Great Leader” at the same time that he was horrifically mismanaging their country and brutalizing their countrymen. Some will think that Martin is too soft, and others will think him too harsh, but his analysis matches what I’ve seen on my own trip to North Korea (before I was banned for life) and in my own interviews with North Korean citizens and defectors in China and South Korea.

Martin’s work is sobering—he quotes one North Korean defector after another who says that a new Korean war is entirely possible, and that many North Koreans would welcome a war in hopes that it might end their miseries. And while American policy toward North Korea seems based on the idea that just a little nudge and the entire dictatorship will come crashing down, he doesn’t believe it’s that fragile. I fear he is right.

North Korea is in the news these days mostly because of its nuclear activities, which were badly exacerbated by Bush’s inept handling of negotiations over them. It seems that North Korea first achieved a nuclear capacity during the administration of George H.W. Bush, probably building one or two nuclear warheads. Then in 1994 Clinton almost went to war with North Korea, threatening to take action against its nuclear program, but at the last minute North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear activities if the US lifted sanctions and helped to build it a couple of nuclear reactors that could not easily be used to make nuclear weapons.

The North did indeed freeze its plutonium program, but it secretly pursued another path to nuclear weapons by enriching uranium. Meanwhile, the US didn’t live up to its promises either, for it never lifted sanctions or extended diplomatic recognition. The 1994 agreement is constantly cited by administration hawks as proof that there’s no point to reaching agreements with North Koreans, because they cheat. But such statements are made mostly by people who mix up the two ways to make nuclear weapons. In fact, the 1994 agreement achieved plenty. It halted North Korea’s efforts to make nuclear weapons by using plutonium, although it’s true that it did secretly continue to enrich uranium. But that route is less threatening than the plutonium route, which makes a larger volume of weapons possible. If it weren’t for the 1994 agreement, North Korea would now have at least one hundred nuclear weapons, perhaps two hundred.

The secret uranium program posed a real threat of proliferation, but the Bush administration’s response to it led the North Koreans not only to continue with it but also to revive their plutonium program. Now we have the worst of both worlds, and North Korea could eventually be producing dozens of nuclear weapons each year.

All this has been awkward for Bush to explain. He invaded Iraq because it might some day develop nuclear weapons, even as North Korea was openly and vociferously going all out to expand a known arsenal of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. So the administration has tended to avoid talking about North Korea.

On the other hand, it’s been conservatives, and especially the Christian right, who have led the way in calling attention to human rights abuses in North Korea (such as the government’s allowing some two million of its citizens to starve to death in the late 1990s). That is probably because Christians are among the repressed groups, and South Korean evangelicals have been active in trying to smuggle Bibles into North Korea and North Koreans out. While Martin’s book is the best I know of so far on life in that country, perhaps the second best is The Aquariums of Pyongyang, by Kang Chol-hwan, a defector’s account of life in a North Korean prison camp.* It provides a detailed look at a society where the slightest hint of dissent can turn an entire extended family into slaves in a concentration camp.

Martin’s book is the more ambitious. It is partly a biography of the late Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, who after his death was named his country’s perpetual president. Many countries have presidents for life, but only North Korea has one who is dead. Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader is also a biography of his son, Kim Jong Il, who traditionally was called the Dear Leader but more recently has been dubbed the Great Leader as well. Martin also discusses the question of who might lead the next generation in the Communist world’s first dynasty, and he provides a judicious portrait of North Korean society and Korean–US relations.

Skeptics have occasionally argued that Kim Il Sung was an impostor, a pawn chosen by the Russians who then assumed the identity of a genuine nationalist guerrilla—the real Kim Il Sung—who had fought against the Japanese occupiers in the 1930s. But as Martin argues, that seems wrong. The evidence suggests that Kim Il Sung was a genuine nationalist hero and guerrilla leader, albeit not nearly so heroic as the later hagiographers would suggest, since his group’s attacks on the Japanese were not decisive in the war.

More remarkable, it turns out, Kim’s father was a Christian. Korea was fertile ground for Christianity in the early twentieth century, partly because Christianity was a way to quietly express defiance of the Japanese colonial rulers who had formally annexed the country in 1910. Kim’s father attended a school founded by missionaries, and later attended church regularly; he was also a church organist. He taught Kim Il Sung to be an organist as well, and the boy attended church throughout his teens. “I, too, was interested in church,” he once wrote, but later “I became tired of the tedious religious ceremony and the monotonous preaching of the minister, so I seldom went,” although he acknowledged receiving “a great deal of humanitarian assistance from Christians.” Still, after taking power, Kim completely wiped out Christianity from his country, keeping a couple of churches for show but staffing them with actors and actresses to impress foreign visitors with his tolerance.

Ironically, in view of his ideological extremism in later life, Kim was initially accused by other guerrillas of being a “rightist deviationist,” and he complained that some guerrillas were too ideological and not pragmatic enough. Yet Kim genuinely did fight hard against the Japanese at a time when many Koreans (including many future South Korean officials) were quislings of the hated occupiers. Those nationalistic credentials gave Kim Il Sung an authenticity and moral authority among Koreans that leaders in the South lacked, and that is one reason why many ethnic Koreans in Japan (even those from the southern half of Korea) have sided with North Korea rather than with South Korea. They weren’t Communists; they were nationalists. Some moved to North Korea in the 1960s, thus ruining their own lives and those of their families.

North Korea has always played the nationalist card for all it is worth. Kim Il Sung’s military unit fought a valiant but ultimately losing struggle against the Japanese, yet North Korean literature claims his guerrillas defeated the Japanese. In official histories, the Americans are mentioned only as the ones responsible for dividing the Korean peninsula for their own nefarious purposes.

If Kim Il Sung worked hard to preside over a brutal dictatorship, then his son Kim Jong Il simply inherited it. There were other potential successors, but Kim Jong Il managed to elbow them aside—mostly by flattering his father and amplifying the cult of personality that honored his father as a deity. The worship of Kim Il Sung may seem absurd to Westerners, but it was effective in North Korea. Martin quotes a European who served as a diplomat in Pyongyang for many years as estimating that about 90 percent of the population genuinely believed in the regime, while 10 percent simply pretended to. I think that was true at least through 1994, when Kim Il Sung died and Kim Jong Il took over. Since then, Martin plausibly argues, support has waned, and Kim Jong Il certainly doesn’t command the respect that his father did. Still, even a year ago, when I was interviewing North Korean refugees in China, they still said that most of their friends and relatives supported the regime.

I think the people for the most part genuinely revered Kim Il Sung,” Martin writes. “They wanted to praise him and his works…. Many defectors’ statements confirmed that the feeling of religious awe was real.” For example, one defector, Dong Young Jun, recalled the classes in ideology he had taken in college. “I cried often,” Dong recalled. “I was so touched by the consideration Kim Il Sung showed for his people.” Dong recalled hearing of how the Great Leader had once seen women gutting fish in the cold, and had briefly joined them to show concern. “Even to this day, it really touches me when I think of it and I feel like crying,” Dong told Martin. “When I thought of my mother making kimchee during the cold winter it didn’t affect me. But when I thought of the Great Leader touching the smelly fish with the dangerous knife, that got me very emotional.”

A Chinese Communist Party member who was stationed in Pyongyang for many years told me that he believed that most North Koreans, at least through the 1980s, basically accepted the system. “It’s like China in the 1950s, when basically we really did genuinely believe in Chairman Mao,” he said. The difference, my friend said, was that Chinese gradually figured out that they were being conned by the Communist Party, while North Korea was so isolated and controlled that the truth never filtered into popular consciousness. For example, my Chinese friend was an ethnic Korean who spoke Korean as his mother tongue and had attended the university in Pyongyang before becoming an official in a Communist Party unit in China—yet he said that in all his years in North Korea, he never had a single conversation in which a North Korean offered a truly honest, unfiltered opinion about politics. In contrast, even in the days after the Tiananmen events, you could get into a taxi at Beijing airport and in five minutes the driver would be telling you how awful China’s Communist Party was.

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    Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in a North Korean Gulag, translated from the French by Yair Reiner (Basic Books, 2001).

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