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The Hermit Nuclear Kingdom

The US has tried to isolate North Korea as punishment for its nuclear programs and general nastiness, but in fact it’s precisely that isolation that has kept the Kims in power all these years. The result is a maddening contradiction in US policy: Americans routinely try to increase the country’s isolation by trying to cut off its few links to the outside world, even though this only increases the longevity of the regime.

For example, Western journalists and commentators have periodically written exposés about North Korean labor camps on Russian territory in Siberia. These are typically logging camps or occasionally mines where North Korean laborers, under North Korean supervision, work for negligible wages, without any freedom to engage in political activity, under constant guard so that they cannot escape. Westerners have assumed that the workers are slave laborers forced to toil in the grim conditions of Siberia, and they have demanded that Russia crack down on such abuses.

The articles seemed persuasive to me. But in fact, Martin writes, the laborers were not forced to go to Russia but went willingly:

Indeed, they had competed fiercely, using bribes and any other means available, to exert enough influence on North Korean officials to get themselves on the list. They saw going to Russia as their tickets to wealth otherwise almost unimaginable by North Korean standards. The work was approximately as arduous as what they would have experienced back at home. The big difference besides huge salary increases was that it was possible to leave the camps occasionally and interact with Russians and ethnic Koreans and Chinese in nearby communities. Many loggers were transformed by experiencing Russia’s relatively liberalized atmosphere.

Martin cites interviews with defectors like Chang Ki Hong, who said that the average income in North Korea was about sixty won a month, but that in Russia he got nine hundred won a month. The thousands of North Korean workers in the camps were all under North Korean supervision and were not permitted to leave the restricted area without a pass but they did get to see something of the country. But those allowed to work in the camps were transformed by the experience. “Until I got to the Soviet Union, I believed in the regime,” Chang Ki Hong said.

But when I got to the Soviet Union and started meeting people there, I realized there must be something wrong back home. It was after I had been there about six months that my mentality started to change. We are taught that the whole world worships Kim Il Sung. I met Russians who made fun of this Kim worship, and then I realized that he was not in fact worshipped by the whole world.

Ultimately, Chang defected from the work camp, as did others among these laborers in Russia. But partly because of pressure from Western human rights activists, and partly because of Russia’s 1998 economic crisis, almost all of those North Korean laborers have since been sent home—a loss, it would seem, for human rights.


One of the central debates in the West about North Korea is whether it might actually launch another Korean War. The most common view is that this is very unlikely, for Kim Jong Il appears to be smart enough to know that an attack on the South would be suicidal. While a second Korean War would be hard-fought and result in huge South Korean, American, and probably Japanese casualties (North Korea would probably fire missiles at Japan during such a war), it would also result in the complete destruction of the North Korean state by South Korean and American forces. In the 1990s, some American intelligence analysts dissented from this view and argued that the North might decide that with its armed forces weakening, it must “use it or lose it.” One American spook used to warn me, on my visits to Seoul, to stay on a high floor of the Chosun Hotel, because then I might be above the layer of nerve gas that would fill Seoul when the North launches its artillery barrages. Such warnings turned out to be baseless and now it’s clearer than ever that North Korea would be utterly destroyed in an all-out war.

Still, North Korea has repeatedly acted against its own interests. Its acts of terrorism overseas, such as blowing up a South Korean airliner and attacking a South Korean delegation to Burma, both in the 1980s, served no strategic purpose and did much harm. And it has shown a bizarre self-confidence. When some South Korean farmers spotted a North Korean mission that had sneaked into South Korea with plans to assassinate the president, the North Korean commandos detained the South Koreans, lectured them on North Korean ideology, and, astonishingly, let them go, assuming that they would now support the North Korean assault. Instead the South Korean farmers promptly alerted the authorities, and the North Koreans were arrested as they approached the presidential residence.

So while it doesn’t seem likely that North Korea would attack the South, it doesn’t seem impossible, either. Martin quotes one defector after another who says that ordinary North Koreans would welcome war. Pak Su Hyon says:

The problem is, people want war. They believe they are living this hard life because there’s going to be a war. If there’s going to be a war, why not just get it over with? They believe they’ll die either way, from hunger or war. So the only solution is war.

Another, Ko Chung Song, said:

Everybody believes a war will break out sooner or later. A hundred percent want war to occur. The food shortage is terrible. Distribution is halted, so people figure they will die of hunger or die in war. They’re even prepared to die in a nuclear war. A hundred percent believe that North Korea would win, so they support war. They were brought up to worship Kim Il Sung. No matter what changes occur, they always worship Kim Il Sung. They’ve been so brainwashed since birth that they’re willing to die for the country.

There are good reasons to believe that this account is too bleak. In fact, from all I have been able to gather, the personality cult is losing its grip, partly because so many North Koreans fled to China during the famine and got a glimpse of the world outside. Moreover, an increasing number of radios have trickled into North Korea, and the monopoly on information is no longer complete. At the same time, North Korea has itself begun under Kim Jong Il to experiment with market reforms, such as competitive prices and farmers’ markets. After bottoming out in 1998, the economy has grown modestly since.

Meanwhile, Kim Jong Il has been preparing the next generation to succeed him. A front-runner is his eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, a well-educated if hot-tempered young man who has held sensitive jobs in the police, army, and ruling party. His father gave him a military uniform for his twenty-fourth birthday party in 1995, and since then he’s been addressed by Koreans as “Comrade General.” Schooled in Switzerland, he is fluent in English, French, and Russian, and he has traveled widely. Indeed, he was arrested in 2001 upon his arrival in Japan on a flight from Singapore for using a forged Dominican Republic passport. He confessed his identity and said he simply wanted to see Tokyo Disneyland. Japan deported him a few days later.

Nuclear North Korea, by Victor Cha and David Kang, concentrates on the question of what US policy toward Pyongyang should be. Cha, a Georgetown professor who has just taken a leave to run Asia policy for the Bush White House, and Kang, a Dartmouth scholar, disagree among themselves, Kang being more of an optimist about North Korea’s future, and so they write alternate sections of their book, which they call “a debate on engagement strategies.” This does not make for a coherent argument. Moreover, their detailed discussions of policy on nuclear proliferation tend to be technical and boring.

But their book is important. Dealing with North Korea will be one of the central challenges for the US in the coming years. In one of their joint statements, Cha and Kang characterize the alarmist view as holding that

Pyongyang is the world’s worst nightmare—an illiberal and irrational regime that is the number one proliferator of ballistic missiles and enabling technology, and is willing to sell them to anyone willing to buy them.

Kang, for his part, takes a much more benign position, arguing that if North Korea didn’t attack for fifty years when it was relatively strong compared to the South, it won’t attack now that it is much weaker. I hope he’s right, but I wouldn’t bet South Korea’s security on it. Cha argues for what seems to me a much more realistic view, cautioning that one can never predict what North Korea will do; since it sees itself playing a losing hand it may be tempted to overturn the table and see what happens. He writes:

The DPRK might lob several artillery shells into a Southern city and create chaos among the population. It might conduct a Pakistani-type nuclear detonation, declaring itself formally as a nuclear power. It might launch one chemically armed short-range missile on a Southern port or a longer-range missile on Japan, all of which would cause massive capital flight and send stock market indices into a tailspin. It might infiltrate three suicide terrorists armed with radiological “dirty” bombs (plutonium-laden fuel rods wrapped around conventional explosives) into major ROK cities (e.g. Seoul, Pusan, and Kwangju) and demand the government concede on some issue or else face the consequences. Each provocation is too minor to prompt all-out war, but serious enough to raise the incentive for Seoul and Washington to give ground and negotiate a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Cha argues, persuasively, for what he calls “hawk engagement” of North Korea, combining a healthy skepticism about its intentions with a pragmatic willingness to give it incentives to behave peacefully. For example, South Korea has allowed its citizens to visit the spectacular Mount Kumgang in the North as tourists, and this has become a significant source of income for Pyongyang. Then in 1999, the North detained one of the tourists as a supposed spy. The South promptly suspended the tours, and the North then rather sheepishly released the “spy.” The South’s gamble worked: by allowing the tours, it gained leverage over the North and forced it to engage in more civilized behavior.

Moreover, there’s another, even more important, reason for engaging in relations with North Korea—the leaders themselves may gradually change. In China, for example, American dealings with the Maoists beginning in the 1970s gradually encouraged the leaders to abandon com-munism except as an instrument of dictatorship, and the population benefited hugely. During the same period, many Americans opposed any engagement with the brutal South Korean regime of Park Chung Hee, but persistent economic and political relations with his regime ultimately led to the emergence of a skeptical middle class and reformist military that allowed the emergence of South Korean democracy. If we want to change North Korea, we should not be sanctioning it but sending in Western investors.

Cha, for his part, backs off at the last minute from the direction he’s been implicitly advocating. He argues that after the recent revelations of North Korean efforts to enrich uranium, engagement will no longer work. Unless North Korea backs down, he says, isolation and containment of the Kim Jong Il regime are the only options for the US. That doesn’t seem to me remotely persuasive. Isolation and containment have failed for decades, while a vigorous attempt at engagement has never really been made. And even if trade, investment, and tourism didn’t improve the regime’s tolerance, they would undermine it. Closer relations and economic development destroyed the dictatorship of Park Chung Hee and his successors in South Korea, and they are worth employing in an effort to destroy the Kim dictatorship in the North. (South Korea is often the best prism through which to examine the North, and for anyone interested in the Korean peninsula generally, the best book I know of is Don Oberdorfer’s 1997 account, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History.)

North Korea is an affront to every value the US should support. It is the worst human rights violator in the world and also the most dangerous possessor of weapons of mass destruction. So far, the West has huffed and puffed against it during Republican and Democratic administrations alike, without accomplishing much. North Korea is still a totalitarian society, and it is continuing to build nuclear weapons.

American conservatives have lately adopted North Korea as a pet cause, concentrating on human rights issues. They have good reason to do so, for North Korea constantly gets away with murder, and its concentration camps are the world’s worst. But there is also good reason to worry that the conservatives will end up hurting the people they claim to care most about, ordinary North Koreans, by pursuing a policy of isolating North Korea rather than engaging with it—just as human rights concerns helped to lead to the closure of North Korean labor camps in Russia, harming the laborers themselves. The most useful aspect of the conservative approach, I think, has been to call attention to the abuses in North Korea and to try to distribute radios so that news can filter inside the Hermit Kingdom. Ultimately, that may help the North Koreans themselves to bring down the North Korean regime.

One of the central unknowns is how fragile Kim Jong Il’s rule is today. The conservative assumption is that it’s quite shaky, and that with a little nudge the US could topple it. Unfortunately, commentators have been making two contradictory kinds of comments about North Korea since the 1970s. First, they’ve said now it’s finally changing and opening up; and then they’ve said it’s finally about to collapse. Notwithstanding all the information collected from defectors, diplomats, and spies, the place and its people remain mysterious and unpredictable.

Lately there’s been more speculation that North Korea’s regime is about to topple, partly because of reports of unrest and partly because Kim Jong Il has apparently sent out instructions that his pictures should be removed from government offices and schools. Maybe North Korea is on its last legs, but I doubt it. I’m afraid that the US will be wrestling with Kim Jong Il and his nuclear arsenal for many years to come. Or even with his son, Kim Jong Nam, and his even bigger arsenal.

—January 12, 2005

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