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The Hermit Nuclear Kingdom

1.

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.

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.

2.

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

  1. *

    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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