The Hermit Nuclear Kingdom


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…

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