Instead of threatening northeast Asia and the California coast with nuclear weapons, North Korea by most reasonable expectations should have ceased to exist years ago, in part because it seemed so reasonable and logical that it would follow other recent examples of Communist regimes gone defunct. East Germany went out of business after it lost the unqualified support of the Soviet Union, and East Germany was much less dependent on Soviet aid for its very sustenance than North Korea was. When the Soviet Union collapsed and withdrew its lifeline to its Asian neighbor and longstanding ally, North Korea became conspicuously and shockingly unable to serve the basic needs of its people. The great pride of the regime, its claim to have created a tax-free, full-employment, everything-taken-care-of society under the benevolent care of the “Genius of Mankind” Kim Il Sung, was the basis of its legitimacy. By the time Kim Il Sung died in 1994, it had long become clear that the claim was bankrupt.
Anybody who traveled to the Chinese side of the North Korean border in the mid-1990s saw the desperate and hungry Korean refugees who had sneaked into China in search, literally, of survival. The famine, taking place with a new, untested, and manifestly weird “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, at the head of the state, was proportionately even worse than the great Chinese famine of the early 1960s. Upward of a million of North Korea’s 22 million people died in the famine, Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland conclude in Famine in North Korea.1 Among those who survived, they write, is “an entire cohort of children consigned to a myriad of physical and mental impairments associated with chronic childhood malnutrition.”
While the Koreans starved and while the UN’s World Food Program was appealing for funds for emergency food aid, the “Sun of the 21st Century,” as Kim Jong Il is known, indulged a sudden fancy for Italian cuisine and invited a famous chef, Ermanno Furlanis, to come to North Korea to cook for him. As recounted by the British journalist Jasper Becker in his excellent book Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea, Furlanis later wrote about the special shipment of French and Italian wines and cheeses that would arrive at Kim’s seaside retreat not far from Pyongyang, which itself was “equipped with a water amusement park and a pleasure yacht the size of an ocean liner.”
How long could such a ruler, seemingly so obsolete in a world that no longer had the likes of Ceaus��escu of Romania or Hoxha of Albania or even Mao of China, continue to preside over a state in such disastrous condition? Wendy Sherman, an adviser to President Bill Clinton, told Becker:
Everyone was so overwhelmed that a million or two million people were dying of starvation…. We just thought all that would bring about the collapse of the North Korean government within two or three years.
Before Sherman’s statement, in 1994, Clinton…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.