President Clinton has announced that he will not, after all, be making a state visit to North Korea before he leaves office. He gave as his reason that “there is not sufficient time to close a deal” with the leaders of that country. The choice of words here betrays how egregiously wrong-headed has been U.S. policy towards North Korea these past eight years. To close a deal! — as if this were Donald Trump and Merv Griffin maneuvering for control of some Las Vegas hotel. As if this were, somehow, a transaction between equals, each striving to obtain some minor advantage over the other. I’ve heard of moral equivalence, but this is ridiculous.
I’ve been following North Korean affairs, in so far as it has been possible to follow them, since 1982. At that time I was working as a full-time lecturer at a college in north-east China, not far from the border with North Korea. Those were the early days of China’s opening-up. I was the only foreigner for a hundred miles around, and the college was located in a small provincial town with no amenities. Time hung heavy on my hands. I spent some of it in the reading room of the college library, which had a modest selection of newspapers and periodicals. Practically all were in Chinese, which I can only read with some effort. The only English-language papers were a weekly put out by the Australian Communist Party, and the Pyongyang Times. The North Korean government, at that time still in the hands of “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung, made a great show of seeking out friendships with other nations, as part of its policy of trying to suspend itself equidistant from Russia and China during the Cold War. All North Korean publications were (and still are) available in dozens of foreign translations.
The Pyongyang Times used to fascinate me. Totalitarian communism was beginning to crater in the U.S.S.R., and there were some promising developments in China since Mao died six years before, as my own presence there testified, but North Korea was still the real thing. Here was the Great Leader, infallible and omniscient, celebrated on every page, in every column, every photograph. Here he was greeting some foreign leader; here he was inspecting a new dam; here he was dispensing agricultural advice to peasants radiant with awe and gratitude. The whole paper was simply an extended eulogy to the Great Leader. How the “journalists” who wrote this stuff must have racked their brains to come up with new words of adulation day after day! (Perhaps they just recycled their pieces after a couple of years, as the editors of children’s comics are said to do.)
I was so fascinated by the Pyongyang Times that I wrote a piece about it and sent it to the London Spectator, who published it as a cover story — my first real success in freelance journalism. The Spectator bylined the piece as “Pyongyang,” but that was just creative editing. I have never been to North Korea.
There was of course no news in the Pyongyang Times, so for some more realistic account of the place I asked my students and colleagues. When I mentioned Kim Il Sung to them they all laughed. “Oh, he’s crazy!” they said, twirling their fingers at their temples in the universal gesture. “Worse than Chairman Mao!” (This from the bolder ones. It was just beginning to be OK in China to admit that Mao had made “mistakes,” and my more irreverent students could get a small counter-revolutionary thrill from saying things like this.) “Besides,” everybody added, “he has a big tumor on the back of his neck, as big as a melon. They always photograph him so that it can’t be seen, but everybody knows.” (Living in a closed society like early post-Mao China, you spend half the time thinking that people don’t know anything about their nation’s affairs, and the other half thinking they know absolutely everything.)
I probed deeper. We were only a couple of hundred miles from the North Korean border, and there were a lot of “national minority” Korean-Chinese at the college. Even at that time there were some refugees coming over the border into China, I learned from these students. If a refugee had the luck to land up in a Korean-minority area, the people would take him in and look after him; otherwise the Chinese authorities sent him back. Back to what? I asked. More laughter, and another universal finger-to-temple gesture — but just one finger his time, pointing straight and steady, the thumb sticking up.
The only person I could find with some first-hand experience of North Korea was a mature student who had served in the Chinese army some years before. He had been on truck convoys driving into the country on supply missions in the late 1970s. What were things like there? I asked him. He grimaced. “Terrible! Very backward! The people are starving. They live in grass huts. When they heard us coming, the whole village would run out to beg from us. The women are very bold!” This, it must be remembered, was uttered in the context of provincial north China soon after the Cultural Revolution. The usual pattern for the villages in the neighborhood of our college was for the headman’s house to be built of brick, all the others of dried mud. My colleagues’ salaries averaged about $20 per month. Yet people for whom this was everyday life regarded North Korea as an abyss of unspeakable poverty.
North Korea was not just an economic basket case, it was also a terroristic police state of exceptional ferocity. A couple of years after returning to England I came across an Amnesty International publication describing the experiences of one Ali Lameda, a Venezuelan communist who went to North Korea voluntarily in 1966 to work as a translator. When he ventured to criticize the effectiveness of the nation’s Spanish-language propaganda, he was arrested and put in a concentration camp. For his “trial” he was given a defense counsel who promptly demanded a sentence of twenty years’ hard labor! Lameda did seven years, most of it in solitary confinement, before being sprung as part of a diplomatic deal. Among the very few fellow inmates he was able to speak to in the camp was a woman who had been imprisoned for smoking cigarettes.
Twenty years on, the Kim despotism is still there, now under the leadership of Kim Il Sung’s son, the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il. (That’s an “i” and an “l” — “il” is the literary-Korean word for “sun.” People who’ve been calling him “Kim Jong the Second” should please go to the back of the class. Kim Senior died of a heart attack in 1994.) The police state is still functioning effectively. When, in June last year, the president of South Korea visited Pyongyang, some 60,000 North Koreans were mobilized along the route from the airport, dressed in national costume and waving pink plastic flowers. While the apparatus of state coercion still works, however, nothing else does. The economy is a shambles, the capital city frequently plunged into darkness because of fuel shortages. The countryside is a nightmare, according to the refugees who now pour across the border into China. In good times there is widespread malnutrition; in bad times, famine. Millions of North Koreans have starved to death this past decade.
North Korea is supposed to be a military threat, having diverted all its resources to its armed forces. They may have a couple of nukes; certainly they have been researching nuclear-weapons development. They certainly have both short-range and long-range missiles: in 1998 they lobbed one of the latter over Japan. This, of course, has had the Clinton administration all a-tremble. Missiles! Nukes! And they are selling this stuff to Syria and Iran! Think of the trouble they could cause! How can we buy them off?
The answer has been, of course, by shovelling money at them. Kim has become expert at shaking down America, Japan and other western nations. His modus operandi has been to perpetrate some act of audacity, like the 1998 missile firing over Japan, then to promise not to do it again if the foreigners will ship him some oil, or some food, or some fertilizer. The foreigners, terrified that the next missile might actually land somewhere, eagerly comply.
In October last year, in perhaps the most disgraceful foreign-policy act of the Clinton era, Madeleine Albright went on a visit to Pyongyang and grovelled before Kim. At a welcoming ceremony in the city’s main sports stadium, thousands of schoolchildren held up colored cards to make a temporary picture showing a ballistic-missile launch (these synchronized-cards displays are a North Korean specialty, the only art form that has flourished there), and sang songs celebrating the North’s “victory” in the Korean War, in which 50,000 American servicemen died. Albright responded with her most vapid smile. I am so honored to be here!
In what may be the stupidest piece of diplomacy ever executed, the U.S. has brokered a deal to build two nuclear power plants in the North — nuclear power plants! — in return for vague promises about no more missile firings. The reactors are mostly being paid for by South Korea. (Whose policy towards the North is even more irrational and pusillanimous than ours. It is a great mistake to think that since they are all Koreans, the South must be able to understand the North better than anyone else. South Korean policies towards the North are dominated by fear, cowardice and wishful thinking. Among intellectuals in the South there is a strong pro-North element. When South Korean university students want to vent their resentments against their parents, teachers and other authority figures, instead of reading Michel Foucault or joining Ralph Nader’s party, as American kids would, they wave North Korean flags.) However, to fill the country’s fuel needs until the reactors come on-line, Clinton has promised to supply 500,000 tonnes of fuel oil a year, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer.
What should U.S. policy toward North Korea be? In the first place, it should be premised on the understanding that the North Korean government is exceptionally wicked and amoral, and has only one priority: regime survival. For this, they will do anything at all. We are dealing here with people who regard us and our values with perfect contempt, and we should keep them at a frosty arm’s length. Certainly no U.S. Secretary of State should be seen partying with the Kim regime.
In the second place, we should understand that militarily, North Korea is a paper tiger. The vast army she maintains cannot but be recruited mostly from the peasantry, and there must be serious discontent in the ranks. Kim has, of course, taken pains to keep his army well-fed, but soldiers have families, too. Jasper Becker, in his book (Hungry Ghosts) on the great Chinese famine of 1959-62, reports that the Chinese government knew it had to change direction when military commanders began to report that their men were weeping in their barracks, because news had come through to them that their civilian relatives were starving to death. Something similar must be happening in the barracks of North Korea. We know, in fact, that there was a serious attempt at a military coup against Kim in 1996, put down with great brutality. Furthermore, North Korean military equipment is hopelessly out of date. They would stand even less chance against American firepower than did Iraq in 1990.
It is true that North Korea has missiles, but I cannot see any reason why anyone should be scared of them on that account. If they fired their entire inventory of short-range missiles into Seoul, they would do less damage than Hitler’s V-2 campaign against London in 1944-5, when hundreds of missiles packed with high explosive rained down on that city. It was, of course, a nuisance if you happened to be close by when one hit, but a modern city is a very large place, adjacent streets well shielded from each other by yards of masonry. Most people went about their business in a spirit of fatalism, and neither Britain’s industrial nor military effort suffered any detectable adverse consequences at all.
This is supposing that North Korean missiles are armed with only conventional explosive. So let us make it plain to Kim that any missile armed with anything else, that landed anywhere in the territory of the U.S. or one of its allies, would be responded to with massive force.
Other than making this last point perfectly plain, we should leave North Korea alone. They are no threat to us, and we demean ourselves by dealing with them as if they were a rational nation-state, when in fact they are a regime of cruel gangsters. This regime will sooner or later implode, with troublesome — but far from disastrous — consequences for those around it. All our policies these past eight years have had the effect of postponing the evil day. But why should we wish to postpone it? What have we to fear? A G ö tterd ä mmerung ending, with Kim firing off nuclear-armed missiles at Tokyo as he gibbers in his bunker? His generals would get to him first. A flood of refugees into South Korea? West Germany coped somehow, and so will the Koreans. A rain of missiles on Seoul? See above. Massed military attacks across the border? When the North Korean soldiers saw the standard of living in the South, they would pretty soon be heading back north to hunt down their leaders and take revenge on them.
It would be nice to think that we might soon see Kim Jong Il, conscienceless tyrant and mass murderer of his own people, strung up by his heels from a lamp-post in downtown Pyongyang, Mussolini-style. More probably he will be hustled away to a comfy retirement in some Beijing bungalow — the Chinese communists will be the decisive players in the Korean end-game, and they have always had a soft spot for the Kims. Let him go. For fifty years of savage cruelty to their own people, the reign of the two Kims will go down in history as one of the darkest episodes of man’s inhumanity to man. There is no punishment to fit such crime.
There is also, however, no excuse for prolonging Kim’s power to go on committing that crime, by stupid policies of appeasement and support. Why, in God’s name, are we supporting this creature? Why are we even speaking to him? He, and his beastly regime, are nothing to us, and we have nothing of importance to fear from them. Quite the contrary: we could annihilate his rickety despotism between breakfast and lunch, if we chose to do so. Close down these contacts. Make an end of these “deals.” Cut off Kim’s oxygen supply, and watch the bastard suffocate. Plenty of those American and British servicemen who fought and suffered in the fight against Korean communism are still alive. Let them have the satisfaction of seeing this evil system collapse in a cloud of dust, as it might have done already but for the foolish meddling of Clinton and Albright.