WASHINGTON — Writing seven years ago in the South China Morning Post, reporter Martin Bradley caught a glimpse of hell along the Yalu River, which separates the Korean peninsula from China. Mr. Jasper — who recently authored a superb book on North Korea — described hundreds of emaciated Korean refugees fleeing into the Chinese forests, where they ate grass and sought refuge from freezing conditions and Chinese security agents. When prompted by Mr. Bradley to depict conditions back home, the North Koreans recounted tales of mass starvation, dead bodies alongside roads and summary executions of those who dared forage for food.
Bradley’s wraithlike figures were only the small, visible portion of the North Korean famine, a monumental calamity which is estimated to have killed two million people — 10 percent of the country’s population — during the late 1990s. The government of Kim Jong-Il — unable to provide its population with basic sustenance — effectively decided to “write off” a large segment of society, all the while ensuring a steady flow of food found its way into the hands of the military and ruling elite. Much of the government’s succor came from the billions of dollars in aid so innocently provided by the West, with recent UN estimates suggesting that anywhere between 30 to 50 percent of the donated foodstuffs was commandeered by the regime’s security services. Some of the aid may have even found its way onto the dining table of Kim himself, although the Hennessy-swilling, last fat man in North Korea is known to eschew proletarian fare in favor of worldly cuisine prepared especially for his regular all-night binges.
Last week, however, in an announcement that received very little fanfare, Pyongyang requested food aid be discontinued in favor of more infrastructure development assistance, while also calling for the ejection of the World Food Program (WFP). Pyongyang’s request seems inexplicable; human rights activists point out that a significant portion of the North’s populace remains on the edge of starvation, with 37 percent — over 8 million people — classified as ” chronically malnourished” by the UN humanitarian affairs organization.
DIVINING THE ULTERIOR MOTIVES of Kim Jong-Il is comparable to reading tea leaves at midnight, but two theories behind the North’s exclusionary efforts offer themselves readily. One suggests that Kim may have grown weary of the attention food-aid entails, namely inquisitive reporters, photographers, or international observers who have become far more aggressive of late in their attempts to account for the distribution of the food. While North Korea has done an impressive job in warding off these probing eyes thus far, the suspicious mania that pervades the hermit kingdom may have finally doomed the international assistance effort.
Another explanation for the North’s recent action involves diplomatic strategy. After all, food aid is one of the few sources of leverage that the United States can bring to bear on Pyongyang. The great leader may have estimated that throwing off the yoke of foreign assistance — a signal of national self-sufficiency — puts him in a stronger position as he enters into the next round of the six-party talks, scheduled to begin in November.
Improving one’s negotiating position at the expense of hundreds of thousands of death might strike many as astonishingly barbarous; however, to the Manichean cult that rules in the name of the departed God-King Kim Il-Sung, such trade offs are monstrously routine. After all, in their view, peasants are cheap and many, while nuclear deterrents to American preemptive attacks are valuable and rare.
The human rights nightmare that exists in North Korea is fairly well known, although not enough Americans — or South Koreans, for that matter — are aware of the existence of Kim’s city-size concentration camps. The moral case for regime change is grossly evident but, as we have seen throughout history, morality is rarely sufficient impetus for prompt action by far-removed nations. What can rouse states to action is the development of a serious threat to peaceful coexistence.
North Korea under Kim Jong-Il is the embodiment of such a menace. Its refusal to facilitate even a basic level of transparency concerning its nuclear program, its development and export of long-range ballistic missiles, and its cooperation with proliferation entities — such as the A.Q. Khan network — all point to a regime ever-willing to flaunt all the rules in order to maintain its tyrannical status quo. Were his regime to be threatened in any way, there is little reason to believe that Kim — who has already knowingly sent thousands to their deaths — would refrain from drastic measures such as covertly exporting chemical or even nuclear weapons. This doomsday scenario is often derided as “alarmist” by dovish critics who recommend that Americans seek solace in Pyongyang’s supposedly consistent refusal to export WMD material. The only genuine consistency ever observed emanating from North Korea, however, is its reliably erratic behavior, hardly symptomatic of a government you would ever allow to amass a considerable nuclear arsenal.
North Korea’s escalating threat is barely reflected in the recent actions of the Bush administration, as highlighted during the recent six-party conference in Beijing. So desperate to avoid being blamed for the failure of the talks, the American negotiation team readily accepted a Chinese draft proposal which failed to set any deadlines for the dismantlement of Kim’s nuclear program or clarify the stance of the negotiating partners on the issue of Pyongyang’s request for a light-water nuclear reactor. With such an amorphous outline, it came as little surprise that the passage of a few hours brought heated disagreement between Pyongyang and Washington over what the statement actually entailed.
THIS SEARCH FOR THE SHORT-TERM, convenient fix seems to confirm the fear among many observers that the Bush administration, consumed with Iraq and Iran, is willing to let the North Korean crisis play itself out in perpetuity. How else are we to explain chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill’s statement that the joint statement represents a “very important agreement” when it did nothing of the sort? Indeed, the tentative nature of the Bush approach to North Korea shares less in common with earlier “axis of evil” pronunciations than it does with the inaction of the Clinton administration, which was so fearful of confrontation that it rewarded Pyongyang’s recidivism with 11 additional years to secretly expand its nuclear arsenal. Our diplomatic charade also ignores a basic supposition, accepted by many North Korea watchers, that Kim Jong-Il will never surrender his nuclear program, viewing it as the central guarantor of his regime’s survival.
Plainly stated, Kim Jong-Il oversees the most reprehensible and threatening regime on the face of the Earth. Yet, the policy of regional powers, including, regrettably, the United States, seems to be based on a panicked interpretation of “live and let (Kim) live.” So paralyzed with fear of Kim’s downfall are we that everything possible is done to extend his reign, betraying our irresponsible eagerness to push the problem down the road towards some perennially undefined solution.
Such equivocation is the height of folly, as time and time again Kim has rebuffed overtures by those seeking regional stability in order to maintain his own power. His history of non-cooperation with forces of order underscores the need for a broad international effort — led energetically by the United States — which can successfully topple the Kim regime.
Of course, the impediments to this regime change — as we are reminded of repeatedly by the pundits of perpetual indecision — are legion. They include, most notably, Chinese fears of a united or destabilized Korea, South Korean recalcitrance in the face of massive reconstruction costs, and the regional destruction that could result from North Korea’s death throes. All of these are formidable hurdles, but all are surmountable.
The United States should thus be prepared to make broad policy changes with regard to Asia including, most notably, a broad-based strategic rapprochement with China. Many Americans will recoil from such a dramatic shift in foreign policy — especially with regard to a new alliance with the current threat du jour of China — but a security-related partnership with China will be worth all the angst and trepidation in the world if it helps engineer the end of the Kim regime.
For its part, the Bush administration needs to realize its leadership role in such an endeavor and cease delegating our policy vis-a-vis Pyongyang to South Korea — whose polity spends more time distressing over the purported “war crimes” of Douglas MacArthur than the fate of their 200,000 fellow Koreans who currently toil and die in Kim’s concentration camps — and China — whose leadership currently envisions little profit in cooperating with the United States in bringing down Kim Jong-Il.
How the civilized world, with our overwhelming monopoly in economic and military power, can allow a grandiose madman to simultaneously commit mass murder while glibly threatening the world with nuclear weapons is unconscionable. When the future Kim-instigated disaster comes, be it nuclear terrorism, all-out regional war, or yet another catastrophic famine, Americans will wonder aloud why something was not done about Kim’s regime in the first place. In our search for post-catastrophe culpability, we will need only to point accusatory fingers at ourselves.