A NEW KIM... A NEW CHANCE
ON my first trip to North Korea in 1989, I made a nuisance of myself by randomly barging into private homes. I wanted to see how ordinary North Koreans actually live, and people were startled but hospitable.
The most surprising thing I found was the loudspeaker affixed to a wall in each home. The Loudspeaker is like a radio but without a dial or off switch. In the morning, it awakens the household with propaganda. (In his first golf outing, Comrade Kim Jong-il shoots five holes-in-one!) It blares like that all day.
The loudspeaker underscores that North Korea is not just another dictatorship but, perhaps, the most totalitarian country ever.
Stalin and Mao were murderous but low-tech; the Kim family added complex systems of repression.
Anyone disabled is considered an eyesore, for example. So people with disabilities are often expelled from the capital, Pyongyang.
Government propaganda is shameless. During a famine, North Korean news media warned starving citizens against overeating by recounting the cautionary tale of a man who ate his fill, and then exploded.
Once in North Korea, I stopped in a rural area to interview two high school girls at random. They were friendly, if startled. So was I when they started speaking simultaneously and repeating political lines in perfect unison. They could have been robots.
When videos (of movies, music or religion) began to be smuggled in from China, police began to turn off the power to entire buildings.
Then the police would go door to door and examine what video was stuck inside players. A smuggled tape could mean the dispatch of an entire family to a labour camp.
What do we make of this country? For Americans, a starting point should be to recognise some failures of American policy. A few lessons: Don’t assume that the end of the regime is imminent.
I’ve been covering North Korea on and off since 1987, and outsiders have always been whispering about rumoured uprisings or suggesting that the government is on its last legs. Yes, North Korea’s regime could collapse tomorrow — or it could stagger along for another 20 years. The “Great Successor” Kim Jong-un could outlast President Obama.
Don’t assume that everybody detests the regime.
All those North Koreans crying because of Kim Jong-il’s death? Their grief is probably sincere. In conversations with North Korean defectors, I’m struck by how many lambaste the Kim regime but add that their relatives left behind still believe in it — because they know nothing else. Many also are passionate nationalists, preferring a homegrown despot to any hint of foreign economic colonialism.
Faith and fear combine to keep people in line. In a book about North Korea, Bradley Martin tells how one of Kim Jong-il’s aides told his wife about his boss’s womanizing.
The wife truly believed in the basic decency of the North Korean system and wrote to the leadership to protest the debauchery. The letter was passed on to Kim Jong-il, who brought the woman in front of a crowd and denounced her.
Her own husband then stepped forward, pleading to be allowed to execute her. This request was granted, and the husband then shot his wife to death.
Don’t try to isolate North Korea.
The West has reacted to North Korean’s nuclear programme by sanctioning and isolating the country.
But isolation has mostly backfired.
It’s one of the things that keeps the Kim family in power, and we’re helping enforce it. Moreover, economic pain is not going to destroy the regime. In the mid-1990s, perhaps one million people died in famine, and the regime was unhurt.
Our failures in North Korea are manifest. In 1994, we came close to war on the Korean Peninsula, averting it with a nuclear deal that rested on false hope: The Clinton administration thought the regime would collapse before the West had to deliver civilian nuclear reactors as its part of the agreement.
Confronted with evidence of cheating by North Korea, the Bush administration then backed out of the deal. The result was even more disastrous: North Korea accelerated its nuclear assembly line and accumulated enough plutonium for perhaps eight weapons.
American officials blame China for coddling North Korea, but at least Beijing has a strategy. It is to encourage the Kim regime to replicate the opening and reform policies that transformed China itself. These days, Chinese traders, cellphones, DVDs and CDs are already common in border areas of North Korea, doing more to undermine Kim rule than any policy of the United States.
There are no good solutions. But let’s take advantage of the leadership transition to try a dose of outreach.
If we can inch toward diplomatic relations, trade and peopleto- people exchanges, we’re not rewarding a monstrous regime. We just might be digging its grave.