Tucked away as it is in a neglected, easily overlooked, dusty corner of Northeast Asia, it is sometimes difficult to take North Korea very seriously. The Kim Jong Il regime is extraordinarily opaque even by standards set by communist regimes in East Germany, Romania, and Albania. It combines the obsessive secrecy of communist dictatorships with the classic isolationism best exemplified by Korea’s long-standing Hermit Kingdom tradition.
Kim Jong Il has done remarkably well cultivating an international image of a wildly erratic – possibly insane – ruler over an eccentric, grumpy rump state that poses at worse a secondary threat to its neighbors. Stories of domestic brutality are typically shrugged off by a world that in the past 70 years has become morally callused by endlessly sequential rogue regimes that kill their own citizens by the millions. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, Milosevich, Saddam, Assad, bin Laden, the strange, unfamiliar names and places tumble one upon another, each story more horrific than its predecessor, until we are dry of tears and hard of heart.
But we deprecate the raw cunning and native intellect of Kim Jong Il at our peril: he is sufficiently keen to have kept his position despite a hollow economy, a corrupt bureaucracy, and a large but untested military. He has managed to fool some of the supposedly best and brightest. Kim has received lavish praise from Madeline Albright when the then Secretary of State was on an official visit. He has managed to insult Chinese premier Hu Jin Tao in his own press conference and emerge seemingly unscathed. Despite anti-Kim rhetoric, from the major powers, bold statements, and classification as a member of the Axis of Evil, Kim is still in power and shows no outward signs of weakening. How does he manage to fool some, bluff all, and maintain in spite of it?
Kim Jong Il spent most of his life in seclusion. Prior to succession to his father’s perverted throne he was always referred to in the North Korean official press, if at all, in oblique terms. He was the Party Center, the Young General. No one knew him. Reportedly he had never traveled to the West. When he acceded to power few outsiders thought he would be able to hold on to it, but he has, a tribute both to mechanisms his father put in place, and techniques that he was strong enough, and cruel enough, to enforce. For international watchers, Kim made a deliberate transition from recluse to eccentric as he came increasingly onto the public stage. Meanwhile, he learned to play the paltry cards he held with the skill set of a multiple bracelet holder at the World Poker Tournament.
To be sure, Kim poses a danger to his neighbors, and therefore to the US. His new class of missiles, the Taepodong 3, may be able to reach the West Coast of America. Eventually he will be able to mount a nuclear device atop that missile. Nevertheless, he has sufficient power at his fingertips to start a regional conflict now. It would be a war he could not win, but the collateral damage – civilian deaths, resource losses, and adverse economic impact – would hurt the immediate victims and America as well. It pays to recall that Japan, China, and South Korea – all of whom would be damaged by regional war – are among America’s top trading partners.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong Il exports his vile products –missiles, chemical and biological weapons, nuclear technology, narcotics, human sex slaves, and counterfeit money - around the world. Rogue states, some of whom are already at war with America and others who seem to be posturing toward confrontation and conflict, receive advanced weapons. In this indirect role, his under-the-radar support for Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and terrorist movements, Kim plays a far more threatening role than he does as a direct challenger to the US.
His criminal enterprises hurt America and our allies economically. His war material export will, if left unchecked, likely hurt us directly. For these many reasons it is in all free nations’ best interest to see Kim checked in his ambitions. Preferable would be removal and complete regime change. Not simply removal of the Dear Leader, but removal of the entire repressive regime. But till now foreign negotiators have for the most part refused to address such a contingency, preferring a façade of stability to reform, and vowing to “respect the sovereignty” of a regime that is illegitimate by any definition of the term.
Kim runs arguably the most abusive regime on earth. He experiments on prisoners with poison gas and biological weapons, uses prisoners for slave labor, and executes refugees summarily for the crime of wanting to flee his “workers and peasants paradise.” He has kidnapped hundreds of innocents from South Korea, Japan, and China and continues to hold them prisoner to train his sabotage and espionage agents. Yet these subjects are considered “sovereignty issues” not to be discussed in strategic arms negotiations, despite US law to the contrary.
Kim Jong Il remains a master manipulator. He walks a tightrope with China, asserting himself just enough to irritate but not enough for them to use the kind of action by which they could end his regime overnight. He plays America off against South Korea and the latter buy into it for reasons of ego, corruption, or ignorance. He determines the schedule of the Six Party Talks simply by releasing statements that he will not attend or will attend. Supposedly mature negotiators from the other countries alternatively wring their hands or wet their stripped trousers in excitement as the Dear Leader calls the tune.
Kim continually uses his people as hostages to the West. The Chinese fear regime implosion more than anything and think that propping Kim up is preferable to staunching a tidal wave of refugees. When Japan attempts to raise the issue of kidnapped victims South Korea threatens them and orders them to remove the issue from the table. South Korea is manipulated by using ancient Korean-Japanese hatreds which are easily converted to anti-Americanism by making the issue “Korea versus the foreigners.” As a consequence supposedly moral, rational, concerned states willfully ignore Kim’s use of starvation as national policy, maintenance of a concentration camp system, and the human rights abuses noted above.
Supposedly concerned with WMD issues the negotiators seem blind to events outside of Northeast Asia and never raise questions such as the role of North Korean nuclear scientists in Iran or the presence of missile salesmen in Caracas, cutting deals with a strongman who uses anti-Americanism as a logo. Let us have no more talk of Kim Jong Il as “insane,” “mad,” or “looney.” He is a shrewd, calculating dictator capable of manipulating far stronger states to his will. And until we realize the depth of our enemy and prepare to counter him, we will never triumph.
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