August 7, 2005
Copyright The New York Times
IS there a modern world leader as poorly understood as Kim Jong Il? Selig Harrison, a North Korea expert who has traveled to Pyongyang numerous times, regards Kim as a kind of Asian Gorbachev, a man pushing ”reform by stealth.” For President Bush, by contrast, the North Korean leader is a ”pygmy,” a mindless, brutal leader: since 2001 the White House has until recently essentially refused to engage in bilateral talks with North Korea.
In ”Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea,” the veteran Asia correspondent Jasper Becker makes a powerful case for defining Kim once and for all — not as an ordinary, if nuclear-tipped, dictator, but as an extraordinarily skillful tyrant presiding over the worst man-made catastrophe in modern history, worse than Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge or the Soviet Union in the 1930’s.
Becker cannot report from inside North Korea, and he is not a nuclear expert. Instead, relying on extensive interviews with North Korean exiles, he offers a highly readable narrative that unearths Kim’s history, probes his decision-making style and details the grotesque consequences of those decisions. His book is a subtle plea to the world to expand its focus beyond the — admittedly important — nuclear issue to the vast humanitarian catastrophe unfolding under Kim Jong Il’s gaze.
Becker traces Kim’s destructive behavior to the early days of the world’s only Communist dynasty. The regime was founded on lies, with Kim Il Sung, the father of the present ruler, destroying all evidence of Soviet participation in his rise to power and brainwashing Koreans far more extensively than other Communist nations brainwashed their citizens. In 1963, a Soviet diplomat in the North called Kim Il Sung’s rule a ”political gestapo.”
At least Kim Il Sung enjoyed some respect within his country for his role as the founder of the North. He also faced some checks, admittedly limited, on his power: unlike Kim Jong Il, he held regular meetings of cadres. But after his father’s death in 1994, Kim Jong Il transformed North Korea from an odious totalitarian regime into something actually worse, ”a Marxist Sun King” state that was ready to oversee an unparalleled orgy of extravagance and absolutism.
Details of that extravagance are drawn from Kim’s former lackeys. ”For all the immense privileges enjoyed by . . . those who ruled the Soviet Union and China, they did not aspire to a live a life completely alien to their countrymen,” Becker writes. ”They did not show signs of a consuming desire to emulate the tastes of a jet-set billionaire.” Kim does — and he has built a stable of 100 imported limousines, as well as an entourage of women who are trained in ”pleasure groups” to service the leader sexually. Kim imports professional wrestlers from the United States, at a cost of $15 million, to entertain him. And when he decided to build a film industry, he did what Hollywood studio heads could only dream about — kidnapped foreign directors and actors and forced them to work for him. His wine cellars contain more than 10,000 French bottles. He flies in chefs from Italy to prepare pizza. Meanwhile, his people scrounge for edible roots.
Hunger had been a problem under Kim Il Sung. But under Kim Jong Il, Becker writes, it became possibly ”the most devastating famine in history,” with death rates approaching 15 percent of the population, surpassing ”any comparable disaster in the 20th century,” even China’s under Mao. (One of Becker’s previous books was about the famine in China in the late 1950’s and early 60’s.) By some estimates, over three million North Koreans have died, more victims than in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and international agencies are warning that this year may bring particularly serious hunger.
To survive has required tenacity. Koreans are reported even to have murdered children and mixed their flesh with pork to eat. When I have encountered North Korean refugees in Asia, they look barely human — stunted figures with sallow, terrified faces. Some North Koreans have tried to grow their own food, potentially a sign of independent thinking. But for years Kim had them stopped, though he has begun to open the economy slightly in the past three years. Those who protested were sent to an extensive gulag system, which may have resulted in the deaths of one million people. In this internal slave state, Becker suggests, tests of chemical weapons are carried out on prisoners, and pregnant women whose children were tainted with foreign blood have been forced to have abortions. Kim Jong Il has ”resisted adopting every policy that could have brought the misery to a quick end,” Becker says, making ”the suffering he inflicted on an entire people an unparalleled and monstrous crime.”
Despite the famine, and despite some intelligence assessments that his regime was about to collapse, Kim Jong Il has survived in power for over a decade. Becker is strongest in laying blame, accusing the international community of tacitly acquiescing in Kim’s charnel house. United Nations agencies that are supposed to monitor the humanitarian crisis in North Korea have averted their gaze, refusing to confront a host government. They have declined to call the North’s hunger a famine, and allowed Pyongyang to control food aid, all but assuring that it would be channeled to Kim’s associates.
In South Korea, where much of the population does not remember the Korean War, successive governments have shamefully hindered North Korean refugees from fleeing, meanwhile funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to the North. The Clinton administration also provided assistance to Kim, while making human rights a low priority. Kim Jong Il ”obtained enough foreign aid” from the United States and South Korea ”to continue food and goods distribution and maintain the loyalty of core followers,” Becker writes. On the other hand, by often refusing even to deal directly with the North Korea issue and simply hoping for Pyongyang’s collapse, the Bush administration has failed to make any headway at all.
Yet after convincingly demonstrating why North Korean human rights should be as much an issue as North Korean nukes, Becker has only limited policy suggestions to offer readers. He recognizes that removing the Dear Leader by force would be almost impossible — his first chapter contains a detailed war game illustrating the capabilities of Kim’s weaponry. But he also understands that ”when the North Korean crisis is defined as being just about proliferation or restoring the economy, Kim Jong Il has already won,” that any strategy for dealing with Kim Jong Il must try to improve the lives of average North Koreans.
Becker does suggest pushing the United Nations to rethink how it handles states that terrorize their people. But there are other options as well. The United States could step up containment to try to ensure that North Korea can’t sell its weapons to terrorists; and it could make better use of its bully pulpit, highlighting the North’s concentration camps and pressing the South Koreans to open their borders more to North Korean refugees. The Bush administration’s upcoming appointment of a special envoy for North Korean human rights is a good start. The United Nations could make greater efforts to gain access to Korean concentration camps, employing Korean speakers to ferret out information. At the same time American diplomats could work harder to persuade South Korea and China that a breakdown of Kim’s regime would not necessarily cause chaos, indeed, might actually result in greater stability on their borders. For the present, however, Kim Jong Il will remain happily misunderstood.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a special correspondent for The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.