Dispatch November 2008

North Korea: Nothing Has Changed

"To hope that a new administration in Washington can build trust with the North Koreans where their most sympathetic blood-brethren have so abjectly failed would be to take American exceptionalism to a new extreme."
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Obama’s ascendance has inspired some to hope for a more conciliatory approach to relations with North Korea. Shortly before the election, in an October op-ed piece in The Washington Times, K.A. Namkung and Leon V. Sigal wrote:

Pyongyang's position is that as long as Washington remains its foe, it feels threatened and will acquire nuclear weapons and missiles to counter that threat. But, it says, if Washington ends enmity, it will no longer feel threatened and can get rid of these weapons. Whether it means what it says is far from certain, but the only way to find out is to build mutual trust over time by faithfully carrying out a series of reciprocal steps.

To read this, one would never know that the South Koreans just spent fifteen years finding out – and by the very method suggested – whether Pyongyang is sincere about wanting to join the world community.

Shortly after declaring in his 1993 inauguration speech that “no ally can come before our fellow Koreans,” South Korean president Kim Youngsam repatriated Yi Inmo, a pro-Pyongyang partisan who had been imprisoned for decades. Conservatives were furious; they argued that surrendering Yi without conditions, and at a time of rising nuclear tension at that, would be seen in the North as a sign of fear. On the left, meanwhile, the president’s move was welcomed as a bold step of reconciliation that the “fellow Koreans” would be sure to reciprocate. As it turned out, Pyongyang had a field day exploiting Yi’s return from the hellish “Yankee colony” before threatening, in the following year, to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire.”

As if to remove all doubt that the conservatives were dead-on in their predictions, North Korea’s propaganda apparatus put out a novel in 2002 entitled World of Stars (Byeol eui segye). In the following excerpt we are told how the Dear Leader responded to the news of that first good-will gesture:

Comrade Kim Jong Il quickly skimmed the report. For a moment a smile crossed his face. “Just as expected. Hm. Well, take a look. They’re finally bowing down.”

All eyes turned to the document. Soon their faces, too – faces that had been taut with excitement and tension – were wreathed in smiles….

“Comrade Supreme Commander, the bastards, their backs against the wall, made this decision out of fear, didn’t they?”

“Yes, it’s true,” someone cried. “It looks like they were frightened of us, all right.”

Comrade Kim Jong Il just kept on smiling.

The novel then turns to the accomodationist “Sunshine Policy” launched by South Korean president Kim Dae Jung in 1998. For years his government sent enormous sums of unconditional aid to Pyongyang, pleaded the North’s case with Washington, and even insisted that South Korean newscasters call Kim Jong Il by his preferred title of National Defense Council Chairman. But as far as World of Stars is concerned, “Nothing had changed”; the South Koreans were still acting out of fear. But at one point in the novel they request that the North do a little repatriating of its own. Naturally one of the Dear Leader’s officials is stunned by this presumption.

“General,” he said falteringly. “They’re saying they’re going to apply their principle of ‘reciprocity’ even to the issue of the long-term prisoners they couldn’t convert, so it looks like once again we’re going to have to…”

“Make them eat another hard blow? Of course we have to do that.”

As part of the celebrated Immortal Leadership series devoted to glorifying the Dear Leader’s rule, World of Stars – which was republished in 2006 – reflects the official line on South Korea to a tee. Every goodwill gesture that Seoul has extended to Pyongyang has either been ignored by the North’s media or touted as a manifestation of fear. Observers sympathetic to the North shrug this sort of thing off, their apparent assumption being that Kim Jong Il spends millions on propaganda every day just to massage his own ego. But it is only in the context of this propaganda, and the bully-worship it espouses, that the DPRK’s behavior has always made perfect sense – from its terrorist adventurism in the 1960s to its threat in October to turn Seoul into “debris” if the current conservative administration does not return to the accomodationist spirit of old. The South Korean left should start reading books like of World of Stars, instead of  complaining that President Lee Myung Bak has destroyed the trust built up between the two Koreas. That trust was always a one-way street. If I may invoke the North’s own assessment of the history of inter-Korean relations: nothing has changed.

There are lessons here for America as well. After all, our food aid to the North is still misrepresented in its media as war reparations wrung out of us by Kim Jong Il. (This is why, to clear up something that still puzzles foreign visitors, citizens are allowed to use the star-spangled food sacks as carry-alls.) To hope that a new administration in Washington can build trust with the North Koreans where their most sympathetic blood-brethren have so abjectly failed would be to take American exceptionalism to a new extreme. Let us hope that in his effort to avoid repeating George W. Bush’s mistakes, Obama does not simply end up repeating Kim Dae Jung’s.

B. R. Myers is an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of A Reader's Manifesto (2002). He teaches North Korean studies at Dongseo University, in South Korea.
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