Dispatch August 2009

The Korea Trap

Bill Clinton may have secured the release of two American journalists, but as our correspondent, a South Korea-based professor of North Korean studies, reports, his trip to Pyongyang has troubling consequences too.
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The already famous picture of Bill Clinton and Kim Jong Il sitting side by side for a formal photograph on Tuesday shows an enormous painting of waves crashing against rocks in the background. In North Korea, this motif is a standard symbol of the country’s resolve to stand up to the outside world, but I doubt if the average American saw anything but a glorious piece of kitsch. No less disparate are the ways in which the two countries are interpreting the former president’s humanitarian mission.

The response of American commentators is, for the most part, similar to what was said last year when the New York Philharmonic visited Pyongyang, and what was said a year before that when the (now-forgotten) February 13 Agreement emerged from the six-party talks: namely, Kim Jong Il finally appears ready for better relations with Washington.

A new note of silliness is being struck this time, though, with assertions that the North Koreans respect Clinton and look back fondly on his administration. Where was this respect and affection when the man was in office? True, Pyongyang liked the obsequious letter Clinton sent to “His Excellency” Kim Jong Il in 1994, promising full compliance with the terms of the Agreed Framework; it was printed in full in encyclopedias and history books. But in the years that followed, the president was alternately mocked and vilified in North Korean propaganda as a man who would have gone to war had he believed America stood a chance of winning.

We should not be surprised that this went on even as Washington was sending massive amounts of economic aid. North Korea is a paranoid nationalist state in which both the regime and the majority of its subjects view Americans of all political stripes as inherently devious. Anyone who imagines that the masses disagree with their leader should consider the fact – to which attention is never sufficiently drawn—that North Korea maintains a stable population, even without a fortified, East German-style border.

In short, the North Koreans wanted Bill Clinton only because he was the most prominent of the various emissaries suggested. The party organ, the Rodong Sinmun, has already given the domestic audience to understand that he came to Pyongyang not so much to free the two journalists as to pass on an oral message from President Obama. (The U.S. State Department has denied that any such message was communicated.) The newspaper, which usually takes weeks to report on events, also printed several large photographs of the meeting between Kim and Clinton. The latter’s reluctance to smile for the cameras will not prevent the North Koreans from misrepresenting him as having paid a groveling tributary visit. As Pyongyang sees it, every foreign visitor to the country, whether tourist or diplomat, is there to pay homage. These alleged shows of respect are valued especially highly when they come from former adversaries. The North Koreans were delighted in 2008 to see former Defense Secretary Bill Perry accompanying the Philharmonic to the country whose nuclear program he had sworn never to tolerate. Erstwhile foes are sometimes depicted as undergoing ideological conversions while in the country; ever since Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang in 1994 to end the nuclear standoff, the North Koreans have claimed that he ranks Kim Il Sung right up there with Jesus.

So what are the consequences of Clinton’s visit? It certainly came at the right time for a country in the middle of a “150 Day Battle,” an intensive propaganda campaign aimed at heightening productivity and bolstering public pride in the state. More troublingly, it has also confirmed the North Koreans’ conviction—constantly voiced in the official media—that the Yankees are all talk and no action. (No sooner does the U.S. Secretary of State vow to ignore North Korea’s bids for attention than she sends her own husband to Pyongyang!) This will make it all the harder to negotiate with the country in the future.

In Washington, alas, the success of Clinton’s mission will only encourage Americans in their traditional belief that personalities, not ideologies, play the decisive role in foreign affairs. There may well be more calls for President Obama to travel to Pyongyang himself, the better to bring some of his own personal charm to bear on the Dear Leader.

Let us hope such calls go unheeded. Kim Jong Il’s prime security problem is not the United States but the existence of a thriving South Korea next door. Since the North’s economic collapse in the mid-1990s, triumphalist posturing toward Washington has been the dictatorship’s only remaining source of legitimacy. A “tributary” visit from President Obama would be fully exploited for its propaganda benefits, but the provocations would be quick to resume. To return to the symbolism of that wall-painting: those rocks aren’t going anywhere.

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. His book The Cleanest Race (Melville House), an introduction to the North Korean worldview, will be out in the fall.
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