Pacific Hieroglyphic

Exhibit A of the latter danger is the Bush administration’s decision in December 2002 to suspend fuel-oil shipments to North Korea after learning that the regime was secretly enriching uranium. The administration hardliners who pushed the decision had little specialized knowledge of the Korean Peninsula; but according to The Washington Post, they had been convinced by reports from a single defector that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s hold on power was shaky, and that his regime might collapse if the United States stood tough. The defector turned out to be unreliable, and the North Koreans reacted with a heedless fury that anyone who knew anything about that regime could have predicted. They expelled international inspectors who had been monitoring plutonium from a nuclear facility shuttered in a deal brokered by the Clinton administration, and subsequently withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This plutonium gave Kim the ability to make nuclear weapons quickly (the uranium route would have taken years), and indications are that he has now done so. Meanwhile, the Bush administration, having vowed not to negotiate with North Korea, is now doing just that–though it will be difficult even to get matters back to where they stood last year (with Pyongyang’s plutonium under international lock and key).

This time, administration negotiators might want to pick up a copy of North Korea: Another Country by University of Chicago scholar Bruce Cumings. Though he falls into the trap of feeling too great an empathy, Cumings is one of the few American experts who read Korean and possess a deep, sophisticated grasp of modern Korean history and culture. Hence, his book is full of insights that help explain why Pyongyang behaves as it does–and possible clues to how to make it behave better.

Perhaps the book’s biggest revelation, one little known even to most Western historians of the region, is the depth of the suffering visited on North Korea by the Korean War. Cumings describes the ferocious and sustained air campaign that virtually leveled the entire country and took millions of civilian lives. Cumings details horrific effects of fire bombings on a man he encountered in 1968 in South Korea: He “had a peculiar purple crust on every visible part of his skin… He was bald, he had no ears or lips, and his eyes, lacking lids, were a grayish-white, with no pupils … I did not know … that this purplish crust resulted from a drenching with napalm, after which the untreated victim’s body was left to somehow cure itself.” The public’s memory of this real and rather recent devastation, plus its profound awareness of the peninsula’s long record of brutal invasion over the past seven centuries, help sustain support for, or at least compliance with, the regime and its policies. The ability to manipulate these public memories is one reason why the regime may be less prone to collapse than the hawks predicted. The regime has so far maintained its governing system with total isolation unprecedented in world history, in part by cunningly and ruthlessly indoctrinating its people. Cumings vividly captures the doctrine of juche or self-reliance whose insane obsessiveness breeds the pathological isolationism we see. This is further reinforced by the North Koreans’ fear that the South and its allies will not hesitate to use nuclear weapons against them–a belief accentuated by Bush’s inclusion of North Korea as part of the “axis of evil.”

With so little information coming out of the hermit kingdom, policymakers and the American media tend to spin those few hints we do get into narratives that reinforce the craziness that all glimpses of North Korean behavior suggest to outsiders. For example, American media profiles of Kim Jong Il portray him as a pudgy, five-foot-nothing hereditary dictator with a perm and a taste for tall Swedish blondes, French wine, and haute cuisine. Cumings paints quite a different picture. “Kim is a homebody who … doesn’t drink much, works at home in his pajamas, scribbling comments in the margins of the endless reams of documents brought to him in gray briefcases by his aides … He is prudish and shy, and like most Korean fathers, hopelessly devoted to his son and the other children in his household.” In truth, both the media and Cumings are probably right, though neither one captures the entire picture. Korean society–North and South–has long allowed men of means to live double lives as both doting fathers and carousing womanizers. South Korea, for instance, is packed with room salons–ultra expensive (tabs can run up to $1,500 for two) deluxe bars with private rooms, where wealthy or powerful men, single and married alike, relax after a hard day’s work in the company of attractive young women, drinking, singing, and dancing. Corporate Korea patronizes these salons to win contracts as standard business practice. The escapades are a form of patriarchy, men’s rule over women, dominant in East Asian cultures. Kim, in this sense, is just behaving like a typical Korean male hotshot.

For all of his insights, however, Cumings–who professes empathy for the underdog–has written an apologia for a regime that brutalizes its citizens, is openly hostile to the United States and South Korea, and heedless of international law. In particular, although he does not condone Kim Jong Il’s gulag, Cumings discusses a system of family support at labor camps that allows prisoners to survive. But can one gloss over systematic executions, distorted food rations that exacerbate starvation, and perverted idolatry of its leader? The trick for wise policymakers reading North Korea: Another Country is to look past the apologetics in order to glean valuable insights that can’t be found in memos from administration hawks who make ignorance about the world a virtue.

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