In his book about North Korea, Bradley Martin describes a curious journey there in 1979 when he met “a man called Pak”, a council member of the Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. They lunched lavishly, but Martin was disappointed over the lack of knowledge Pak — he gives no other name — displayed about the U.S.A., particularly his misapprehension that Americans “eat turkey on our independence day”. Poor Pak had mixed up the Fourth of July with Thanksgiving , which of course the world knows is in November and is movable (the last Thursday) but hardly a feast. In my U.S. time I found roast turkey a dreary dish, but knew when it was eaten, thus often managing to avoid it.
So here’s Pak, who works at the North Korean council (outside the foreign ministry) dealing with nations that don’t extend formal diplomatic recognition to North Korea eliciting Martin’s mild ridicule for confusing a rudimentary cultural fact. Two questions for Bradley Martin: On what date is the national day of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and what traditional dish is served on that day? In the book’s 868 pages, the product of a quarter century’s research, he does not say. In fact he details no dishes of North Korea (an excellent cuisine — when there’s food ), but does deal lengthily with the crowded sex lives of its late ruler, Kim Il Sung, and his son Kim Jong Il, the present supremo. This pair of adulated dictators provides the title, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty (St Martin’s Press, New York).
It is not an unworthy book; it gives more details about the Kims’ lives than any other, and these two Byzantine figures are the most mysterious of any national rulers anywhere . And as Kim the younger could be, at least in theory, the next man to drop a nuclear bomb on the world, he is worth knowing about.
Yet Martin fails to do an important thing: get beyond being an American. This might be excusable, but another thumb on the balance he might otherwise bring to measure the Kims is his second handicap . Martin was and still seems to be instinctively a U.S. mainstream former foreign correspondent (Baltimore Sun, Asian Wall Street Journal, Newsweek ). That is a crippling disadvantage because it burdens him with so many harmful assumptions — the basic goodness of the U.S.A.; its inherent good will and benevolence toward the world; the innocence of its wish for others to share its benefits; and the tendency to regard those who differ fundamentally not just as opponents, but as hopeless miscreants undeserving of advancement into the light shining from the Statue of Liberty — to name only a few.
To be fair, another American has written a long book about the two Koreas. He was not a correspondent and is mostly free of the above priggish assumptions. His name is Bruce Cumings , a professor of history at the University of Chicago, and probably America’s foremost authority on Korea as author of the two-volume Origins of the Korean War (1981 and 1990) and writer of a book I read together with Martin’s tome, Korea’s Place in the Sun, A Modern History , Norton, 2005. Here, even with only one chapter devoted specifically to the Kims, Cumings immediately tackles in one definitive passage the North Korean enigma and the trouble with its dated dismissal as “Stalinist” by Washington and the mainstream media.
“My position,” Cumings writes, “is that North Korea is closer to a Neo-Confucian kingdom than to Stalin’s Russia. With its absurdly inflated hero worship and its nauseating repetition, the North Korean political rhetoric seems to know no bounds; to a person accustomed to a liberal political system it is instinctively repellent. But it has been there since the beginning.” Exactly. Once we appreciate the continuing legacy of this 5000-year-old kingdom’s history — and Cumings devotes many pages to it — the usual adjectives trotted out by official America, and noted too often by Martin as probably definitive, become just that: adjectives.
Of course, these too are essential to the numbing nomenclature of Pyongyang propagandists who ceaselessly churn out lurid praise extolling their Glorious Wise Leader and “the garden of bliss that blooms in his sunlight of boundless love and warm everlasting care.” Perhaps the baroque blandishments of People’s Korea and the tiresome cliché grinders of capitalist Washington D.C. should have a purple prose contest to describe each other’s inglorious bosses. President George W. Bush has been quoted as saying he “loathes and detests” Kim Jung Il — tame stuff surely for the masterful mythmakers of the people’s paradise. I eagerly anticipate descriptions of the “wasteland of gloom that multiplies under the menacing shadow of Bush’s matchless ignorance and frigid indifference,” and so on.
Meanwhile, what to make of the northern half of the Hermit Kingdom in its modern guise, the military stronghold of a cult-like dictator presiding over a subordinated people who only a decade ago were ravaged by horrific nationwide droughts, floods and famine? ( And let us not forget that during the Korean war (1950-53) the American turkey-eaters killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of his fellow comrades in mass bombings, if not back into the Stone Age then at least until not one stone was left standing upon another.)
Martin exercises the foreign correspondent’s lazy — he would say “balanced” — prerogative of quoting numerous talking heads. One is an Australian diplomat/historian, Adrian Buzo, who has written thus of North Korea: “Only Stalin’s system at its height can remotely compare with the authority exercised by Kim Il Sung from 1967 to his death in 1994.” The Korean political tradition offers no antecedents for Buzo’s “cult of the fatherly leader, reliance on charismatic leadership and cult of personality in politics,” not to mention, “militarism, executive activism, and pervasive government intrusion into what was previously the highly self-regulatory realm of clan and family life.”
The features of Stalinism Buzo sees were melded in North Korea with “the tastes, prejudices and experiences of the Manchurian guerilla mind-set”, in which Kim Il Sung was a genuine hero, fighting commando raids against the imperial Japanese army in Manchuria in the 1930s. This mind-set Buzo describes as “militaristic, Spartan, ruthless, conspiratorial, anti-intellectual, anti-bureaucratic and insular.”
Then there is Hwang Jang Yop, a North Korean student in Stalin’s Moscow and the Workers’ Party secretary for ideology in Pyongyang before his 1997 defection. Hwang argues that son Kim Jong Il overturned Stalinism with Confucian notions. Whereas “Stalin’s orders and instructions were not considered coming from an individual but from the working class,” in North Korea they became the reverse. “The Great Leader does not live for the people. It is the people who live for the Great Leader.”
That is a nice ideological way of construing it, but what of history? This Martin ignores, but Cumings regards it as a sine qua non. He spends chapters describing a strictly stratified society going back thousands of years. In old Korea slaves comprised about one third — yes, over 30 per cdent. Doing business was scorned by an aloof privileged class that preferred studying scholarly interpretations of Confucian edicts on the organization of daily life. Foreigners were scorned and kept out, and, as an all-powerful monarchy, the king’s word was absolute. Doesn’t that sound like today’s DPRK, or do you still prefer likenesses to Uncle Joe Stalin puffing on his people’s pipe? When will Washington “experts” realize that “monstrous communism” is an antiquated cliché?
It seems true, as Martin documents, that in today’s North Korea families are torn asunder and successive generations made to suffer for one member’s misbehavior, such as leaving the country”. Both Kims treated attractive young female citizens as their property. The economy is now enfeebled, after outshining South Korea during its 1950-70s military dictatorship period. Martin generously states that Kim Il Sung was a brilliant leader, and that his son now demonstrates interesting tendencies toward reform. Furthermore, the horrors of dictatorship were often moderated, although no people should suffer the privations of this people’s paradise.
Yet Kim Jong Il can display disarming charm. Bush junior’s childish hatred of the “pygmy,” as he once called him, helps nobody except Bush’s ultra-right cronies. When former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright met Kim in October 2000, she found a man prepared to make deals. For a promise of non-aggression from Washington, he was prepared to cease selling missiles abroad and developing his own. The U.S.A. would have to pay for economic help but, Albright concluded, “it would be minimal compared to the expense of defending against the threats its missile program posed.”
Of course, Pyongyang has been looking down the U.S. nuclear barrel for decades. During the Korean War, the U.S.A. both threatened and prepared nuclear attacks on the North, with bombardments of 30 or more atom bombs seriously discussed at top level. In September and October of 1951, Cumings relates, lone U.S. B-29 bombers of the kind that destroyed Hiroshima flew over North Korea dropping dummy A-bombs in serious practice runs before it was decided, for purely technical reasons, that “timely identification of large masses of enemy troops was extremely rare.” The feelings of North Korean officers watching these dummy runs can only be imagined.
Today the U.S.A. has scores of nuclear missiles aimed at the DPRK, yet western “intelligence” does not know for sure — again — whether it really does have the bomb. However, scenarios of warfare, with the Pentagon dropping its own weapons of mass destruction on the “Stalinists”, are a favorite in what pass for serious media accounts in America.
In 1993 this appeared: “An economically-desperate North Korea, its leadership as isolated as ever, rejects every effort the West makes to persuade it to abandon its steadfast pursuit of a nuclear bomb. Instead it issues warnings about the possibility of war, which are promptly echoed by a high ranking U.S. defense department officia l… North Korea’s troops go on combat alert … Last week in Korea, the nightmares all seemed to be coming true.” It is difficult ovedrlook the feeling of glee with which this seems to have been written in Newsweek, Martin’s old mag.
Again in 1993 this account: “The single most dangerous problem [is] the impending nuclearization of North Korea… None will sleep well with nukes in the hands of the most belligerent and paranoid regime on earth [a reference to the DPRK, not the U.S.A.]… controlled by the possibly psychotic Kim Jung Il, the closest thing to Dr. Strangelove the nuclear age has seen.” Thus the editorialist Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post.
The same year as Albright’s visit to Pyongyang, the new president of South Korea, Kim Dae Jung, also went to create what he called “sunshine” between the two warring states, which had never signed a peace agreement since the war ended, but only a cease-fire. Again he found Kim Jong Il to be surprisingly agreeable, and millions of South Koreans warmed to his appearance on their television news.
Then came Bush’s State of the Union speech in January 2002, when he included People’s Korea in his “axis of evil” — astonishingly, almost on a whim in order to alleviate accusations of anti-Islam bias with the other two Muslim members of a trio named in a Nazi echo of World War II military definitions. Bush had started the war of words again, a state in which both sides revel.
Surely, the overblown nonsense declaimed by both sides is what so alarms us in a strategic area posing real risk, once more, of thermo-nuclear obliteration. Instead of demands for “prior non-aggression guarantees” or “the normalcy of serious diplomacy” from Pyongyang and Washington, creditable though these may be, could they not first agree to dump the rhetoric? No more repetitions, please, of idiot panegyrics about the “Beloved Leader and his heavenly visions” or even bombastic bombardments declaring that “imperialist aggressors will be drowned in a sea of fire.” The likes of Krauthammer would have to shut up as well.
As the U.S.A. has more hardware and makes the most serious threats, perhaps it should go first by offering to stop repeating Pyongyang’s soppiest sallies, like those American journalists’ endless repetitions of a celebrity’s notorious faux pas decades after its first utterance. Give it a rest, guys.
Instead, read these two books, or if only one, the work by Cumings. Recall his phrase about North Korea’s having “been there since the beginning.” It also, despite countless forecasts of collapse, looks like being there for quite a while yet. So why not just try taking it seriously?
CHRISTOPHER REED is a journalist living in Japan. He can be reached at: email@example.com.