The Devil You Don't Know

Our half-century-old fears of North Korea have turned it into a tabula rasa

Off the highway connecting Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, with the notorious Yongbyon nuclear complex are some 25 mansions, scattered across the azalea-covered slopes of Mount Yaksan. They reportedly harbor an emerging elite of crony-capitalists-cum- generals and their high-level friends, but just who these people are depends on whom you're asking. The Economist's June 17, 2000, cover will tell you they're aliens from another planet. Respectable outlets from Newsweek and Time to Slate and Reason deem them the immoral minions of a Dr. Evil more akin to the Mike Myers of Halloween fame. Entreat the Christian right, and they'll conjure up devils dancing around a pork-bellied, pompadour-coiffed Beelzebub. In the words of State Department undersecretary John Bolton ("the kind of man with whom I would want to stand at Armageddon," professed Jesse Helms), Pyongyang's leaders are eternally prancing about "like royalty," while the rest of the country endures a "hellish nightmare." A third round of multilateral talks on North Korea is slated to begin February 25—two months after Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly blocked attempts to resume negotiations, echoing his Bible-thumping colleagues at a high-level U.S. meeting when he proclaimed, "We don't negotiate with evil, we defeat it."

North Korea is a strange land with a reprehensible leadership—that much can be said of a hermetic state permanently primed for war. But the demons have learned our language, and in the past two years have christened Bush a "war maniac," Donald Rumsfeld a "political pygmy" worse than Hitler, and America an "empire of the devil." Each side's catechism now miserably mirroring the other's, it's easier to see behind the self-perpetuating war of words an unspoken, damning reality. Fifty years since North Korea invaded the South, and the U.S. subsequently—and equally wrongfully—invaded the North, none has fully faced its own failures, immoralities, and half-truths, or the legitimate grievances and basic humanity of its professed enemy.

So it is with quasi-Stalinist totalitarian regimes. Should it be so, too, with a nation that, in response to seeing its own ideals overrun by unflattering failures, shines forth in ever brighter reds, whites, and blues, blinding us to the devils in our own history's details? According to Leon Sigal, an Asian security expert and former New York Times editorial board member, the mainstream media largely took a "crime and punishment" approach to North Korea during the last nuclear crisis in 1994. "Key parts of the story never appeared in the news," he writes in Disarming Strangers (1998), a 321-page study of U.S.-North Korea nuclear diplomacy, based on interviews with American and Korean participants. "Evidence that North Korea might be trying to trade away its nuclear arms program received very little media attention." Crucial North Korean concessions and proposals were ignored, while U.S. officials dominated a one-sided, solipsistic drama casting North Koreans as third-world subalterns—forbidden to speak, or even get routinely quoted, by an American press deeming them unreliable sources for their own views and policy positions.

Case in point: After a few intermittent reports, a major North Korean 1992 proposal, which became the basis for the 1994 Agreed Framework ending the crisis, was never mentioned by major papers again. Instead, North Korean threats were dutifully cast into the American news ether without the accompanying South Korean provocation or U.S. refusal to deal, which nearly took turns drawing the North's rhetorical fire. As psychotic and irredeemably treacherous as the North appeared, throughout the crisis it ironically had the most consistent policy position, which, left unnoticed, made Pyongyang look like the only "intransigent party," in Sigal's more objective terminology. Worse, as the steward of buffoonish rhetoric, obsolete economics, high-profile terrorist acts, and human rights violations, North Korea seems every bit the dystopia of Dr. Strangelove-inspired madmen. In October 2002, Pyongyang officials admitted to U.S. envoys they were indeed developing a second nuclear program in violation of the 1994 deal. Caught red-handed, moral absolutists claim, North Korea stands fully revealed as a monolithic beast hell-bent on acquiring nukes.

Except there's one missing body of evidence for the final verdict: the defendants' testimony. Ten years since the lock-and-load coverage of 1994, most reports, pundits, and op-ed columns fail to balance Bush administration allegations with North Korean counter-allegations. In Pyongyang's telling of the tale, recited with increasing shrillness since 1997, American imperialists violated the 1994 deal by systematically reneging on their promises. In January 1999, a North Korean peace committee claimed U.S. foot-dragging veiled our true intent: "to put off the time with [promised but delayed] light-water reactors as bait," a secret "suffocation strategy" aimed at the North's collapse. It threatened to abandon the agreement, long before George W. Bush entered the scene. All of which makes for a conspiracy theory the media might be justified in ignoring, save for the Clinton officials hoping aloud for that exact eventuality. A senior official who worked on the pact told The Washington Post that the 10 years it covered was "a sufficient period of time for their regime to have collapsed." Prominent independent experts, from Sigal and Selig Harrison to former U.S. ambassadors Stephen Bosworth and Donald Gregg, agree with major aspects of North Korea's case. But in lieu of investigations into both country's claims or debates navigating the truths between their rhetorical extremes, the story of unmitigated North Korean crime and punishment—with the U.S. government as self-appointed prosecutor and judge—rolls inexorably onward.

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