The Devil You Don't Know

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

Last September, Philip Gourevitch published a New Yorker story about North Korea without ever visiting the disturbing land that was his subject. At 15,000 words, it is the longest such piece in recent memory. But by restricting his sources to U.S. officials and North Korean defectors and propaganda, Gourevitch falls into a narrow hermeneutic circle, driven round by the eloquent rage of his democratic passions. "The crimes of North Korea," he writes, "stand out as the most . . . unrelieved expression of what can only be called savage Communism." Curiously, his intrepid research, covering well-known North Korean lies about its modern history, overlooks the virtually forgotten cataclysm that baptized this horrid garrison state, shaped its leaders' worldviews, and inured its citizens to incessant air-raid drills and "military-first" policies: the U.S. Korean War bombing campaign that leveled most major Northern cities, killed millions of civilians, destroyed huge irrigation dams, and forced survivors to live in caves. He doesn't mention that the North, for decades, has received more U.S. nuclear threats than any other country—or that the counterpart to his blistering catalog of North Korean terrorism is the far less publicized South Korean terrorism that left 5,000 spies dead or missing in the North and 2,200 living in the South under government surveillance (according to Time, a small team, including death-row inmates, trained to assassinate Kim Il Sung for three years). An American exceptionalist view of history—relying on glaring omissions instead of bald-faced lies—precipitates Gourevitch's failure to comprehend the North as the world's preeminent garrison state, buttressed by 50 years of threats from the world's preeminent military power and its Korean ally. North Korea is instead, he writes, a "concentration camp" solely arising, presumably, from its leaders' Hitler-like cruelty.

North Korea's faltering economy and repressive politics are sobering post-Cold War tragedies. But the media's constant reiterations of worst-case estimates of the tragedy—the entire nation as concentration camp, instead of up to 150,000 detainees; 2 million to 3 million famine deaths instead of expert estimates as low as 500,000; the highly politicized CIA estimate of one to two nukes, when there may be none—suggest America is less committed to fathoming North Korea than to using it as a tabula rasa on which to project its worst fears, anxieties, and obsessions. Instead of debating alarming proposals to our post-9-11 national security state, Americans are told to glower at the axis of evil abroad by a Bush princeling tenuously elected, yet zealously dedicated to sending income distribution levels back to the Gilded Age. Last year, 70 percent of Americans polled fell for Bush's innuendos that Saddam Hussein was behind 9-11; 50 years since North Korea's deeper holocaust, anti-Americanism remains its citizens' rallying cry. The devils abroad blind both populaces to the plunderers at home.

"Every time that any opponent . . . is ready to say, 'Let's wipe the slate clean and take a look at the present and the future,' you will find me ready to do it." So spoke President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, as the Korean War raged on. For Eisenhower, the slate containing the past might offer enough reasons for America's enemies to distrust our intentions. The only way forward was good-faith negotiations—to "take at face value every offer that is made to us, until it is proved not to be worthy of being so taken." Shunning Eisenhower's advice for the last 10 years, American leaders instead brandish reified images of North Korea as inveterate evildoer, the land of their worst nightmares. Their record of the past lists only North Korean misdeeds and provocations, wiped clean of any broken U.S. promises and threats accompanying them—leaving North Korea a bizarre, bloody enigma only to those who remain an enigma to themselves.

Kevin Y. Kim was a Fulbright scholar in Seoul in 2002. He has written for The Nation, LA Weekly, and Far Eastern Economic Review.

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