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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.
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.