What happens when a dictator wins absolute power and isolates a nation from the outside world? In a nightmare of political theory stretched to madness and come to life,
Extracts of Book Reviews
A tough but even-handed treatment of the subject."--Andrew Scobell for Parameter s
A gulag with nukes: inside North Korea
Article for Open Democracy
Jasper Becker, 18 July 2005
Behind its rhetoric of anti-imperialist defiance the
The Chinese shopkeeper gave a triumphant yell when he spotted a ragged figure bent double and stumbling about the garbage that had cascaded from a hilltop. I plunged after him through the deep snow. When I caught up with him, he was shouting and grinning at his successful catch.
As he fished around his pocket to pull out some plastic twine, a face black with dirt and scabrous with pellagra shrunk back into the shadows of a hood made from grey sackcloth like a medieval leper. The creature whimpered feebly but put up no resistance as the shopkeeper bound the twine around her hands. I now found myself bargaining for the life of a woman I guessed to be around 50.
She turned out to be 28. She had been a worker in
After some haggling, I managed to buy her life for 200 yuan (around £13 or $20). This was 1997, at the height of the North Korean famine when 3 million out of 22 million perished in (proportionately) the worst man-made famine ever recorded in peacetime. To call her or the hundreds of thousands like her “refugees” is a misnomer; they are escapees from the last slave society left in the world.
Eight years on, the North Koreans are still starving and the west still does not know how to deal with their “dear leader”, Kim Jong Il – who inherited the state leadership from his father, “great leader” Kim Il Sung, in 1994.
Kim has agreed to return to the six-party nuclear talks (involving
At the last showdown in 2002, the Bush administration put its trust in
The court of Kim Jong Il
When, one day, the Kim Jong Il regime falls and the mass graves open up in
The trouble is that when North Koreans are free to speak, they tell a very different story. In
“They kept everything for themselves”, he said. He and many others I interviewed believe that billions of dollars in foreign aid has been diverted, partly to fund the northern state’s weapons programmes and partly to finance Kim Jong Il’s luxurious daily routine.
South Korea’s defence ministry estimates that Kim spent $400 million in 1997-2002 buying second-hand MiG fighter jets, submarine parts, helicopters, and engines for tanks and ships. His troops are equipped with mini-underwater submarines launched from disguised fishing vessels, specially adapted hovercrafts, light planes and a defence industry hidden inside mountains which builds ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons and chemical gases in subterranean factories and research laboratories.
The costliest part of it all is the nuclear-weapons programmes, much of which Kim has probably been able to hide as effectively as the Iranians have hidden theirs from United Nations inspectors. This is in addition to an intercontinental ballistic missile programme whose scope caught every one by surprise on 31 August 1998 when Kim fired a rocket which flew over Japan.
The stories told about the extravagance of Kim Jong-Il’s lifestyle are so lurid that at first they seem hard to believe. A number of former cooks, including an Italian and a Japanese sushi chef, have described in detail his gourmet obsessions. One chef published a book in Japan under the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto; at the very time people were starving in their millions, he travelled to Iran and Uzbekistan to buy caviar, to China for melons and grapes, to Thailand and Malaysia for durians and papayas, to the Czech Republic for Pilsner beer, to Denmark for bacon, and (regularly) to Japan for tuna and other fresh fish.
When I tracked down a member of one of Kim’s “happiness teams” of dancers and masseuses in
She described how, on joining Kim’s court, she was given handmade Italian shoes, Japanese designer clothes (Yamoto, Kenzo, Mori) and an Omega watch inscribed with Kim Jong Il’s name. A check of Swiss trade statistics shows that in 1998,
At breakfast she enjoyed French croissants, fresh yoghurt and imported fruits because Kim said they must have clear and healthy skins. At lunch there was fresh raw fish, Japanese-style, and at dinner Korean or western dishes.
“We ate off porcelain dishes inlaid with roses and used silver tableware. Everything was imported. Nothing I have ever seen in
I double-checked their stories with an ex-bodyguard, Lee Young-guk who observed Kim at close quarters during eleven years of service.
“In a real sense, he is the richest man in the world. There are no limits on what he can do”, Lee said. “He has at least ten palaces set in sprawling grounds and insists each is always occupied by thousands of staff so his enemies are never sure where he is. They contain golf courses, stables for his horses, garages full of motor-bikes and luxury cars, shooting-ranges, swimming pools, cinemas, funfair parks, water-jet bikes and hunting grounds stocked with wild deer and duck.”
A big bulky man in a blue suit, Lee reached down below the coffee table, and showed me shins covered by a mass of blue scars. When Lee Young-guk returned to his home to find everyone starving, he decided to escape; but North Korean agents masquerading as South Koreans caught him in
Lee says that Kim Jong Il fears an uprising like the one that overthrew Nicolae Ceausescu in
After the Soviet bloc’s collapse and the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war of 1991, Kim took ever-greater internal security measures. He expanded the secret police, creating three duplicate layers of surveillance. No one in the elite could go anywhere or meet anyone without first obtaining his permission.
A gulag with nukes
When Madeleine Albright, then US secretary of state, travelled to Pyongyang to meet Kim in 2000 and arrange a summit with President Clinton, she was told he was reclusive, even delusional – a weak, cautious man hampered by a stammer who lived in the shadow of his father Kim Il Sung. She found instead, she reported, a charming if eccentric man who seemed reassuringly rational.
If indeed Washington can do business with Kim Jong Il, he would first have to be absolved from any responsibility for his crimes against humanity. The United Nations, anxious to continue operating in the north, has led the way by officially blaming “temporary” food shortages on bad weather and the loss of Soviet aid after 1990.
But you only have to meet North Koreans to see compelling evidence of malnutrition that began twenty years ago. I met kids on the border who claimed to be 19 or 22; they had the physiques of 10-year-olds.
Lee Min-bok is a refugee in
Everyone learned how to please the “dear leader”; all you had to do was lie. People started to cheat by making false reports. By the mid-1980s, the country was running short of a million tons of grain every year, enough to feed 3 million people. Lee Min-bok first saw people dying of hunger in 1988, in North Korea’s northeast, seven years before the country appealed for international aid.
Lee Min-bok’s research proved that the country could feed itself if it embraced Chinese-style agricultural reforms. Kim Jong-Il refused to consider any reform and Lee, fearing for his life, decided to flee.
Those who doubt (or are even suspected of doubting) Kim’s fantasy world are sent to places like Camp 22. Ahn Myong-chol, now a banker in
“They were walking skeletons of skin and bone, with faces covered in cuts and scars where they had been beaten. Most had no ears; they had been torn off in beatings. Many had lost a leg and hobbled about on crude crutches or sticks”, Ahn remembers.
Ahn was told not to consider the prisoners human beings. They were killed casually for the slightest infractions, often in gruesome ways – buried alive, dragged behind jeeps, hung or shot, garrotted or burned alive. The rest were worked to death in mines or building secret tunnels for the military, or given lethal jobs like testing chemical weapons.
“Anyone suspected of disloyalty ended up in the camps”, he said. Kim Il-sung had purged opponents by the trainload, but his son nearly doubled the number of political prisoners. Whole families would be arrested, and sent to prison camps without trial and without even knowing their crime.
Kang Chol-hwan describes his camp childhood in his book The Aquariums of Pyongyang . When President Bush invited him to the White House, Pyongyang reacted furiously, calling Kang “human trash” and threatening the United States with a refusal to consider further talks if it continued to “insult” North Korea.
New York Times
and the rest of liberal
Kimworld: Inside the North Korean slave state.
by Ian Buruma August 22, 2005
The charm of dictators has been known to reduce the hardest men to jelly. I remember a tough-minded Japanese photographer returning from
Bradley K. Martin, whose “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader:
By the time Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader, took over from his father as the absolute ruler of North Korea, the country was a slave society, where only the most trusted caste of people were allowed to live in sullen obedience in Pyongyang, while vast numbers of potential class enemies were worked to death in mines and hard-labor camps. After Kim Il Sung's death, in 1994, the regime suspended executions for a month, and throughout the following year it committed relatively few killings. Since this was at the height of a famine, largely brought on by disastrous agricultural policies, hundreds of thousands were already dying from hunger. Then word spread that Kim Jong Il wished to “hear the sound of gunshots again.” Starving people were shot for stealing a couple of eggs.
Jasper Becker is less inclined to make these fine distinctions. As a result, his book, though much slighter and less detailed than Martin's, is the more intelligent. Becker wrote the classic book “Hungry Ghosts,” about Mao Zedong's man-made famine in
Kim Jong Il, meanwhile, was ferried about in his fleet of Mercedes-Benzes, from one grand palace to another, where Chinese, Japanese, French, Russian, and Korean food was always available for feasts that sometimes went on for days. One of the more mouthwatering accounts of life in Kim's court is by his former Japanese chef, a man who later took on the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto, whose duties included special trips to
Kim Jong Il's other needs were met by large numbers of carefully selected young women, assigned to their special tasks. There were masseuses and girls trained to cater to the Leader's specific sexual demands, and there were singers and dancers. (“Eat your heart out, Hugh Hefner,” is Martin's oddly jocular interjection.) On one occasion, according to Hwang, Kim punished his guests, all high Party officials, for not applauding enough after a dance performance. On another, recounted by the Japanese chef, he ordered the girls to strip naked and dance with his guests. Anyone who dared touch one of Kim's private dancers, however, would be regarded as a thief. According to Hwang, one of Kim's secretaries went home after a night of drinking and told his wife about the Dear Leader's debauchery. She wrote an earnest letter to Kim's father, asking how a man who led such an immoral life could safeguard the happiness of his people. She was arrested and led to a palace where Kim Jong Il was carousing. Kim ordered her to be killed as a counter-revolutionary, but as a special favor allowed her husband to shoot her on the spot.
Even if we follow Martin's advice and refrain from demonizing the Kims, we might be excused for dismissing their moments of charm as an irrelevance. Martin's notion that “people could still muster loyalty for the elder Kim” because “he came across as an engaging figure” is politically naïve. A warm handshake will not explain why an entire people submitted to his whims.
All tyrants are alike, no doubt, but tyranny comes in different forms, and the North Korean variety is an extraordinarily vicious blend of Western and East Asian influences. On such matters, Martin provides far more detail, including long transcripts of interviews with refugees and defectors, but, again, Becker is more incisive. The political component, a mixture of Stalinism and strict neo-Confucianism (with its stress on obedience to authority), is perhaps less complicated than the religious aspects. The Kims' behavior recalls that of such Roman despots as Nero and Caligula, who revelled in their power. In
The religious cult around the Kims goes further, however; they really are worshipped as divinities, in a peculiarly Korean mixture of native animism and pseudo-Christianity. Martin writes about the Party congress of 1980, when Kim Jong Il, then still the young dauphin, was elected to the five-person presidium of the politburo. The Party newspaper, in a pre-Christmas editorial, offered the Kims as a replacement for the Father and Son in the Holy Trinity. “People of the world, if you are looking for miracles, come to
Even though Kim Il Sung had stamped out all independent religious activity in
A model for this mixture of nationalism, social protest, and Christianity was the Taiping Rebellion, in mid-nineteenth-century
Kim Il Sung, the son of pious Christians, was a great admirer of the Eastern Learning school. Like Hong Xiuquan, Choe Che-u, and, indeed, Chairman Mao, Kim Il Sung wanted to be seen as a messiah and not just a Stalinist dictator. Becker convincingly places the Kim cult in a Sino-Korean tradition of millenarian priest-kings, autocratic sages, and holy saviors. It's a tradition in which the source of power is also the source of virtue, spiritual wisdom, and truth—hence the total intolerance of any heterodoxy or dissent. The same idea prevails, in a milder form, in South Korean, and Japanese, corporate life, where workers must learn the “philosophies” of their company founders. It has also spawned such cults as the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's
Animism is perhaps an even more important ingredient than Christianity in the spiritual and ideological mélange of Kim worship. Kim Jong Il was born in 1941 or 1942 in
Myths and legends are scarcely unique to North Korean politics. What makes the Kim cult especially disturbing—but also appealing to many Korean nationalists, even some of those living in the South—is its xenophobia. Koreans, having endured centuries of foreign domination, often use two phrases to describe their “national character”: han , impotent rage that can be relieved only by collective action, and sadaechuui , the habit of pandering to foreigners. The Korean élites have tended to fall into warring factions, often allied to different foreign powers. To cover up the fact that Kim Il Sung served in both Chinese and Soviet armies during the Second World War, and was put in charge of North Korea by his Soviet minders, the Kim cult is quick to denounce its enemies, especially in South Korea, as “flunkies.” And han— directed at Americans, Japanese, and South Koreans, as well as all “class enemies” or “factionalists” at home—is the abiding sentiment in North Korean propaganda.
Kim Il Sung's most famous motto,
self-reliance—must be understood in this light.
is an often paranoid fear of dependence on others. The fact that
And yet there are people for whom the North Korean regime has not entirely lost its prestige. One can forgive those romantic radicals in the South for admiring the idea of Korean self-reliance, even if it was based on a fiction. Harder to excuse are the nostalgic members of failed Eastern European and Third World utopias who have made pilgrimages to Pyongyang to relive the good old days. When I visited the city in 1996, I saw a group of plump East Germans being picked up by great black limousines that were driven right onto the station platform so that they wouldn't get their shoes dusty.
There is also the residue of old socialist dreaming. Bradley Martin quotes a British visitor named Andrew Holloway, who found the “secure and cheerful existence and the comradeship” of the “average” citizen “moving to behold.” Despite having written a long book cataloguing torture, famine, and mass murder, Martin approvingly notes that readers of Holloway's account “not consumed with knee-jerk loathing for socialism might be hard-pressed to adjudge as evil beyond redemption a society so apparently successful in inculcating values such as kindness and modesty.” My own impression, reinforced by Martin's book, is that North Koreans behave pretty much like all people forced to fight for bare survival: kindness is a dangerous luxury. Far from inculcating gentle behavior, the regime rewards brutality and crushes decency. Anyone caught trying to help a “class enemy,” after all, is liable to disappear into the camps.
What to do about Kim Jong Il and his murderous regime? Direct military confrontation is not an appealing option. Kim, although bound to lose a war against better-fed, better-led, and better-equipped American and South Korean troops, has enough artillery, missiles, chemical weapons, and, quite possibly, nuclear bombs to carry out the threat of turning the South Korean capital, Seoul, into a “sea of flames.” He has up to a million men in uniform, a dozen chemical-weapons factories, and about a hundred thousand special-operations forces ready to be unleashed. Nor is he likely to get rid of these weapons, for the threat of mass killing is all that he has to bargain with, and is probably the only means of insuring his personal survival. Richard Perle, quoted in Becker's book, maintains that the threat of
The usual alternative to military action is “engagement.” This was the favored tactic of the Clinton Administration and of
Meanwhile, there are enough carpetbaggers around the
The problem with trade-and-aid engagement is that
Becker, undistracted by the charms of tyrants or the cheerful comradeship of their subjects, adopts a more serious tone. He argues that the world must agree about “benchmarks for identifying a rogue state's behaviour just as there is a definition of the crime of genocide.” Then, with the right “political will, the world could quickly agree on remedies to disarm a criminal state clearly unable to feed its own population.” But who is “the world”? The United Nations? And what remedies would this world have at its disposal? Dealing with Kim Jong Il is like negotiating with a man who holds millions of hostages. One has to be flexible and opportunistic, and use every means at hand, from seduction to the threat of violent force. What the Kims have done to their country is so appalling, though, that almost anything is better than its continuation. The challenge is to bring Kim down without taking millions with him. ♦
A profile of madness
By Damian J. Penny 2006
Even those familiar with the hellish totalitarianism of
Probably the best thing about Jasper Becker's chilling and compelling
Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea
is that it gives us one of the most vivid portrayals to date of the "Dear Leader", and it shows Kim Jong Il for what he really is: a calculating, Machiavellian tyrant who took to his role as Kim Il Sung's heir apparent with gusto, fighting off any and all internal challenges to his absolute rule and, in his father's dying years, even trying to steer him away from reform and détente with the outside world. Many Koreans even believe the son had the father killed, and while there is little evidence for patricide or almost anything else that goes on behind the scenes in
One of Kim's former bodyguards is quoted as calling him "the richest man in the world," since there are really no limits on what the man can get away with. Anything the Dear Leader wants, he gets - the finest cognac, lavish palaces, luxury cars, beautiful women. If the country doesn't make it, it's imported, cost no object. And when he wanted a top South Korean film director and his actress wife to make movies just for him, he simply had them kidnapped.
The lucky few in Kim's inner circle are lavished with expensive gifts and rewards for their loyalty; the vast majority of North Koreans are told their nation needs absolutely nothing from the outside world, and when times are tough they're simply told to learn to eat less, or consume more "food substitutes" instead. In one of the book's most damning and infuriating chapters, Becker describes how hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of North Koreans starved to death, while the Dear Leader lived it up - and while the UN World Food Program was supposedly distributing tons upon tons of food to people who needed it. (Do we need even more evidence about the United Nations; inefficiency, corruption and incompetence? Considering how many of my fellow Canadians still believe the organization is the world's "moral conscience", I think we do.)
And then, of course, there is North Korea's nuclear program, supposedly stopped by a 1994 deal (brokered largely by Jimmy Carter) in which the West agreed to provide fuel, aid and even nuclear reactors to the DPRK in exchange for the country agreeing to play nice from there on out. It goes without saying that the North Koreans kept working on their weapons program in secret before the ink had dried - and it illustrates just how difficult, some would say impossible, it is to deal with a nation so hopelessly intransigent. Some reviewers have criticized Becker for not giving concrete solutions as to how the North Korean crisis can be resolved, but the sad fact is that there are no easy answers. Appeasement has failed miserably - but with the North Koreans openly threatening to turn
Aside from the flaw which permeates nearly all books about the most secretive state on earth - a heavy reliance on defectors' testimony, which in most cases cannot be corroborated - Rogue Regime only touches briefly on one of the most troubling and incomprehensible aspects of the North Korea issue: the fact that many South Koreans, despite decades of provocation and terror attacks from their Northern brethren, remain extremely positively disposed toward Kim and his regime.
Becker notes that Koreans are understandably bitter about their nation having been so arbitrarily divided after the Second World War; the Japanese aggressors, by contrast, got to keep their country whole. Meanwhile, feelings toward the thousands of American troops stationed in South Korea have grown steadily more negative over the years, for several reasons - their perceived support of the brutal dictatorship than ruled the country in the seventies and eighties, and incidents such as the killing of some young children just a few years ago, when they were struck by a U.S. military vehicle.
So why aren't most South Koreans simmering with rage toward North Korea, whose government has kidnapped dozens of South Korean civilians, blown up a Korean Air passenger jet and dozens of government officials and even a South Korean First Lady in brazen terror attacks? Nationalism is funny that way, and even after Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" of appeasement descended into farce, many young South Koreans simply do not want to believe their fellow Koreans can really be their enemy. Just like the Korean peninsula itself, the South Korean populace remains hopelessly divided, and the subject merits further examination.
But Rogue Regime is absolutely essential reading, along with Kang Chol-Hwan's gulag memoir
The Aquariums of Pyongyang
, for people who want to understand
Time Magazine. Saturday, May. 14, 2005
The Deadly Dictator
By Austin Ramzy
Kim Jong Il's idiosyncrasies can overshadow his atrociousness. With his bouffant hair, platform shoes, "pleasure groups" of attractive young women, and lusty appetite for fine wine and sushi, the North Korean dictator sometimes comes across more like a movie villain than a true menace. In Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea , veteran journalist Jasper Becker dutifully recounts the strange tales of Kim's extravagance. But the author is less concerned with the Dear Leader's personality quirks than with the murder and misery under Kim's brutal rule. To Becker, Kim Jong Il is not a cartoonish Dr. Evil�he's just evil.
That's an assessment he shares with the U.S. President. "After a succession of statesmen�Jiang Zemin, Vladimir Putin, Kim Dae Jung,
When it comes to monstrous crimes, the author knows his subject. His 1996 book
is the definitive account of
breaks less new ground. He retraces some familiar stories like the rise of
That sort of personal connection to the North Korean people animates the book. Becker challenges anyone he considers to be aiding and abetting their suffering. Former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with the North is denounced as a prop for Kim Jong Il's shaky regime.
But as Becker acknowledges, it's difficult to prevent starvation in a country where the paramount leader is unmoved by the suffering of his subjects. The author makes the case that the world should act against Kim, not simply because of his nuclear program, but because of what he's done to his own people. The only way to achieve any meaningful change, Becker asserts, is to remove Kim from power. "With the right political will," he writes, "the world could quickly agree on remedies to disarm a criminal state." Perhaps, but after years of trying, the best diplomatic efforts of the
The Korean War: An Exchange November 22, 2007
by Bruce Cumings, Francis M. Bator, reply by Richard Bernstein, Richard J. Bernstein
In response to:
Good War Gone Bad from the October 25, 2007 issue
To the Editors :
In the Korean War, Richard Bernstein writes, “the
The mistake, as Bernstein points out, lay in Truman’s failure to stop MacArthur’s heedless march north. Richard Neustadt recalled years later—speaking of General Marshall, Dean Acheson, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Omar Bradley—”No one went to [warn] Truman because everyone thought someone else should go.”
The point matters. George H.W. Bush won the first Gulf War. If only his son had understood that.
Francis M. Bator
To the Editors :
In his review of David Halberstam’s book on the Korean War, The Coldest Winter [ NYR , October 25], Richard Bernstein mentions the thesis “advanced in particular by Bruce Cumings” that Syngman Rhee or the South Korean military might have provoked Kim Il Sung’s attack in June 1950. In a long chapter entitled “Who Started the Korean War?” I examined just about every thesis on how the war started including this thesis, first advanced not by me but by I.F. Stone in his Hidden History of the Korean War . I used formerly secret archival documents in English and Korean (including a large captured North Korean archive) to conclude this chapter by saying that all the theses were wrong, because civil wars do not start, they come along after years or even decades of internecine conflict—as in Korea.
Because the top US commander in Korea had secretly told his superiors that South Korean military forces started the majority of fighting along the 38th parallel in 1949, with attacks from the South beginning in May and ending in December and with a near war in August, it was incumbent upon me to examine Stone’s thesis in any event. The South Korean commander of the parallel in the summer of 1949 was Kim Sok-won, a quisling who had chased after Kim Il Sung and other guerrillas in Manchuria in the 1930s, on behalf of the Japanese Kwantung Army—an army well known for provoking incidents, such as the one resulting in Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931. My main point, though, was that the commanders of the respective Korean armies had chosen different sides in the long anticolonial struggle against
David Halberstam and I spent an afternoon together before his tragic death, talking about this war, and his warmth and generosity did not hide the fact that he was entirely unaware of what might be found in an archive, apart from selected documents that came out after the
Richard Bernstein replies:
Professor Bator’s point about the similarity of the Korean War and the first Gulf War is well taken. But I was thinking of victory as it was defined in all of the country’s wars before
As for Professor Cumings, I have always taken his Origins of the Korean War as the main challenge to the conventional view of the Korean War, which is why I mention that challenge in my review of David Halberstam’s book, even though Halberstam himself doesn’t. Reading the chapter of his book that Professor Cumings refers to in his letter certainly left me with the strong impression that he believes the South Korean provocation to be the most credible of the possible explanations for the war’s origins, though none of the explanations can be conclusively proved. In any case, my point was to exonerate Halberstam for not revisiting Cumings’s lengthy thesis. It would have taken a book other than the one Halberstam wanted to write to do so. Many experts on Korea, by the way, accept the standard explanation for the war, that the North launched a large-scale invasion across the demarcation line—this contrary to Professor Cumings’s implication that anybody who fails to agree with him doesn’t know what he’s talking about.As for my comments on the Jasper Becker book, Professor Cumings seems to have chosen the route of personal insult, and that’s too bad. In my review—published in these pages more than half a year ago—I did cite an instance where I found Becker jumping to an unsupported and sensational conclusion. But when I checked other seemingly sensational assertions by Becker (for example, that Kim Jong Il flew in an Italian cook to make pizza for him when a million North Koreans were starving to death) I found them to be well documented. If I missed other errors that Becker made, I am at fault. But Professor Cumings doesn’t identify any of these errors. He just tells us that the book is a laughingstock. We have no more than his word for that.