Are we headed to a nuclear showdown with North Korea? Should we negotiate with Kim Jong Un, grandson of North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung, son of Kim Jong Il? What's the solution to prevent nuclear conflict?
Perhaps the first step is to try to understand the who, what, when, where and why of the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Gordon G. Chang's "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World" (Random House, 2006) was published when Kim Jong Il was still alive and president of the isolated and insulated country.
Chang's book opens with a quote from former Vice President Dan Quayle: "People that are really very weird can get into sensitive positions and have tremendous impact on history."
Although written more than 10 years ago, this book is still remarkably timely, and the years have helped temper Chang's perspective and conclusions. The history of the Korean Peninsula and the creation of the DPRK is particularly enlightening, as are his descriptions of the main characters in the real-life North Korean drama, beginning with the founder. Kim Il Sung developed a concept of socialism – more religion than philosophy, called Juche, ironically calling for self-reliance. He adopted aspects of Confucianism and Christianity and modeled a culture similar to pre-WWII Imperial Japan, according to Chang: "No stranger to the tale of Christ, he simply defied himself" and "appropriated elements of emperor worship from the Japanese."
"Kim Il Sung didn't know much about Marx or Hegel, but he understood the psychology of the Korean people, who were more in tune to medieval times than modern ones. For an ignorant, traditional, and abused citizenry, he harnessed the powerful force of nationalism, retained elements of feudal and Confucian society, and employed Leninist and Stalinist techniques of social mobilization and control. Like Hitler, he knew how to manipulate imagery and stir emotions. The society he created, while unfamiliar to the rest of us, made perfect sense to Koreans of that time because it fit in with their conception of the world. The charismatic Kim Il Sung exploited his people so well they did not feel oppressed."
|Cult of Kim: Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un|
The DPRK was created in the aftermath of World War II and expanded in the following decade out of what we Americans call the Korean War, "a stalemate from the weaker perspective but a victory in the eyes of North Koreans."
"Americans, of course, do not subscribe to the DPRK's version of history, yet Kim's fabrication, like all good ones, was formed around a tidbit of truth. The Korean was correct in believing he had dealt a setback to the United States in the war. He had, after all, managed to do something that even Uncle Joe Stalin had not accomplished: at the height of the power of the United States he had dented, if not destroyed, the aura of American military superiority. After a magnificent show of determination in Europe during the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and 1949. American resolve failed in the mountains of Korea in 1950 to 1953."North Korea calls that war the Great Fatherland Liberation War, started by the North to reunify the peninsula by force. In the next decade, America plunged headlong into another stalemate war: Vietnam. Chang reminds us of two "barbaric" acts of war committed by North Korea during the conflict in Vietnam, one under President Johnson's watch and the other under President Nixon's. Neither president retaliated.
"In January 1968 North Korea captured the USS Pueblo, a reconnaissance vessel, in international waters in the Sea of Japan. It was the first time that a U.S. Navy ship had been taken on the high seas in peacetime in over 150 years. One crew member was killed and several wounded during the seizure. And during the next eleven months, the North Koreans beat Pueblo crew members with lumber, burned them against radiators, and kicked out their teeth. Some sailors were crippled and others almost blinded. The Johnson administration issued an apology to obtain their release. In April 1969 the North Koreans shot down an unarmed Navy EC-121 reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the Sea of Japan. All thirty-one crew members were killed, resulting in the largest loss off U.S. servicemen in a single incident during the Cold War."Chang concludes, "Through mismanagement and inattention from the Korean War to today, Americans have allowed (the Kimist Regime) to become a grave threat." And North Korea's leaders embrace the idea of perpetual adversaries.
"Totalitarians need enemies in order to stay in power," Chang writes. "The paradox of power is that the most powerful are the most insecure." Nationalism does not equate to patriotism.
In "Nuclear Showdown" we read the history of Rodong and Taepodong missile development and testing, including the time when debris from a test landed in Alaska. Chang warns of North Korea's "power to put plutonium in the paradise of Hawaii."
We get an insight into the nuances of power based on the Kim family's relationship with the military elite and the "three economies" in North Korea: Palace, military and civilian. Guess which two get the most resources.
Chang also gives us a peek into the sad history of abduction of Japanese citizens such as 13-year-old Megumi Yokota by North Korean agents in the 70s and 80s and how DPRK has attempted to blackmail the former Soviet Union, China, Japan and the United States.
Zappa gets a chapter quote at the beginning of Chapter 3, "The Pygmalion of Pyongyang": "Without deviation progress is not possible."
Another Zappa quote, about the possibility of all-out nuclear war, is actually a found haiku:
There will never be
a nuclear war; there's too much
real estate involved
|Gordon G. Chang|
"So there must be a solution. It need not be American, unilateral, or military, but it needs to be near at hand. We can avoid the horror of armed struggle, but only if the world shows determination. And we have to confront reality. The old diplomatic stratagems no longer work. We cannot endlessly repeat them and expect a different result. Now, more than at any other time in history, we have to steel ourselves for war if we don't take great risks for peace."
|No walls: President Reagan makes his mark at the Berlin Wall in 1990.|
He recalls the famous proclamation to tear down the Berlin Wall – "tear it all down."
Reagan called for the wall to be brought down 24 years after President John F. Kennedy, former naval officer and World War II veteran, visited Berlin and called for freedom for all Germans and all people.
Chang ends his book with this Reagan quote: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."
Some more recent books on North Korea are worth a read, and I'm working through some of these in more depth:
"The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom" by Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), which also mentions the USS Pueblo incident as it describes the history of the "country of the three Kims." The authors say the United States should try to connect with the people of North Korea, working around the Kim regime as much as possible. According to the authors, there is "faint light at the end of the tunnel" as they present evidence that what people actually believe may not match the behavior they are forced to show in front of others, especially the authoritarian state. They show how the leader's credibility suffers over the years as promises are unfulfilled.
"My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth" by Wendy E. Simmons (RosettaBooks, 2015) is an off-beat collection of photos, insights and quotes from Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." Simmons's immunity from propaganda and manipulation, coupled with her self-aware commitment to children and exploration, makes this a fun book to flip through. Simmons managed to tour the country, go to schools, visit the DMZ and crash a wedding. (She said she got "stink eye" from the bride; see the cover of her book.) "All I know is what I saw, and in North Korea, seeing is not believing." Simmons sees hope in the eyes of children despite the lies, hate and fear they are taught, particularly what the people are told about Americans.
"All Monsters Must Die: An Excursion to North Korea" by Magnus Bartas & Fredrik Ekman (House of Anansi Press, 2011; translation from Swedish by Saskia Vogel, 2015) focuses on the abduction of Hong Kong filmmakers Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok by North Korea's Kim Jong Il, which they call one of many incidents from a list of crimes against humanity. Focusing on moviemaking, the authors show the integration of Korean and Japanese films, themes and concepts, with a fascinating exploration of Japan's Toho Studios and Eiji Tsuburaya, creator of Godzilla, Mothra, Booska and Ultraman. This book concludes with a mention of the United Nations 372-page report from the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK on depraved conditions in the North "carried out during the Kim clan's rule."
"The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project" by Robert S. Boynton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) is a fascinating book that delves deeper into the evil abduction of Megumi Yokota (and several other Japanese young people, including some from Europe). The authors touch on the bizarre tale of former Army Sgt. (busted down to Private) Charles Robert Jenkins, who while stationed in South Korea defected to the North during the Vietnam War and was paired with one of the Japanese abductees, Hitomi Soga. They had two daughters. Boynton is a good writer who studies politics, race and ethnicity, and makes this insight about how the concept of "race" has been used to alternately unite and divide Japan, Korea and China. "Though 'race' is a biological fiction, its power comes from the stories it enables us to tell about the differences between those over whom we feel superior and those to whom we feel inferior."