- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 12, 2005


By Bradley K. Martin

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, $29.95, 868 pages, illus.


North Korea is a Potemkin country. The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has an airport without airplanes, roads without cars, streets without street signs or numbers. Pictures of the Great Leader, Dear Leader, and Great and Dear Leaders together before the Great Leader’s tragic and unexpected demise in 1994 festooned every room of every building. Slogans ran over elevators, above streets, down buildings, and even across billboards in fields outside of Pyongyang. Everyone in the capital wore a Kim Il-sung button, though people could pick from among a score of different poses: Freedom of choice reigned.

The North has changed since I visited in 1992, with some relaxation of economic and political controls. But the DPRK remains unique, an isolated communist monarchy where no fantasy is too ludicrous to be presented as reality. The most comprehensive and detailed look yet at the nation-sized theme park of KimWorld is Bradley Martin’s “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader.” Mr. Martin paints a portrait of a national horror show demonstrating how ruthless, effective and evil men can oppress their neighbors.

It is hard to imagine North Korea without seeing it. Explains Mr. Martin: “It gradually became apparent that this was a religion. To North Koreans, Kim Il-sung was more than just a leader. He showered his people with fatherly love. If I could believe what my ears were hearing he might even be immortal, able to provide his followers eternal life.” Alas, he could not: The Great Leader himself died. Indeed, Mr. Martin provides an oh-so-human account of Kim’s birth, upbringing, and grasp for power. It isn’t easy, since Pyongyang has created an elaborate sacred mythology involving Kim.

What brought Kim to power in the North was the Soviet Union, which sought a pliable local to rule once the peninsula was divided between U.S. and USSR. However, he proved to be a ruthless political infighter, quickly sidelining and eventually imprisoning or killing all rivals for power. He invaded the South with Joseph Stalin’s blessing and survived the ensuing military disaster after China intervened as the allies pushed the remnants of Kim’s army towards the Yalu.

The bloody debacle only made it more critical that Kim create the myth of the Great Leader. Mr. Martin’s history of Kim’s rule, and especially the rise of Kim Jong-il alone is quite interesting. But what makes “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader” so unique is its detailed description of life in the workers’ paradise, especially the fractious network of the two Kim’s siblings, spouses, concubines, children, step-kids, illegitimate offspring, war-time colleagues, and more. It reads like a medieval European court, the Ottoman sultanate or imperial China.

Mr. Martin displays his reportial skills, describing how dissent, failure and nonconformity are punished. At 868 pages, the book paints a vast canvas of what must be as close as possible to hell on earth, other than in the very midst of war.

People are exiled and demoted. People starve. People are imprisoned and beaten. People are murdered. People defect and their families are punished. No evil seems to be too extreme to commit in the name of lovingly caring for the People.

Capping the book is Mr. Martin’s attempt to assess Kim’s prospects for survival. The author notes: “anecdotal evidence continued to pile up, suggesting a breakthrough that had ended the regime’s stubborn resistance to major change.” Evidence of success remains mixed, however, since even seemingly significant reforms pale compared to the immense failures in a system built on dysfunction.

Mr. Martin advocates “an in-between policy that essentially meant simultaneously containing and engaging Pyongyang, giving Kim Jong-il a chance to show that negotiations could work to resolve the problem.” He ends on a slightly hopeful note.

Kim has been a human rights brute and economic incompetent, but he seems to have matured to some degree. The key to successful negotiations, Mr. Martin believes, is “the importance of maintaining face.” Thus he predicts that negotiated solutions to the United States’ and other countries’ problems with Kim should be possible. Kim could compromise if they also compromised and if they showed respect rather than hostile contempt.

Verification could be negotiated. Defector Hwang Jang Yop, who had almost nothing good to say about Kim, was skeptical when a Washington Times reporter asked whether the Dear Leader could be trusted to keep an agreement on nuclear weapons. But Mr. Hwang conceded, “People can change, and conditions can force a person to follow a certain path.” I wouldn’t bet much on Kim’s conversion, but everyone, South and North Korean, American and Chinese, Japanese and other, should hope that Mr. Martin is right. It’s hard to be optimistic, given the picture of North that he paints in his book. But if any country has suffered the circumstances that should force its leader to change, it is North Korea.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is co-author of the newly released The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (Palgrave/Macmillan) and the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (Cato Institute).

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