Neither Stalin nor Mao Tse-tung nor Adolf Hitler came close to George Orwell’s blueprint for a hierarchical world tyranny. The gold medalist in Orwell’s “1984” Hades-on-Earth sweepstakes, beyond Stalin’s wildest excesses, is diminutive Kim Jong-il whose Mao suits, elevator shoes and Elvis-style bouffant hair only enhance his wicked gnome-like figure.
Judging by the crates of French cognac and Scotch whisky shipped in via Japan, and Mercedes sedans with smoked windows, a handful of high-ranking Kim rogues live high on a starving hog. They had no compunction letting 2 million of their people starve to death in the 1990s.
Back in 1983, Kim Il-sung, picked personally by Stalin after World War II to rule the new Soviet puppet state, the Democratic Popular Republic of Korea, assigned his son Kim Jong-il to organize the liquidation of the South Korean government. The plot fell a little short of the objective. The terrorist bomb he organized to explode at Rangoon’s Martyr’s Mausoleum murdered only five South Korean ministers on a state visit to Burma and 15 of a lesser rank. President Chun survived.
In August 1976, North Korean soldiers, armed with pipes and axes, bludgeoned and hacked to death two American officers supervising the pruning of a 100-foot poplar tree in the Joint Security Area along the Demilitarized Zone. The “Ax Murder Incident” triggered the largest military build-up on the Korean Peninsula by the U.S. since the end of the Korean War in 1953. The USS Midway was deployed and fighter jets and bombers moved to South Korean bases from Okinawa.
Three days later, the U.S. retaliated with combat engineers, flanked by a company of infantrymen, and protected by AH-1 Cobra gunships, B-52 and F-111 bombers, who went in and cut the tree down. Suffering from acute paranoia about nonexistent U.S. plans for regime change, Pyongyang is prone to quickly escalate minor incidents.
For four years (1994-98), between 2 million and 3 million North Koreans died of starvation and hunger-related illnesses. Those caught attempting to escape across the Yalu River into China were executed at first and later confined to a Korean gulag for re-education. South Korea’s “sunshine policy” of aid and limited investment clearly failed to prevent, or even slow, the North’s nuclear weapons and missile delivery effort, culminating in a nuclear test.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — according to a South Korean executive who met for more than two hours late last year with Kim Jong-il — convinced the little dictator only a crash program to test a nuclear device would deter the U.S. from invading a charter member of President Bush’s “axis of evil.”
South Korea, China, Japan and Russia are firmly convinced North Korea would be more dangerous breaking up than as the world’s ninth nuclear power. Their principal fear is a total collapse of the regime, like Nicolae Ceaucescu’s Romania in 1989, that would touch off a stampede of millions heading south across the DMZ and north across the Yalu River. Reunification of the Korean Peninsula would easily outrun the staggering $1 trillion cost of German reunification. East Germany, unlike North Korea, had the infrastructure of a modern industrial state, albeit inferior to West Germany’s. The leftovers of Kim Jong-il’s totalitarian prison would be a wasteland with no infrastructure. Everything would have to be built from scratch.
It’s the vision of such a North Korean meltdown that makes China and South Korea reluctant to tighten the U.N.-approved sanctions screws. Seoul is groping for a hard-to-find balance between preserving key parts of its “Sunshine Policy” and accommodating U.S. pressure for pain that will be felt in Pyongyang.
Mr. Kim’s description of sanctions as “tantamount to a declaration of war” is designed to cause divisions in the U.N. Security Council’s united front. China has opted to simply glance at the contents of hundreds of trucks heading over the bridge into North Korea to make sure no military equipment is being smuggled. There was no proper search.
Pyongyang’s riposte to the U.N. resolution was to hasten preparations for a second nuclear explosion. U.S. plans to search North Korean ships on the high seas could easily lead to North Korea lobbing a few artillery shells or short-range missiles over the DMZ into South Korea. It could also cause widespread sabotage as it maintains sleeper cells all over South Korea. Direct U.S. retaliation with a few bombs dropped on North Korea’s nuclear facilities would probably be the next step.
Air strikes against North Korea, like air strikes against Iran’s nuclear installations, could quickly escalate into regional upheavals. Pyongyang has 11,000 artillery tubes and missile launchers just north of the DMZ capable of turning large sections of Seoul into rubble. China, whose army fought alongside North Korea’s against the U.S. a half-century ago, is still Pyongyang’s only foreign friend. Verbally at least, China would most probably side with the North while sitting out the fireworks.
As North Korea doubtless assesses the geopolitical equation, a second nuclear test would accelerate the diplomatic track that brings the Bush administration to conclude that direct talks with Pyongyang would be the better part of valor. But those favoring a hard line in Washington do not agree. They believe sanctions will bite. But what will they achieve? The world’s ninth nuclear power is not about to give it all up and return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Iran, soon to become the 10th nuclear power, is unlikely to jettison 20 years of secret efforts for a package of Western carrots. So either we learn to live with a North Korean and Iranian bomb — or we turn to pre-emptive air strikes to retard both programs by five to 10 years. In the light of what is rapidly becoming an Iraqi disaster, military options would seem to be few and far between.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.