Thursday, July 13, 2006

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (7/13/06)


Let's talk about North Korea. By all means let's talk about North Korea. Like Iran, it's a country with which we have had a troubled relationship for more than a half-century. It's also a country with which we have been without diplomatic representation for the same period of time. Technically, North Korea is still in a state of war with South Korea and the United States, yet we in America are abysmally ignorant of a country that still regards us as an enemy.

North Korea stirred up a peck of trouble recently by announcing that it would test an intercontinental ballistic missile dubbed the Taepodong. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice immediately warned that firing even one rocket would be seen as "a provocation." She added, "I can assure everyone that it would be taken with the utmost seriousness."

Japan cautioned that a missile falling on its territory would be regarded as an attack, but later softened that position. South Korea begged its northern neighbor "not to put a friend in danger" by firing a missile. The People's Republic of China called for everyone to remain calm, urging North Korea to back down from the launch and to return to the six-nation talks it has boycotted for a month.

On the Fourth of July, while America was shooting off fireworks and skyrockets in celebration of Independence Day, North Korea thumbed its nose at the concerned nations of the world by launching not one but seven missiles into the Sea of Japan. The United States response was to send a guided missile destroyer, the USS Mustin, to Japan. As it turned out, doing nothing was the best course, but what purpose did the bluff and bluster serve? Despite his chubby little body, Mao suits and bouffant hair, unpredictable President Kim Jong-il rules North Korea with an iron fist and is the most unfathomable ruler on the planet. And he now has the makings of one or more atomic bombs.

The Taepodong, the largest of the seven missiles, failed (or was purposely destroyed) after a flight of 40 seconds and fell into the Sea of Japan off the coast of South Korea. Administration spokespersons chortled at this failure, forgetting that during the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union would test a missile 20 times before considering it "operational." Duds were not uncommon.

In the past, whenever any country talked threateningly about its policies or actions, North Korea, which boasts a million-man army, did not hesitate to play its trump card by threatening to turn the Korean peninsula into a "sea of fire. Tens of thousands of artillery pieces and rockets are permanently aimed at Seoul and its population of 11 million, almost a quarter of the country's population. The teeming city is located about 25 miles below the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas--that's the distance between Wall Street in New York City and this part of Westchester. Also at risk would be the 35,000 American troops of the 8th U.S. Army under Lt. Gen. Charles C. Campbell, headquartered in Seoul at the Yongsan Army Garrison. Intercontinental ballistic missile or no intercontinental missile, the North Korean rockets and artillery pointing at Seoul are still in place.

Korea was occupied by Japan in 1905 following the Russo-Japanese War that ended so disastrously for the Tsar. After World War II, Korea was split in two. The northern half fell under Soviet-sponsored Communist domination as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Following its failure to conquer the U.S.-backed Republic of Korea in the southern portion of the peninsula, North Korea drew within itself and adopted a policy of diplomatic and economic "self-reliance" to counter Soviet and Chinese influence. Today, it is the most withdrawn nation on the planet with a barely functioning, centrally planned and virtually isolated economy.

Its neighbor to the south, on the other hand, is an Asiatic success story. After the end of the Korean War, South Korea achieved economic growth 14 times the level of North Korea. In 2004, it joined the exclusive trillion dollar club of world economies. Forty years before, its GDP was comparable to the poorest countries of Africa and Asia. Today, boasting an incredible record of growth and integration into the modern high tech world, South Korea's GDP is the equal of the lesser economies of Europe.

A geographic comparison of the two countries is revealing: With a population of 23.1 million, North Korea is slightly smaller than the state of Mississippi; South Korea, with a population of 48.9 million is slightly larger than Indiana.

North Korea has been anything but a good Far Eastern neighbor, being guilty of terrorist acts, such as brazenly abducting citizens of South Korea and Japan for intelligence purposes. In addition, North Korea engages in money laundering. It also counterfeits and circulates large quantities of high quality U.S. currency. According to The Economist, North Korea annually prints $100 million in fake high denomination bills.

In 1987, Korean Air Lines Flight 858 destined for Seoul exploded in flight between Abu Dhabi and Bangkok. All 11 crew members and 104 passengers were killed. A pair of North Korean agents, posing as father and daughter, boarded the KAL Boeing 707 at Baghdad and left a concealed bomb in an overhead bin when they disembarked at Abu Dhabi. When arrested later, the male agent killed himself with a cyanide pill; the female confessed and fingered Kim Jong-il--son of Korea's revolutionary founder and first president, Kim Il Sung--as the mastermind behind the bombing.

What makes Kim Jong-il tick? Foreign governments would love to know. After the death of his father, revered by North Koreans as a living god, Kim was named general secretary of the ruling Korean Workers' Party in 1987, a stepping stone to the presidency for which he had been groomed. His official biography--it's really a hagiography--claims he was born near Mt. Paetku in North Korea. At the moment he entered the world, a double rainbow formed over the mountain and a new star appeared in the night sky. The reality is that in 1942 Korea was in the hands of the Japanese. He was actually born in the small Siberian village of Vyatskoye, not far from Khabarovsk--but that hardly fits the legend. According to his biography, he is a superb horseman; he has a photographic memory; he made 11 holes in one the first time he played golf.

His lifestyle resembles that of a medieval prince. At a time when the average annual wage in North Korea is the equivalent of $900 and many North Koreans subsist on a diet of grass, he has a gargantuan appetite for fine food and drink. He reputedly spends $650,000 annually for French brandy. He shares with Adolf Hitler a love of movies; his library contains 20,000 films. He also keeps a stable of young women, some from other countries, called the Pleasure Brigade. In the meantime, uncounted millions of North Koreans have died of starvation resulting from a combination of a failed economy and failed crops.

What to do about this rogue and his rogue nation? Economic sanctions imposed by the West can have little impact on an economy as isolated as North Korea's. China and South Korea, both of which have kept North Korea afloat, look with disfavor on any attempt to put the squeeze on North Korea economically. The fear is that should Kim Jong-il's house-of-cards regime topple, it would spread chaos throughout the entire Korean Peninsula. Millions of hungry North Koreans would stream into China. Pressure from Beijing may yet make the mad dictator see the error of his ways. In the meantime, talk is not only cheap, but for all parties it is still the best option.


AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Comments: Post a Comment | Postscripts Homepage

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?