The World’s Most Repressive State

Thursday's Editorial   —   Posted on January 5, 2012

NOTE TO STUDENTS:  Before reading the commentary, define the words listed in question #1.

(by Melanie Kirkpatrick, The Wall Street Journal, WSJ.com) – A few minutes after the news of the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il flashed across computer screens on Sunday night–Monday morning on the Korean Peninsula–I received an email from a North Korean defector. The man, who is now living in Seoul and is a Christian, was exultant: “God blesses all of us,” he wrote. The defector’s sentiments will be shared by many, especially his long-suffering countrymen.

The best-known aspect of Kim Jong Il’s legacy is a nuclear North Korea. During his rule, which began in 1994 after the death of his father Kim Il Sung, the younger Kim accelerated the nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs initiated by the elder Kim. He went on to proliferate both technologies to Iran, which today would not be on the brink of being a nuclear power if it were not for his assistance.

Kim Jong Il will also be remembered as a master manipulator of the Western powers, especially the U.S. The history of the failed denuclearization agreements says it all. On Pyongyang’s part, it is a history marked by lies, broken promises, and clandestine programs. On the part of the U.S., the history is marked by gullibility and wishful thinking. North Korea’s path to developing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them would have been far more arduous had Bill Clinton and George W. Bush not accepted Kim Jong Il’s promises of future good behavior in return for economic benefits.

The late dictator leaves another legacy too: presiding over the world’s most repressive modern state. Kim Jong Il’s name belongs on the list of the most evil tyrants of our time.

President George W. Bush famously told journalist Bob Woodward, “I loathe Kim Jong Il,” a statement for which he was widely mocked in diplomatic and academic circles. Mr. Bush made this remark in 2002, when the world was just beginning to learn about the horrors of life in North Korea thanks to the testimonies of the few people who had escaped and reached safety in the free South.

In the decade since 2002, there has been a flood of escapees. From these men, women and children we have a glimpse of Kim’s human legacy: a brutalized and starving people, whose access to food is controlled by the state and dependent upon their perceived political reliability; the world’s most corrupt society, where the rule of law is nonexistent; and a gulag-like system of prison camps, where some 200,000 people are incarcerated, often with three generations of their families, for such “crimes” as listening to a foreign radio broadcast, reading a Bible, or disrespecting a portrait of Kim Jong Il or Kim Il Sung. Refugees frequently use the word “hell” to describe their country, and it is impossible to disagree.

Here are just two examples of Kim Jong Il’s reign of terror—one monumental in its impact on human suffering. First is the famine of the mid-to-late 1990s, which killed two million to three million North Koreans. This blood belongs on the hands of the dictator himself, who diverted resources to military programs rather than buy food for his hungry people, and who refused to introduce agricultural reforms that would make possible better and sustainable food production. He was only too willing to let millions of his countrymen die in order to pursue his nuclear ambitions.

The other example has to do with the defection, in 1997, of a high-ranking official, Hwang Jong-yop. Kim Jong Il’s initial response was to round up 3,000 of Hwang’s relatives—including people who had no idea they were related to the defector—and ship them off to the gulag. But his obsession with retribution did not stop at North Korea’s borders. He spent the next 13 years—until Hwang’s death from natural causes in 2010—dispatching a series of assassins to Seoul to attempt to murder him.

Kim’s personal eccentricities were legion [multiple; countless] – the ever-present boiler suit, the bouffant hair style, the elevator shoes. His personal appetites were legion too, akin to those of Nero or other famous hedonists of yore [the past]. In recent years, after his doctor reportedly ordered him to avoid his preferred cognac, he drank only Chateau Margaux, an expensive French Bordeaux. He was a great movie buff whose personal library was said to include thousands of films. In 1978, he arranged to have his favorite South Korean actress kidnapped from a beach in Hong Kong and brought to Pyongyang to star in North Korean movies.

There is one more notable aspect to Kim’s human legacy, and while it would be overly optimistic to make too much of it, it is nevertheless a hopeful one. In recent years, according to testimonies by refugees, more and more North Koreans have started to question Kim’s rule. The discontent doesn’t yet reach the level of organized dissent, but refugees report that there is a growing hatred of the Kim family dynasty. The hatred is more widespread than one would suppose in a state where most sources of information are controlled and where the regime propagates a cult of Kim family worship.

The hatred extends to Kim Jong Il’s son and announced successor, Kim Jong Eun. In recent months Kim Jong Eun is believed to have ordered a vicious crackdown on North Koreans who try to leave the country and on family members they leave behind. Recent roundups of people caught in possession of foreign DVDs, listening to foreign radio broadcasts, or using cell phones that can call outside the country are also laid at his feet.

None of this bodes well for the North Korean people in the near term. It looks like Kim Jong Eun can be counted on to do everything he can to perpetuate [continue] his father’s tyrannical [totalitarian] regime. In this, he will have the support and assistance of the elite ruling class, which benefits from the status quo.

In dealing with the new dictator of North Korea, however, the Western democracies would do well to reconsider the policies that failed to move the now-dead dictator. In this, they should heed the advice of the late Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and democrat.

In the last decade of his life, Havel took up the cause of the North Korean people and urged the world’s democracies to make respect for human rights an integral part of any discussions with Pyongyang. He wrote in 2004: “Decisiveness, perseverance and negotiations from a position of strength are the only things that Kim Jong Il and those like him understand.”

These qualities, absent from the West’s dealings with Kim Jong Il, deserve to be paramount in its dealings with his heir.

Ms. Kirkpatrick, a former deputy editor of the Journal’s editorial page, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Her book on North Koreans who escape and the people who help them will be published next year.

Published December 20, 2011 at The Wall Street Journal. Reprinted here January 5, 2012 for educational purposes only. Visit the website at wsj.com.

Questions

1.  Define the following words as used in the commentary:

-defector (from para. 1)
-proliferate (from para. 2)
-clandestine (para. 3)
-gullibility (para. 3)
-arduous (para. 3)
-sustainable (para. 7)
-eccentricities (para. 9)
-hedonists (para. 9)
-propagates (para. 10)
-elite (para. 12)
-status quo (para. 12)

2.  Ms. Kirkpatrick’s commentary is written on a higher reading level than the commentaries usually posted here.  This is a good challenge for you.  What is the main idea of this commentary?

3.  How was Kim Jong-il responsible for the death by starvation of 2-3 million of his own countrymen?

4.  Why were Presidents Clinton and Bush wrong in their dealings with North Korea, according to Ms. Kirkpatrick?

5.  How does Ms. Kirkpatrick recommend the U.S. deal with the North Korean government going forward?


Background

ON THE NORTH KOREAN GOVERNMENT: (from the CIA World FactBook)

  • An independent kingdom for much of its long history, Korea was occupied by Japan in 1905 following the Russo-Japanese War. Five years later, Japan formally annexed the entire peninsula. Following World War II, Korea was split with the northern half coming under Soviet-sponsored Communist domination.
  • After failing in the Korean War (1950-53) to conquer the U.S.-backed South Korea (Republic of Korea – ROK) by force, North Korea (DPRK), under its founder President Kim Il Sung, adopted a policy of ostensible diplomatic and economic “self-reliance” as a check against excessive Soviet or Communist Chinese influence.
  • North Korea demonized the U.S. as the ultimate threat to its social system through state-funded propaganda, and molded political, economic, and military policies around the core ideological objective of eventual unification of Korea under Pyongyang’s control.
  • Kim Il Sung’s son, [dictator] Kim Jong Il, was officially designated as his father’s successor in 1980, assuming a growing political and managerial role until the elder Kim’s death in 1994.
  • After decades of economic mismanagement and resource misallocation, North Korea since the mid-1990s has relied heavily on international aid to feed its population while continuing to expend resources to maintain an army of approximately 1 million. [Aid agencies estimate that a famine from 1995-1997 killed 2 million to 3 million North KoreansForeign food aid was given to North Korea, but the government distributed the majority of it to the military and party leaders.]
  • North Korea’s history of regional military provocations, proliferation of military-related items, and long-range missile development – as well as its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs and massive conventional armed forces – are of major concern to the international community. [Kim Jong-il was an oppressive dictator who required that his people call him “Dear Leader”]