What happens when a dictator wins absolute power and isolates a nation from the outside world? In a nightmare of political theory stretched to madness and come to life, North Korea 's Kim Jong Il made himself into a living god, surrounded by lies and flattery and beyond criticism. As over two million of his subjects starved to death, Kim Jong Il roamed between palaces staffed by beautiful girls and stocked with expensive international delicacies. Outside, the steel mills shut down, the trains stopped running, the power went out, and the hospitals ran out of medicine. When the population threatened to revolt, Kim imposed a reign of terror, deceived the United Nations, and plundered the country's dwindling resources to become a nuclear power. Now this tiny bankrupt nation is using her nuclear capability to blackmail the United States .
Veteran correspondent Jasper Becker takes us inside one of the most secretive countries in the world, exposing the internal chaos, blind faith, rampant corruption, and terrifying cruelty of its rulers. Becker details the vain efforts to change North Korea by actors inside and outside the country and the dangers this highly volatile country continues to pose. This unique land, ruled by one family's megalomania and paranoia, seems destined to survive and linger on, a menace to its own people and to the rest of the world. But should the nations of the world allow this regime to survive? That's the question with which this book concludes

Extracts of Book Reviews

Becker makes a powerful case for defining Kim once and for all--not as an ordinary, if nuclear-tipped, dictator, but as an extraordinarily skillful tyrant presiding over the worst man-made catastrophe in modern history.... A highly readable narrative that unearths Kim's history, probes his decision-making style and details the grotesque consequences of those decisions. His book is a subtle plea to the world to expand its focus beyond the--admittedly important--nuclear issue to the vast humanitarian catastrophe unfolding under Kim Jong Il's gaze."-- Joshua Kurlantzick , New York Times Book Review

"A very timely book.... Not for the faint-hearted. Mr. Becker takes an unblinking look at a dark regime that has made North Korea an international pariah, has elevated its rulers to the status of gods, and through torture and indoctrination reduced its subjects to virtual slaves.... The facts almost defy belief."--William Grimes, The New York Times

"A good new look at North Korea ."--Nicholas Kristof, The New York Observer

"One of the few reporters to have firsthand experience of North Korea, veteran Asian correspondent Becker adds more nuance to a familiar story that the threat of nuclear arms, as well as the world's fifth largest standing army, are part of an attempt to force the rest of the globe to cater to a mad leader's megalomaniacal world.... Images of this grim state of affairs--which goes well beyond the Orwellian into the Kafkaesque--have been smuggled out over the past few years; how they came to be is described with rare concision by Becker.... Becker minces no words in warning that we may now have no way out of a monstrous situation."--Publishers Weekly

"Really is required reading. Becker, one of the few Western reporters to spend time in the Stalinist state, details the megalomania of Kim Jong Il--who staffed his palaces with the country's most beautiful women--and the madness of his regime, under which 2 million Koreans have reportedly died of starvation."-- New York Post

"Jasper Becker is already known as one of the sharpest observers of contemporary China --and with Rogue Regime he immediately establishes himself as a premier observer, and critic, of Kim Jong Il's North Korea . Readers of this devastating book will be hard pressed to gainsay Becker's assertion that this dynastic dictatorship genuinely empowers evil--or to turn away from Becker's conclusion that only regime change is likely to bring a better life to the millions of ordinary North Koreans suffering under the Dear Leader's rule."--Nicholas Eberstadt, Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy, The American Enterprise Institute

"By giving us an engrossing and well-documented examination of the North Korean regime, Becker proves that Kim Jong Il is in a category of tyranny all on his own and that engagement and appeasement only strengthen him. If you care at all about the slow and certain genocide of the North Korean people, he makes a powerful case for why regime change is the only answer." --Suzanne Scholte, President, Defense Forum Foundation

"Jasper Becker has warned us about North Korea , as a journalist with a sharp eye and an historian with perspective. North Korea with its bizarre cult of personality, its failed economy, its crackpot ideology and its relentless pursuit of weapons of mass destruction is a major challenge in the twenty-first century. The reader will learn of the cunning control freaks who run the country. Becker's convincing book will make the task of the apologists for North Korea that much more difficult." --James Lilley, Former American Ambassador to South Korea and China

"Rogue Regime is the companion work to Jasper Becker's Hungry Ghosts , his earlier, well-documented account of 30 million famine deaths in Mao's China. Once again he pulls back a heavy veil of secrecy and reveals the immense suffering of the people of North Korea ." --Dean Hirsch, President, World Vision International

A tough but even-handed treatment of the subject."--Andrew Scobell for Parameters


A gulag with nukes: inside North Korea

Article for Open Democracy

Jasper Becker, 18 July 2005

Behind its rhetoric of anti-imperialist defiance the Pyongyang elite starves and enslaves its people. Jasper Becker talks to North Korean escapees who offer chilling testimony of Kim Jong Il’s world of luxury and fear.

The Chinese shopkeeper gave a triumphant yell when he spotted a ragged figure bent double and stumbling about the garbage that had cascaded from a hilltop. I plunged after him through the deep snow. When I caught up with him, he was shouting and grinning at his successful catch.

As he fished around his pocket to pull out some plastic twine, a face black with dirt and scabrous with pellagra shrunk back into the shadows of a hood made from grey sackcloth like a medieval leper. The creature whimpered feebly but put up no resistance as the shopkeeper bound the twine around her hands. I now found myself bargaining for the life of a woman I guessed to be around 50.

She turned out to be 28. She had been a worker in Hamhung , North Korea ’s second largest industrial city. All the factories had closed. Her husband had disappeared and she was left with no rations to try to look after her 5-year old. “Without work, you get no food”, she said.

After some haggling, I managed to buy her life for 200 yuan (around £13 or $20). This was 1997, at the height of the North Korean famine when 3 million out of 22 million perished in (proportionately) the worst man-made famine ever recorded in peacetime. To call her or the hundreds of thousands like her “refugees” is a misnomer; they are escapees from the last slave society left in the world.

Eight years on, the North Koreans are still starving and the west still does not know how to deal with their “dear leader”, Kim Jong Il – who inherited the state leadership from his father, “great leader” Kim Il Sung, in 1994. Washington ’s elite remains deeply divided about whether it is wiser to appease or confront him.

Kim has agreed to return to the six-party nuclear talks (involving Russia , China , Japan , North Korea , South Korea and the United States ) he abandoned a year ago; the talks resume in Beijing on 26 July 2005.

At the last showdown in 2002, the Bush administration put its trust in China , which in turn promised to force North Korea to the negotiating table and make it give up its nuclear weapons. China has let Bush down, and for a very clear reason – it is part of the problem. Every year, China forcibly sends back across the border 25,000 North Korean escapees, many of whom are then shot or imprisoned in death camps.

China claims they are all “economic migrants” and forbids the United Nations High Commission for Refugees from opening camps and processing claims for political asylum. China is determined to prevent its vassal from collapsing, East Germany-style; its support for North Korea is part of a pattern that has seen it give uncritical support to regimes like Pol Pot’s Cambodia and, more recently, the Darfur-oppressing Islamist junta in Sudan and Islam Karimov’s Uzbekistan.

The court of Kim Jong Il

When, one day, the Kim Jong Il regime falls and the mass graves open up in North Korea , the United Nations will get the blame. The World Food Programme has run the largest and longest emergency food programme in its history. It boasts that it averted a great famine in the late 1990s, and that by careful monitoring, it is now protecting the neediest members of society.

The trouble is that when North Koreans are free to speak, they tell a very different story. In Seoul in June 2005, I met Choi Seung-cheol, who saw thousands of emaciated bodies arriving at the hospital in Chongjin where he worked as a doctor. This industrial port on the east coast was one of the first to receive international aid, but he reckoned that over 200,000 died there. At the hospital, they worked without any medical supplies because 90% of the foreign aid was confiscated.

“They kept everything for themselves”, he said. He and many others I interviewed believe that billions of dollars in foreign aid has been diverted, partly to fund the northern state’s weapons programmes and partly to finance Kim Jong Il’s luxurious daily routine.

South Korea’s defence ministry estimates that Kim spent $400 million in 1997-2002 buying second-hand MiG fighter jets, submarine parts, helicopters, and engines for tanks and ships. His troops are equipped with mini-underwater submarines launched from disguised fishing vessels, specially adapted hovercrafts, light planes and a defence industry hidden inside mountains which builds ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons and chemical gases in subterranean factories and research laboratories.

The costliest part of it all is the nuclear-weapons programmes, much of which Kim has probably been able to hide as effectively as the Iranians have hidden theirs from United Nations inspectors. This is in addition to an intercontinental ballistic missile programme whose scope caught every one by surprise on 31 August 1998 when Kim fired a rocket which flew over Japan.

The stories told about the extravagance of Kim Jong-Il’s lifestyle are so lurid that at first they seem hard to believe. A number of former cooks, including an Italian and a Japanese sushi chef, have described in detail his gourmet obsessions. One chef published a book in Japan under the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto; at the very time people were starving in their millions, he travelled to Iran and Uzbekistan to buy caviar, to China for melons and grapes, to Thailand and Malaysia for durians and papayas, to the Czech Republic for Pilsner beer, to Denmark for bacon, and (regularly) to Japan for tuna and other fresh fish.

When I tracked down a member of one of Kim’s “happiness teams” of dancers and masseuses in Seoul , I asked her if these tales could be true. O Yong-hui, a petite slender woman with a pale porcelain complexion and almond eyes started out as a professional gymnast until she was recruited to join one of the four all-girl dance troupes. She is now 33.

She described how, on joining Kim’s court, she was given handmade Italian shoes, Japanese designer clothes (Yamoto, Kenzo, Mori) and an Omega watch inscribed with Kim Jong Il’s name. A check of Swiss trade statistics shows that in 1998, North Korea did indeed import $2.7 million’s worth of luxury watches.

At breakfast she enjoyed French croissants, fresh yoghurt and imported fruits because Kim said they must have clear and healthy skins. At lunch there was fresh raw fish, Japanese-style, and at dinner Korean or western dishes.

“We ate off porcelain dishes inlaid with roses and used silver tableware. Everything was imported. Nothing I have ever seen in South Korea is as good”, she said. When her five years was up – no girls stay longer – she decided to flee with her husband, a former bodyguard.

I double-checked their stories with an ex-bodyguard, Lee Young-guk who observed Kim at close quarters during eleven years of service.

“In a real sense, he is the richest man in the world. There are no limits on what he can do”, Lee said. “He has at least ten palaces set in sprawling grounds and insists each is always occupied by thousands of staff so his enemies are never sure where he is. They contain golf courses, stables for his horses, garages full of motor-bikes and luxury cars, shooting-ranges, swimming pools, cinemas, funfair parks, water-jet bikes and hunting grounds stocked with wild deer and duck.”

A big bulky man in a blue suit, Lee reached down below the coffee table, and showed me shins covered by a mass of blue scars. When Lee Young-guk returned to his home to find everyone starving, he decided to escape; but North Korean agents masquerading as South Koreans caught him in China . His strong physique and years of harsh training helped him survived the torture, and he escaped again.

Lee says that Kim Jong Il fears an uprising like the one that overthrew Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania . In the face of several abortive army rebellions, he relies on a crack force of around 100,000 men, the equivalent of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard.

After the Soviet bloc’s collapse and the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war of 1991, Kim took ever-greater internal security measures. He expanded the secret police, creating three duplicate layers of surveillance. No one in the elite could go anywhere or meet anyone without first obtaining his permission.

After the United States tried to “decapitate” Saddam Hussein in the second Iraq war of 2003, he disappeared for four months and moved around Pyongyang using a series of tunnels that connect all key buildings and were designed to withstand a nuclear attack.

A gulag with nukes

When Madeleine Albright, then US secretary of state, travelled to Pyongyang to meet Kim in 2000 and arrange a summit with President Clinton, she was told he was reclusive, even delusional – a weak, cautious man hampered by a stammer who lived in the shadow of his father Kim Il Sung. She found instead, she reported, a charming if eccentric man who seemed reassuringly rational.

If indeed Washington can do business with Kim Jong Il, he would first have to be absolved from any responsibility for his crimes against humanity. The United Nations, anxious to continue operating in the north, has led the way by officially blaming “temporary” food shortages on bad weather and the loss of Soviet aid after 1990.

But you only have to meet North Koreans to see compelling evidence of malnutrition that began twenty years ago. I met kids on the border who claimed to be 19 or 22; they had the physiques of 10-year-olds.

Lee Min-bok is a refugee in Seoul , an agricultural expert. Kim Jong Il told his father in 1982 that the country had reaped a record harvest of fifteen million tons of grain – double the true figure. Under Kim Jong Il, lying became so endemic that it destroyed the planned economy.

Everyone learned how to please the “dear leader”; all you had to do was lie. People started to cheat by making false reports. By the mid-1980s, the country was running short of a million tons of grain every year, enough to feed 3 million people. Lee Min-bok first saw people dying of hunger in 1988, in North Korea’s northeast, seven years before the country appealed for international aid.

Lee Min-bok’s research proved that the country could feed itself if it embraced Chinese-style agricultural reforms. Kim Jong-Il refused to consider any reform and Lee, fearing for his life, decided to flee.

Those who doubt (or are even suspected of doubting) Kim’s fantasy world are sent to places like Camp 22. Ahn Myong-chol, now a banker in Seoul , spent a decade working as a guard in various camps. He can still recall the shock – “like a hammer” – on first seeing dwarf-like creatures milling about in filthy rags.

“They were walking skeletons of skin and bone, with faces covered in cuts and scars where they had been beaten. Most had no ears; they had been torn off in beatings. Many had lost a leg and hobbled about on crude crutches or sticks”, Ahn remembers.

Ahn was told not to consider the prisoners human beings. They were killed casually for the slightest infractions, often in gruesome ways – buried alive, dragged behind jeeps, hung or shot, garrotted or burned alive. The rest were worked to death in mines or building secret tunnels for the military, or given lethal jobs like testing chemical weapons.

“Anyone suspected of disloyalty ended up in the camps”, he said. Kim Il-sung had purged opponents by the trainload, but his son nearly doubled the number of political prisoners. Whole families would be arrested, and sent to prison camps without trial and without even knowing their crime.

Kang Chol-hwan describes his camp childhood in his book The Aquariums of Pyongyang. When President Bush invited him to the White House, Pyongyang reacted furiously, calling Kang “human trash” and threatening the United States with a refusal to consider further talks if it continued to “insult” North Korea.

The New York Times and the rest of liberal America wants Bush to start serious negotiations and stop calling Kim Jong Il names. President Bush is certain to ignore this advice. As the Beijing six-party talks prepare to reconvene on 26 July, the stage is set for a new showdown on the Korean peninsula.


Kimworld: Inside the North Korean slave state.

by Ian Buruma August 22, 2005  

The charm of dictators has been known to reduce the hardest men to jelly. I remember a tough-minded Japanese photographer returning from Pyongyang in the nineteen-seventies still aglow from the experience of Kim Il Sung's “warm handshake.” Similar reports have come from some of those allowed into Hitler's mesmerizing presence: warm handshakes and piercing eyes appear to go with the position.

Bradley K. Martin, whose “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty” (St. Martin's; $29.95) is the heaviest tome to appear in English on the subject, has spent decades penetrating the mysteries of North Korea . He paints a grim picture in exhaustive detail, backed by many first-person accounts. But, though he is no apologist, he is perhaps fair to a fault. “There might be two sides to the story,” he cautions. Kim Il Sung possessed “considerable personal charm that only increased with age and experience.” The same goes for his son: “I would describe him as an often insensitive and brutal despot who had another side that was generous and—increasingly as he matured—charming.”

Since North Korea is such an isolated and secretive place—the Bhutan of Stalinism—hard facts are not easy to come by. But we know a few things. To begin with, Kim Il Sung, whom the Soviets installed as head of state in 1945, was responsible for starting the Korean War, which may have caused as many as a million civilian deaths. In addition to the toll exacted in the North by American bombing raids, many civilians were massacred by the Communists for ideological reasons. After the Korean War ended in the ruin of his country, Kim Il Sung, to deflect the blame, had tens of thousands of people purged, sending many to prison or hard-labor camps. Christians and Buddhists who had not already fled to the South were persecuted in large numbers, and many were killed. To cleanse his own ranks of possible rivals, Kim had many of his most intimate and loyal associates arrested and tortured. As Jasper Becker notes in “Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea” ( Oxford ; $28), four hundred and fifty thousand out of six hundred thousand Party members were investigated and punished for “violating Party rules.” The Great Leader's policy, to be memorized by prison guards, was that anyone who opposed, or could conceivably be opposed to, Kim's absolute rule would be singled out for “eradication.”

By the time Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader, took over from his father as the absolute ruler of North Korea, the country was a slave society, where only the most trusted caste of people were allowed to live in sullen obedience in Pyongyang, while vast numbers of potential class enemies were worked to death in mines and hard-labor camps. After Kim Il Sung's death, in 1994, the regime suspended executions for a month, and throughout the following year it committed relatively few killings. Since this was at the height of a famine, largely brought on by disastrous agricultural policies, hundreds of thousands were already dying from hunger. Then word spread that Kim Jong Il wished to “hear the sound of gunshots again.” Starving people were shot for stealing a couple of eggs.

North Korea in the nineteen-nineties was, in Martin's somewhat peculiar choice of phrase, “a nightmare by human-rights standards.” Farmers were not allowed to relieve their hunger by growing their own food and selling it, for, Kim observed, “Telling people to solve the food problems on their own only increases the number of farmers markets and peddlers. In addition, this creates egoism among people, and the basis of the Party's class may come to collapse.” If things were bad in “normal” life, the conditions in the vast North Korean gulag are difficult to imagine. Even here Martin's struggles for “balance” come across as slightly otiose: “While more and more inmates died as a result of malnutrition, the political prison camps continued to be run more as slave-labor and slow death camps than as instant death camps. It may seem a small distinction, but it shows that in this regard at least Kim Jong Il was no Hitler.”

Jasper Becker is less inclined to make these fine distinctions. As a result, his book, though much slighter and less detailed than Martin's, is the more intelligent. Becker wrote the classic book “Hungry Ghosts,” about Mao Zedong's man-made famine in China , and has interviewed many Korean refugees who managed to stumble across the Chinese border. The highest-ranking defector from the North was a man named Hwang Jang-yop, Kim Il Sung's chief ideologue, and both Martin and Becker rely heavily on his accounts. According to Hwang, about a million people starved to death in 1996 alone.

Kim Jong Il, meanwhile, was ferried about in his fleet of Mercedes-Benzes, from one grand palace to another, where Chinese, Japanese, French, Russian, and Korean food was always available for feasts that sometimes went on for days. One of the more mouthwatering accounts of life in Kim's court is by his former Japanese chef, a man who later took on the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto, whose duties included special trips to Iran to buy caviar, to Denmark for bacon, to Japan for the best cuts of tuna. We know from Fujimoto's book, “Kim Jong Il 's Cook—I Saw His Naked Body,” that Kim was an avid consumer of fine French wines and Hennessy X.O cognac.

Kim Jong Il's other needs were met by large numbers of carefully selected young women, assigned to their special tasks. There were masseuses and girls trained to cater to the Leader's specific sexual demands, and there were singers and dancers. (“Eat your heart out, Hugh Hefner,” is Martin's oddly jocular interjection.) On one occasion, according to Hwang, Kim punished his guests, all high Party officials, for not applauding enough after a dance performance. On another, recounted by the Japanese chef, he ordered the girls to strip naked and dance with his guests. Anyone who dared touch one of Kim's private dancers, however, would be regarded as a thief. According to Hwang, one of Kim's secretaries went home after a night of drinking and told his wife about the Dear Leader's debauchery. She wrote an earnest letter to Kim's father, asking how a man who led such an immoral life could safeguard the happiness of his people. She was arrested and led to a palace where Kim Jong Il was carousing. Kim ordered her to be killed as a counter-revolutionary, but as a special favor allowed her husband to shoot her on the spot.

Even if we follow Martin's advice and refrain from demonizing the Kims, we might be excused for dismissing their moments of charm as an irrelevance. Martin's notion that “people could still muster loyalty for the elder Kim” because “he came across as an engaging figure” is politically naïve. A warm handshake will not explain why an entire people submitted to his whims.

All tyrants are alike, no doubt, but tyranny comes in different forms, and the North Korean variety is an extraordinarily vicious blend of Western and East Asian influences. On such matters, Martin provides far more detail, including long transcripts of interviews with refugees and defectors, but, again, Becker is more incisive. The political component, a mixture of Stalinism and strict neo-Confucianism (with its stress on obedience to authority), is perhaps less complicated than the religious aspects. The Kims' behavior recalls that of such Roman despots as Nero and Caligula, who revelled in their power. In Pyongyang , this often involves a sinister form of practical joking: turning top officials against one another and watching the results on hidden television monitors; or taking other men's wives as mistresses and, when finished with them, forcing the women to remarry men picked on a whim. As Auden ventured in a discussion of Iago, practical joking is always a way of playing God.

The religious cult around the Kims goes further, however; they really are worshipped as divinities, in a peculiarly Korean mixture of native animism and pseudo-Christianity. Martin writes about the Party congress of 1980, when Kim Jong Il, then still the young dauphin, was elected to the five-person presidium of the politburo. The Party newspaper, in a pre-Christmas editorial, offered the Kims as a replacement for the Father and Son in the Holy Trinity. “People of the world, if you are looking for miracles, come to Korea !” it went on. “Christians, do not go to Jerusalem . Come rather to Korea ! Do not believe in God. Believe in the great man.” After the son's ascent to the presidium, the newspaper reported, there was “an explosion of our people's joy, looking up at the star of guidance shining together with the benevolent sun.”

Even though Kim Il Sung had stamped out all independent religious activity in North Korea , the Christian influence is visible in the Kim cult. Apart from the Philippines , Korea has long been the most Christianized country in Asia . In the South, about thirty per cent still belong to various Christian denominations, not including all the followers of pseudo-Christian evangelists, of whom there is a rich variety. Unlike Filipinos, however, the Koreans were originally converted not by Western conquerors but by missionaries, many of whom were Korean themselves. The attraction of Christianity may have been partly political, a means of resisting both the Korean gentry and alien oppressors, especially the Japanese, who ruled Korea between 1910 and 1945. Like the Poles and the Irish, many Koreans believed that the church would help deliver their country from foreign domination.

A model for this mixture of nationalism, social protest, and Christianity was the Taiping Rebellion, in mid-nineteenth-century China . A young scholar named Hong Xiuquan believed that he was Christ's younger brother, whose God-given mission was to destroy the demonic Manchu rulers and establish a heavenly kingdom on earth. His failure, after fourteen years of struggle, cost more than twenty million lives. In Korea , at about the same time, the Eastern Learning (Donghak) school was founded by a Korean mystic named Choe Che-u, who believed he had received divine instruction to deliver the world from evil; his followers rebelled against the government, and later against “Japanese dwarfs and Western barbarians.” This uprising, too, ended in a costly defeat, but the vision of Korea as the cradle of a new utopia remained.

Kim Il Sung, the son of pious Christians, was a great admirer of the Eastern Learning school. Like Hong Xiuquan, Choe Che-u, and, indeed, Chairman Mao, Kim Il Sung wanted to be seen as a messiah and not just a Stalinist dictator. Becker convincingly places the Kim cult in a Sino-Korean tradition of millenarian priest-kings, autocratic sages, and holy saviors. It's a tradition in which the source of power is also the source of virtue, spiritual wisdom, and truth—hence the total intolerance of any heterodoxy or dissent. The same idea prevails, in a milder form, in South Korean, and Japanese, corporate life, where workers must learn the “philosophies” of their company founders. It has also spawned such cults as the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church .

Animism is perhaps an even more important ingredient than Christianity in the spiritual and ideological mélange of Kim worship. Kim Jong Il was born in 1941 or 1942 in Siberia , where his father served in the Soviet Army. But the myth is very different: in North Korea 's official histories he was born in a log cabin on Mt. Paektu , the country's most sacred mountain, the place where the Korean people's divine ancestor, the son of a sky god and a bear, was born, more than four thousand years ago. Kim Jong Il, the reincarnation of the divine bear-man, as it were, could not have come into this world on a more auspicious spot. Before his sacred birth, a double rainbow was seen, and the sky was lit up by a shining star.

Myths and legends are scarcely unique to North Korean politics. What makes the Kim cult especially disturbing—but also appealing to many Korean nationalists, even some of those living in the South—is its xenophobia. Koreans, having endured centuries of foreign domination, often use two phrases to describe their “national character”: han, impotent rage that can be relieved only by collective action, and sadaechuui, the habit of pandering to foreigners. The Korean élites have tended to fall into warring factions, often allied to different foreign powers. To cover up the fact that Kim Il Sung served in both Chinese and Soviet armies during the Second World War, and was put in charge of North Korea by his Soviet minders, the Kim cult is quick to denounce its enemies, especially in South Korea, as “flunkies.” And han—directed at Americans, Japanese, and South Koreans, as well as all “class enemies” or “factionalists” at home—is the abiding sentiment in North Korean propaganda.

Kim Il Sung's most famous motto, juche—self-reliance—must be understood in this light. Juche is an often paranoid fear of dependence on others. The fact that North Korea was highly dependent on stronger Communist powers had to be obscured. The combination of proud isolationism, as an official attitude, with de-facto reliance on China and the Soviet Union has proved disastrous, not least for the North Korean economy, which has been in a state of collapse since the demise of the latter and the capitalist course set by the former. North Korea cannot survive on its own, but it cannot open up, either.

And yet there are people for whom the North Korean regime has not entirely lost its prestige. One can forgive those romantic radicals in the South for admiring the idea of Korean self-reliance, even if it was based on a fiction. Harder to excuse are the nostalgic members of failed Eastern European and Third World utopias who have made pilgrimages to Pyongyang to relive the good old days. When I visited the city in 1996, I saw a group of plump East Germans being picked up by great black limousines that were driven right onto the station platform so that they wouldn't get their shoes dusty.

There is also the residue of old socialist dreaming. Bradley Martin quotes a British visitor named Andrew Holloway, who found the “secure and cheerful existence and the comradeship” of the “average” citizen “moving to behold.” Despite having written a long book cataloguing torture, famine, and mass murder, Martin approvingly notes that readers of Holloway's account “not consumed with knee-jerk loathing for socialism might be hard-pressed to adjudge as evil beyond redemption a society so apparently successful in inculcating values such as kindness and modesty.” My own impression, reinforced by Martin's book, is that North Koreans behave pretty much like all people forced to fight for bare survival: kindness is a dangerous luxury. Far from inculcating gentle behavior, the regime rewards brutality and crushes decency. Anyone caught trying to help a “class enemy,” after all, is liable to disappear into the camps.

What to do about Kim Jong Il and his murderous regime? Direct military confrontation is not an appealing option. Kim, although bound to lose a war against better-fed, better-led, and better-equipped American and South Korean troops, has enough artillery, missiles, chemical weapons, and, quite possibly, nuclear bombs to carry out the threat of turning the South Korean capital, Seoul, into a “sea of flames.” He has up to a million men in uniform, a dozen chemical-weapons factories, and about a hundred thousand special-operations forces ready to be unleashed. Nor is he likely to get rid of these weapons, for the threat of mass killing is all that he has to bargain with, and is probably the only means of insuring his personal survival. Richard Perle, quoted in Becker's book, maintains that the threat of U.S. military force will push the Chinese to “bring the North Koreans to heel.” It's true that China supplies the state with most of its fuel and food. But it benefits from having a Communist buffer state, and fears the consequences of North Korea 's collapse—not least a stampede of refugees. Indeed, in the two years since the regime served notice of its nuclear-weapons program, trade between China and Korea has doubled, to $1.4 billion.

The usual alternative to military action is “engagement.” This was the favored tactic of the Clinton Administration and of South Korea 's last two Presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. During the eighties, South Korea 's expanding and increasingly prosperous middle class had broken the back of military authoritarianism. Kim Dae-jung, a longtime dissident, was a key figure in this democratic transformation, and he might have hoped to achieve the same in the North. His so-called Sunshine Policy was designed to winkle the North out of its failed autarky by offering business opportunities, a railway link, and large amounts of cash. Kim Jong Il himself pocketed a secret gift of five hundred million dollars from the Hyundai corporation just before agreeing to grant Kim Dae-jung an audience in Pyongyang . (Hyundai was allowed to build a fortified holiday resort just across the border for South Korean tourists, who are prevented from meeting any locals.) Much else was promised at the meeting of the two Kims in 2000; little so far has materialized. But then the South Koreans, like the Chinese, are essentially committed to sustaining and stabilizing their neighbor; they fear the chaos and the expense if the North should implode (let alone explode). Accordingly, Seoul dramatically increased its trade with the North this year, even after diplomatic talks with Kim Jong Il faltered. In one recent poll, forty per cent of South Koreans named the United States as the country that posed the biggest threat to them; only a third named North Korea .

Meanwhile, there are enough carpetbaggers around the Korean Peninsula to encourage this notion of capitalist seduction. Among the more striking suggestions is one from Jean-Jacques Grauhar, the secretary-general of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in Seoul , who urged Club Med to open a resort in North Korea . He told Martin that changing the system “shouldn't be the objective of foreign investors.” The objective, it would seem, is to make money out of vacationing foreigners while Koreans starve.

The problem with trade-and-aid engagement is that North Korea has no middle class to speak of and Kim Jong Il has no reason to allow one to emerge; genuine economic reforms are not in his interest. His people may be dying fast, but, as long as his troops are fed, Kim's absolute power is assured. Becker's assessment is both blunt and hard to dispute: “The past 15 years show that real change can come only when Kim Jong Il and his family are recognized as evil tyrants, removed from power, and put on trial.” But how? Neither Becker nor Martin has an entirely plausible solution. Martin ends his book with a bizarre open letter to the Dear Leader, in which, after wishing him all the best, he advises him to hand the country over to “competent and trusted officials,” turn his rule into a monarchy, retire to the South of France or to Hollywood, and thus insure that the Kim dynasty will continue, “perhaps even for thousands of years.” This does not strike me as a useful contribution.

Becker, undistracted by the charms of tyrants or the cheerful comradeship of their subjects, adopts a more serious tone. He argues that the world must agree about “benchmarks for identifying a rogue state's behaviour just as there is a definition of the crime of genocide.” Then, with the right “political will, the world could quickly agree on remedies to disarm a criminal state clearly unable to feed its own population.” But who is “the world”? The United Nations? And what remedies would this world have at its disposal? Dealing with Kim Jong Il is like negotiating with a man who holds millions of hostages. One has to be flexible and opportunistic, and use every means at hand, from seduction to the threat of violent force. What the Kims have done to their country is so appalling, though, that almost anything is better than its continuation. The challenge is to bring Kim down without taking millions with him. ♦


A profile of madness

By Damian J. Penny  2006

Even those familiar with the hellish totalitarianism of North Korea can't quite muster up the kind of loathing toward Kim Jong Il normally reserved for his fellow Third World tyrants. The younger Kim, who inherited the role of President - and living god - upon his father's death in 1994, is viewed a relative lightweight, thrust unwillingly into a hereditary role, who would much rather be watching James Bond movies than overseeing a nuclear program. Kim's puppet portrayal in the 2004 film Team America: World Police, as a puffed-up dictator who's deeply, movingly lonely (sorry, "ronery") at heart, isn't seen as that all that far from the truth.

Probably the best thing about Jasper Becker's chilling and compelling Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea is that it gives us one of the most vivid portrayals to date of the "Dear Leader", and it shows Kim Jong Il for what he really is: a calculating, Machiavellian tyrant who took to his role as Kim Il Sung's heir apparent with gusto, fighting off any and all internal challenges to his absolute rule and, in his father's dying years, even trying to steer him away from reform and détente with the outside world. Many Koreans even believe the son had the father killed, and while there is little evidence for patricide or almost anything else that goes on behind the scenes in North Korea , it's certainly no harder to believe than much of what we know about the Hermit Kingdom .

One of Kim's former bodyguards is quoted as calling him "the richest man in the world," since there are really no limits on what the man can get away with. Anything the Dear Leader wants, he gets - the finest cognac, lavish palaces, luxury cars, beautiful women. If the country doesn't make it, it's imported, cost no object. And when he wanted a top South Korean film director and his actress wife to make movies just for him, he simply had them kidnapped.

The lucky few in Kim's inner circle are lavished with expensive gifts and rewards for their loyalty; the vast majority of North Koreans are told their nation needs absolutely nothing from the outside world, and when times are tough they're simply told to learn to eat less, or consume more "food substitutes" instead. In one of the book's most damning and infuriating chapters, Becker describes how hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of North Koreans starved to death, while the Dear Leader lived it up - and while the UN World Food Program was supposedly distributing tons upon tons of food to people who needed it. (Do we need even more evidence about the United Nations; inefficiency, corruption and incompetence? Considering how many of my fellow Canadians still believe the organization is the world's "moral conscience", I think we do.)

And then, of course, there is North Korea's nuclear program, supposedly stopped by a 1994 deal (brokered largely by Jimmy Carter) in which the West agreed to provide fuel, aid and even nuclear reactors to the DPRK in exchange for the country agreeing to play nice from there on out. It goes without saying that the North Koreans kept working on their weapons program in secret before the ink had dried - and it illustrates just how difficult, some would say impossible, it is to deal with a nation so hopelessly intransigent. Some reviewers have criticized Becker for not giving concrete solutions as to how the North Korean crisis can be resolved, but the sad fact is that there are no easy answers. Appeasement has failed miserably - but with the North Koreans openly threatening to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" if their country is invaded, a military solution does not provide a definitive answer, either.

Aside from the flaw which permeates nearly all books about the most secretive state on earth - a heavy reliance on defectors' testimony, which in most cases cannot be corroborated - Rogue Regime only touches briefly on one of the most troubling and incomprehensible aspects of the North Korea issue: the fact that many South Koreans, despite decades of provocation and terror attacks from their Northern brethren, remain extremely positively disposed toward Kim and his regime.

Becker notes that Koreans are understandably bitter about their nation having been so arbitrarily divided after the Second World War; the Japanese aggressors, by contrast, got to keep their country whole. Meanwhile, feelings toward the thousands of American troops stationed in South Korea have grown steadily more negative over the years, for several reasons - their perceived support of the brutal dictatorship than ruled the country in the seventies and eighties, and incidents such as the killing of some young children just a few years ago, when they were struck by a U.S. military vehicle.

So why aren't most South Koreans simmering with rage toward North Korea, whose government has kidnapped dozens of South Korean civilians, blown up a Korean Air passenger jet and dozens of government officials and even a South Korean First Lady in brazen terror attacks? Nationalism is funny that way, and even after Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" of appeasement descended into farce, many young South Koreans simply do not want to believe their fellow Koreans can really be their enemy. Just like the Korean peninsula itself, the South Korean populace remains hopelessly divided, and the subject merits further examination.

But Rogue Regime is absolutely essential reading, along with Kang Chol-Hwan's gulag memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang, for people who want to understand North Korea and its mysterious, unstable leadership. We no longer have the luxury of assuming the regime is willing or able to reform its economy or foreign policy, or that the problem will somehow take care of itself. Above all, we must let the people of this closed, cultish society know that they deserve to be free, and that we will not tolerate their plight any longer.


Time Magazine. Saturday, May. 14, 2005

The Deadly Dictator

By Austin Ramzy

Kim Jong Il's idiosyncrasies can overshadow his atrociousness. With his bouffant hair, platform shoes, "pleasure groups" of attractive young women, and lusty appetite for fine wine and sushi, the North Korean dictator sometimes comes across more like a movie villain than a true menace. In Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea, veteran journalist Jasper Becker dutifully recounts the strange tales of Kim's extravagance. But the author is less concerned with the Dear Leader's personality quirks than with the murder and misery under Kim's brutal rule. To Becker, Kim Jong Il is not a cartoonish Dr. Evil�he's just evil.

That's an assessment he shares with the U.S. President. "After a succession of statesmen�Jiang Zemin, Vladimir Putin, Kim Dae Jung, Sweden 's Goran Persson, Madeleine Albright�have returned home to tell us how rational, well informed, witty, charming, and deeply popular Kim Jong Il is, President Bush's judgement that Kim is loathsome seems the only honest and truthful one," Becker writes. He measures Kim's odiousness not just in nuclear weapons but in corpses. Kim and his father, Kim Il Sung, are responsible for the deaths of millions of North Koreans, he estimates, including as many as 1 million political prisoners and 3 million in a 1990s famine driven by Kim's failed policies, which Becker calls "an unparalleled and monstrous crime."

When it comes to monstrous crimes, the author knows his subject. His 1996 book Hungry Ghosts is the definitive account of China 's 1958-62 famine, which killed some 30 million. For that work, Becker traveled through the heart of China , talking with peasants who recalled Mao's disastrous social engineering project, the Great Leap Forward. His research exposed a calamity that had been largely hidden from the world.

Rogue Regime breaks less new ground. He retraces some familiar stories like the rise of North Korea and the Kim dynasty after World War II, the Korean War, and the South Korean economic miracle. But the book remains vivid, especially when Becker describes his encounters with people fleeing Kim's totalitarian rule. In northern China , Becker joined a Chinese shopkeeper to hunt for refugees, for whom the Chinese government was paying 60� bounties. They found one near a garbage dump. "As the shopkeeper fished around in his pocket for some plastic twine, a dirt-covered face scabrous with pellagra that looked about fifty years old shrunk back into the shadows of a hood made from grey sackcloth, like a medieval leper," he writes. The woman, who was in fact only 28, had crossed the border in a final effort to avoid starvation. As a prisoner, she would be sent back to North Korea , to face possible torture or even death in a labor camp. Becker bargained with the shopkeeper for her freedom, ultimately paying about $24�"the market price for a North Korean life."

That sort of personal connection to the North Korean people animates the book. Becker challenges anyone he considers to be aiding and abetting their suffering. Former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with the North is denounced as a prop for Kim Jong Il's shaky regime. China , which treats refugees as illegal immigrants and repatriates them to face a nightmarish fate, is criticized for ignoring basic Geneva Convention obligations. The United Nations gets the harshest criticism. Becker spends a chapter cataloging the failures of U.N. aid agencies during North Korea 's famine. Their chief mistake, he writes, was their failure to speak out in protest against Kim: "This undermined the credibility of those that accused Kim Jong Il of allowing millions to die and made the United Nations a silent partner in the North Korean holocaust."

But as Becker acknowledges, it's difficult to prevent starvation in a country where the paramount leader is unmoved by the suffering of his subjects. The author makes the case that the world should act against Kim, not simply because of his nuclear program, but because of what he's done to his own people. The only way to achieve any meaningful change, Becker asserts, is to remove Kim from power. "With the right political will," he writes, "the world could quickly agree on remedies to disarm a criminal state." Perhaps, but after years of trying, the best diplomatic efforts of the U.S. and North Korea 's neighbors have done nothing to demilitarize a dictator who could level Seoul with conventional weapons alone. It's not as if the world lacks reasons to defang Kim. It just lacks a way.


Exchange in New York Review of Books

The Korean War: An Exchange November 22, 2007

by Bruce Cumings, Francis M. Bator, reply by Richard Bernstein, Richard J. Bernstein

In response to:

Good War Gone Bad from the October 25, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

In the Korean War, Richard Bernstein writes, “the United States decided to fight for a draw rather than insist on victory, and, as MacArthur liked to put it, there’s no substitute for victory” [NYR, October 25]. Doesn’t it depend on how you define victory? The American purpose in going to war was not to conquer North Korea , but to prevent it from conquering South Korea . “Containment,” not “liberation.” We succeeded, Kim Il Sung failed.

The mistake, as Bernstein points out, lay in Truman’s failure to stop MacArthur’s heedless march north. Richard Neustadt recalled years later—speaking of General Marshall, Dean Acheson, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Omar Bradley—”No one went to [warn] Truman because everyone thought someone else should go.”

The point matters. George H.W. Bush won the first Gulf War. If only his son had understood that.

Francis M. Bator
Littauer Professor of Political Economy, Emeritus
Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University
Cambridge Massachusetts

To the Editors:

In his review of David Halberstam’s book on the Korean War, The Coldest Winter [NYR, October 25], Richard Bernstein mentions the thesis “advanced in particular by Bruce Cumings” that Syngman Rhee or the South Korean military might have provoked Kim Il Sung’s attack in June 1950. In a long chapter entitled “Who Started the Korean War?” I examined just about every thesis on how the war started including this thesis, first advanced not by me but by I.F. Stone in his Hidden History of the Korean War. I used formerly secret archival documents in English and Korean (including a large captured North Korean archive) to conclude this chapter by saying that all the theses were wrong, because civil wars do not start, they come along after years or even decades of internecine conflict—as in Korea.

Because the top US commander in Korea had secretly told his superiors that South Korean military forces started the majority of fighting along the 38th parallel in 1949, with attacks from the South beginning in May and ending in December and with a near war in August, it was incumbent upon me to examine Stone’s thesis in any event. The South Korean commander of the parallel in the summer of 1949 was Kim Sok-won, a quisling who had chased after Kim Il Sung and other guerrillas in Manchuria in the 1930s, on behalf of the Japanese Kwantung Army—an army well known for provoking incidents, such as the one resulting in Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931. My main point, though, was that the commanders of the respective Korean armies had chosen different sides in the long anticolonial struggle against Japan , and it should not have been surprising that once they had the means to do so, they would again clash with each other. What is more surprising is the direct American role, during the US occupation of Korea from 1945 to 1948, in putting in power an entire generation of Koreans in the military and the national police who had served Japanese imperialism.

David Halberstam and I spent an afternoon together before his tragic death, talking about this war, and his warmth and generosity did not hide the fact that he was entirely unaware of what might be found in an archive, apart from selected documents that came out after the Soviet Union collapsed. Neither is Richard Bernstein, whose last review lauded a completely shoddy book on North Korea by Jasper Becker, Rogue Regime [NYR, March 1], a book rife with elementary errors and thus a laughingstock among scholars. I don’t believe The New York Review would treat many other fields of scholarship as if anyone can come along and offer their judgments without the slightest evidence that they know what they are talking about.

Bruce Cumings
Professor and Chair, History Department
University of Chicago
Chicago Illinois

Richard Bernstein replies:

Professor Bator’s point about the similarity of the Korean War and the first Gulf War is well taken. But I was thinking of victory as it was defined in all of the country’s wars before Korea , as the unconditional surrender of the enemy. That we left the aggressor Kim Il Sung in power in Pyongyang was not a defeat, but it does seem to me to have been an unsatisfactory, if necessary, compromise, as Halberstam puts it.

As for Professor Cumings, I have always taken his Origins of the Korean War as the main challenge to the conventional view of the Korean War, which is why I mention that challenge in my review of David Halberstam’s book, even though Halberstam himself doesn’t. Reading the chapter of his book that Professor Cumings refers to in his letter certainly left me with the strong impression that he believes the South Korean provocation to be the most credible of the possible explanations for the war’s origins, though none of the explanations can be conclusively proved. In any case, my point was to exonerate Halberstam for not revisiting Cumings’s lengthy thesis. It would have taken a book other than the one Halberstam wanted to write to do so. Many experts on Korea, by the way, accept the standard explanation for the war, that the North launched a large-scale invasion across the demarcation line—this contrary to Professor Cumings’s implication that anybody who fails to agree with him doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

As for my comments on the Jasper Becker book, Professor Cumings seems to have chosen the route of personal insult, and that’s too bad. In my review—published in these pages more than half a year ago—I did cite an instance where I found Becker jumping to an unsupported and sensational conclusion. But when I checked other seemingly sensational assertions by Becker (for example, that Kim Jong Il flew in an Italian cook to make pizza for him when a million North Koreans were starving to death) I found them to be well documented. If I missed other errors that Becker made, I am at fault. But Professor Cumings doesn’t identify any of these errors. He just tells us that the book is a laughingstock. We have no more than his word for that.

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