Thought of the Day: Purge in Pyongyang

Kim Jong-un’s killing of his uncle is a big deal. It is not as though Jang Song-thaek was one of the “White Hats” of North Korea. (There are none that we know of.) He was a notorious thug, a brother-in-law and accomplice of former dictator Kim Jong II. 

Mr. Jang was instrumental in upholding the policy that no one in North Korea can travel, speak or worship freely. He was there when North Korea experienced the “great famine” of 1995-97, which saw between 2.5 million and 3.7 million people starve to death. (That represented between 10% and 15% of the population.) Jang Song-thaek was described at his trial as “despicable human scum” who was “worse than a dog.” The expediency with which he was arrested at the behest of Kim Jong-un, tried and dispatched suggests a tyrannical government led by a psychotic – not the preferred type of individual for leading a country with nuclear weapons.

Keep in mind, baby Kim is a man who took seriously, earlier this year, an article in "The Onion" calling him the “sexiest man in 2012.” Mr. Kim is a man who it was said in February had “moon-walked” – “the first to do so since Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt in 1972.” The man is certifiable, yet he controls a nuclear arsenal and his country is developing missiles capable of reaching our western shores. North Korea may be a client state of China; perhaps they are pulling the strings. Let us hope so. According to the current issue of The Economist, Kim Jong II was a “provocative menace, but he was at least predictable.” The son appears scarier. He reminds one of a psychotic killer in a thriller movie, the type who says menacingly, with the glaring eyes of a madman, "Whatever you call me, don’t call me crazy!"

The concepts of freedom and democracy that swept the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and which gave life, inspiration and hope to millions of people in places ranging from Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia to South Africa, bypassed North Korea. Since those days that Francis Fukuama termed “the end of history,” dictatorships have strengthened in places like Pyongyang and radical Islam has been energized. It is a very different and far more dangerous world than the one in which we grew up during the Cold War. 

The Soviet Union, as a nuclear power, was a menace, and millions of people died because of the harshness of their regime, but their leaders engaged with the West. They had skin-in-the-game. One does not have the same confidence with nuclear armaments in the control of leaders in North Korea, Pakistan and, soon, Iran. Will containment work? Can we be certain that previous nuclear powers, like Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, will not rearm? If the United States is no longer the world’s policeman, is there not risk that South Korea will feel compelled to build nuclear weapons as a defense? Will Japan determine they can no longer count on the United States and go nuclear? In the Middle East, once Iran has the bomb, would you not expect Saudi Arabia and Turkey to become nuclear powers?

One of the more chilling aspects of North Korea is how the place is treated by mainstream media, in what David Feith of the Wall Street Journal has termed a “trivialization of horror.” A good example is ex-basketball player Dennis Rodman’s well-publicized trips to Pyongyang and his references to Kim Jong-un as a “friend for life.” He is there now, on his third trip of the year. A month ago, Elle magazine cited “North Korean Chic” as one of the top fashion trends for the fall of 2013. 

The plight of North Koreans has never captured the imagination of Americans, in the way, for example, apartheid did in South Africa. In part, that has to do with the fact we identify more with the West and, as a country, we understand White-Black tension and conflict. But it also has to do with the fact that the Kim family has done everything possible to cut off all communication with the outside world. North Korea is known as the Hermit Kingdom. When looked at by satellite at night, North Korea is the black space separating South Korea from China. In addition, our apparent lack of awareness has to do with the fact that very few have escaped. North Korea’s only land boundaries are with South Korea and China, both of which are heavily secured.

One of the few to escape was Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born in a prison camp in 1982 and who escaped in 2005. His story was told in a book by Blaine Harden, Escape from Camp 14. Mr. Shin, who is the same age as Dennis Rodman’s “friend for life” Kim Jong-un, recently sent a public message to Mr. Rodman asking him to speak up on behalf of the thousands imprisoned in slave-labor camps. It remains to be seen if he will. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

During the one-day trial of Jang Sang-thaek – he was executed later the same day – he was accused of perpetrating “thrice-cursed acts of treachery.” He was told that “it is an elementary obligation of a human being to repay trust with a sense of obligation and benevolence with loyalty.” The latter words sound ominous to me, as they echo what we hear from Washington. I fear we are losing the meaning of freedom in a nation that places dependency above responsibility. Physical comfort is enticing but is no match for liberty and the freedom it brings. I worry that we no longer understand and appreciate the meaning of our “unalienable rights.”

A hundred years ago next summer, World War I broke out. It changed the course of the 20th Century, producing the bloodiest century in the history of the world. In Europe, civilization had blossomed, as did trade and economies. The plane, the automobile and electricity had all been recent inventions. Global trade and international banking, as well, helped lift living standards to levels far beyond what they had been a generation earlier. Yet that period of tranquility came to an abrupt end. For the industrial revolution had also brought with it far more effective means of killing – machine guns, tanks and mustard gas. Countries re-armed, not because they expected war to break out, but to defend their far-flung empires. It was bit-players in the Balkans that lit the tinder that inflamed the world for four years, killing an estimated 37 million people. (For comparison purposes, equivalent deaths today would exceed 100 million.) 

We, too, live in a time of economic progress. Technology has revolutionized the way we communicate. Much of the world lives in relative comfort. Free market capitalism has lifted millions out of economic deprivation. A global war seems unthinkable. But there are rogue governments – places like Iran, North Korea and other states with totalitarian regimes that have kept their people in ignorance and poverty. Nuclear weapons are proliferating among those unstable nations. There are state-less Islamic extremists that have become more powerful in the past two decades. What is happening in the Ukraine is indicative of a Russia that looks to reassert itself as a global power. China has made menacing moves in the East and South China Seas. But North Korea is the place to watch. The country has a population of about 25 million, but an army, including reservists, of over 9 million – the largest military organization on earth.

The Atomic bomb has only been used twice – both times by the United States, as a way to convince Japan to surrender. The threat of mutually assured destruction has kept such weapons silent for almost seventy years. Will that continue with rogue nations who support terror now in control of such weapons? As I wrote back in February, in a piece entitled “Kim Jong-un – a Tinderbox,” the “most dangerous of tyrants are those that are stupid.” Nuclear weapons in the hands of a certifiable maniac become even more unpredictable and more ominously dangerous. 


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