After taking a great deal of heat for social media posts from North Korea, which he defended on the grounds that he was worried for his safety and that of his family, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published a full-length account of his experience entitled “Inside North Korea, and Feeling the Drums of War.”
Kristof writes more darkly of the North Korean government than he did on social media, but the key line comes a bit less than halfway through the story, where he says, “A basic problem is that hard-liners seem ascendant in both Washington and Pyongyang.”
An even more basic problem is that too many Western journalists have trouble distinguishing between “hard-liners” in the West taking a tough attitude toward rogue regimes, and “hard-liners” in a place like North Korea or Iran.
Kristof is a bit of a hard-liner himself, at least in terms of moral equivalence and defeatism:
In Washington, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is advocating a diplomatic resolution to conflict with North Korea—but Trump undercut him on Twitter last Sunday and said Tillerson was “wasting his time.” Trump’s policy toward North Korea is founded on false assumptions that the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, will give up his nuclear weapons, that China can save the day and that military options are real.
In Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, which is full of wide streets and monumental buildings, officials also express little interest in the kind of tough compromises that would be necessary to resolve the crisis.
“The situation on the Korean Peninsula is on the eve of the breakout of nuclear war,” Choe, the Foreign Ministry official, told me. “We can survive” such a war, he added, and he and other officials said that it was not the right time for talks with the U.S.
The North Koreans insist that the U.S. make the first move and drop its sanctions and “hostile attitude”—which won’t happen. And the U.S. is equally unrealistic in insisting that North Korea give up its entire nuclear program.
The category error Kristof makes is that North Korea was never interested in making any “tough compromises.” That was a delusion of the Clinton administration and its awful Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. Kristof thinks North Korea is harsher, colder, and more repressive than ever, which may be true of how it treats foreign journalists and errant citizens, but it is not really any different in its attitude toward the outside world and its lust for nuclear weapons than it was in the Nineties.
We always hear a lot of talk about “moderates” battling “hard-liners” for control of rogue regimes, but eventually, the people who advocated endless concessions and appeasement wake up one day and discover the regime was hard-line in its soul all along. Kristof gives President Trump and his team a lot of grief for treating negotiations as a waste of time, but his entire column validates that conclusion.
Then he insists that North Korea has been undergoing “some positive changes” of late:
The famine is over (although malnutrition still leaves one in four children stunted), the economy has developed and government officials are far more open and savvy than a generation ago.
Officials used to deny that there was ever any crime in North Korea—but now they freely concede that this country has thieves, that young women sometimes become pregnant before marriage, that inevitably there’s a measure of corruption. (They do deny that North Korea has any gay people.)
North Korea is no longer hermetically sealed, and South Korean pop music and soap operas are smuggled in on flash drives and DVDs from China (watching them is a serious criminal offense). There is also an intranet—a rigidly controlled domestic version of the internet—and students learn English from about the third grade.
Only one in four children is stunted from malnutrition, in a country that receives huge amounts of humanitarian aid, including from the United States and South Korea? Yay! What an achievement!
Also, if consuming smuggled South Korean entertainment is still a “serious criminal offense,” then North Korea is still pretty darn “hermetically sealed.” Kristof notes that North Koreans he met, both adults and children, were unaware of outside culture, basically ignorant of everything from Facebook to generations-old cultural icons like the Beatles. Instead, they are saturated in government propaganda; they literally have “Big Brother” speakers in their homes to pipe the Kim regime’s poison into their heads, a more primitive version of the video screens in 1984. The state personality cult is so pervasive that Kristof mentions people dying every year in attempts to rescue portraits of dictator Kim Jong-un, his father, and his grandfather from house fires.
One of Kristof’s suggestions is to “support organizations that smuggle information on USB drives into North Korea,” because it “would be cheap and might contribute to change in the long term.” There is nothing wrong with trying that, but the bulk of his travel journal provides grim testimony to why it probably will not work. Authoritarian regimes have grown highly adept at suppressing the spread of viral freedom messages.
It is a nice daydream to think a flood of information might someday wash away the Kim regime by showing North Koreans what the rest of the world is like, but that’s exactly the kind of “kicking the can down the road” we don’t have time for anymore, because as the people Nicholas Kristof doesn’t like have accurately pointed out, we’re out of road.
An important element of North Korean propaganda is that they have defeated the United States before and can do it again. Kristof states that every single North Korean he and his fellow journalists interviewed was absolutely certain of victory and the destruction of America if the confrontation escalates to war. Public exhibits pertaining to the Korean war depict American troops as subhuman monsters who killed and raped for sport.
After describing an inhuman system that has comprehensively ruined several generations and turned an entire nation psychotic, Kristof unloads the moral equivalence again, saying, “My sense is that both sides are fearful of appearing weak and are trying to intimidate the other with military bluster, but that each would prefer a peaceful resolution—yet doesn’t know how to get there politically. So how do we get out of this mess?”
Here’s another idea: Maybe one side is entirely correct to be worried about a regime of sheer inhuman evil, presiding over a captive population of mind-controlled robots, getting its hands on nuclear missiles with intercontinental range.
Kristof thinks the “best hope that is realistic” might be a “freeze for a freeze,” which would see “North Korea halting its nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a reduction in sanctions and in U.S.-South Korean military exercises—as an interim step, preserving the long-term goal of denuclearization.”
That is China’s big idea, except they don’t even pretend North Korea would halt its nuclear or missile programs—they claim America and South Korea are responsible for elevated tensions on the peninsula, and they want those exercises halted as a sop to merely bring Pyongyang back to the bargaining table. Experiences teaches us North Korea will gobble up every concession and appeasement tossed their way, declare victory, and push the rest of the way through to nuclear missile technology. People lecturing President Trump on how to handle North Korea have a habit of slipping into amnesia and thinking it’s 1994 again.
Kristof ends by musing on the possibility of an uneasy “long-term mutual deterrence,” which he says would be “risky, not least because we have an American president and a North Korean leader who both seem impetuous, overconfident and temperamentally inclined to escalate any dispute—and the American mainland increasingly will be in the crosshairs of North Korean nuclear warheads.”
That is the point of all this: we cannot allow the American mainland to be in North Korea’s crosshairs. The temperament of the American president is not the issue. None of them last more than eight years by definition, but North Korea’s hideous dictatorship goes on, each new twisted scion seemingly worse than the last.
There is no way to predict what a monster like Kim Jong-un will do once he can credibly threaten American cities with nuclear missiles. His brainwashed country is convinced it can defeat the U.S. in any confrontation, and as Kristof points out, there is a real danger Kim and his inner circle believe their own propaganda. Allowing them to “win” the confrontation that has actually been in progress since the late Obama presidency will only embolden them further, and embolden the other wicked regimes watching this all play out.
Slipping South Korean pop music across the border and hoping someone better takes over after morbid obesity catches up with Kim Jong-un is a Hail Mary pass, not a strategy. Adjusting the attitude of the North Korean regime is the urgent task at hand. Giving them a “hard-line” opponent for the first time in Kim Jong-un’s life might be the only way to do it. Nowhere in Kristof’s travel journal is there a shred of evidence that any “moderate” faction in North Korea is waiting to respond to any other approach.