From the Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review, Oct. 17, 2004

 

Rays of light on Asia's darkest cloud

Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty
Bradley K. Martin
Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press: 868 pp., $29.95

 

By Warren I. Cohen

 

In early September, a mushroom cloud appeared over North Korea. Intelligence analysts in Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, Washington and Moscow feared it was the moment they had all dreaded and worked to prevent for more than a decade: Kim Jong Il had tested a nuclear weapon. After a few days, a nuclear test was ruled out, to audible sighs of relief, especially in Washington, where the Bush administration's unwillingness to negotiate with Pyongyang had become a campaign issue.

But what was that cloud? Reports circulated that the North Koreans had demolished a factory or was it perhaps a mountain? By midmonth, South Korea, embarrassed by reports that it had its own secret nuclear weapons program and desperately eager to soothe its erstwhile enemies across the 38th parallel, declared the sighting to have been an ordinary cloud of unusual shape.

Of course, no one is really certain what goes on in
North Korea. Before September ended, there were reports of possible preparations for a missile launching. Satellite photographs can be helpful up to a point, but there has been very little human intelligence of value over the last 50 years or so unless Seoul has better information about its neighbor than it has been sharing with the United States. Analysts who study closed societies depend largely on arcane examination of regime publications and interrogation of refugees and defectors. In the case of North Korea, European, especially East European, diplomats posted to Pyongyang also contribute their observations, but few ever see or hear anything more than their hosts allow.

Bradley K. Martin has stepped into this breach. A journalist with many years' reporting from East Asia, he has visited North Korea four times in the last 25 years, read (in translation) memoirs, biographies, political tracts and newspapers published in that benighted country, and interviewed scores of defectors as well as diplomats who served there. He is also familiar with most
U.S. scholarship on the Kim family regime.

Martin's massive book provides as useful a set of insights into life in
North Korea as can be found anywhere. Indeed, in some instances, such as his collection of gossip about the sexual activities of Kim Jong Il and his late father, Kim Il Sung, he tells us perhaps more than we ever wanted to know: "At any given time, literally thousands of young women would be in service in positions in which they might be called upon to provide sexual favors to Kim or his son." Frequently, Martin relates stories that even he considers nonsense.

But he accumulates persuasive evidence about the indoctrination of children, the brutality of the gulags and the persistent famine that began in the 1990s. Refugees and defectors consistently tell of being raised to worship Kim Il Sung and filled with romanticized versions of his life his birth, his conversion to communism, his role in the guerrilla war against the Japanese and, of course, his love for his people. Their continued adoration of the elder Kim, who died in 1994, seems genuine. Few defectors indicate any hostility to their late Great Leader. That his invasion of South Korea in 1950 resulted in the death of a quarter of North Korea's population, that he created the prison camps where hundreds of thousands more perished and that his economic policies were responsible for the millions who succumbed to famine does not seem to tarnish his image with his people. Of course, most who live north of the 38th parallel have never heard or read any alternative to the regime's explanation that the South Koreans and the Americans are responsible for their suffering. And, according to Martin's sources, most North Koreans are eager for war to redress the situation.

Kim, heir to his father's rule, does not inspire the same worship from defectors. One after another, they describe a man whom they consider capricious, corrupt and licentious intelligent, but lacking the elder Kim's wisdom and judgment. Very likely, some still in
North Korea also harbor reservations about their nation's current leadership, given the thousands who annually attempt to flee across the border with China.

On the critical questions of whether Kim intends to carry out economic reforms, presumably on the Chinese model, and what he intends to do with his nuclear weapons program, Martin is unable to advance our knowledge. Probably no one outside
Pyongyang can if, indeed, Kim has made up his mind. Martin alternates between hope and skepticism on the matter of economic reform. He believes Kim sees the need, but fears Kim does not regard change as in his interest or that of the military men he must cultivate to stay in power.

Martin thinks Kim intends to build a credible nuclear deterrent, with intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the
United States, and that any chance to persuade him to surrender those weapons was lost with the coming of the Bush administration. Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and especially John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, call negotiating with Pyongyang a waste of time and say that only regime change is an acceptable outcome. Absent that, Martin argues, the best hope now is to persuade Kim not to use his nuclear arsenal against U.S. interests say, for example, by selling weapons to Al Qaeda.

Like any analyst this side of Dr. Strangelove, Martin does not want to see the
United States and North Korea at war, with the devastating effects that would have on South Korea and Japan, if not the continental United States. Kim may be a brutal despot presiding over a corrupt regime, but Martin is convinced that serious negotiations are possible.

In his more visionary moments, Martin imagines that a greater
U.S. effort to open the eyes of ordinary North Koreans to conditions in the rest of the world would help. Some learn about it when they are sent to work with Siberian loggers or have contact with the Chinese and Japanese merchants whose presence Kim tolerates. Martin asks defectors if more Voice of America radio programs aimed at North Korea would be valuable, and they invariably give him the positive response he wants although all concerned realize that only the North Korean elite has access to radios that provide choices other than government-operated stations. But with President Bush having designated North Korea as one of his axis of evil, along with Iraq and Iran, can Washington still hope to convince Kim's people of our benign intentions?

Warren I. Cohen, distinguished university professor of history at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and senior scholar in the Asia Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholarship