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art/Tom Hope

North Korea Won't Be Easy

Consistency in foreign policy is apparently a major bitch.

With all of America's recent bravado about making the world free and secure from weapons of mass destruction, it is puzzling to me that our current administration–now that we've been "done" with Iraq for a few months–continues to play off the North Korean threat as not being much of a big deal. Bush is talking tough here and there, but we're not talking nearly as tough as we did about apparently weaponless Iraq.

For God's sakes, North Korea has already threatened, in no uncertain words, to nuke the U.S. and South Korea if we so much as drop a single bomb on anything. Several months ago, the government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), as North Korea is officially known, said that the United States is not the only country that is capable of performing preemptive strikes. In mid-July, it gave a stern warning to South Korea that the "dark clouds of nuclear war" were forming on the Korean peninsula, and that if it wanted war, the North would "demonstrate its power."

That language scares the hell out of me. The news media seems to definitely be on the ball about this–just about every day we hear a new story about the continued ambition of North Korea to process nuclear fuel rods to build atomic weapons. While the U.S. is busy fudging our facts about Middle Eastern purchases of weapons-grade nuclear material, North Korea is certifiably making the shit, and telling us it's making the shit. What other country would have the cojones to ante up quite like that?

Perhaps the Bush Administration's reluctance to mention North Korea to the same degree as Iraq is out of genuine fear. The country is no small potatoes–it has the world's fifth-largest standing army (about 25% of the male North Korean population is in the military) and is believed to already possess several nuclear weapons. And to make matters worse, the country is xenophobic and nuckin' futs. Can we afford to take the chance that all of this bellicose language from North Korea is just a bluff? It only takes one finger to push a button.

Predicting the population's reaction to the Iraq invasion was kind of a no-brainer... Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who was not very well loved by his population, but North Korea is arguably the most alien place in the developed world.

Life inside the DPRK, if you can call it that, is very bizarre. It is the world's last Stalinist state, incorporating a cult of personality created by the late Kim Il Sung. Known as the "Great Leader," Kim created a philosophy known as Juche, and wrote much of the literature that his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, continues to write today. Juche is an extremely vague Korea-first ideology that exists to stoke the fires of nationalism, and to provide a greater good toward which Koreans can work in the absence of personal wealth and religion. It was initially created to stem the anti-Stalinist movement in Russia and its influence on the Korean people, but has been shifting ever since to accommodate the needs of the ruling class. Juche is heavy on love for your Korean neighbor, and Kim Jong Il recommends that all Koreans set aside eight hours every day for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours to study the Juche idea.

If one of our administrations believes that it behooves the U.S. to "liberate" the people of North Korea from this oppressive regime, it will certainly not be very easy. For the last half century, the population of the DPRK has been indoctrinated with the belief that the two Kims possess divine powers, such as the ability to control the weather. Ten years of negative economic growth and horrible famines that have killed millions may have caused these beliefs to abate somewhat within the general population, but few have known anything else. North Korea's isolationist policy prevents contact with the outside world except for the highest echelons of the Korean Worker's Party. Rather than ask for help from the world during the famines of the mid-1990's, the DPRK instead instituted a "let's eat only two meals a day" campaign to call upon Koreans to make sacrifices.

Overweening North Korean pride will be its undoing, and I believe that U.S. policy has been in the past to bide ourr time and wait for the DPRK to collapse just like the Soviet Union did. The problem is, many experts believed that this was going to happen over five years ago, and there has never been a state quite like North Korea in all of human history, so it is difficult to predict when and if a revolution might happen. It's not looking particularly imminent right now.

So we negotiate ever so delicately, trying not to ignite what could be the greatest crisis ever in human history. I only wish that our government would be more outspoken about the direction we are going to take. It suggests that we don't have a direction–the silence is deafening. Keeping North Korea on the map certainly has its advantages; after all, the U.S. has already used it as a prime example of what happens when nuclear ambition goes unchecked, comparing its ambition to Iraq's as though there can be any comparison whatsoever. The downside to ignorance of the DPRK is a few cities at several million degrees. I fear that this can only end in a cacophony of devastation if the United States continues its militaristic machismo while staring down the barrel of a gun that is most decidedly loaded.

North Korea is a caged animal with very sharp claws on angel dust, and if we open the cage, we are more than likely to get scratched. This last vestige of the Cold War just got pretty hot.

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