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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (February 3, 2003)

Changing Pyongyang's Ways

Gregory Clark (Head of Research Japan Office, and Former President of Tama University)

The response to my Jan. 10 article "Pyongyang is the real victim" (, which blames the United States for its mishandling of the North Korean nuclear problem, tells me two things: First, Japan Times articles are followed abroad much more widely than I realized; second, many believe firmly in the incorrigibly evil nature of the North Korean regime.

It is true that North Korea is no candidate for sainthood. Its hardliners have behaved much like their counterparts in other dictatorial regimes -- leftwing and rightwing -- who believe they are under threat and who have a monopoly over truth. A dynamic of torture and forced confessions leading to tens of thousands being imprisoned or killed for alleged spying and sabotage can easily get under way. Deviations from official ideology are cruelly punished. Constant praise for leaders is demanded.

But is this "evil" incorrigible? The Cold War gave us the doctrine of communist irreversibility, which said that the totalitarian nature of communist regimes was crucial to the survival of those regimes and could only be changed by unrelenting Western confrontation. One result was the Indochina tragedy of the 1960s. Another was the loss of an early chance to end the Cold War.

In the late 1950s, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev tried to liberalize his regime and seek detente with Washington. But U.S. hardliners continued the U-2 spy flights, attacks on Cuba and other anti-Soviet pressures that eventually undermined his position and allowed Soviet hardliners to have him replaced in 1964 by the corrupt and promilitary Leonid Brezhnev. In effect, the hardliners of both sides cooperated to keep the Cold War going another 20 years.

Then in the 1980s, another progressive Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, emerged seeking more liberalization and detente. Once again our hardliners swept into action. At first they warned that he was part of a plot to undermine Western vigilance. Then when the Gorbachev reforms led to the dismantling of Soviet communism, we were told it was a victory for Western hardline policies against the "Evil Empire."

In fact it was the exact opposite. Gorbachev was a pure product of the communist system. That a liberal communist of his quality could emerge so easily from that system demolished the claims of Evil Empire irreversibility. It also meant that four decades of effort by the hardliners on both sides to keep the Cold War alive had finally failed. It was a defeat, not a victory, for our Cold War warriors.

For further proof, one has only to look at the manifesto of the Soviet hardliners who staged the abortive 1991 anti-Gorbachev coup. With its calls for love of country and flag, respect for the military and warnings about dangerous foreign influences and excessive sexual and other freedoms, it showed that these people were the ideological blood-brothers of our Western rightwingers and conservatives. The anticoup crowds in the Moscow streets had their equivalents in Western Vietnam War protesters.

We are supposed to be shocked by Pyongyang's involvement in past drug, assassination and currency scandals. But the CIA and other Western agencies have taken the same liberties at times. North Korea's bomb attacks on South Korean leaders and aircraft are small fry compared with NATO's vandalistic bombing of Yugoslavia for spurious reasons related to Kosovo. Assumptions of North Korean "evil" hinge heavily on biased views of past Korean events. We all know that Pyongyang attacked South Korea in 1950. But how many know that the attack was preceded by Seoul's threats to attack the North, frequent frontier clashes and the dreadful 1948 Cheju Island massacre and other atrocities against those suspected of leftwing views -- including many who had bravely resisted Japanese colonization? Or that U.S. accusations of North Korean "aggression" have to be bogus since the same U.S. then went on to claim that there was no legal boundary at the time between North and South Korea? Or how the ferocity of the subsequent, and quite unnecessary, U.S. attack on North Korea fueled much of Pyongyang's later paranoia?

True, U.S. intervention led, eventually, to establishing a vibrant society and economy in South Korea. But a unified Korea might have done as well; in 1960 North Korea's per capita income was still more than twice that in the South. Its slide into economic and totalitarian disaster only came later, thanks mainly to Cold War pressures and isolation which, in turn, led to its current military buildup.

Which brings us to the present. In 1994, the Clinton administration made a number of promises to Pyongyang in exchange for a North Korean freeze on nuclear development. The Bush administration for its own good reasons decided to renege on those promises, in particular the promise to normalize relations. Surely in such a case the situation returns to what it was before the 1994 agreement. But when Pyongyang withdrew its promise to freeze nuclear development, Western hardliners cried foul despite clear hints that North Korea would re-establish the freeze if the U.S. went back to the Clinton promises.

Fortunately some common sense from South Korea, China and Russia has forced the U.S. to backtrack somewhat. Guarantees for North Korea's security may be offered. But as South Korean President-elect Roh Moo Hyun has pointed out, for a while it was touch and go, with the Washington hawks clinging to their favorite policy option -- when in doubt, bomb.

Which brings me to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. He is no Gorbachev, and at times he has been beholden to his hardliners and endorsed their excesses. But almost every insider report today agrees that he has become a pragmatist who seeks to liberalize the economy and create openings to the outside world. His behavior matches that of the Chinese leadership -- yet another former victim of "irreversible communist evil" obsessions in the West.

In this situation, do we let our hardliners launch yet another round of tit-for-tat confrontations guaranteed to keep North Korea in cruel Stalinist isolation for another 40 years? Or do we try to bring Pyongyang back into the community of nations, despite its past misbehavior?

The South Koreans have given their answer. They know their northern neighbor a lot better than we do. The world should listen to them.

(This article originally appeared in the February 1, 2003 issue of The Japan Times)

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