September 3, 2003

September 3, 2003 | Commentary on Asia

Happy birthday North Korea -- Not

At 55, still no signs of change

On September 9, North Koreans will celebrate the 55th anniversary of the creation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Here's a bet that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il will celebrate in a grand way by proclaiming himself the head of a new nuclear power.

For the Bush administration, which has attempted to negotiate a careful path to end to North Korea's dangerous nuclear ambitions and proliferation practices, such a move would complicate an already tense situation. The six-country conference in Beijing last week on the North Korean nuclear issue resulted in very little; Mr. Kim's government has stated that it sees no further use for negotiations and may be looking for a way to up the ante. But whatever attention-grabbing ploy he produces next must not be allowed to shake the course of U.S. policy, which holds that North Korea must take the first step towards defusing the nuclear issue.

As noted by Sen. John Kyl in a recently released paper from the Senate Republican Policy Committee on North Korea, "There is no reason to believe that the regime can be trusted, is honest and is willing to give up its atomic program in exchange for U.S. concessions." So true.

Any regime that deals as brutally with its own people as the North Korean does cannot possibly be expected to respect international commitments. For 22 million citizens of the impoverished, totalitarian state, there is little reason for flag-waving on their country's orchestrated birthday celebrations.

 "Some have argued that North Korean Communism is a caricature, a throwback to Stalinism. But this museum of Communism, the Asian Madame Tussaud's, is all too alive," write the compilers of "The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression," a book that a few years back attempted to tally up the millions of victims of communism in the 20th century. For the record, the estimated number of North Korean victims happens to be around 3 million since 1948, including 1.5 million killed in the Korean War, which was started by the North.

Now, there were hopes that, with the death of North Korean founding father Kim Il-sung in 1994, things might have changed. His son, Kim Jong-il could have chosen to bring his country in from the cold of communist isolation. But that was not to be. Instead, Pyongyang in 1994 struck an ill-fated deal with the Clinton administration to stop its nuclear program in return for U.S. and South Korean aid -- and double-crossed us royally.

Internally, nothing has changed, except that bad central planning and poor harvests led to starvation for millions of North Koreans in the 1990s. The army, of course, has always been well-fed, on the proceeds of international aid shipments. Many do believe that the North Korean regime is on the verge of political collapse, but the world is still waiting.

The isolation and imprisonment of the North Korean population serves to keep them in ignorance of the prosperity created in South Korea, just on the other side of the 38th parallel. While the two countries started from the same economic disadvantage after the Korean War in 1953, South Korea now boasts a Gross Domestic Product of more than $17,000 per person. North Korea's equivalent estimated figure is $1,000.

It is unlikely that concessions of our side, such as proposed in yesterday's editions of The Washington Times by Brooking scholar Michael O'Hanlon, would influence North Korea's actions. Its nuclear program is too important a security guarantee and moneymaker for Pyongyang. On the other hand, we cannot starve the regime out because the burden invariably falls on the North Korean population. What we can do is address the problem of proliferation, a burning hot issue in the age of international terrorism.

In a situation as delicate as that on the Korean Peninsula, negotiations must be pursued, primarily for the sake of creating regional alliances. Most promising in the long run will be containment -- if past experience of totalitarian regimes is our guide. The Proliferation Security Initiative, announced by President Bush on May 30, offers a multilateral way of containing North Korea's export of nuclear and ballistic missile technology by intercepting embargoed materials. As of now, 10 countries have joined the United States -- Britain, France, Germany, Australia, Japan, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland, and the Netherlands.

It would certainly be wrong for us to be taken in by whatever theatricals Kim Jong-il has in store for us on September 9. He may have a captive audience at home, but we don't have to be a part of it.

Helle Dale is the Deputy Director of The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. 

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Originally appeared in the Washington Times