Why has the Bush administration lost interest in North Korea?
There were a good number of sneers and jeers when President George W. Bush first employed the term "axis of evil," but I don't remember reading very many criticisms of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, by which Congress, among other things, established the post of special envoy for human rights in North Korea and directed him or her to submit an annual report. Now, for a small prize in the seasonal spirit, can you tell me the name of our special envoy? I rather thought not. In fact, I have to confess that if I had not run into Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a Washington cocktail party a couple of years ago and been told by her of his newly mandated appointment, I would not have heard of Jay Lefkowitz, either. The president named him to the job on Aug. 19, 2005. That was a banner year for the supporters of human rights in Kim Jong-il's hellish and hermetic state. On June 13, Bush had received in the White House North Korean defector Kang Chol-Hwan, author of the chillingly brilliant memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang, which describes the gulag system that operates in that unprecedentedly wretched country.
The State Department's report to Congress this year puts the case with powerful understatement: "There are an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 North Koreans in a vast network of political concentration camps." Given that even the conditions of nonprisoners in North Korea are such as to induce quite severe malnutrition (the average North Korean is now somewhere between 5 and 6 inches shorter than his or her South Korean counterpart), it hardly bears imagining what the state of affairs in its penal colonies must be like. There is no reason to think that Kang Chol-Hwan's book, with its horrific descriptions of starvation and slavery (and collective punishment of entire families for the alleged "offenses" of individual family members) is in any way exaggerated.
North Korea is, in fact, a slave state in the true meaning of the word. Everybody within its borders is forced to toil in famine conditions for the members of a dynastic crime family. The state even franchises indentured Korean labor for work contracts abroad, pocketing the profit from these operations and putting it toward the surplus on which such a poor country finances such an exorbitant weapons program. When runaway slaves are caught, fleeing across frozen rivers to the grim and inhospitable border provinces of China, they have been known to be led back in coffles, with wire threaded through their noses or collarbones, before being handed over to the punishment system. Kang Chol-Hwan certainly got the impression that our president meant business and meant also to stress the obvious connection between the slavery issue and the madly aggressive and destabilizing regional policies of the regime in respect of nuclear weapons. As he wrote after his visit to the White House:
I told the President about the plight of North Korean people, and we shared sincere opinions on how to save them. … I now realize that the Lord wanted to use President Bush to let the blind world see what is happening to His people in North Korea. With one simple stroke of God's finger, the bleak reality, in which nearly no-one cared about the ghosts of three million famished souls and hundreds of thousands more in the concentration camps in my home country, was instantly changed.
The Kim Jong-il slaveholder regime also made the same connection, denouncing Kang Chol-Hwan as "human scum" and announcing that, by agreeing to meet with him, President Bush had thrown "a wet blanket" on the negotiations about nuclear weapons. Since that time, the regime has tested a small nuclear weapon and (less successfully but no less suggestively) test-fired the sort of long-range missile that one day might be able to deliver it.
But also since that time, President Bush has lost his interest in the slaves of North Korea and has instead addressed himself politely if not indeed slightly fawningly to the other "Lord"—the deranged godhead who claims to be a fresh incarnation of his beloved father and to own North Korea and all the people in it. "Dear Mr. Chairman," wrote Bush to this gargoyle on Dec. 1, asking if he might be interested in resuming the apparently endless fan dance over what secret nuclear facilities North Korea boasts and what rich tributes it might expect for coming clean about them. There wasn't even the smallest suggestion of a "linkage," as there had been in, say, the State of the Union speech in 2002, between progress on the nuclear question and advances on the human-rights front.
Indeed, it seems as though we are back to the same horse-trading style that marked the Clinton years, where North Korea pretends to comply on plutonium and reactor inspections and we pretend that the subsequent food aid and diplomatic contact does not have the effect of prolonging the life and credit of the Kim Jong-il regime. White House spokesman Scott Stanzel obviously didn't feel too terrifically upbeat about the exchange of letters between Bush and Kim, because he declined to specify what had been said and even urged reporters "to get in touch with Kim Jong-il and ask him that question." It's come to something when our official spinners suggest that we might have better luck asking questions of the world's most secretive totalitarian despot than of our own elected government.
You may ask why Bush's letter was headed "Dear Mr. Chairman" instead of "Dear Mr. President." As one who has been in Pyongyang and verified this himself, I can tell you the reason. Kim Jong-il, the "dear leader," is the head of the army and of the party but not of the state. The office of the presidency is still held by his long-dead father, the "great leader" Kim Il Sung. This makes North Korea into a necrocracy or a thanatocracy—no joke when you consider that its two chief pursuits consist of threatening to murder its neighbors while actually murdering its own civilians. One might feel slightly ashamed that the Bush administration seemed to raise the hopes of the North Korean slaves before dashing them, but we can perhaps console ourselves with the thought that—absolutist control being what it is—very few of the enslaved ever got to hear of the promise before it was discarded.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Kim Jong-il by Pool/Getty Images.