Bushies to Human Rights Envoy: Shut Up
In North Korea, it's almost impossible to separate nuclear policy from human rights.
A few weeks ago, I wrote slightly disobligingly about Jay Lefkowitz, the man who holds the new congressionally mandated post of special envoy for human rights in North Korea. The North Korean state does not recognize the concept of human rights and considers every one of its citizens to be the property of the ruling family, so Lefkowitz's job is admittedly an extremely difficult one, but I tried to call attention to the way in which he (in his rather slender annual report to Congress), and the administration in general, had gone somewhat quiet on the subject of North Korea's famine-stricken slave society, all the while involving themselves in "constructive engagement" with "dear leader" Kim Jong-il on the question of nuclear facilities.
I like to imagine that my little essay stung Lefkowitz a bit. At any event, he got up on his hind legs at the American Enterprise Institute in the third week of January and made an explicit criticism of the Bush administration that he serves. The State Department's insistence on "diplomacy," he argued, had yielded nothing but another round of stalling and obfuscation from Pyongyang on the weapons issue. He could have added that it had yielded no improvement at all in the monstrous exploitation of the North Korean people. It was time, he concluded, that the United States "should consider a new approach" to this longstanding impasse.
This brought our secretary of state into a fine pitch of indignation. As the report in the New York Times of Jan. 23 phrased it, "Ms. Rice sharply disagreed, and said Mr. Lefkowitz should stick to human rights and leave the talks over the North's nuclear policy to her, Mr. Bush and the other nations involved: Russia, China, Japan and South Korea." Or, as she even more pithily phrased it herself:
He's the human rights envoy. That's what he knows. That's what he does. He doesn't work on the six-party talks. He doesn't know what's going on in the six-party talks and he certainly has no say in what American policy will be in the six-party talks.
How could it be put more plainly? Stick to human rights, little man, and be aware that we consider such inconveniences to be a sideshow at best. It seems a long time since the president was receiving North Korean dissidents in the White House and speaking forcefully about the way that Kim Jong-il starves the inhabitants of his terrified satrapy.
Unfortunately for the Condoleezza Rice analysis, it is very difficult to separate the political and the military aspects of the North Korea problem into two "tracks." The specific method of enslavement north of the border is to consider all citizens to be conscripts as well as serfs, an unprecedented mobilization that in the last resort has every North Korean a robotized soldier. This, in turn, especially given the proximity of the South Korean capital, Seoul, to the so-called "demilitarized zone," compels South Korea to maintain a disproportionate armed force and the United States to commit an extraordinary number of its own troops, ships, and airplanes. (I have seen the DMZ at Panmunjom from both sides, and I cannot understand how the most heavily militarized strip of territory on earth can have earned its official name.) Because of famine and exploitation, the average North Korean soldier is now as much as 6 inches shorter than his South Korean counterpart. The struggle—ideological, political, and military—would be more or less over if Pyongyang did not have a thermonuclear capacity and a well-earned reputation for being governed by an unpredictable psychopath who may not understand the concept of self-preservation.
So, we try to separate the two questions of nukes and human rights at our political as well as moral peril. But suppose that a cold-blooded approach, feeding and sustaining the regime with fuel oil and other forms of aid to induce disarmament, could be justified? Suppose, in other words, that we say we don't care about prolonging slavery and flattering slave owners ("Dear Mr. Chairman," as the president wrote so politely to Kim Jong-il in his last letter) as long as incremental steps continue to be made. Well, how would we know about such steps? When the policy was last being justified, the North Koreans were supposed to have filed a full-disclosure statement, itemizing all their nuclear programs and capabilities, by Dec. 31, 2007. The deadline, which had been set the preceding October, came and went, and the North Koreans, when prodded, made the astonishing statement that they had long ago complied with the obligation. This flabbergasting line was about par for the course, and the best the administration's apologists have been able to argue since is that Kim Jong-il is being fairly transparent about his plutonium holdings while being perhaps a little more tricky about his uranium ones.
Now, this might not matter so much if it were only as irritating and humiliating as the long-drawn-out charade that we played with Saddam Hussein and are still playing with the Iranian mullahs. But meanwhile, we are authorizing and expediting the delivery of essential fuel and food to the regime, and thus becoming co-administrators and physical guarantors of the most cruel and oppressive system of tyranny on the planet. This has been the Pyongyang blackmail racket through several administrations now: exploit strategic ambiguity to acquire the resources that it cannot generate for itself. That's why Lefkowitz was right to speak up and right to imply that it is within the terms of his brief to do so. We could be telling the Chinese that their indulgence of North Korea's twin evils of nuclear piracy and slave economics is no longer acceptable to us or to our allies in the region. Instead, we have a secretary of state who knows how to be silkily polite to Kim Jong-il and can only be publicly rude to her own envoy for human rights.
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 KCNA/AFP/Getty Images.