Commentary Magazine


Topic: Kim Jong-un

Appeasing Nuclear Tyrannies Doesn’t Work

The news that North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-un has executed his uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek has provoked jokes about family spats run amok and further confirmed the conventional wisdom that the Communist nation is the craziest place on Earth. The purge of the uncle may be, as the New York Times says, a power struggle about the future of a country desperately in need of reform and rational leadership. In that scenario, Jang Song-thaek might have been an incipient Khrushchev or Gorbachev to his nephew’s Stalin. Or it may just be in the grip of the sort of bloody dynastic court politics that was a staple of monarchies in an earlier, less enlightened era in Western as well as Eastern civilizations. Think of Game of Thrones with nuclear weapons rather than dragons and zombies and maybe that makes some sense of North Korea.

Yet the mention of North Korea’s nuclear capability should remind us that the wacky goings-on in Pyongyang are not just the stuff of a cable thriller. What happens in the impoverished northern half of the land once known as the Hermit Kingdom may seem as remote to our existence as the mythical continent of Westeros in George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels, but the fact that Kim Jong-un has his stubby little fingers on a nuclear button ought to stand the hairs on the back of our heads on end. But the fact that he was largely handed control of a small, but growing nuclear arsenal through a bipartisan policy of appeasement carried out by both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations is more than an unfortunate aspect of a horror story. If, as seems likely, the United States is currently embarked on a similar effort to achieve détente with another maniacal tyranny bent on gaining nuclear capability, what is really shocking is that official Washington has learned so little from its mistakes with North Korea.

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The news that North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-un has executed his uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek has provoked jokes about family spats run amok and further confirmed the conventional wisdom that the Communist nation is the craziest place on Earth. The purge of the uncle may be, as the New York Times says, a power struggle about the future of a country desperately in need of reform and rational leadership. In that scenario, Jang Song-thaek might have been an incipient Khrushchev or Gorbachev to his nephew’s Stalin. Or it may just be in the grip of the sort of bloody dynastic court politics that was a staple of monarchies in an earlier, less enlightened era in Western as well as Eastern civilizations. Think of Game of Thrones with nuclear weapons rather than dragons and zombies and maybe that makes some sense of North Korea.

Yet the mention of North Korea’s nuclear capability should remind us that the wacky goings-on in Pyongyang are not just the stuff of a cable thriller. What happens in the impoverished northern half of the land once known as the Hermit Kingdom may seem as remote to our existence as the mythical continent of Westeros in George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels, but the fact that Kim Jong-un has his stubby little fingers on a nuclear button ought to stand the hairs on the back of our heads on end. But the fact that he was largely handed control of a small, but growing nuclear arsenal through a bipartisan policy of appeasement carried out by both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations is more than an unfortunate aspect of a horror story. If, as seems likely, the United States is currently embarked on a similar effort to achieve détente with another maniacal tyranny bent on gaining nuclear capability, what is really shocking is that official Washington has learned so little from its mistakes with North Korea.

The differences between North Korea, where a bizarre family dynasty misgoverns a nation by employing Stalinist-style Communism, and Iran are vast. Kim Jong-un almost makes Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose anti-Semitic and anti-Western rants are broadcast live on Iranian TV, look like a rational actor. Though it is governed by Islamist theocrats whose mystical beliefs are as scary as North Korean ruling family dynamics, Iran is a place with a sophisticated system of government and an advanced economy that was, at least until recently, fueled by oil exports.

But it should not be forgotten that while the Obama administration has bought into the myth that the selection of a supposed moderate, Hassan Rouhani, in Iran’s faux presidential election, meant that the Islamist tyranny had become a haven for moderation, the reality of Iran is very different. As much as Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seemed like a cartoon villain, that Holocaust denying demagogue was quite representative of the character and ethos of his nation’s government.

The point is, American diplomats, and in particular State Department staffer Wendy Sherman, who helped lead the talks with North Korea under Clinton, were convinced that the irrational nature of the dictatorship was no bar to a common sense deal. Why wouldn’t the current dictator’s father accept a huge bribe to foreswear nuclear weapons? The North Koreans took the money and the aid and then violated every agreement they had signed and got their bomb. Today, Sherman, who has been recycled and rewarded for failure by being given the task of leading negotiations with Iran, thinks what didn’t work with North Korea will succeed with Iran. The U.S. has discarded the impressive economic and military leverage it had over Tehran and signed a deal predicated on the notion that Iran is run by rational people who prefer the welfare of their people to the dream of nuclear weapons.

But just as the megalomania of the North Korean leadership always trumped any idea of their nation’s economic interests, the Iranian theocrats will always prioritize their vision of regional hegemony in which nukes will be complimented by their thriving side business funding international terrorism and their alliances with the Assad clan in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and perhaps a renewed friendship with Hamas in Gaza. And at the pinnacle of the Iranian system remains an autocratic cleric who dreams of destroying Israel and has no interest in détente with the West. Appeasing him and his minions is just as futile a task as Sherman’s previous efforts in North Korea.

Laugh all you want about the craziness in North Korea and pretend, if you can manage it, that their nuclear arsenal doesn’t pose a threat to the U.S. But the cost of playing the same game in Iran will be even higher. Appeasing or containing a nuclear tyranny run by hate-filled theocrats is as hopeless as was the attempt to do the same thing with one run by a Stalinist family gang. Though Obama, Kerry, and Sherman want the nuclear deals signed with North Korea to be thrown down the memory hole, they stand as an indictment against the administration’s current Iran policy.

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The Barbaric Cruelty of North Korea

It seems like only yesterday that gullible commentators were welcoming the ascension of Stalinist prince Kim Jong-un in North Korea and claiming he would inaugurate a new era of openness. There has since been scant evidence of change–and to the extent that there has been change, it has generally been for the worse. 

The latest sign of just how despicable this regime is? The detention of an 85-year-old American, a Korean War veteran named Merrill Newman, who was hauled off his airplane as he was about to leave the North at the end of a tour. His family has no idea why he was arrested. They don’t even know if he has received the drugs he needs to keep him alive, which they have sent via the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang. 

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It seems like only yesterday that gullible commentators were welcoming the ascension of Stalinist prince Kim Jong-un in North Korea and claiming he would inaugurate a new era of openness. There has since been scant evidence of change–and to the extent that there has been change, it has generally been for the worse. 

The latest sign of just how despicable this regime is? The detention of an 85-year-old American, a Korean War veteran named Merrill Newman, who was hauled off his airplane as he was about to leave the North at the end of a tour. His family has no idea why he was arrested. They don’t even know if he has received the drugs he needs to keep him alive, which they have sent via the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang. 

Even by North Korea’s barbaric standards, this is pretty cruel and shocking behavior. Moreover, it makes little sense from the standpoint of a regime that would like to encourage tourism to keep a small pittance of hard-currency earnings flowing. 

It’s impossible to say why the North Koreans detained Newman. But it’s obvious that this is yet another sign of a hard-line regime that will never voluntarily liberalize on its own, at least not under Kim Jong-un’s leadership.

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Does North Korea Sense U.S. Weakness?

At first glance, the news coming out of North Korea would seem to have nothing to do with President Obama’s dispiriting retreat on Syria. Young dictator Kim Jong-un’s mad regime needs no foreign incentives or influences to impel it toward provocations or abuses. Thus, the news that–in violation of its six-year-old promise to the Bush administration to dismantle its nuclear reactor–steam is emerging from a reconstructed facility is hardly surprising. The North Koreans already have enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons and it will, according to the New York Times, take years for the reactor at the Yongbyon complex to produce more of the material. The conventional wisdom about this is that the cash-starved regime is hoping to entice the West to once again bribe it to desist from further nuclear work. Since such tactics have often worked in the past, it’s hard to blame Dennis Rodman’s buddy from seeing if he can squeeze more concessions out of the United States knowing his country’s status as a nuclear power gives him impunity.

But coming as this does just months after Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test, which was accompanied by bluster threatening nuclear attacks on South Korea and anyone else it can reach if more international sanctions are imposed on it, it might be a mistake to put this down as just business as usual in North Korea. Though most Americans ignore the country except when its goofy leader poses with Western nitwits who come to visit, the heavily armed North is always a hair trigger away from starting a shooting war along the 38th parallel that would immediately involve the U.S. in a conflict that would be the opposite of “incredibly small.” While predicting the actions of a country as crazy as North Korea is impossible, it would be a mistake to think that the basketball fan running it hasn’t been watching the dismaying spectacle of U.S. indecision and impotence on Syria and drawing his own conclusions. Most of us have been rightly worried about the impact of the president’s decisions on Iran’s conduct. But perhaps we should be just as worried about whether Kim Jong-un is thinking such a moment of American weakness is the perfect opportunity for him to stage another provocation along the border or even something more ambitious.

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At first glance, the news coming out of North Korea would seem to have nothing to do with President Obama’s dispiriting retreat on Syria. Young dictator Kim Jong-un’s mad regime needs no foreign incentives or influences to impel it toward provocations or abuses. Thus, the news that–in violation of its six-year-old promise to the Bush administration to dismantle its nuclear reactor–steam is emerging from a reconstructed facility is hardly surprising. The North Koreans already have enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons and it will, according to the New York Times, take years for the reactor at the Yongbyon complex to produce more of the material. The conventional wisdom about this is that the cash-starved regime is hoping to entice the West to once again bribe it to desist from further nuclear work. Since such tactics have often worked in the past, it’s hard to blame Dennis Rodman’s buddy from seeing if he can squeeze more concessions out of the United States knowing his country’s status as a nuclear power gives him impunity.

But coming as this does just months after Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test, which was accompanied by bluster threatening nuclear attacks on South Korea and anyone else it can reach if more international sanctions are imposed on it, it might be a mistake to put this down as just business as usual in North Korea. Though most Americans ignore the country except when its goofy leader poses with Western nitwits who come to visit, the heavily armed North is always a hair trigger away from starting a shooting war along the 38th parallel that would immediately involve the U.S. in a conflict that would be the opposite of “incredibly small.” While predicting the actions of a country as crazy as North Korea is impossible, it would be a mistake to think that the basketball fan running it hasn’t been watching the dismaying spectacle of U.S. indecision and impotence on Syria and drawing his own conclusions. Most of us have been rightly worried about the impact of the president’s decisions on Iran’s conduct. But perhaps we should be just as worried about whether Kim Jong-un is thinking such a moment of American weakness is the perfect opportunity for him to stage another provocation along the border or even something more ambitious.

The details about North Korea’s blatant violations of the nuclear agreements it made with the West are bad enough if viewed only in the context of a divided peninsula that the Communist regime shares with a prosperous and democratic republic in the south. Previous administrations have repeatedly fallen for what former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called Pyongyang’s tactic of selling the West “the same horse twice.” The spectacle of President Obama buying into Russia’s offers to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons may certainly encourage the North to think they should at least try to blackmail an American president who shows a clear aversion to confrontation.

But though this administration has so far refused to play along with that game, the assumption that the North Koreans are all talk when it comes to threats may be proved wrong if an insecure dictator thinks the U.S. is weak. Should he draw the conclusion that an Obama who is unable to get Congress or public opinion behind a limited strike on Syria would be similarly impotent should Korea blow up, the consequences could be catastrophic.

As much as the president and his supporters are trying to spin the Syria fiasco as a limited event that won’t impact his ability to govern, this sort of weakness can’t be contained to one country or even one region. We’ve already seen Russia moving to try to fill the vacuum Obama has created in the Middle East. Don’t be surprised if the maniacal North Korean regime thinks it can play the same game with potentially awful consequences for its neighbors and the world.

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The Untested Kim Jong-un

The latest crisis emanating from Pyongyang is almost enough to make you nostalgic for Kim Jong-il who died at the end of 2011. Sure, he may have been a murderous tyrant who lived the high life while his people literally starved—but at least he was predictable and conservative in his actions. Not so his callow son and successor Kim Jong-un, who appears bent on escalating tensions with South Korea, the United States, and Japan so as to consolidate his shaky legitimacy to rule the North.

Young Kim’s regime has already said it will no longer abide by the Korean War armistice and that a “state of war” now exists on the peninsula. He has tested nuclear and ballistic weapons. He has cut off the redline telephones that maintained communications with the U.S. and South Korea. He has threatened to attack not only South Korea but the U.S.—in fact displaying supposed war plans toward that end in a doctored photo. He is also widely suspected of launching a cyber attack on South Korea.

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The latest crisis emanating from Pyongyang is almost enough to make you nostalgic for Kim Jong-il who died at the end of 2011. Sure, he may have been a murderous tyrant who lived the high life while his people literally starved—but at least he was predictable and conservative in his actions. Not so his callow son and successor Kim Jong-un, who appears bent on escalating tensions with South Korea, the United States, and Japan so as to consolidate his shaky legitimacy to rule the North.

Young Kim’s regime has already said it will no longer abide by the Korean War armistice and that a “state of war” now exists on the peninsula. He has tested nuclear and ballistic weapons. He has cut off the redline telephones that maintained communications with the U.S. and South Korea. He has threatened to attack not only South Korea but the U.S.—in fact displaying supposed war plans toward that end in a doctored photo. He is also widely suspected of launching a cyber attack on South Korea.

Now he is even threatening to close the Kaesong complex where some 53,000 North Koreans are employed by South Korean companies—an important source of revenue for the cash-starved North. Kaesong has survived previous Korean crises and it is likely to survive this one, but it is a sign of how untested Kim Jong-un is that no one can be sure he won’t do something crazy and self-destructive. If Kaseong is closed, the odds of a North Korean attack on the South grow immeasurably—albeit, likely a limited attack, not an all-out offensive.

Faced with ample provocations, the Obama administration has adopted the right tone of firmness. The administration has certainly caught the world’s attention by sending B-2 and F-22 stealth aircraft to overfly South Korea—a clear signal of the kind of overwhelming military might that the U.S. and its allies can marshal if the North reignites active hostilities. The U.S. and South Korea must be wary of a spiral of reaction and counter-reaction that could spark a war that no one wants—but knuckling under now and giving Kim Jong-un further concessions, as the U.S. has done in the past, will only encourage more of this belligerent behavior in the future. Young Kim must learn that he is not going to be rewarded for his reckless militarism.  

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Yet Another North Korean Provocation

On Monday, North Korean authorities announced that their military would require more preparation time in order to send a long-range rocket, due to technical difficulties. Only two days later, the North Koreans fired the missile to the world’s surprise and, soon, condemnation. This is a familiar dance between the North Koreans and the international community, and one that has played out for three generations of Kims in power in the reclusive totalitarian state. In this month’s issue of COMMENTARY, Jay P. Lefkowitz discussed the phenomenon:

The Six Party Talks have fostered a dynamic whereby every time the regime needs foreign assistance, it engages in a provocative action, whether of a military or diplomatic nature, that is seen as a threat to the stability of the region. The international community then condemns the action and threatens, or imposes, new sanctions. The North Koreans promise to be on better behavior and are rewarded with an infusion of hard currency or food aid. Soon, North Korea flexes its muscles again and the cycle of aggression, reaction, and reward begins afresh.

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On Monday, North Korean authorities announced that their military would require more preparation time in order to send a long-range rocket, due to technical difficulties. Only two days later, the North Koreans fired the missile to the world’s surprise and, soon, condemnation. This is a familiar dance between the North Koreans and the international community, and one that has played out for three generations of Kims in power in the reclusive totalitarian state. In this month’s issue of COMMENTARY, Jay P. Lefkowitz discussed the phenomenon:

The Six Party Talks have fostered a dynamic whereby every time the regime needs foreign assistance, it engages in a provocative action, whether of a military or diplomatic nature, that is seen as a threat to the stability of the region. The international community then condemns the action and threatens, or imposes, new sanctions. The North Koreans promise to be on better behavior and are rewarded with an infusion of hard currency or food aid. Soon, North Korea flexes its muscles again and the cycle of aggression, reaction, and reward begins afresh.

Most Western observers were left guessing as to what was behind North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s decision to rush the rocket launch. The South Korean government has the best insight and intelligence into its repressive, secretive neighbor, and sources there are suggesting the North is experiencing a level of unrest not seen in the nation in years. Reuters reported last week, 

Kim himself warned of the danger of “rebellious elements” in North Korean society last month and recently met the country’s top law enforcement officials.

“There is a large-scale witch-hunt going on,” a senior official in South Korea’s presidential office said.

He spoke with foreign journalists on condition of anonymity due to concerns over rising tensions between the two Koreas over the rocket launch and his comments could not be independently verified, although the South gathers intelligence on North Korea.

Kim has purged much of the top military leadership that he inherited from his father in recent months and often appears in public with armed guards, indicating concerns over unrest, the South Korean official said.

The official said that Kim, believed to turn 30 next year, had ordered modern equipment for his riot police from another country and had also had them trained to handle possible civil disturbances.

“We know that North Korea is sending riot police for training to another country and they are importing a lot of equipment for the riot police,” he said.

He declined to name the country and said that there had been no signs that Seoul could see of unrest in North Korea.

Kim met this week with top North Korean law enforcement officials, according to Pyongyang’s state news agency KCNA and the South Korean official said that the message had gone out to prevent the possible spread of dissent.

“They are trying to root out those who are not happy with North Korea,” the South Korean official said.

Considering the news that the satellite attached to the rocket is spinning out of control, it’s increasingly likely that Kim Jong-un pushed ahead with the launch despite major technical difficulties. Could Kim be worried about quelling internal unrest, and thus decided to risk the satellite’s demise in order to test the rocket–which many believe to be the real aim of the launch? Without any reliable intelligence inside North Korea, the best that most experts can do is speculate. This week’s launch and the resulting condemnation follow a familiar pattern that usually ends in international aid.

Lefkowitz suggests an alternative, starting with linking U.S. human rights interests with its security interests. One might hope, especially after this week’s provocation, that the president has learned that adopting another approach has become necessary.

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No Real Reform in North Korea

Today’s New York Times article featuring interviews with a handful of North Koreans visiting China should throw a big pail of cold water on the excessive hopes expressed by so many who think that the new dictator, Kim Jong-un, is likely to transform the country he inherited, like a piece of furniture or real estate, from the previous dictator, his dad Kim Jong-il. Like other dictatorial spawn–including, lest we forget, Bashar Assad–the younger Kim has taken a few stylistic steps to distinguish himself from the old man. These include allowing women in Pyongyang to wear Western-style clothes and backing amusement parks for the elite. Young Kim is even speaking in public, something his father famously refused to do.

But the conditions of the vast majority of North Koreans remain grim. As the Times article notes, “The price of rice has doubled since early summer, and chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials continue to idle most factories, leaving millions unemployed.” The Times reporter quotes a middle-aged woman known as Mrs. Kim: “Why would I care about the new clothing of government officials and their children when I can’t feed my family?” Ordinary North Koreans, even relatively privileged ones like her, spend much of their time simply trying to scrounge up enough food to survive. The article sums up conditions thus: “Emaciated beggars haunt train stations, they said, while well-connected businessmen continue to grow rich from trading with China and government officials flourish by collecting fines and bribes.”

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Today’s New York Times article featuring interviews with a handful of North Koreans visiting China should throw a big pail of cold water on the excessive hopes expressed by so many who think that the new dictator, Kim Jong-un, is likely to transform the country he inherited, like a piece of furniture or real estate, from the previous dictator, his dad Kim Jong-il. Like other dictatorial spawn–including, lest we forget, Bashar Assad–the younger Kim has taken a few stylistic steps to distinguish himself from the old man. These include allowing women in Pyongyang to wear Western-style clothes and backing amusement parks for the elite. Young Kim is even speaking in public, something his father famously refused to do.

But the conditions of the vast majority of North Koreans remain grim. As the Times article notes, “The price of rice has doubled since early summer, and chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials continue to idle most factories, leaving millions unemployed.” The Times reporter quotes a middle-aged woman known as Mrs. Kim: “Why would I care about the new clothing of government officials and their children when I can’t feed my family?” Ordinary North Koreans, even relatively privileged ones like her, spend much of their time simply trying to scrounge up enough food to survive. The article sums up conditions thus: “Emaciated beggars haunt train stations, they said, while well-connected businessmen continue to grow rich from trading with China and government officials flourish by collecting fines and bribes.”

You can read more about what life is like in North Korea in Melanie Kirkpatrick’s fine new book, “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad.” Sadly, we cannot expect real change as long as Kim remains in power because he knows that a serious opening will jeopardize the good life that he has inherited. To expect otherwise is to engage in wishful thinking.

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Why Is North Korea So Poor?

The answer should be stunningly obvious, but don’t tell Reuters. In the course of an article about the divergent fates that await victorious North Korean athletes and those who have failed, comes this:

The reality is that life is tough in North Korea in the best of times, however. International sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, a decaying economy and a defective food distribution system have left almost a third of its 24 million people poor and hungry and it has few friends besides its neighbor China.

It really takes an intellectual contortionist wearing blinders to miss so utterly the reasons for North Korea’s failure: it’s a totalitarian state that holds its own citizens in contempt. International sanctions may target the North’s weapons program but, if sanctions were waived tomorrow, the only beneficiaries would be Kim Jong-un and the military. The food distribution system is not defective, just misaligned. After all, it was the regime and military that benefited when the Clinton administration shipped food aid to North Korea. The regime maintains the Songbun, a social classification system that marks North Koreans for life. A tiny few benefit; most are disposable.

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The answer should be stunningly obvious, but don’t tell Reuters. In the course of an article about the divergent fates that await victorious North Korean athletes and those who have failed, comes this:

The reality is that life is tough in North Korea in the best of times, however. International sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, a decaying economy and a defective food distribution system have left almost a third of its 24 million people poor and hungry and it has few friends besides its neighbor China.

It really takes an intellectual contortionist wearing blinders to miss so utterly the reasons for North Korea’s failure: it’s a totalitarian state that holds its own citizens in contempt. International sanctions may target the North’s weapons program but, if sanctions were waived tomorrow, the only beneficiaries would be Kim Jong-un and the military. The food distribution system is not defective, just misaligned. After all, it was the regime and military that benefited when the Clinton administration shipped food aid to North Korea. The regime maintains the Songbun, a social classification system that marks North Koreans for life. A tiny few benefit; most are disposable.

Nor was North Korea’s economic decay a passive process. Rather than invest in expanding the economy, the North Korean leadership siphoned all investment into its million plus man army. There is no better illustration today of the human cost of communism and dictatorship than the juxtaposition between North and South Korea.

Reuters may have thought that their explanation of North Korean woes to be a throwaway sentence, a bit of background for those who do not the poverty that blankets North Korea today. When it comes to North Korea, however, there can be no way around blame: The responsibility for North Korea’s dire situation rests solely and completely on its murderous, totalitarian regime.

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Don’t Be Fooled by North Korean Stunts

North Korea’s new dictator, Kim Jong-un, is getting a lot of publicity for the stylistic changes that separate him from his recently departed father, Kim Jong-il. He has actually made speeches in public. He has shown up at a concert where Mickey Mouse and other (unlicensed) Disney characters performed. And now he has revealed that he has a wife, the good-looking young “comrade,” Ri Sol-ju. There have even been reports of a top general getting fired, a move whose import is hotly debated among North Korea watchers–is the regime rent by dangerous schisms or is this a sign that young Kim is consolidating control?

No one knows. Which is precisely the point. Dear Leader the 3rd is getting breathless attention for pulling back the curtain a millimeter on his life. Only in the context of the world’s most closely controlled Stalinist state is this news. The fact that no one has any idea of what is actually going on behind the scenes suggests that we should not be distracted by a few publicity stunts. Life in North Korea has not changed a whit since the 3rd Dear Leader took over from the 2nd. A quarter of a million North Koreans remain confined to hellish gulags and the rest of the population–24 million people–is still living in the most abject poverty and isolation. Meanwhile, the leadership continues to lavish what little money they have on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and their own extravagant perks.

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North Korea’s new dictator, Kim Jong-un, is getting a lot of publicity for the stylistic changes that separate him from his recently departed father, Kim Jong-il. He has actually made speeches in public. He has shown up at a concert where Mickey Mouse and other (unlicensed) Disney characters performed. And now he has revealed that he has a wife, the good-looking young “comrade,” Ri Sol-ju. There have even been reports of a top general getting fired, a move whose import is hotly debated among North Korea watchers–is the regime rent by dangerous schisms or is this a sign that young Kim is consolidating control?

No one knows. Which is precisely the point. Dear Leader the 3rd is getting breathless attention for pulling back the curtain a millimeter on his life. Only in the context of the world’s most closely controlled Stalinist state is this news. The fact that no one has any idea of what is actually going on behind the scenes suggests that we should not be distracted by a few publicity stunts. Life in North Korea has not changed a whit since the 3rd Dear Leader took over from the 2nd. A quarter of a million North Koreans remain confined to hellish gulags and the rest of the population–24 million people–is still living in the most abject poverty and isolation. Meanwhile, the leadership continues to lavish what little money they have on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and their own extravagant perks.

There is a long tradition of imputing reformist tendencies on any new ruler of any totalitarian state, especially when that ruler has spent some time abroad. (Kim went to school in Switzerland and is said to love NBA basketball.) Remember when the jazz-loving Yuri Andropov was supposed to reform the Soviet Union? Or, more recently, when the former Londoner Bashar al-Assad, with his chic young wife, was supposed to reform Syria? Such reformers do come along occasionally–think of Deng Xiaoping or Mikhail Gorbachev–but they are extremely rare and almost never part of a hereditary dynasty of dictators, as is the case with both Assad and Kim.

Let us not make the mistake of wishful thinking in regard to North Korea. It is and remains an evil regime that oppresses its own people and threatens regional stability. The chances of Kim making meaningful reforms from within are slim to none. Only through peaceful unification with South Korea will the grim reality of the north change for good.

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What Price Friendship?

If President Obama wrote a thesaurus, he’d probably list “friendship” and “respect” as synonyms. When he and his allies seek affirmation for their foreign policy, they cite the friendly relations they have with some of the world’s worst dictators and would-be dictators.

Obama is willing to hand dissidents and defectors back to their oppressors; write human rights off the agenda with Russia; and calls Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan one of his closest friends. Previously, he reached out to Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi and Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.

Establishing friendly relations with dictators is not hard: All one needs to do is cede all principle and give them everything they want. Take Kim Jong-un: While even Obama would not go so far, he could make the young North Korean demigod America’s closest ally if only he would abandon South Korea, withdraw U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula, and provide all the luxury goods money could buy.

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If President Obama wrote a thesaurus, he’d probably list “friendship” and “respect” as synonyms. When he and his allies seek affirmation for their foreign policy, they cite the friendly relations they have with some of the world’s worst dictators and would-be dictators.

Obama is willing to hand dissidents and defectors back to their oppressors; write human rights off the agenda with Russia; and calls Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan one of his closest friends. Previously, he reached out to Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi and Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.

Establishing friendly relations with dictators is not hard: All one needs to do is cede all principle and give them everything they want. Take Kim Jong-un: While even Obama would not go so far, he could make the young North Korean demigod America’s closest ally if only he would abandon South Korea, withdraw U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula, and provide all the luxury goods money could buy.

To court Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, Obama effectively throws Great Britain under the bus and suggests merit in her claims to the Falkland Islands. To support the “reset” with Russia, the Obama administration basically allowed Russian strongman Vladimir Putin to dictate terms for the START Treaty; and to better relations with Iran, Obama has ceded Iran not only the right to enrich uranium despite hard-fought UN Security Council resolutions declaring the opposite, but with a nod and a wink decided to allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability, basically putting Iran within a week of building a bomb whenever its leaders choose to take that step. That Iranian powers-that-be make clear they will never allow rapprochement with Washington is simply a fact Obama chooses to ignore.

Obama’s embrace of Turkey has been little better: To win Erdoğan’s friendship, Obama not only turned a blind eye to the Turkish populists’ efforts to curtail civil rights and liberties but also his embrace of terrorism and religious incitement. While Obama can point to Turkey’s participation in Afghanistan, the Turks have hardly been onboard with American goals there. To win Erdoğan’s embrace, Obama has had to turn a blind eye toward the prime minister’s loathing of Israel, a deep-rooted hatred which now interferes with U.S. and NATO core interests. With an intelligence chief who openly sympathizes with Iran, and a military which seeks to reverse engineer American technology, military cooperation with Turkey comes at a high price. The only silver lining radar system is a different story, but even that cooperation is less than meets the eye.

The 2012 presidential election will be far more about the economy than foreign policy. Governor Mitt Romney is staking a clear position vis-à-vis both Iran and Israel, but when it comes to countries like Turkey, it might be time for him to explain whether maintaining the ties between Washington and Ankara are worth the cost.

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North Koreans Fool Obama Again

On Feb. 29, the Obama administration agreed to give North Korea 240,000 tons of food aid in return for a return for a North Korean moratorium on long-range missile tests, nuclear tests, uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities. Then last week North Korea announced that it was planning a satellite launch which of course involves using a long-range rocket in contravention of the “leap day” deal. This week North Korea says it will welcome International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors back after a hiatus of three years, thus seemingly  upholding another aspect of the deal.

What’s going on? Why is Pyongyang making deals, then taking actions that immediately repudiate them, while promising to adhere to other parts of the accord? No one really knows whether this is sheer duplicity on the part of the North Korean leadership or a rivalry among different branches of the government, some of which might want to strike a deal and others that don’t. Given that North Korea has a young and untested leader, Kim Jong-un, anything is possible. But whatever the case there is absolutely no reason to trust the North Koreans who, under the dictatorship of Kim Jung Il, father of the current supreme leader, showed a genius for manipulating the West into reaching deals and then violating all of their commitments.

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On Feb. 29, the Obama administration agreed to give North Korea 240,000 tons of food aid in return for a return for a North Korean moratorium on long-range missile tests, nuclear tests, uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities. Then last week North Korea announced that it was planning a satellite launch which of course involves using a long-range rocket in contravention of the “leap day” deal. This week North Korea says it will welcome International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors back after a hiatus of three years, thus seemingly  upholding another aspect of the deal.

What’s going on? Why is Pyongyang making deals, then taking actions that immediately repudiate them, while promising to adhere to other parts of the accord? No one really knows whether this is sheer duplicity on the part of the North Korean leadership or a rivalry among different branches of the government, some of which might want to strike a deal and others that don’t. Given that North Korea has a young and untested leader, Kim Jong-un, anything is possible. But whatever the case there is absolutely no reason to trust the North Koreans who, under the dictatorship of Kim Jung Il, father of the current supreme leader, showed a genius for manipulating the West into reaching deals and then violating all of their commitments.

The Clinton and Bush administrations were both suckered into thinking they could make a deal with Pyongyang only to be cruelly disabused of that illusion. Now it’s Obama’s turn. The only real issue left is whether the 240,000 tons of food aid will be delivered in spite of North Korea’s failure to live up to its guarantees. It might be, because the food aid was presented as a humanitarian gesture not a quid pro quo. But that’s clearly what it was and if the U.S. is to have any credibility it must now announce that no food will be forthcoming. It’s a shame that North Korea’s long-suffering population must pay the price for its leaders’ duplicity and aggression but we have precious few other ways to hold this brutal regime to account.

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