Commentary Magazine


Dangerous Idealism on North Korea

There’s something about North Korea that gives liberal idealists amnesia. They’re quick to believe that change is afoot, too willing to overlook the evidence that plainly shows that the regime is evil, beyond a shadow of a doubt. In the last week, there have been two instances of this amnesia, and unfortunately for those suffering under the regime, there’s no sign they will be the last.

After North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un gave his New Year’s address a week ago today, Western outlets described his remarks as an “olive branch to the South.” The New York Times said, “The most significant feature of Kim Jong-un’s speech was its marked departure of tone regarding South Korea.” I spoke with the Heritage Foundation’s senior research fellow for Northeast Asia Bruce Klingner on Friday about the address and his response was less than enthusiastic about this supposed “about face.”

Kim Jong-un’s speech was delivered on air, the first time that a New Year’s address has been delivered in this manner since his grandfather Kim Il-sung’s last address in 1994. After Kim Il-sung died, the speeches were delivered as an editorial and published in major state-approved newspapers in North Korea. While the method of delivery may have been different, the substance of the speech was nothing out of the ordinary for a dictatorship which has made a game out of fooling Western media into believing there may be change brewing in the famously closed-off totalitarian regime. In 2009 and 2010, many in the West clung to reports of a loosening of economic control or a toned down use of militaristic language. In both years, those hopes were dashed with several acts of aggression: rocket tests, the arrest of U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, and the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan. While North Korea’s words may have signaled a change, their actions did not.

Many viewed Kim Jong-un’s speech as a departure from previous language, but Heritage’s Klingner pointed out that there were actually fewer references to “light industry” and other economic liberalization buzzwords than in previous years. This could be attributed to the abbreviated length of the remarks in comparison to printed versions in years past, though year after year, even in written form, there have been fewer references to what many hope are signals of a loosening of the economic stranglehold of the regime. The “notable” aspects of the speech, referring to the hope of reunification, also need to be viewed through the prism of North Korean propaganda. Reunification, in the eyes of the totalitarian regime, mean South Koreans finally giving up their opposition to joining their communist brothers in the North. For the North Koreans, reunification would mean an end to South Korean democracy and would destroy the economy it has built at remarkable speed and efficiency. Last week’s speech wasn’t the “olive branch” that many Western observers seem to believe, it was in fact the opposite.

This week’s news regarding North Korea isn’t any better for freedom-lovers. Former U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson and Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, will be taking a trip, despite the State Department’s public disapproval of the visit. The Weekly Standard‘s Ethan Epstein reports that “Richardson has said that Schmidt is ‘interested in some of the economic issues there, the social media aspect.'” The visit will no doubt be used by the North Koreans as a propaganda tool to legitimize the regime’s hold on power. CBS News reported Richardson’s take on why the visit was necessary at this time: “Asked whether the North Korean regime is beginning to change under new leader Kim Jong Un, Richardson vacillated: ‘There are mixed signals…the North Koreans unfortunately launched those missiles at a time that it appeared that the new leader, Kim Jong Un, was opening up.'” There were no such signals, and Richardson’s amnesia regarding the North Koreans’ past record of manipulation bodes poorly for the visit. 

Eric Schmitdt’s participation in the trip is particularly perplexing. In May 2008, Google hosted the only known North Korean gulag escapee, Dong-hyuk Shin and Adrian Hong, the then-executive director of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) for a visit to Google’s Tech Talks, an ongoing program for those in the technology community to share information. During the hour-long visit, Shin used Google Earth to pinpoint not only where the gulag he was raised was located, but was also able to zoom in close enough to show the buildings he worked and slept in. In 2009, the Wall Street Journal highlighted how one man created a program to uncover buildings and structures within the reclusive country using Google Earth satellites. If anyone in the world could and should know about the evil of North Korea without needing to visit, it is Schmidt. The Standard‘s Epstein quite rightly asks, “Why would the chairman of a company whose motto is ‘Don’t Be Evil,’ hobnob with a regime that embodies evil itself?” 

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