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Rogue Washington

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Pyongyang, North Korea

About the Author

Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens, longtime contributor to The Nation, wrote a wide-ranging, biweekly column for the magazine...

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Whichever of the two losers assumed the presidency of these United States mattered not at all in terms of construction of a "Star Wars," or Ballistic Missile Defense, system, since both promised to begin work on it. Indeed, this agreement may well form part of the much-anticipated healing process between the two party oligarchies. (Perhaps Bush will retain the services of William Cohen, who was a compassionate conservative to begin with, at the Defense Department. Gore could have generously found room for a Powell/Rice clone in the same capacity.) Given the proven and demonstrated unworkability and cost of the proposed system, it is very slightly more probable that Bush could cancel it without loss of face. But the "contractor community" (as I once heard it seriously called) has demands and donations to make and raised expectations to be fulfilled, and the exorbitant amount already committed may need to be justified, so it is sure that we will be hearing a great deal more about the need to protect ourselves from North Korea.

How to convey the absurdity of this? Take the example of the Taepodong missile test, that "shot heard round the world," when the North Koreans fired a rocket into the air and watched it splash down on the other side of Japan. Red alerts all around, huge talk about a new "rogue state" and a threat from sinister Asian Stalinism. Well, the most salient fact about that missile test was that, like the more grandiose Pacific tests of the Star Wars interceptors, it was a failure. The objective of the Taepodong rocket was to get a North Korean satellite into orbit; no signal from any such satellite has ever been picked up.

This puts the North Korean regime in an embarrassing position, because it proudly announced that the launch was a success. However, the hysterical Western reaction to the test has helped transform impotence into potency--an uncovenanted propaganda victory for Kim Jong Il and his regime. At the "Mass Games" in the May Day stadium in Pyongyang, which I attended a few days before Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arrived to watch the replay, the centerpiece "special effect" was a giant montage of the Taepodong missile thrusting its way skyward, as if to bring the might of the Dear Leader to the attention of a waiting world.

They say that visitors to North Korea see only what the regime wants them to see. This is not true. In a country with almost no vehicles on its roads, one of the commonest sights is a group of soldiers from the Korean People's Army, peering mournfully into the innards of a broken-down transport. I hardly think that these scenes were provided just to lull me into a sense of false security, either, any more than were the bald tires and clapped-out accouterments of the top-of-the-line tourist bus on which I traveled. The power cuts and blackouts in the capital, the people taking care of their laundry and personal hygiene needs in an open drain in the city of Kaesong, the bullocks doing much of the work on main highways, the abandoned projects and buildings, the peasants scavenging food by the grain in the fields--none of these are Potemkin showpieces.

It is even worse in the northern provinces, where visitors don't get taken at all. I've seen film secretly shot from across the Chinese border, where towns and factories are completely idle because the plants and machinery were broken up for barter during the famine. Good reports describe the once-vital coal mines as being often flooded and partially abandoned. (The pumps don't work because the vandals took the handles.) It's always worth remembering that North Korea embarked on the building of a nuclear power station in the first place because it wanted to end dependence on coal.

Everything you have read about the party state in North Korea is true or understated; from a purely human point of view it is the most literally oppressive and regimented society I have ever seen. But total control has diminishing returns; you cannot orchestrate people more than 100 percent, and you cannot manage them all the time. The same goes for ideology. In its proclamations about US imperialism the regime outdoes the rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, but in its actual negotiations it conducts a tough but entirely pragmatic diplomacy. If this were not so, there might well have been a nuclear exchange on the Korean peninsula in the summer of 1994. When the worst has been said about the Clinton Administration's abysmal foreign and military policy (much of it by me), it must be admitted that the President did overrule a crazed "pre-emptive-war party" in Washington and--with typical secrecy, hesitation and reluctance--replayed in miniature Truman's veto of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. (For an account of this almost unknown moment of near-calamity, see Don Oberdorfer's invaluable book The Two Koreas.)

In closed sessions, the North Koreans have agreed to a deal whereby they close down their graphite reactors and put the rods into "cooling ponds," allowing international inspection of the latter to determine whether there is any stray reprocessable plutonium. In return the United States will help furnish light-water reactors (which are much less proliferation-friendly) in order to help overcome the country's energy crisis. I have actually met some of the on-the-ground invigilators of the International Atomic Energy Agency, tough and cynical guys who say that the agreement is being properly observed. But this leaves us with a mystery, or at any rate a conundrum. In secret, the military and intelligence authorities of the United States have concluded an agreement with Pyongyang that does them some credit and that has averted what could have been an annihilating confrontation. In public, the political leadership speaks as if an impoverished and exhausted North Korea is so menacing and intractable that it requires the investment of untold billions in a destabilizing and fraudulent boondoggle. If this is not rogue behavior, then I should very much like to know what is.

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