The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future 
by Victor Cha.
Bodley Head, 527 pp., £14.99, August 2012, 978 1 84792 236 6
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The Choco Pie is a mouth-drying, individually wrapped slab of cake, marshmallow and chocolate, and in South Korea it is as important a part of childhood as Britain’s Mars bar or the American Twinkie. It is manufactured by the Orion company of Seoul, exported across Asia, and consumed in an arc of countries from Japan to Uzbekistan. In 2004, South Korean manufacturers began to set up factories in the North Korean city of Kaesong, an unprecedented experiment in co-operation between the fraternal enemies, and the core of what the South Korean government called its Sunshine Policy. Along with South Korean managers, manufacturing technology, telephone lines and a motorway, they brought the Choco Pie.

Within a few months, the bosses from Seoul began slipping their North Korean workers a Choco Pie or two as a perk. In part, this was a response to the Kaesong wage regime: rather than being paid directly, salaries were processed by the North Korean authorities, which then handed over the money minus hefty deductions. The Choco Pies were a small piece of South Korean largesse, but it was difficult at first to know how enthusiastically they were being received. The fact that Orion wrappers were nowhere to be found in the rubbish bins of Kaesong might have suggested indifference, but the opposite was true: the local workers, most of them women, had quickly realised that the Choco Pies were too delicious and valuable to eat. Kaesong employees, the best paid in North Korea and among the worst paid in Asia, were hoarding their pies, and selling them on at remarkably inflated prices: as high as the equivalent of $10 a piece, a large proportion of their monthly take home pay. The cakes found their way onto the black market in Pyongyang; corrupt soldiers in Kaesong, who routinely exacted ‘fines’ from the South Korean managers, began to accept, and sometimes require, payment in chocolate and marshmallow. By some estimates, 150,000 Choco Pies were being dispensed in Kaesong every day.

Stripped of its cuteness, the story contains two lessons. The first is a reminder of what should be obvious: ordinary North Koreans are in most ways just like everyone else. For all their affected concern for human rights, this is overlooked with depressing frequency by people who should know better. North Koreans are not a ‘zombie nation’ (Martin Amis), an undifferentiated mass of ‘racist dwarfs’ (Christopher Hitchens), but 24 million individuals, as virtuous and vicious as the rest of us, and just as keen on sweet and sticky snacks.

The Choco Pie story also reveals a susceptibility to outside influence in a society commonly regarded as impenetrable. For the government in Pyongyang, ‘engagement’ in Kaesong was a means of extracting hard currency from its rich and despised southern neighbour, and it did all it could to isolate the incoming South Koreans from the rest of the country. But complete quarantine is impossible, and whenever they have been given the opportunity to sample the products of the outside world, North Koreans have seized it. DVDs of South Korean television are smuggled across the porous northern border with China. Students in Pyongyang risk their freedom by rigging up TV sets to pick up the news from Seoul. And in Kaesong, they buy and sell Choco Pies.

It was the vision of consumer luxury glimpsed on West German television which encouraged Easterners to pull down the Berlin Wall. This was the secret hope at the heart of the Sunshine Policy: that, slowly and at first undetectably, it would infect the North Korean body politic with the virus of information, self-consciousness and, eventually, rebellion. The dungeon in which North Koreans languish is more impenetrable than the Iron Curtain ever was, and Choco Pies alone will never have the allure of Levis and Audis. But seeds have germinated at Kaesong which could not have been sown in any other way. Far from the surrender to extortion which their enemies made them out to be, the engagement projects of the Sunshine Policy were covertly offensive. And they had begun to work, as even Victor Cha, an opponent of the policy, has to acknowledge. ‘Choco Pies,’ he writes,

tell a larger story of how even the smallest opening can encourage an entrepreneurial spirit … Because of Kaesong, tens of thousands of North Korean women today, though not paid market wages, still have the experience of working in a modern South Korean-made factory and receiving three meals a day in a clean cafeteria. These women will not revolt against the government, but they will tell others of their experiences … With each expedient nod to the market by the cash-strapped economy, the regime is unwittingly exposing mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, aunts and uncles to capitalism, to the generosity of outsiders, and to the flaws of its own economic policies. The change is microscopic but it is real, so that the next time the government tries its old ways of reasserting control over the economy … there will be a different response … Anger mounts when the government allows the people to fend for themselves, they succeed in some small fashion, and then the state tries to reassert control by taking this away … It is hard to imagine enlightenment [emerging] out of utter poverty, but that is what is happening slowly in North Korea.

Or as the defector and journalist Ha Tae Keung put it, ‘It’s an invasion of the stomach.’

The conservative South Korean government of Lee Myung Bak formally abandoned the Sunshine Policy in 2010. Two years earlier, it had dropped its other central element, a jointly run holiday resort in the Diamond Mountains, after a North Korean soldier shot dead a middle-aged South Korean tourist who had strayed off limits. On 3 April, following weeks of verbal threats and military bluffing, North Korea withdrew its 53,000 workers from Kaesong and suspended operations in the zone. The events of the past few weeks have demonstrated more clearly than ever the dismal shortage of options which the rest of the world has in dealing with the last military confrontation of the Cold War. When the present surge of aggression and alarm has spent itself, the world will face the same old questions about what to do about North Korea, and some form of active engagement remains the only practical hope for altering the status quo.

Put out of mind any notion of a decisive second Korean War. An escalation from small beginnings cannot be ruled out, but none of the parties with a military presence on the peninsula – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the North), the Republic of Korea (the South) or the United States – will embark on a full-scale attack because it would end catastrophically for all of them. North Korea – which in the Korean War became the most intensively bombed territory in history – would once again face full-scale aerial and armoured assault by the US. Its undertrained, underfed, ill-equipped and technologically unsophisticated armed forces would be overwhelmed, and its leadership destroyed. But before this, it could inflict intolerable damage, not so much with its dozen or so nuclear warheads, which it may not be able to aim accurately at its enemies, but by conventional methods.

Commandos infiltrated by submarine would cause terror and havoc in coastal cities in South Korea. Thousands of artillery pieces secreted in tunnels just over the border would bombard Seoul; some of the shells would be armed with poison gas. When Bill Clinton was contemplating a ‘surgical strike’ on the Yongbyon nuclear plant in 1994, he was told that the war that would almost certainly follow would kill as many as a million people (including a hundred thousand Americans), cost the United States more than $100 billion, and cause a trillion dollars’ worth of damage in north-east Asia, most of it in South Korea – and those figures are two decades old. The guerrilla insurgency and prolonged civilian resistance, which would follow even a swift victory, would make Iraq look like a simple mopping up operation. Each side knows that it would ruin its enemy and be ruined by him; and the result is a bizarre stability behind a façade of glowering aggression. Clinton called the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas ‘the scariest place on earth’; but it has proved less dangerous over the last sixty years than the Falkland Islands, Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia and broad swathes of Africa, South Asia and the Middle East.

No one expected this, and no one – except the North Korean government itself – believed the DPRK would survive into the second decade of the 21st century. Two things made this possible: China and nuclear weapons. The plutonium reactor at Yongbyon came into operation in the 1980s, but it was the removal of spent fuel rods, capable of being processed into the raw material of nuclear warheads, which precipitated the crisis in 1994. It is startling to remember now, when North Korea’s possession of nuclear bombs, and perhaps the means to deliver them, are facts of life, that to Clinton the mere act of reprocessing was unacceptable. As the White House contemplated a call-up of reservists and the evacuation of Americans from South Korea, there was panic buying in Seoul, where the stock market fell by 25 per cent. The situation was defused by a brilliant and near-treasonous intervention by Jimmy Carter, who negotiated a compromise face to face with Kim Il Sung and then bounced the administration into accepting it by announcing it live from Pyongyang on CNN.

The result was the Agreed Framework, an elaborately programmed sequence of reciprocal steps under which an international consortium would provide North Korea with ‘safe’ nuclear reactors, fuel, political normalisation and economic engagement, in return for a nuclear freeze and eventual disarmament. Conservatives disliked the idea of giving away nuclear technology to the Koreans, but Clinton’s people didn’t worry: it was part of their calculations that before the time came to honour their promises, the government in Pyongyang would have collapsed anyway.

There was bad faith on both sides. Even as it shut down the reactors at Yongbyon, the North was secretly enriching uranium elsewhere. But the Agreed Framework averted war, placed Yongbyon under international monitoring, and prevented the construction of two much bigger reactors which would have provided enough fuel for thirty nuclear warheads every year. Four years later, with the election of the former dissident and political prisoner Kim Dae Jung, came the Sunshine Policy, and the most sustained warming in relations on the peninsula since the Korean War. In 2000, Kim Dae Jung flew to Pyongyang for a summit with Kim Il Sung’s son and successor, Kim Jong Il. In October that year, Madeleine Albright travelled to the North and spent six hours with the second Kim (whom she described as ‘a very good listener’) in preparation for a presidential visit. A fortnight later, George W. Bush won the election.

Bush does not lack detractors, but his vandalism of the delicate architecture of US policy on North Korea has been insufficiently recognised. His first secretary of state, Colin Powell, came to office reassuring reporters that ‘we do plan to engage with North Korea to pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off.’ Within 24 hours neocon pressure forced a humiliating retraction. A year later Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ speech implicitly identified the North as a potential target for pre-emptive attack, alongside Iraq and Iran. In a meeting with a group of senators, he called Kim Jong Il ‘a spoiled child’ and a ‘pygmy’. When Bob Woodward raised the subject, he feared the president was about to vault out of his chair. ‘I loathe Kim Jong Il,’ Bush told him, ‘waving his finger in the air’.

Human rights in North Korea became a political weapon, wielded by the right as a means of undermining those, including the elected government of South Korea, who favoured continued engagement. Of course, the plight of many ordinary North Koreans is unspeakable, and Victor Cha, who spent three years on Bush’s National Security Council, duly recounts the horrors of the great famine of the late 1990s, a catastrophe comparable to those in Rwanda or Cambodia, and one of which the outside world still has only the sketchiest understanding. He describes the gulags where entire families are consigned for crimes committed by dead forebears, and where newborn babies are pulled from their mothers’ arms and thrown into buckets to die.

Bush was right to loathe Kim Jong Il, but disapproving of one of the cruellest regimes on earth is no mark of moral or intellectual distinction. The first Bush administration had powerfully articulated attitudes towards North Korea, but nothing that could be dignified by the word ‘policy’. With noses held high, unwilling to sully their hands by dealing with the North, for the first two years Bush and his people effectively chose to do nothing.

Cha puts the best possible face on the works of his former master, describing Bush’s later efforts to ‘humanise’ the suffering of ordinary North Koreans, and his White House meetings with defectors. But while the hunt was on for a ‘poster child’ for human rights, everything else was falling apart. The US seized on the covert uranium programme as a reason for not delivering the oil it was contracted to supply under the Agreed Framework. The North, which already thought the US wasn’t meeting its obligations, responded by restarting the Yongbyon plant, throwing out inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and eventually announcing that it did indeed have nuclear warheads and was working on more. Clinton had prepared, reluctantly, for war; having averted it, he had energetically concluded three separate diplomatic agreements with North Korea, with a fourth (on limiting ballistic missiles) in the works. After four years of Republican government all those agreements, and the safeguards they incorporated, had collapsed, with nothing to take their place. This was the sum achievement of George Bush, foe of rogue states and protector of the nation: to allow the world’s most isolated government to acquire the Bomb.

In the second term, Condoleezza Rice supervised a chastened and hopeless effort to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube. The Bush government vowed not to negotiate with the North Koreans one-to-one: hence the Six-Party Talks, which brought together the North and South, alongside the United States, China, Russia and Japan. American demands were represented by the initials CVID: Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Dismantling of the North’s nuclear programme. Until that happened, North Korea would be a pariah: in a much repeated phrase, there would be ‘no reward for bad behaviour’. Everything, therefore, depended on the Chinese government, which controls the cross-border oil pipeline and rail and road traffic in and out of North Korea, and could quickly choke any government to death if it chose.

For two years Victor Cha was deputy head of the US delegation to the Six-Party Talks. A Georgetown University professor, and the author of, among others, a book about the politics of sport in Asia, he comes across as an earnest, broadminded and assiduous academic, unburdened by bulky ideology – a man temperamentally and intellectually out of phase with the currents of neoconservatism. As a work of political science, The Impossible State is calm, well-informed and stolidly undistinguished; what makes it fascinating is the way it betrays the failings of the US’s North Korea policy while struggling to defend it.

Cha’s account depends on the symbolic annihilation of the men who did most to fashion Bush’s thinking. Paul Wolfowitz is not mentioned; Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and John Bolton, the moustachioed Strangelove of the mid-Bush years, between them merit only seven references in the index. Three of these are to page 84, where Cha unexpectedly records at length the epithets applied to them by the North’s propaganda organs. Cheney: ‘the most cruel monster and bloodthirsty beast’. Rumsfeld: ‘a political dwarf’, a ‘human butcher’, a ‘fascist tyrant who puts an ogre to shame’, and the ‘kingpin of evil’ who puts ‘Hitler into the shade in man-killing and war hysteria’. Bolton, rather anti-climactically, is merely ‘human scum and bloodsucker’. It is tempting to infer a mischievous relish in the decision to include all this.

Cha’s anecdotes evoke an administration in which the president’s ‘loathing’ expressed itself in frat house boorishness on the part of his diplomatic teams. At one point, officials from the State Department and the Treasury came close to a fist fight over a difference in approach. At another, members of the US delegation could be heard ‘giggling loudly’ at the film Team America, in which Kim Jong Il is represented as a grotesque singing puppet. ‘One of our members, a jaded foreign service officer, thought it would be “funny” to take the iPod into the adjacent room and show it to the North Koreans,’ he recalls. ‘We decided against this impromptu introduction to American pop culture, and probably avoided a diplomatic incident.’

Again and again, Cha approvingly sets out the position of the administration, only to undermine it a few pages later with his own well-informed analysis. Of Kaesong and the Diamond Mountains resort, he insists that ‘neither project had the potential for enlightening the people and empowering forces for change.’ A few pages later, he is writing excitedly about the subversive possibilities of the Choco Pie. He belabours Kim Jong Il for his short-sightedness in avoiding economic reform – before agreeing that ‘the process of opening up will undeniably lead to the end of his political control.’ He defends the decisions which allowed the Agreed Framework to collapse, but points out how much worse off the world is without it: ‘If the choice is between dealing with a dictator with a runaway nuclear weapons programme or one with a programme capped and under international monitoring, the latter surely serves US and Asian interests better.’

Most revealing in its confusion is his treatment of the role of China. Since the collapse of the Agreed Framework, US policy has essentially consisted of bleating at North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and, when that has come to nothing, bleating at China to make North Korea give them up. ‘China is the only country that can affect North Korean behaviour,’ John McCain said on 14 April, after his bipartisan chum John Kerry became the latest secretary of state to beg Beijing to do something: ‘What China needs to do is start squeezing their economy. Without China, their economy would collapse in a relatively short period of time … it’s time now for China to step up.’ Cha begins by agreeing with this, before giving the most sophisticated account I have seen of why it is a vain fantasy.

The line attributed to Mao – that North Korea and China are ‘as close as lips and teeth’ – has never been true; the relationship has always been one of mutual contempt, overruled by strategic self-interest. Throughout the Cold War, Kim Il Sung played Beijing and Moscow off against each other with cheerful cynicism. The Chinese were furious at being sucked into the Korean War, which killed hundreds of thousands of the People’s Volunteer Army, among them Mao’s 28-year-old son, Anying. In the UN Security Council, China signs up these days to full-blown condemnation and punitive sanctions for North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. Cha says he overheard the Chinese and North Korean teams at the Six-Party Talks screaming at one another behind closed doors. But China hasn’t resorted to the shutting off of road and railway links, food aid, oil supplies and banking facilities.

The standard explanation points to China’s long border with North Korea and the chaos of refugees and fleeing soldiers which could follow a regime collapse in Pyongyang. But Cha identifies a stronger reason: the valuable cross-border trade, and the coal, iron and minerals which China extracts from the North. Copper, gold, zinc, nickel and rare earth metals like molybdenum can be mined more cheaply in North Korea, and with even fewer concerns for health and safety. China keeps the North afloat through gifts of cash, grain, as well as ‘friendship prices’, not out of fraternal feeling, but ‘to sustain a minimal level of stability and subsistence so that China can continue its economic extraction policies.’ It encourages Chinese-style economic reforms not for reform’s sake, but because they will suit Chinese business. ‘It is an illusion to believe China will work with the United States and the Republic of Korea on denuclearising North Korea as its top priority,’ Cha writes, in a sentence devastating to American policy.

Despite China’s frustration with its poor and pathetic neighbour, it will never abandon it … China’s support derives less from some anachronistic Communist allegiance than from the fact that the two are mutual hostages: North Korea needs China to survive. It hates this fact of life and resists all Chinese advice to change its ways. China needs North Korea not to collapse. It hates this fact. And as the only patron supporting the decrepit regime today, it is, ironically, more powerless than it is omnipotent, because the regime’s livelihood is entirely in Chinese hands. It must, therefore, countenance bad DPRK behaviour, because any punishment could destabilise the regime. Pyongyang knows this, and deftly leverages its own vulnerability and risk-taking behaviour to get sustenance, diplomatic support and protection from its ambivalent big brother against the South Korean and American ‘aggressors’.

North Korea’s vulnerability is its guarantee. And the Six-Party Talks, and every other form of diplomacy which imposes a central role on China, are a waste of time.

Much writing and thinking about North Korea is still hobbled by the assumption that the rulers of the DPRK are ‘mad’. But no government without an iron grip on reality could have survived this long in such dire circumstances. Most of the Kims’ behaviour is rendered understandable, often logical and occasionally even reasonable, through the simple mental exercise of placing yourself in their shoes. This is not to defend an indefensibly vile regime. But if you accept that the North Korean government seeks only to prolong its survival, many things fall into place.

As a small but strategically positioned country surrounded by large and powerful neighbours, Korea was battered by invasion and exploitation for centuries. Allied victory in 1945 brought an end to Japan’s colonial rule, but replaced it with something even worse: the country’s division between two dictatorships which, until South Korean democratisation 25 years ago, were evenly matched for ruthlessness and brutality. The civil war killed millions as it lurched along the narrow peninsula and ground to a stalemate in a temporary armistice. The Korean War, in other words, never formally ended – and the Korean People’s Army has never stopped fighting it.

The end of the Cold War increased the DPRK’s already acute sense of crisis and isolation. Its founding leader, Kim Il Sung, died in 1994, around the time that the economy collapsed and the famine began. Just across the barbed-wire and mine-encrusted demilitarised zone is the superbly trained and equipped South Korean army backed up by American soldiers and fighter jets. In Japan there are more US troops, and a fleet of aircraft carriers, with another army to hand on the Pacific island of Guam. This is the view from Pyongyang: to the north, the predatory irritation of the Chinese and, in every other direction, lethally armed and impatient hostility. Kim Jong Un is a great deal more scared of us than we are of him – and he has good reason to be.

Is it remotely surprising that a leader in this situation should turn to the single institution on which he can rely, the army, and do what he can to strengthen it? Is there any question that without such an army, and without nuclear weapons, North Korea would sooner or later become the victim of Western ‘intervention’? What inducement is there in such circumstances for him to give up his nuclear programme? For a while, British diplomats, smugly proud of Tony Blair’s part in talking Gaddafi out of his nuclear programme, used the example of Libya to encourage North Korea to do the same. Consider the force of that example now. As Cha was told during the Six-Party Talks: ‘You attacked Afghanistan because they do not have nukes. You attacked Iraq because it did not have nukes. You will not attack us. And you will not attack Iran.’

The inner workings of the regime are so opaque that we cannot tell with certainty whether Kim Jong Un has fully inherited Kim Jong Il’s authority, or cedes some or all of that power to powerful courtiers. The rhetorical torrent which began issuing from the state media in late March was unexpected in its intensity. But none of what followed has been inconsistent with past North Korean behaviour. The goal of the leadership is the same as it was in 1994: to strike a bargain in which certain assets (including the repeatedly frozen and unfrozen Yongbyon reactor, and the right to do business at Kaesong and the Diamond Mountains) are auctioned off in return for oil, food and cash. It already appears to be part of the way to achieving this end, without a shot being fired.

The noises from the North are widely misunderstood. They are not unilateral threats of war, but promises of retaliation in the event of US and South Korean attack. (This gets lost in much of the reporting because of the famous verbosity of North Korea’s official communiqués: the threat is quoted, while the balls-aching conditional preamble is cut.) Similar squawks are provoked every time the US and South Korea conduct their annual series of military training exercises, which the North invariably denounces as a pretext for imminent invasion. So far, it has always been proved wrong, but this year’s version of the exercise known as Foal Eagle was unprecedentedly threatening. Foal Eagle used to be no more than a rehearsal for wartime defence of the rear area, but for the first time this year it included B-52 and B-2 bombers, and accompanying F-22 stealth fighters, in simulated nuclear bombing raids. As the Obama administration quickly realised, this was a very stupid thing to do. It had been intended as a beefy warning to Pyongyang, and a reassurance to Seoul of American willingness to defend it to the hilt. But the effect was to sprinkle gunpowder on the North’s indignation. The US, as it frequently reminds the DPRK, removed all its nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991, and has repeatedly insisted that it has no intention of invading the North. At a stroke, this show of nuclear force robbed it of moral superiority in the argument about non-proliferation, and undid a decade of security assurances. And it added to the danger of escalation, by increasing North Korean fear that it was being backed into a situation in which it would have to pre-empt nuclear attack in order to avoid being pre-empted itself. The Americans quickly reversed course, and even postponed their own test of an intercontinental nuclear ballistic missile to show how un-warlike they were; but the damage had been done.

From late March to mid-April, the North issued an inflammatory statement pretty much every day: announcing the restart of its nuclear reactors; threatening impossible nuclear retaliation against the US mainland; warning diplomats in Pyongyang and expatriates in Seoul to consider evacuation; threatening to suspend Kaesong; actually suspending Kaesong. The point of all this alarmism, apart from galvanising the Korean People’s Army and polishing the charismatic credentials of the new young leader, was to put pressure on the enemy by damaging its economy. Foreigners in South Korea, and Seoul’s robust stock market, were by and large unruffled. But by the second week, the assault on the nerves began to have its effect. First the South Koreans, then the Americans, began talking about talks. ‘I think we have lowered our rhetoric significantly and we are attempting to find a way for reasonableness to prevail here,’ John Kerry said, in a rare admission of policy adjustment. ‘Our hope is we can get back to talks.’ He had just come out of a meeting with South Korea’s president, Park Geun Hye, who had earlier said: ‘Should we not meet with them and ask: “Just what are you trying to do?”’

The sticking point is the American precondition that denuclearisation must be on the agenda. ‘No one’s going to talk for the sake of talking,’ Kerry said. ‘And no one is going to continue to play this round-robin game that gets repeated every few years.’ But a form of words will be found to get round the nuclear question. There are two alternatives: to talk to the North Koreans, or not to talk to them. If the choice is made to talk, and reach a deal, then North Korean cheating of some kind is inevitable. This is one of the perks of wilful self-isolation – because you have so little left to lose, the rules do not apply to you anymore. Aggressive, fizzing nonconformity, the diplomatic equivalent of Tourette’s syndrome, is an essential part of North Korea’s nature. But the sense of being trapped in a repeating cycle also depends on American reactions, which have been equally predictable. How dare they cheat us? See, they are liars! We know about their secret uranium programme/human rights record/drug production. Why won’t they reform their economy/feed their people/abolish their gulags? ‘How did we get to this point?’ Cha wails. ‘Why have the North Koreans been able to get away with the international relations equivalent of murder?’

There is an alternative to this hand-wringing, identified twenty years ago by Kim Dae Jung and the apostles of Sunshine: to look past the government, and direct policy towards North Korea’s people. Build up grass-roots co-operation, investment, dialogue and exchange. Let the Choco Pies, and whatever else you can smuggle in, do their work. The problem, as Kim Dae Jung discovered, is that this strategy – what the Russian historian of North Korea, Andrei Lankov, calls ‘destructive engagement’ – can never be acknowledged. It must be presented to Pyongyang, and to the rest of the world, as a naive exercise of faith in North Korea’s better nature. It takes an extraordinarily confident leader, or at least one with reserves of political capital, to pull this off. Neither Obama nor Park Geun Hye possesses these qualifications.

The sorry truth is that North Korea’s state of political undeath suits the most powerful players in the game better than any alternative. Until twenty years ago, the desire for national reunification was painfully felt by South Koreans; today, the political and social cost of integrating the strange, impoverished people in the North makes it positively undesirable. For Japan, the prospect of a unified peninsula is exciting in the short term (new markets, a check on South Korean competitiveness), but alarming for its end result: a union of 74 million people with distinctly funny feelings about Japan. For the United States, the prospect of another nation to rebuild, with Iraq and Afghanistan barely under control, is nauseating. For China, the removal of the North Korean buffer would force a drastic renegotiation of the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific. Only one group would benefit unconditionally from change in the North: the North Korean people. But the rest of the world has always found more important things to be taken account of in North Korea than the lives of its inhabitants.

26 April

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Vol. 35 No. 11 · 6 June 2013

Richard Lloyd Parry does an estimable job of dissecting two decades of nuclear diplomacy with North Korea but offers only a glimpse of its possible futures (LRB, 9 May). The alternative to propping up the Pyongyang regime is its inevitable collapse followed by reunification of the Korean peninsula. With no need to defend against the North, what would happen to the 28,500 US troops at present in South Korea? (We shouldn’t assume their immediate withdrawal: only now is the British Army of the Rhine coming home, 24 years after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.) What would be the future role of South Korea’s own substantial military? Would an army of a reunited Korea take in the 1.1 million troops now in the North?

If a reunited Korea were to remain an American ally it would add to Chinese fears of encirclement. Since the 1990s, the US and Japan have used the threat of North Korean missiles as a pretext to bolster their co-operation over defence. Beijing regards the real purpose of such moves as containment of China’s growing power. Japan too has much to fear. Historical animosity toward the colonial oppressor is encouraged on both sides of the DMZ. A Gallup poll of South Koreans in 2012 found that Japan was their least favourite country (44 per cent), ahead of China (19 per cent) and North Korea (11.7 per cent). Park Chun-hee, the military dictator assassinated in 1979, whose daughter is the current South Korean president, was stopped by the US from developing nuclear weapons. Japan rarely expresses its apprehension, but a former dean of the Japanese Defence Academy once said at a public symposium that he considered a divided Korea to be in Japan’s national interest.

Lloyd Parry is much too even-handed when he writes that until South Korean democratisation 25 years ago, the peninsula was divided between ‘two dictatorships … evenly matched for ruthlessness and brutality’. I frequently reported from South Korea for the Observer when the former general Chun Doo-hwan was in charge, and compared to North Korea, it seemed an oasis of freedom. So did Communist China. After a week in Pyongyang in 1985 I almost kissed the tarmac when the plane arrived at Beijing.

Peter McGill
Malmesbury, Wiltshire

‘Aggressive, fizzing nonconformity, the diplomatic equivalent of Tourette’s syndrome, is an essential part of North Korea’s nature,’ Richard Lloyd Parry writes. This is a terrible analogy. If you have Tourette’s syndrome, twitching is not something you have any desire to do and it doesn’t serve your interests. Rather, you twitch because it becomes escalatingly uncomfortable to keep from twitching. In contrast, as Lloyd Parry explains, the North Korean government has a strong rational incentive to develop nukes as a deterrent. I don’t know what the diplomatic equivalent of Tourette’s syndrome would be, but it wouldn’t be an action that instrumentally benefits one of the players in a negotiation; it would have to be some action that is noticeable, can’t be stopped, and does no harm to anyone else involved.

Andrew Gelman
New York

Vol. 35 No. 12 · 20 June 2013

Richard Lloyd Parry refers to molybdenum as a ‘rare earth metal’ (LRB, 9 May). Chemists use that term to talk about elements 57 to 70; they’re also called ‘lanthanides’ because lanthanum is the first element in the series. Molybdenum has an atomic number of 42 and is a ‘transition metal’. It isn’t particularly rare, by the by, being the 54th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust.

Bernard Liengme
Antigonish, Nova Scotia

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