Despotism's Furthest Shore
Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty
by Bradley K. Martin
Publisher; 880 pp. $29.95
When the North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and his son Kim Jong-il took over leadership of the country, I thought, in common with most observers, that the communist regime was done for. Kim Sr., though he had originally been installed by Stalin as a tool of Soviet policy, had had a genuine background as a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese in Manchuria and Korea before and during WW2. Odious as was the system he created from 1945 on, Kim was a man of character and hard experience. Of accomplishments, too — some of them surprising. He served as organist in a Christian church during his youth, for example; and when American troops entered Pyongyang in October 1950, they found a church organ in Kim's command bunker. Kim Jr., by contrast, had had no military experience and displayed nothing to indicate any depths of character beyond a fondness for movies. He was, according to one of the many defectors interviewed by Bradley Martin for this book, known in his nation's government and military circles as as a person who "sleeps in the afternoon, parties at night and has affairs with actresses." I imagined the hard-faced Leninists of Pyongyang muttering the Korean equivalent of "Hyperion to a satyr," and moving swiftly to depose the baby-faced Kim Jr.
To the contrary, Kim Jong-il was a clever, ruthless, and politically adroit operator, who had spent the previous thirty years maneuvering to consolidate his position as heir. Kim Il-sung's last days, in fact, put one in mind not so much of Hamlet as of Lear, with the younger Kim greedily relieving his father of (as he no doubt expressed it at the time) all the irksome burdens of office. One of Martin's defectors, a former captain in State Security, reports that Kim Sr. died of an apoplexy after phoning his son to urge more priority for civilian over military expenditures. Jong-il had brushed aside this suggestion with: "Relax, enjoy your old age. We'll take care of it."
These are among the many fascinating insights offered in Bradley Martin's comprehensive survey of the Kims and the nation they created. Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader is a rich and rewarding book that anyone interested in this strange Leninist vestige should read. The sensational extravagance of the leadership; the dreadful sufferings of the common people; the ludicrous personality cults thrown up by both Kims; Kim Jong-il's need for nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles (his possession of the latter is certain, of the former highly probable); the systematic destruction of normal life and language in North Korea; all this is laid out here for inspection. If I may be permitted a book reviewer's cliché: I couldn't put it down.
That is in spite of the fact that this is, in many ways, an unsatisfactory book. It is too long — 713 pages of main text plus a further 133 pages of endnotes. The material is not well organized, and occasionally repeats itself. Much of it has the look of warmed-over newspaper journalism. (Which much of it is bound actually to be in a book of this sort, written by a journalist. Still, there are ways to make the fact less obvious.)
The author also has an annoying left-liberal tic he cannot altogether suppress. For instance, he quotes Kim Il-sung's remark of circa 1970 that: "In our country, everyone knows how to fire a gun and carries a gun with him." In a tagged endnote Martin adds mischievously:
It is interesting to consider the idea of arming all citizens of a totalitarian state in the light of the libertarian argument often heard in the United States that citizens' right to bear arms prevents government tyranny.
Well, no, it is not interesting so to consider, since neither Kim Il-sung nor any other communist despot ever had the least intention of acknowledging anything remotely like the right to bear arms that our Constitution affirms — nor any other right, either. And in fact, Martin later quotes a high-level defector as saying: "Soldiers in Pyongyang normally were not supplied live ammunition, presumably for fear they would mount a coup …" So much for the Kims' Second Amendment enthusiasms.
Again, in an endnote comparing Kim Il-sung with Ho Chi Minh, the author can barely contain his enthusiasm for the latter: "Ho Chi Minh did not purge his colleagues … he was a man of 'goodness and simplicity'." Martin seems here to be quoting David Halberstam's 1971 biography of Ho. In William Duiker's more authoritative 2000 biography (reviewed in these pages, 10/23/00) we hear kindly old Uncle Ho saying things like: "All those who do not follow the line that I have set out will be smashed." He meant it, too; and though by no means the most egregious specimen of Leninist mass-murderer, Ho could purge with the best of them.
Yet not even a leftist, Vietnam-addled American journalist of Bradley Martin's stripe can fail to grasp the essential nature of the North Korean regime after thirty years of observing it. Martin is anyway on the rightward side of the opinion spectrum in the narrow little world of Kim-ology. His book includes several quotes from the appalling Bruce Cumings, who has argued, for example, that Kang Chol-hwan's book The Aquariums of Pyongyang, a hair-raising account of Kang's ten years in a North Korean labor camp, proves that the regime isn't so bad, since after all Kang survived to write the book!
By sheer relentless accumulation of detail Martin succeeds here in giving us a full portrait of the Kims and their filthy little tyranny. This makes Under the Loving Care, with all its faults, valuable and noteworthy. If your entire knowledge of North Korea is taken from occasional newspaper pieces and hearsay, this is an excellent book with which to fill in the gaps and attain a more rounded understanding of that country, and of our options in dealing with it.
Those options are few, and mostly unappealing. Forceful action would certainly destroy the regime, but it would destroy a great deal else beside: a good swathe of South Korea, for sure, and possibly the odd Japanese or American city. This author quotes Kim Jong-il as saying, of the possible outbreak of war: "If we lose, I will destroy the world." Admittedly this is N.K. Army scuttlebut from a military defector; but if Martin's portrait of Kim is anything close to true, the remark is not out of character. We have all become very cautious about reports of dictators stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps we should bear in mind the old adage that a nation generally learns the wrong lesson from the previous war.
Furthermore, any pre-emptive action by the U.S. would be hotly opposed by the South Koreans, who are largely in denial about North Korean realities, have a sentimental — though uncharitable — attitude towards their ethnic kin in the North, and who imagine that the present situation, the one they have got comfortably used to, can continue indefinitely.
Anything less than brute force, on the other hand, is unlikely to bring down the regime, given the survival skills Kim Jr. has already displayed, and would in any case require the co-operation of Beijing, where Kim is viewed with amused condescension, but no real alarm. The Chinese Communist Party has no interest in ending Kim's rule and uniting Korea under a rational, constitutional form of government. In fact, as Bradley Martin says, none of the nations most concerned with Korean affairs — not China, Japan, the U.S., nor Russia — really wants Korean unification. Even the South Koreans desire it only in the way that the young Saint Augustine prayed for continence and chastity: "but not yet." If the status quo could continue for another hundred years, everyone — except, of course, the poor devils who actually live in North Korea — would be happy. Unfortunately, it can't.
Bradley Martin's final suggestion for dealing with Kim Jong-il is original and intriguing. In my opinion it is also naive; but in a situation where the U.S. has no good options, perhaps anything is worth trying. What is certain is that nobody in the U.S. State Department has the wit or initiative to attempt anything so unconventional, or probably anything at all outside the well-trodden tracks of appeasement. Certainly we are not likely to try a military option — even though, and with all the fearsome dangers, a well-judged attack might, simply from the point of view of U.S. national self-interest, be justifiable. The Iraq War has exhausted the enthusiasm of the American public for pre-emptive strikes. We shall, therefore, probably just stumble on trying to hold the status quo together until something horrible happens and we lose control of the situation.
To understand the consequences of this "policy" for the U.S., for the world, and for the starved, beggared, brainwashed wretches in North Korea, Bradley Martin's book is required reading.