North Korea — what to make of it? Nobody knows. In an age of secrecy stripped bare, it has succeeded in being unfathomable. It’s horrible — on that most observers agree; but how horrible? To what purpose? In spite of, or because of, what obstacles to its survival?
Ten years or so ago, former U.S. national security adviser Donald Gregg tells the Asahi Shimbun in an interview published earlier this month, a Harvard University symposium convened 20 experts on the hermit kingdom. Nineteen of the 20, says Gregg, declared it on the brink of collapse. The lone holdout was himself. A former CIA bureau chief in South Korea, Gregg saw the bitter realities more clearly than the academics on the panel. Or, as he puts it, “I understood the danger of wishful thinking.” You’d think historians and political scientists would too, but we all have our blind spots. The upshot is, when it comes to North Korea nobody really knows — including Gregg, as he implicitly admits in counseling patience and dialogue over righteous indignation.
“Under the rule of Kim Jong Un,” Human Rights Watch reported in 2015, “North Korea remains among the world’s most repressive countries. All basic freedoms have been severely restricted under the Kim family’s political dynasty. A 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry found that abuses in North Korea were without parallel in the contemporary world. They include extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence.”
But science has no moral bias. Evil doesn’t bother it. Only ignorance does. Blindly and faithfully, it serves whoever penetrates its secrets. That North Korea’s nuclear and rocket technology is advancing is less open to doubt now after a nuclear test in January and a rocket launch in February. Morally, intellectually and economically bankrupt, this regime may — or may not — be destined for the ash heap of history. If it is, Kim may find reassurance in thinking he can take some of the world down with him, especially the neighbors. And Japan is a very near neighbor.
Shukan Shincho magazine takes us back to Feb. 7 — a bland, peaceful Sunday in Japan: people sleeping in, lingering over breakfast, celebrating release from the office treadmill in front of the wide-screen liquid-crystal TV on which, in one morning program, entertainment celebrities holidayed in Vietnam for your vicarious pleasure — the usual stuff, a typical Sunday, nothing disquieting about it: Even news of the North Korean rocket launch at 9:31 a.m. didn’t exactly burst like a thunderclap; it had been expected; North Korea had launched rockets before; it was all bluster and bluff — an infantile, over-indulged boy dictator throwing one of his tantrums. What else is new? Relax.
What else is new? One thing at least, Shukan Shincho’s Defense Ministry sources say. The technology this time round represents significant progress over previous launches. The one in 2009, which actually did cause some panic in Japan because the rocket passed uncomfortably close — closer than this latest one — was in a broader sense less threatening: Its trajectory was due east, permitting it to draw momentum from Earth’s orbit, whereas this one went south, sacrificing the orbital momentum it no longer needed due to technical advances. The southward course was in effect a proclamation: Admire and fear our technological mastery; we mean business. Some analysts see in this a major stride forward to the goal of bringing Washington, 13,000 kilometers away, within range.
It’s one thing to have long-range rockets; it’s another to sufficiently miniaturize nuclear bombs to make them deliverable. Can North Korea do that? This is another of the maddening uncertainties. Maybe yes, say some experts; maybe no, say others; maybe soon, the lay public and their leaders had perhaps best assume.
Shukan Gendai magazine tells an intriguing little tale, courtesy of a South Korean journalist named Kim Cho-lu, who covers North Korea. Kim says the timing of the rocket launch is significant, though not for any reason that’s likely to occur to a physicist or a geostrategist. “Launch it Feb. 7 at 9 a.m.!” ordered Kim Jong Un. The digits of the year 2016 add up to nine, as do 2 (February) plus 7. Nine, says Kim the journalist, is the ruling Kim dynasty’s lucky number.
The scholars at the symposium Gregg attended were off the mark, as he suspected then and we know now, but it’s easy to see why they thought as they did. Intellectuals assume the world works intelligently — or at least intelligibly. That’s why their intelligence often misleads them. Still, how can such a patently awful regime not collapse? Physical starvation, if not moral rot, would seem to doom it from the outset — perhaps it would have had China not provided a lifeline. But this time China has joined the other major powers in condemning the nuclear test. Let them condemn it, Kim seems to be saying. Shukan Shincho sees the gesture as a kind of declaration of independence from China. But what can Kim depend on instead?
A reviving economy? Shukan Gendai sees no sign of one; Shukan Shincho does. Shukan Gendai assesses the cost of the nuke test and rocket launch combined at the equivalent of ¥300 billion — roughly equal to the total annual earnings of North Korea’s entire population. “It’s all one to Kim,” it comments, “if the whole country starves or freezes to death.”
But Shukan Shincho says state control of the economy is loosening. It cites agrarian reforms allowing farmers to market 70 percent of their produce instead of surrendering 100 percent of it to the state. The magazine sees the rocket launch as the fruit of decades of military spending that consumed 30 to 50 percent of the national budget; the success achieved may permit a loosening in that regard too, a diversion of funds to economic development or social welfare. State terrorism too, the magazine says, has lately eased somewhat, at least against the general population — Kim’s notorious purges of ruling Workers’ Party brass are another story, but they are internal party affairs, the public either not aware of them or well schooled in the art of looking the other way.
The Human Rights Watch report notes no such improvement, describing a prison state under a regime as thuggish and sadistic as any the 20th century spawned, the only difference being North Korea’s uncanny survival into the 21st.
Gregg, in his Asahi interview, refers to a northeast Asian regime that in the 1970s was no less grim than North Korea’s. It too seemed to be going nuclear. This was South Korea. Patience and dialogue eventually brought it around, says Gregg, and in the fullness of time may do the same to the North.
But how much time is there? In his New Year’s Day address, Kim said, “If invasive outsiders and provocateurs touch us even slightly, we will not be forgiving in the least and sternly answer with a merciless, holy war of justice.”
Should Japan be shuddering?
Michael Hoffman’s new book, “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan,” is out now.