Scenes of Pyongyang citizens wailing the death of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il remind us how easily dictatorships can manipulate public opinion. But are the rest of us so immune to similar manipulation?
The commentaries after Kim’s death tell us repeatedly that the deceased North Korean leader was reclusive, erratic, enigmatic and dangerous. Yet almost all the few outsiders who actually met the man came away impressed by his intelligence, moderation, rationality and openness. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who saw him close up during the 2002 abductee negotiations, has praised Kim for his bright (akarui) personality and directness. He said he had no feeling he was talking to some kind of dark dictator. Even the hawkish former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the Kim he saw was quite “rational.”
Kim is castigated for continuing Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, claiming it needed nuclear power sources (it may also have felt it needed the protection of nuclear weapons). The initial U.S. reaction was to bomb North Korea. It then decided, albeit reluctantly, to negotiate. The result was the 1994 Agreed Framework under which the United States promised to open a diplomatic mission in Pyongyang, lift economic restrictions and build power-generating light-water nuclear reactors in exchange for Pyongyang abandoning those nuclear ambitions. The promise of a diplomatic mission was especially welcomed by Pyongyang since the U.S. usually does not bomb people with whom it has diplomatic relations.
But almost immediately U.S. congressional conservatives and Pentagon hawks moved to deny those agreements. They said the North Korean regime could not be trusted and was, in any case, about to collapse. But Pyongyang did not collapse, and Kim has since used various carrot-and-stick tactics — everything from cultural invitations to rocket and nuclear testing — while trying to bring the U.S. back to its 1994 promises. Meanwhile, Washington sticks to its favorite negotiating tactic: Your anger and threats over my reneging on my promises proves that I was right to renege in the first place, and to refuse more negotiations.
Japan’s behavior has been little better. Sublimating its justified anger over North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and ’80s, Tokyo was able in 2002 to gain a remarkable apology from Kim and the conditional return of five abductees, in exchange for Tokyo promises to normalize relations and pay long overdue reparations. But fearing this would lead to detente with the hated communist regime, the Japanese rightwing, led by Abe, swept into action. It demanded, and got, a Tokyo withdrawal of its promise to accept Pyongyang’s conditions for the return of the five former abductees. It then began to use dodgy DNA data to prove that Pyongyang was lying when it denied holding on to other alleged abductees. This then allowed it to argue that Pyongyang’s alleged lies justified reneging on the 2002 normalization promises.
Images of other abductees languishing in a North Korean hell — the beautiful but almost certainly deceased, Megumi Yokota, especially — were used to gain wide public support for severe sanctions which, we were told, would force Pyongyang to back down. In fact all it has done, predictably, is force Pyongyang to clam up. Relations with North Korea are now totally frozen, which means even less chance of any further abductee return — if such a chance ever existed.
One of the sadder TV commentaries here following Kim’s death was the sight of Hitoshi Tanaka, the former and brilliant diplomat who had secretly negotiated the original 2002 agreement, trying gently to suggest a sensible compromise solution to the present abductee deadlock (he has to be gentle because he has already suffered ugly ultra-rightwing attacks), only to be told that even more pressure on Pyongyang was needed to force a solution. And that was from one of Japan’s more progressive commentators.
Maybe it is the very fact of our being democracies that allows our public opinion to be so subject to manipulation. True, being democracies also means we have access to sources such as Wikipedia, which give much more impartial accounts of Pyongyang’s alleged evils, including the two recent allegedly aggressive attacks on South Korean forces in the disputed western sea frontier region (for an even better account go to japanfocus.org/-Tim-Beal/3665) But few bother with such sources. It is much easier to go along with the conventional and often contrived wisdom that says the other side is evil and our side is pure.
Escalation then gets under way. With his hopes of closer relations with Tokyo and Washington dashed, Kim seems to have had no choice but to resume rocket and nuclear testing, and to turn increasingly to China, which North Korea had previously distrusted. His son and successor Kim Jong Un will almost certainly have to follow the same path while giving even more power to North Korea’s hawkish military.
History will show the late Kim to have been North Korea’s Khrushchev. The former Soviet leader also sought detente with the West only to have his hopes dashed by U-2 flights and other U.S. hawk activities, which in turn strengthened the hand of the Soviet hawks. Khrushchev was ousted and that cruel, wasteful and meaningless exercise called the Cold War had to continue for another two decades. Presumably the same will happen over North Korea, with the regime there able to use foreign threats as an excuse for continued domestic repression.
The one hope is that the shift to China will have a moderating influence. China, too, once had to suffer the same hawk on hawk confrontation as the former Soviet Union, until rescued by China’s Gorbachev — the moderate and intelligent premier Zhou Enlai relying on the 1971 so-called ping-pong diplomacy ( in which I was able to participate). For what it’s worth, the “En” in Zhou’s name is the same ideograph as the “Un” in the name of Jong Il’s son. It means benevolent and kind.
Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat, long resident in Japan. A Japanese translation of this article will be available on www.gregoryclark.net