Sticking to the invective is less effective


NUCLEAR SHOWDOWN: North Korea Takes on the World, by Gordon C. Chang. Random House, 2006, 327 pp., $25.95 (cloth).

Gordon Chang really can pick ’em. In 2001, as the world awakened to China’s incandescent rise, he made a stir with “The Coming Collapse of China.” Earlier this year he published “Nuclear Showdown,” which Pyongyang has helped popularize with missile and nuclear-weapons tests. You can’t buy this kind of publicity.

Chang knows how to turn a phrase: Chapter titles include “Ku Klux Korea,” “The Pygmalion of Pyongyang,” “Tokyo: Target for Termination,” and “Last Exit Before the Dark Ages.”

Few other countries lend themselves to comments like “will [Kim Jong Il] change the course of human events with an act of unimaginable devastation?” or “all humanity is at risk,” or “North Korean insults us. Its very existence is an affront to our sense of decency, perhaps even to the idea of human progress.” Dear Leader Kim Jong Il is a “diminutive . . . unbalanced autocrat” who “lacks empathy.”

For all that venom and disgust, Chang has no illusions: He concedes that “in an epoch it is supposed to dominate, America has been reduced to relying on China — the other side’s best friend — to craft a solution critical to its future. What kind of policy is that? Perhaps the only viable one.”

That is a slight exaggeration: Beijing does play a key role in pushing North Korea, but Pyongyang wants to deal directly with the United States and Washington has refused — for various reasons, some good, some bad — bilateral talks.

Putting China in the center of the picture allows Chang to shift his focus onto terrain with which he is more familiar. It allows him to make the case that China is as much the subject of the North Korean nuclear crisis as Pyongyang: It is a test of whether “Beijing will decide to become a responsible power and impose the right solution on Pyongyang.”

But it is unlikely that Beijing has that power. Pyongyang is fiercely independent, as Chang illustrates throughout his book. Events this summer show North Korea’s readiness to go out of its way to thumb a nose at Beijing; there is little or no proof that Kim Jong Il visits China on the demand of the Chinese leadership as Chang asserts. The recent nuclear tests — in the face of Chinese warnings to desist — and Kim’s refusal to meet ranking Chinese visitors suggest that Beijing is as powerless as the rest of the world in “forcing” North Korea “to behave.”

This flaw lies at the heart of a wide-ranging assessment of the forces at work on and at stake in the crisis. Chang examines changes in South Korea that are driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington; the difficulties Japan is having in its relations with Northeast Asia (in his judgment; Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who “is setting the direction for national politics and becoming the country’s leading political figure”); and the damage that has been done to the global nonproliferation regime.

Chang is right: There are no good solutions when dealing with North Korea. (At least there aren’t realistic good solutions: Given North Korea’s relentless pursuit of a bomb, Pyongyang is unlikely to give up its weapons in a verifiable manner, no matter what the inducement.)

In that case, is Chang’s fierce rhetoric a good idea? Is it possible to counsel moderation and acknowledge a certain helplessness when the fate of humanity might hang in the balance? My guess is the two don’t fit very well together and his language undermines the pursuit of the rational options that he endorses.

Forget the invective. It is emotionally satisfying but it doesn’t really tell us anything about Kim Jong Il or how to deal with him. Curiously, all the people that have met him describe him as rational, pleasant and smart. That is the starting point for thinking about the North Korean “nuclear showdown.” Anything else is likely to distract us and get in the way of a real solution.