July 3rd 2004

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: NZ Labour legislates to effect 'same-sex marriage'

EDITORIAL: Free Trade Agreement's tilted playing field

ECONOMICS: Setting pay to create new jobs

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Profile of Mark Latham's star new recruit

AGRICULTURE: Western farm subsidies rising, Australia's falling

OVERSEAS DEBT: Foreign debt grows as we live beyond our means

SAME-SEX COUPLES: Gays comprise 0.5 per cent of couples: parliamentary survey

FAMILY: Neurobiology says mothers play vital role

EDUCATION: The gender agenda

POLITICAL IDEAS: Distributism - the neglected tradition

COMMENT: The 'battlers' want jobs, not platitudes

EUROPE: New EU Constitution faces mounting opposition

STRAWS IN THE WIND : Moving the lounge chairs in the retirement village / Still picking up the pieces / Selective indignation

Flouting the law (letter)

Grameen Bank (letter)

Howard Government defended (letter)

Restoring Murray River communities' confidence (letter)

Reagan's wit (letter)

BOOKS: Target North Korea, by Gavan McCormack

BOOKS: An Imperfect God: George Washington, his slaves and the creation of America

Books promotion page

Target North Korea, by Gavan McCormack

by Bill James

News Weekly, July 3, 2004
Pushing North Korea To The Brink Of Nuclear Catastrophe

By Gavan McCormack

Random House, Price: $29.95

Straws in the wind ...

Item one: On May 28, 2004, Margaret Throsby conducted an interview on ABC FM with Gavan McCormack on this, his latest book. There was not one word from either of them about the human rights situation in North Korea, described by Christopher Hitchens as "a society where individual life is absolutely pointless, and where everything that is not absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden".

This was quite an achievement, comparable to discussing Stalin without mentioning the Ukraine Famine or the Great Terror, or Hitler without mentioning the Holocaust. One might not have believed it to be possible, but the ABC never ceases to surprise us.

"Soft spot"

Item two: On May 15, 2004, The Times carried a piece by Simon Winchester (reproduced in Melbourne's Age) headed "A soft spot for North Korea".

Winchester discerned "a kind of innocent gentility to the country ... a feeling of the essential purity of the Korean-ness of those bleak lands and towns that lie north of the 38th parallel. I feel about North Korea much as I do about today's Cuba; that however grim and impoverished and unfree it may be, there is some credit to be given for the fact that it has as yet not been entirely swallowed up by the Coca-Cola culture of its neighbours".

In other words, torture, concentration camps, executions and total deprivation of civil liberties are no doubt regrettable, but on the other hand they produce a vista unsullied by vulgar consumerism, for the delectation of Westerners such as Mr Winchester. Truly all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Item three: According to the recently released Amnesty International Report 2004, in April 2003 the UN Commission on Human Rights passed its first ever resolution on North Korea, expressing "its deep concern about reports of systemic, widespread and grave violations of human rights". Obviously deep thinkers, those UN Human Rights commissioners.

Item four: Reports earlier this year that prisoners in North Korean jails are being used in poison gas experiments have come and gone practically without comment. This example of journalistic restraint makes an interesting contrast with the response of the Western media to the treatment of America's prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison, in Iraq.

US to blame

McCormack's thesis in a nutshell is that, yes, North Korea is an unpleasant place ruled by an unpleasant regime. But such a state of affairs is inevitable, given its experience of Japanese imperialism, the Korean War, the Cold War, and post-Cold War American bellicosity.

North Korea has no expansionist ambitions, and is currently exploiting its real or (probably) imaginary nuclear capability in a desperate bid to stave off what it believes to be an imminent attack. The only constructive way of alleviating the situation on the peninsula is by means of non-confrontational regional co-operation involving South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.

Some of McCormack's case here is more convincing than the rest.

Certainly Korea suffered under Japanese subjugation during the early twentieth century, but other countries, including South Korea, have endured imperialist domination and got over it.

We don't see Ethiopians kidnapping Italians, or Norwegians practising totalitarianism, using their one time fascist or Nazi occupation as an excuse.

So far as the Korean War is concerned, McCormack cannot see the wood for the trees. He just doesn't get it. Kim Il Sung and the communists were in power in the North because Stalin (as, admittedly, he agreed to do at Yalta) declared war on Japan between the dropping of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, and promptly seized Manchuria, which gave him access to Korea. Stalin had killed more people than the recently defeated Hitler: naturally the Americans were going to resist his emulative protege state when it invaded the South in 1950.

McCormack makes much of the atrocities, deliberate or inadvertent, that were allegedly perpetrated by American and Southern troops as the fighting surged up and down the peninsula, and also of the brutal authoritarianism of the Syngman Rhee administration in the South.

However, outrages by both sides take place in all wars. (It emerged, for example, during the recent D-day commemoration, that Allied troops were ordered to take no prisoners during the first forty-eight hours after the landings).

As for Syngman Rhee and his successors, the subsequent emergence of totalitarianism in the North and liberal democracy in the South demonstrate that the war was fully justified.

And yet, unbelievably, for McCormack, not the communist attempt to invade the South and impose a virulent form of neo-Stalinism on its people, but "the American-imposed division of the peninsula will have to be recognised as the original sin that is the ultimate cause of the contemporary Korean crisis".

McCormack is on firmer ground when he argues that North Korea possesses little or nothing in the way of nuclear capabilities, and that actual or implied threats by the United States to carry out selective strikes against the North, or even invade it, are both immoral and counter-productive. Whether or not he is right, he makes a strong case which demands consideration.

That being conceded, there remains a faint but troubling whiff of false moral equivalence and selective tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner to McCormack's thesis.

He freely admits that the North Korean regime is indefensible. In fact, some of the most interesting and readable parts of the book are his descriptions of the Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il dynastic theocracy, and their imposition of the idiosyncratic Juche (self-reliance) ideology on the new Hermit Kingdom.

Harsh facts

No attempt is made to hide the harsh facts of life and death under the Great and then the Dear Leader.This honesty notwithstanding, what is disturbing throughout the book is the tone with which he speaks. That will no doubt come across as a nebulous, subjective and - because difficult to pin down - unfair criticism.

But there is little discernible anger or sorrow in his dispassionate portrayal of an irrational tyranny which has imposed ignorance, poverty, hunger, oppression and cruelty on the population of North Korea.

This is in contrast to his partisan analysis of American and Japanese policy, which is marked by a consistent attribution of malice and culpable obtuseness - and in the case of Japan, even generational responsibility stretching back to the sixteenth century.

A whole chapter, "Japan and North Korea: Difficult Neighbors", is dedicated to showing that Japan's anger over North Korea's kidnapping of Japanese citizens, and Japanese detestation of North Korean totalitarianism, are somehow invalidated by atrocities committed before almost any of Japan's citizens were born.

In the chapter on North Korea's recent relations with the United States, America's decision to rule out a bombing strike, and instead resort to policies such as encouraging defections, is condemned as "deliberate provocation".

For McCormack, the North Korean scenario is deplorable, but has been manufactured by historical forces of which its leadership is merely the unfortunate outcome. The Americans and Japanese, on the other hand, are wilfully duplicitous and malevolent.

For anyone with a skerrick of humanitarian concern for North Koreans, the appropriate response to their distress seems obvious. No amount of excuses and rationalisation can disguise the fact that their distress is a direct result of Pyongyang's policies, which can and should be changed.

There must therefore be concerted pressure - diplomatic, economic (carrot, not stick), military (defensive, not offensive), moral and journalistic, along with demonstrations whenever possible against visiting members of the North Korean leadership - from governments, human rights organisations, churches, the media and Western activists in general. They must demand that Pyongyang:

1. Permit the unrestricted entry and distribution of food from all willing outside agencies.

2. Put butter before guns, and divert resources from futile and megalomaniac North Korean armaments accumulation to the provision of foodstuffs and medical supplies.

3. Take immediate steps toward the liberalisation and democratisation of North Korean society.

Pace McCormack, it is the North Korean communists who are the villains of the piece. He describes North Korea as "threatened and abused by the Bush administration", but it is the North Korean communists, not the Americans, who are deceiving, terrorising and starving the people of North Korea.

It is the North Korean communist establishment, not the Americans, who need lectures from Western academics on how to behave.


As North Korean gulag survivor Kang Chol-hwan warns in his The Aquariums of Pyongyang:

"International public opinion and world leaders should be pressed to become more conscious of the North Korean tragedy and to force Kim Jong-il to change his behaviour or risk being condemned by an international court.

"I did not join in the exaltation and enthusiasm shared by many South Koreans during the recent [2000] summit between North and South Korea.

"One has to be naive to believe that Kim Jong-il's smile and affability as a host signal any real change in a dictatorial regime without equal in the modern world - a place where the population has been kept in a constant state of terror for decades.

"If Kim Jong-il is smiling, it's because he is sure of his grip on power and plans to continue exercising it with the same contempt he has always had for the most basic of human rights".

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