As one of the few people to have viewed the Korean town of Panmunjom from both sides, I never forget to ask why on earth it is referred to as part of the demilitarized zone. It can make a strong claim for being the most intensively militarized zone on the planet. We aren’t allowed to know for sure whether there are nuclear mines in the wide strip of desolation that separates the two Koreas, but we do know that the DMZ was one of the reasons given by the Clinton administration for not signing the treaty forbidding the sowing of mines. “But I will delve one yard below their mines,”says Prince Hamlet, “and blow them at the moon.” True to this ambition, the North Koreans have several times been caught digging tunnels under the DMZ that were deep and wide enough to carry invading divisions of infantry and artillery.
The military flags displayed at both ends of the Panmunjom strip are testimony to the fact of a cease-fire line, because the Korean War never ended. This is at best an armistice. And we are regularly reminded that the Korean peninsula could explode into a full-scale war or, rather, resumption of war, at any moment. The most recent reminder was the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean frigate, in March. After a very detailed and protracted investigation of this incident, it was announced last week that the warship had been hit by a North Korean torpedo. Everybody already knew this, so the only real question was why the unavoidable finding had taken so long.
The answer is not hard to discover. So volatile and unpredictable and hysterical has the North Korean regime become that it was believed in some quarters that even the finding might trigger a fresh escalation—an escalation that might pass the nuclear threshold before anyone could draw breath. Richard Nixon used to ask his sick and compliant operative Henry Kissinger to imply to the Russians and Chinese that he might be such a touchy president that he was capable of anything—this loopy strategy became known in policy circles as “the madman theory of war.” In the case of Kim Jong-il, nobody has any difficulty believing that he is delusional and worse, so the blackmail keeps on working.
North Korea is thought to have enough purely conventional weapons to destroy South Korea’s capital, Seoul, which is located very close to the cease-fire line or “border.” It has also built a series of dams, which, if opened or blown, could flood and drown a good part of South Korea. (A recent apparently accidental such flood, on a smallish scale, at least served to remind the South Koreans what the stakes were.) So this is the way we live now: conditioned by the awareness that no North Korean provocation, however egregious, can be confronted, lest it furnish the occasion or pretext for something truly barbarous and insane.
Another version of our complicity with the Dear Leader is to be found with his oppression and starvation of his “own” people. It is felt that we cannot just watch them die, so we send food aid in return for an ever-receding prospect of good behavior in respect of the Dear Leader’s nuclear program. The ratchet effect is all one way: Nuclear tests become ever more flagrant and the emaciation of the North Korean people ever more pitiful. We have unwittingly become members of the guard force that patrols the concentration camp that is the northern half of the peninsula.
The dirty secret here is that no neighboring power really wants the North Korean population released from its awful misery. Here are millions of stunted and unemployable people, traumatized and deformed by decades of pointless labor on the plantations of a mad despot. The South Koreans do not really want these hopeless cases on the soil of their flourishing consumer society. The Chinese, who have a Korean-speaking province that borders North Korea, are likewise unwilling to suffer the influx of desperate people that is in our future. I can’t see the United States accepting them in its present mood. Kim Jong-il’s junta knows this, as it knows that we are not prepared to fight him. So the deliberate mass starvation and the nuclear blackmail are two aspects of the same depraved system. (Incidentally, if that system doesn’t deserve to be called evil, I don’t know what does.)
The evil and the irrationality of the system are also directly related. American intelligence has apparently reported to President Barack Obama that the murder of 46 South Korean sailors was a premeditated action on the part of Kim Jong-il himself, in order to gratify the morale of his military elite and to advance the cause of one of his sons as his impending dynastic replacement. It seems that in April the Dear Leader personally visited and congratulated the naval unit that carried out the torpedo attack. This kind of lethal irresponsibility may seem demented, but I don’t know of anyone who studies North Korea professionally who doesn’t regard it as at least a plausible explanation. And it seems that the provisional response from Washington has been to urge restraint on the elected government in Seoul, which indeed has little choice but to confine itself to diplomatic initiatives and the dropping of such economic incentives for good behavior as Seoul can still claim to exert. This may well serve to fend off the latest crisis and prevent it from ballooning into full-out madness, but it doesn’t excuse us from the realization that we become accomplices in evil every time we seek to soothe the unslakable appetites of the crime family that sits in Pyongyang.