Paranoid, Isolated, Nuclear
The most dangerous member of the Nuclear Club (the eight nations known to have nuclear weapons) may well be its newest, the often belligerent and utterly isolated North Korea. Ruled since 1948 by three generations of the despotic and eccentric Kim family, the country has more recently suffered a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. Defectors have told of a backward and depleted nation whose people are fed lies about the world outside its boundaries.
The man who would become North Korea’s founding father was born in 1912, two years into the 35-year occupation of his country by the Japanese. Kim Il-sung briefly fought against the invaders in the 1930s before fleeing to the Soviet Union. He returned in 1945, and in 1948 was installed as North Korea’s head of state. The young upstart quickly consolidated his power, and over the proceeding decades he became not just a feared despot but also something of a godhead in the country, where he was known as the Great Leader. Cultures often believe their doctrine has divine origin, and North Koreans allegedly considered Kim infallible, clairvoyant and capable of controlling even the weather.
Kim considered the U.S. to be North Korea’s eternal enemy, and that hostility exploded in 1950 when the dictator sent troops streaming across the 38th parallel to attack his U.S.-backed southern neighbor. (The consummate propagandist, Kim would insist he had been attacked first.) The Korean War, which ended in a ceasefire in 1953, marked the first serious conflict of the Cold War and involved directly or by proxy all of the late 20th century’s major players, including the United Nations, China and the Soviet Union.
The war between North Korea and South Korea, which were separated at the end of World War II, became a microcosm of Cold War divisions. When Kim Il-sung’s troops reached Pusan in South Korea, U.S.-led allied forces finally halted them. A counterattack placed allied boots as far north as the Chinese frontier, and the Chinese and Soviets entered the conflict.
In the early 1950s the U.S. had a small though diminishing nuclear advantage over the Soviets, which led some officials, including General Douglas MacArthur, to consider using atomic weapons against the Moscow-backed North Koreans. The U.S. sent a nuclear-armed bomber wing to the region in August 1950, and that November President Harry S. Truman announced that the U.S. was considering using nuclear weapons in Korea. The world recoiled in disgust, Truman backtracked, and the war soon settled into a rather conventional stalemate along the 38th parallel.
Though a truce was never signed, a ceasefire ended the worst of the hostilities in 1953. Today the border between the countries remains one of the most heavily militarized regions on earth. North Korea’s current ruler, Kim’s grandson Kim Jong-un, shows little evidence that he wants to decrease tensions on the peninsula.
Sometimes called the Forgotten War because it was so quickly eclipsed by the conflicts in Vietnam, the Korean War lasted three years and during that time robbed the peninsula of some 3 million lives. After the war’s bloody back-and-forth, involving American and U.N. forces in South Korea and a million Chinese “volunteers” fighting alongside the North Koreans, the front lines resettled where they’d been on the first day of the war, along the 38th parallel.
The stalemate along the 38th parallel was the setting for the television comedy M*A*S*H, which focused on an American mobile army surgical hospital unit near the front lines. Inspired by the 1970 film and 1968 novel of the same name, the show ran for 11 seasons (1972–1983), lasting four times longer than the conflict in which it was set. The series, starring Alan Alda as Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, portrayed a military that was bureaucratic, heartless and often inept. M*A*S*H arrived on the airwaves, with its antiwar and anti-militaristic message, at a time when many Americans, following years of protests, were turning against the ongoing Vietnam War. A record-breaking 125 million people watched the show’s final episode, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.”
In April 2012 North Korea celebrated the centenary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the Great Leader. Kim spent nearly five decades ruling the country with an iron fist, fundamentally altering its economy, its culture and even its spiritual belief system. The philosophical engine behind these changes was Juche, an idea invented by Kim in 1955. Meaning “I, myself,” Juche is a philosophy of radical self-reliance, and it would become the justification for the country’s self-imposed isolation.
The dictator was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-il, born in Siberia in 1941, though the state mythmakers give his birthplace as a Lincolnesque log cabin on the Korean holy mountain Paektu, over which a double rainbow appeared as the heavens celebrated his birth. Jong-il’s rule was no less tyrannical than his father’s, and he supported an army 1.1 million men strong, the fourth largest in the world, even while his country suffered a devastating famine in the 1990s. A gourmand with a taste for French wines and Hennessy X.O. cognac, the diminutive autocrat sported an iconic pompadour and kept a harem known as the Pleasure Brigade. Jong-il, who died in 2011, was succeeded in power by his son Jong-un.
Director Robert Altman had years of experience working in television when he made his name with the 1970 film M*A*S*H. The dark comedy starred Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould as army doctors stationed near the front lines of the Korean War. The film is heavy with political overtones, though the commentary is less on the brutality of war or the Korean conflict than on the inanity of military bureaucracy. Based on a 1968 novel, the movie inspired the long-running TV show of the same name, which in turn engendered two spinoffs.
Kim Jong-il was a rabid cinephile who owned perhaps 20,000 movies. He was a fan of Elizabeth Taylor and such Hollywood schlock as Friday the 13th (1980), First Blood (1982) and the James Bond movies. In 1978 Kim Jong-il arranged the kidnapping of South Korea’s most famous director, Shin Sang-ok, and his wife. Shin directed seven movies during his eight years in captivity, including cult classic Pulgasari, a big-budget monster movie. Kim also directed films, mostly in the propaganda genre, and has been featured as a character in several Western pictures. In 2004’s Team America: World Police a marionette version of the Korean despot attempts to bomb the world.
North Korea, which has a long, murky history with nuclear weapons, first signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, though it barred international inspectors from visiting its reactors until 1992. The inspectors immediately discovered that plutonium was missing. A game of diplomatic cat and mouse ensued until, just months after his father’s death, Kim Jong-il signed the Agreed Framework (1994) with the U.S. His country would curb its nuclear program, and its erstwhile nemesis would provide much-needed fuel oil.
Within a few years North Korea had broken the agreement and tested intermediate-range missiles. In 2002 U.S. President George W. Bush declared North Korea, Iran and Iraq an axis of evil. Infuriated, North Korea sneered that it had been producing heavy uranium since 1998 and withdrew from the NPT entirely, conducting nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Not long after Kim Jong-il’s death, his son agreed to allow inspectors back into the country, but in February 2013, North Korea claimed to have executed another successful nuclear test. The nuclear weapons capability of the unstable and quarrelsome country, which makes a great deal of money trafficking in illegal arms, remains a frightening prospect.
North Korea has always considered itself proudly self-reliant, a fantasy that fell apart in the 1990s when the Soviet Union, Pyongyang’s largest benefactor, disintegrated. Kim Jong-il had just taken over from his late father when outside aid slowed to a trickle. The country’s already weak economy faltered, and throughout the next decade a million North Koreans—a 10th of the population—died of starvation. Thousands of hungry refugees crossed into China, bringing with them desperate stories of shuttered factories, villages that were little more than ghost towns and orphans scavenging for food.
Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy tells such stories through the eyes of six North Korean defectors. The book takes its title from a line in a children’s song—“We have nothing to envy in the world”—and indeed until recently many inhabitants of this isolated country believed that, as bad as they had it, things were worse elsewhere. One woman who returns from China tells her mother, “Your general [Kim Jong-il] has turned you all into idiots.” And yet, Demick reports, many defectors long to return. They worry about the family left behind and are bewildered by a modern world filled with unfamiliar computers, ATMs and cell phones.