Perilous peninsula on the axis of evil

Rogue Regime
February 3, 2006

Jasper Becker has had a long and distinguished career as an observer of China. His qualifications for writing about the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's formal title, are less clear.

He mentions visits in 1986 and 1989, but in recent years his direct contact with the country seems to have been along the border with China. There, like many other journalists, he has interviewed refugees from North Korea who have fled in the face of economic breakdown and who eke out a precarious existence among the Korean community of China's Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. Becker tells harrowing tales of famine and suffering based on his observations, supplemented by accounts published in the Republic of Korea and elsewhere by those who have escaped from North Korea.

He is highly critical of the international efforts to aid the DPRK.

He asserts that the United Nations organisations and non-governmental organisations that have operated in North Korea have been hoodwinked by the country's officials, and that the food aid given has been misappropriated.

Having accompanied many UN and other monitoring missions in the DPRK in 1998 and in 2001-02, I think he is mistaken, but this is an important issue that deserves to be examined.

If he had stuck to this, Becker might have produced a solid piece of reportage that would have commanded respect coming from one who conducted an exhaustive inquiry into the Chinese famine. It would also have raised questions that need to be addressed. Instead, Becker has attempted a history and analysis of the DPRK. Quite why is not clear. There is no lack of books on the DPRK covering all aspects of society, history and politics.

They include works by journalists as well as by academics and officials.

Some are hostile to the DPRK and its leadership, some more neutral, one or two are even positive about some aspects of the country.

Becker's book is certainly in the hostile camp. He does not like the leadership of the DPRK or its politics. Adopting the language of US President George W. Bush, Becker asserts - he does not argue the case - that the DPRK is a rogue state, and one that is inherently evil.

If there is a negative story relating to the North Korean leadership, he retells it. He even discovers new crimes to lay at their door; thus Kim Il Sung, the leader of the DPRK from its foundation in 1948 until his death in 1994, who is generally credited with maintaining a difficult balancing act between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China from the 1950s until the 1990s, is condemned for "flunkeyism" towards China. His son, Kim Jong Il, is mocked for his small stature, perhaps one of the few things that he cannot do much about.

More serious, however, is Becker's lack of understanding of the recent history of the peninsula. On some occasions he is wildly inaccurate. Twice he states that the Republic of Korea and the DPRK were established on August 15 and September 9, 1945; on both occasions, he then goes on to describe the debate over trusteeship and the role of the UN in terms that make no sense if independent countries had already been established. Such errors lead to further mistakes, including a distorted account of the occupation of the peninsula by Soviet and US forces.

The determination to paint the blackest possible picture leads Becker to follow every hostile account of the DPRK and its leadership, without any apparent attempt at checking. Thus, the cult of personality, and the distortions that it has produced in domestic accounts of recent history, is pushed much further back than is usual.

In Becker's account, the fully fledged legend of how Kim Il Sung achieved independence entirely on his own is dated even before the 1950-53 Korean War, yet a glance at publications from the 1950s shows that while the trend towards such glorification existed, it was far less advanced than Becker would have us believe.

While it is true that the DPRK began the 1950-53 Korean War, Becker's account of the war, and the behaviour of both sides, is unremittingly one-sided.

Equally negative is his account of South Korea's engagement policy and the benefits it has brought. At several points, he indicates that his preferred solution to the problem would be a US military strike to bring about regime change, but even he is constrained by the widespread suffering and devastation such action would bring.

To make matters worse, the book abounds in proofreading errors. Names are wrong and negatives are omitted. At one point, "revolutionary operas"

become "evolutionary operas". The reader seeking enlightenment about North Korea will need to go elsewhere.

James Hoare is a research associate, School of Oriental and African Studies, London. He is a former member of the British Diplomatic Service and, in his last post, oversaw the establishment of the British Embassy in North Korea.

Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea

Author - Jasper Becker
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 300
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 19 517044 X

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