SAIGON - North Korea's apparent torpedoing of a South Korean navy ship and
getting away from the scene of the crime with no more than recriminations and
oratorical flourishes ringing in the ears of the perpetrators demonstrates a
reality from which there is no escape. The North still has thousands of
artillery pieces within range of metropolitan Seoul and the nearby port of
Incheon as well as missiles with the range to reach anywhere in the South, and
nobody in South Korea really wants to challenge that kind of threat.
South Korea is doing so well economically and living standards are so high that
the idea of seeking anything other than rhetorical revenge for the sinking of
the Cheonan with a loss of 46 lives on March 26 appears almost
unthinkable. Certainly South Korea would get no support for such a venture from
its American ally, bogged down in wars in the Middle East and attempting to
South Korean generals reluctantly to believe they should take full command of
all forces in the South in the event of a second Korean war.
While South Korea's economy grows at a pace ahead of that of the rest of the
industrial world, South Korean military people worry over what they see as the
North's alarming new strategy. That is, to chip away at the South Koreans with
attacks such as that on the hapless navy corvette in the West or Yellow Sea -
and maybe bold quick hits on Seoul and Incheon.
The point, according to JoongAng Ilbo, one of South Korea's major newspapers,
would eventually be to occupy a portion of metropolitan Seoul and then to
negotiate a ceasefire. The paper quoted a military intelligence source as
saying North Korea had strengthened its mechanized forces near the line with
South Korea. At the same time, North Korea is bolstering naval forces on its
southwest coast and threatening new attacks on South Korean vessels along the
Northern Limit Line below which the South bans all North Korean boats.
While reluctant to do anything that might provoke armed conflict with North
Korea, US and South Korean analysts wonder how long the North can carry on with
such impunity. They see no let-up in the harshness of life for the vast
majority of North Koreans - and ask whether any system can endure forever while
the economy deteriorates, citizens gain slightly more knowledge of the outside
world via illicit cell phones and short-range radios and ailing Dear Leader Kim
Jong-il smoothes the way for transition of power to his youngest son.
For precedent, it's tempting to turn to the case of Cambodia after the victory
of the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.
The Dear Leader's rule may not be cruelest the world has seen since the defeat
of Adolf Hitler's Germany in 1945 or the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin
in 1953. That distinction probably belongs to Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, who ruled
from the once tranquil capital of Phnom Penh until December 1978 when
Vietnamese communist troops drove them out. About two million people are
estimated to have died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge from starvation,
executions, torture and disease.
Although comparisons may seem far-fetched, the suffering under the Khmer Rouge
is reminiscent of that endured for many more years in North Korea.
Today, however, Phnom Penh is bustling, alive with shops selling an incredible
range of exotic silk, statuary, silver objects and souvenirs. Restaurants offer
any kind of menu. The streets are swarming with traffic as motor scooters dart
in and out and larger vehicles carry people and commercial products.
Motorcycles pulling what look like small old-fashioned carriages offer taxi
services. Internet cafes thrive in every market place. Casinos and nightclubs
lure those in search of higher-priced fun, and the National Museum and Royal
Palace offer lush and rich glimpses into Khmer civilization and heritage going
back 2,000 years.
So what lesson is there in the transformation of Cambodia from a frightening
dictatorship into a hustling if not exactly democratic society? Cambodia's
present system, in which Hun Sen has ruled as prime minister with the backing
of Vietnam almost constantly for 25 years, is obviously not ideal. Many of the
country's 15 million people continue to suffer economically.
And it's fair to assume that torture and killing go on, although not on a mass
scale. In an imperfect world, however, Cambodia gives every appearance of
having recovered its erstwhile reputation as an "oasis of peace". That was how
then prince Norodom Sihanouk - who before and after ruled as king - described
Cambodia when it was navigating a treacherous course of neutrality as American
and South Vietnamese forces fought the North Vietnamese until the US-backed
regime fell in Vietnam two weeks after the defeat of that in Cambodia in 1975.
Incredibly, Sihanouk has survived, so much so that in his old age he endures as
a kind of king emeritus above the tawdry power politics that periodically
shakes up the elite of the capital six years after his eldest son, Norodom
Sihamoni, was crowned as his successor.
The survival of the throne, however, represents a grand compromise in which
momentous changes had to occur before Cambodia could begin to reach its current
level of peace and prosperity. The Pol Pot regime had to fall, and the men
around him, those responsible for forms of torture matched and exceeded only by
the security apparatus of Kim Jong-il, had to flee, be killed or captured, to
disappear forever. The lesson here may not be lost on South Koreans or their
There is, however, another irony here: that communist Vietnam, the Socialist
Republic of Vietnam, united between North and South Vietnam, drove out the
Khmer Rouge. How was it that the forces of a communist country, against which
the Americans and South Vietnamese, supported by two divisions of South
Koreans, had fought for a generation, could have accomplished such a stunning
success for the everlasting benefit of the Cambodian people?
The answer in part is that Vietnam, after the communist victory in 1975, was
never a terrible dictatorship on the scale of North Korea. As Vietnam's
leadership went through its own tortuous policy shifts, market capitalism began
to flourish. Vietnamese gained a level of cultural and economic freedom that
had not appeared possible in 1975. Moreover, Ho Chi Minh, who led Vietnam's
communist regime until his death in 1969, never gained a reputation for
pervasive cruelty over his own people even as he ruthlessly suppressed
Vastly different though the societies and cultures of Cambodia and North Korea
undoubtedly are, the conclusion seems clear. There can be no real compromise
with the Kim Jong-il regime. The history of regimes such as that in Cambodia
under the Khmer Rouge is they do not willingly yield, do not suddenly adopt
humanitarian policies and do not give up the props of their rule, notably their
weapons. It's wishful thinking to expect North Korea to shift its policies or
honor any agreement on much of anything, including its nuclear weapons program.
It took an upheaval to bring about relief from suffering in Cambodia, and it
will take another to reform North Korea.
Donald Kirk, based in Seoul, covered the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia for
newspapers and magazine, writing two books about them. He has also written
three books on Korea, most recently Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and