Pompeo’s prospects: outlook from a 40-year Pyongyang watcher
In 1977 the Baltimore Sun sent me to Japan. It turned out that Korea was the more exciting part of my new beat – North Korea even more so than demonstration-racked South Korea.
Because the North was so isolated, just getting in had a scarcity value that made correspondents drool. I worked on my pitch and succeeded in becoming accredited to cover the world ping-pong tournament in Pyongyang in 1979. That three-week trip hooked me. Since then, North Korea has been my No 1 work focus.
Despite a good deal of advance research I was unprepared for the extent to which the country proved, during that first visit, to be a religious kingdom inhabited by deeply adoring subjects of a godlike ruler.
The brainwashed people I talked with seemed perfectly sincere in their worship of Kim Il-sung, happily singing hymns in his praise, performing obeisance to his portrait and giving thanks to him at mealtimes.
In six more visits spread out over decades, what really struck me was the extent to which North Korea remained the same – failing, in particular, to open and reform like China despite the fact that news of the outside world was getting through to the people more and more frequently.
The people, by most reports somewhat less devout in their leader worship than before, nevertheless were nowhere near the pre-revolutionary stage of standing up and demanding change.
The Kim family regime had truly mastered the arts of propaganda. On one trip, in 2007, my handler became incensed when I remarked that Kim Il-sung had gone to Moscow to plead with Josef Stalin three times before getting permission to invade South Korea in 1950.
Although the man was a life-long resident of Pyongyang, the most cosmopolitan place in North Korea, he remained a true believer in the regime’s version that the South started the war. When I told him the Soviet archives had opened and official documents there proved what I was telling him, it was impossible for him to believe me. He had no framework for even imagining such a contradiction of the history he had been taught.
He warned that if I failed to watch my tongue he couldn’t assure my safety in the country, and he challenged me to “restart the Korean War, just you and me.”
Hysterical, militaristic leader worship, not unlike that of prewar Japan, had become deeply rooted.
Given this – from my point of view, at least – it’s surprising that my expectations of what’s likely to lie ahead are controversial.
I think a great many South Korean leftists and peace-loving Americans have it wrong when they imagine that the Kim family regime has changed, fundamentally, to the extent it is no longer bent on ruling over the South
I think a great many South Korean leftists and peace-loving Americans have it wrong when they imagine that the Kim family regime has changed, fundamentally, to the extent it is no longer bent on ruling over the South.
There’s precious little evidence for their view that the country can turn on a dime or has done so – as I noted in an earlier column.
The preponderance of evidence suggests, rather, that the regime’s goal still is to persuade the Americans to abandon their South Korean ally. Then Pyongyang hopes it can get on with its long-standing policy of forming a “confederacy” with the South and using that structure – along with the advantage the North draws from its single-minded determination – to outmaneuver naive Southerners and take over.
I also believe the regime retains the option of Plan B – another invasion, whenever favorable circumstances might permit it, in case peaceful maneuvering should fail to do the trick.
When Kim Jong-un said in his New Year’s speech that he wanted to talk, the “maximum pressure” policy had not progressed far enough to persuade me to imagine – as President Donald Trump may have done – that the North Korean ruler was desperate. Now, of course, maximum pressure is a thing of the past as participating countries slack off.
While hoping to be proved wrong, I tend to see current events as a repeat of the “peace offensive” tactics that North Korea has used repeatedly over the decades. Most seasoned Pyongyang watchers appear to agree, but it seems Trump doesn’t listen to us naysayers.
The Chinese got lucky when Mao Zedong’s son died fighting in the Korean War. With no Mao dynasty to continue enforcing the founder’s policies, Deng Xiaoping was eventually able to turn the country around.
Even if a substantive agreement should be reached, I’d still find it difficult to imagine a good outcome in North Korea with the Kim family still in charge.
If these talks fail in the end to bring denuclearization and peace, we could too easily slide back to something like the status quo ante – but even worse, with the Trump administration more bellicose than before but suffering a self-inflicted diminution in its ability to marshal unified international pressure.
Surely some notion of how badly all this could turn out must weigh heavily on US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as he arrives in Pyongyang.