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Book Review: Rogue State: How a Nuclear North Korea Threatens America by William L. Triplett II

From an English-language dispatch from North Korea’s KCNA news agency, dated 16 November 2005 (sorry, “Juche 94″):

American-style “democracy” is the most reactionary and anti-popular ruling system that mercilessly tramples down the people’s desire and demand for freedom and democracy and a tool of aggression and interference. …under American-style “democracy” misanthropy and the jungle law are predominant, extreme racial discrimination, maltreatment of women and children, crimes of terrible violence, slavish flesh traffic and corrupted gangster culture are prevailing and the people live always under the threat of lives.

That’s not a line from Team America: World Police, but the kind of rhetoric the “People’s Democratic Republic” of Korea wants the world to see. So the very first line in William Triplett’s Rogue State, allegedly a North Korean diplomat’s response to American allegations that it was building nuclear weapons, certainly sounds plausible. The diplomat reportedly huffed, “not only YES, but HELL YES, and you tell that to your president!”

Few people doubt that North Korea has an active nuclear weapons program, and the horrific human-rights abuses of Kim Jong-Il’s regime are well documented. But William Triplett’s Rogue State, one of many recently-published books about the hermit kingdom, goes even further, detailing North Korea’s role in weapons proliferation, support for international terrorism, and even drug trafficking. Most provocatively, Triplett accuses Communist China, the closest thing North Korea has to an ally, of quietly backing Kim’s most dangerous adventures.

Right from the start, explains Triplett, North Korea — until 1994, under the strict control of Kim’s father, Kim Il-Sung — has been a catastrophe for human rights and democracy. Thousands were slaughtered and dumped into mass graves by Mao-backed North Korean troops following the invasion of South Korea in 1950. North Korean agents murdered its Southern neighbor’s popular First Lady in 1974, killed 17 South Korean cabinet ministers in a 1983 bombing, and blew up a Korean Air jetliner in 1987 — killing 115 people — for no reason except to protest the Seoul Olympics. (One wonders what the victims’ relatives must think, when they see North and South Korea fielding “united” Olympic teams.) They have kidnaped Japanese civilians to train their spies, sold missile technology and weapons to anyone who wants it, and, according to Triplett, are working on missiles capable of reaching American soil.

But Triplett also makes allegations which have received considerably less attention in the international media. He cites intelligence estimates that the North Korean government has poured many of its scarce resources into opium production (in a country not really suited to same), and notes that its diplomats have repeatedly been caught smuggling narcotics into Europe. He describes the country’s security and espionage apparatus in ways that terms that seem to come straight from the movies — tunnels under Pyongyang, installations buried in mountains, and an elaborate mock-up of a typical Seoul neighborhood, all the better to brainwash young agents into carrying out suicide missions for the Dear Leader. (It’s one thing to blow yourself up thinking there are 72 virgins waiting for you on the other side, but something else to give your life when your ideology precludes belief in a deity greater than Kim Jong-Il.)

And behind it all, writes Triplett, is China, perfectly happy to give Kim all the weaponry, aid and political support he needs. The author uses an old Chinese warrior analogy, “killing with a borrowed knife,” to describe the way China uses its neighbor to make trouble for the Americans while publicly playing nice.

The problem with Rogue State is that many of its most serious allegations — for example, that North Korean planes were allowed to refuel in China while shipping nuclear components to Pakistan — are largely unsubstantiated or based on defectors’ evidence. In a totalitarian nightmare world like North Korea, unfortunately, it’s almost impossible for reliable information to get out, and the testimony of defectors and escapees must fill the void. All of their stories may be true – but they could also be embellished, contaminated by rumors, or designed to tell the Americans and South Koreans what they want to hear. I don’t want to come across like Noam Chomsky in the 1970s, arrogantly dismissing horror stories told by Cambodians who fled the Khmer Rouge, but such testimony should always be approached with some degree of skepticism.

Triplett, unfortunately, tends to toss every allegation, substantiated or not, into the same pot, leaving the reader to sort it all out. Rogue State would have been a much better book had Triplett acknowledged the problems with or gaps in much of his evidence.

No book on North Korea would be complete without a discussion of Kim’s personality cult and the horrific, complete repression of independent thought and individual rights in North Korea. Rogue State includes a chapter on this subject, but anyone who wants to know what it’s like to live there would be better off reading Kang Chol-Hwan’s The Aquariums of Pyongyang. If you want to know how North Korea poses a threat to the United States and the rest of the world, Rogue State contains many disturbing allegations, but the reader should exercise considerable caution in unquestionably accepting all of them. Still, considering what we do know about North Korea — and how the North Korean government presents itself to the rest of the world — I won’t be one bit surprised if, when the Kim dynasty is finally brought low, everything in Rogue State turns out to have been accurate.
Edited: PC

About Damian P.

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