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Outside editorial: Trying to make sense of North Korea

Posted: Sunday, September 05, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

If extraterrestrial creatures ever land on this planet and an intermediary is needed to meet with them, earthlings could do worse than to send former President Jimmy Carter. After his latest trip to Pyongyang to negotiate with the North Korean government, he is well-equipped to try to decipher the motives of strange aliens who do not behave according to our ideas of rationality.

Carter was able to persuade the regime of Kim Jong Il to release American Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for entering the country illegally. The harsh penalty may be attributable to the North Koreans' alarm at anyone lunatic enough to want to sneak in rather than out.

The odd thing about this visit - well, odder than most visits to the Hermit Kingdom - was that Carter came at the invitation of Kim, who apparently didn't think his visitor was important enough to stick around for. He took the occasion to absent himself to China.

As with most events involving the regime, there was a lot of idle speculation about Kim's reasons, but no useful information. One possibility is that Kim, who at age 68 is believed to be in failing health, was in a hurry to introduce his Chinese benefactors to his heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, who happens to be the Dear Leader's third son.

Apparently, the dictatorship of the proletariat relies heavily on family connections. It might surprise Karl Marx to learn that in the 21st century, rulers who claim him as inspiration, such as Kim and Fidel Castro, operate like medieval monarchs in transferring power.

Why Kim would pick his third son to succeed him rather than either of his first two is another mystery. One may have disqualified himself by traveling to Japan on a counterfeit passport, allegedly in an effort to visit Disneyland. Another has a reputation as "girlish." Son No. 3, thought to be about 27, is young, but is said to resemble his father in physique and viciousness.

The latter trait matters greatly to a regime that specializes in thuggery and threats. The latest example: the reported sinking of a South Korean naval vessel last spring in South Korean waters, an unprovoked act of war.

Although everyone knows it was the work of a North Korean submarine, hardly anyone has the stomach for military retaliation. The maddening thing is that North Korea would undoubtedly be pulverized in a war with South Korea and the United States, but the damage the nuclear-armed state could inflict while losing is too high to pay. So unless China is uncharacteristically willing to economically squeeze its client state, North Korea will probably get off easy, as it often does.

Xenophobic, bellicose and clinging to a form of government that the 20th century exposed as criminal folly, North Korea's leaders may not understand many things about the modern world. They do know the one thing they care about: how to keep their power and survive in it.



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