DONALD Trump last week became the first current American president to set foot in North Korea.
Was it a propaganda coup for a wicked Communist dictatorship which will affirm its fantasy of being a significant world power? For a regime whose record is so appalling that it deserves no sympathy, understanding or friendship; a leadership that should be on trial for its crimes, not flattered by international attention?
Or was it a coup for Donald Trump’s foreign policy – for defusing a real nuclear threat, for achieving jaw-jaw when it was so near to being been war-war? And nuclear at that.
He may have given the regime comfort and flattered Kim Jong-un’s self-importance, but this is a special case. President Trump has done the right thing.
International condemnation or sanctions have barely affected the Pyongyang regime; its people have suffered the consequences as well as isolation while their hardship and starvation have been regarded by North Korea’s rulers with equal indifference.
The famines which racked the country in the 1990s and 2000s, caused both by ideologically driven mismanagement and the fatally muddled Western politics of pacification and sanctions, failed to dent the Communist rule. As food aid expert Andrew Natsios said referring to North Korea, ‘all famines take place in a political context’ pointing out that they don’t happen in free societies. North Korea’s were an illustration of how whatever misery befell the people, the regime would never surrender power.
And while accepting substantial help from the World Food Programme, the regime furiously denounced those who paid for it. Especially the USA, the biggest donor by far.
An annual ‘Anti-American Imperialism rally,’ expressing how the country was ‘aflame with the will’ to destroy America, ‘the sworn enemy’, was a fixture in the official calendar until 2018.
North Korea’s dictatorship has had a nightmare quality all of its own with its deliberate mockery of truth and propaganda fairy tales. It is claimed that at the birth of the second hereditary dictator, Kim Jong-il, a new star appeared in the heavens, followed by a double rainbow.
Just as amazingly, Kim Jong-il could supposedly alter the weather by the power of thought.
Although the more bizarre claims are now taken down, they were once proudly displayed on the country’s English language website, along with turgid expositions of ‘Juche Thought’, the country’s official ideology which combines leader-worship, extreme nationalism and Marxism.
The current third leader from the Kim dynasty is absurdly over-lauded and romaticised. In Ryanggang Province, a 612-yard (560 metres) message cut into a hillside reads, ‘Long Live General Kim Jong-un, the Shining Sun!’
However nonsensical it all is, the propaganda purpose is serious. It has beaten the population into mental submission as J P Floru depicts in his book The Sun Tyrant: A Nightmare Called North Korea. And, as Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple) says in his excellent book The Wilder Shores of Marx, propaganda is meant is to ‘mock and humiliate’. By forcing the people’s acquiescence with endless ridiculous lies, their self-respect is stripped away and their ability to resist, even in the privacy of their own heads, collapses.
Dissent in North Korea brings savage punishment. Executions are common and the barbarities of the state’s concentration camps, believed to contain around 200,000 prisoners, are unspeakable.
However vile North Korea is, though, if President Trump can encourage the regime to engage more with the world, he should be supported not mocked. North Korea’s separation from the real world has helped no one.
There is a precedent, too. When President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, Chairman Mao’s rule was as demented and evil as that of the Kim dynasty. The death toll from his purges and the state-engineered famine of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ had reached the tens of millions.
Mao’s infamous quote that he ‘wasn’t afraid of nuclear war because China has a population of 600million; even if half are killed, there are still 300million left,’ beats anything from the Kims.
Although the importance of Nixon’s visit shouldn’t be overstated, he helped reduce the threat of war and gently nudged China away from ideological extremes. As the BBC has put it, Nixon’s visit ‘began the long process of opening up China to the outside world after years of isolation’.
Since those days, despite its revived authoritarianism, continued human rights abuses and brutal religious persecution, China has improved immeasurably. If it can change, so can North Korea.
Apart from the miseries inflicted on its people, the other main concern about the country is its nuclear threat and aggressive posturing.
How much its bellicosity represents a real menace to its neighbours is hard to say. But in an interview with CNN in 2015, the deputy director of a North Korean think tank said the country had the missile capability to strike mainland United States and would do so if the United States ‘forced their hand’.
Defusing that stand-off has to be an achievement. Talking has proved more effective than sanctions, which by themselves have achieved little. In the last dozen years, they’ve been used to push for denuclearisation and as punishment for cyberattacks, money laundering and abusing human rights. But as the American think-tank the Council for Foreign Relations concludes, although sanctions ‘have exacted a heavy toll on the economy’ their ‘effectiveness has been undermined’ by poor enforcement and deliberate flouting. Even if tightened, ‘many question whether they would achieve the desired outcome’. We shouldn’t forget, of course, that any ‘toll on the economy’ translates into real misery for the already long-suffering population.
Trump’s interventions and his robust, sometimes undiplomatic, approach have had more positive effect than his predecessors’ muddled policy of sanctions and pacification, however much his critics might be loath to admit it. They squawked their outrage when he rhetorically waved the size of his weapons at Kim, but the reminder that America’s nuclear arsenal was bigger by far was what got Kim’s attention.
There’s a long way to go before we can be confident of peace on the Korean Peninsula. It’s rash to make firm predictions when your key variables are Trump and Kim. No one really knows how events will play out but if Kim can be coaxed into more engagement and rewarded with the gestures of acceptance and flattery dictators often crave, it’s just possible that a ‘Nixon goes to China’ effect might be realised.
Trump’s few footsteps into North Korea are an advance for peace and sanity. An achievement that should be recognised.