Dear Mr. President...

I can still remember with what great satisfaction so many of us viewed your decision, on June 13, 2005, to receive Kang Chol-Hwan at the White House. His name is not yet as well-known as it might be, but his book, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, has become a classic in a minor key for its unsparing depiction of life in the penal colonies of North Korea. It’s quite possible that this network of camps represents the most ghastly system of inhumanity currently operating on the planet, and thus that it confronts our generation with a challenge that is of Gulag proportions. One day, its victims will want to know what we were doing while they were confined in it, and we had better be ready with a respectable answer.

The answer of your two-term administration, at its mid-point, was to succeed in persuading Congress to pass the North Korea Human Rights Act in 2004. This piece of legislation also created the post of special envoy for human rights in North Korea: a post which was filled by Jay Lefkowitz on August 19, 2005, a few weeks after your own meeting with Kang Chol-Hwan (who was subsequently and satisfyingly denounced as “human scum” by Kim Jong Il’s propagandists).

There are three reasons why we are compelled to care about North Korea. First, and most obviously, the persistence of its aggressive totalitarian Stalinism (actually, ultra-Stalinist Kim il-Sungism) necessitates the presence of some 28,500 U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula. The commanding American officer there, Army General Burwell Bell, is also as it happens the commander of the United Nations forces that have been maintained on the same soil since the “armistice” (not treaty) that ended hostilities in 1953. Fighting under our own flag and that of the UN in the event of war in Korea—a reassuring thought, in some ways—the top general would also be the commander of the joint U.S.-South Korean forces.

The most sober estimate of the military situation in Korea has to take into account its extreme volatility. At any moment, North Korea could choose to employ its enormous army (more than a million men under arms in a country of 22 million souls, and 70 percent of them within ninety miles of the “Demilitarized Zone” or DMZ) to launch a devastating attack on the city of Seoul, which is now, after a long and arduous struggle against corrupt and rightist military dictatorship, the capital of a thriving Asian democracy. The city is uncomfortably close to the DMZ, which puts it within easy range of North Korean artillery and rocketry and makes it, in effect, a hostage. I am one of the very few people to have visited both sides of the DMZ and to have looked across it through both sets of binoculars. I sometimes wonder how it got its name. It must be the most intensely militarized strip of territory on earth. And, with its bleak and bristling and impermeable character—quite unlike the more narrow and porous Berlin Wall—it also forms part of the quadrilateral (the sea on two sides and narrow Russian and Chinese frontiers on the northern end) within which the North Korean people are imprisoned and enslaved.

This brings me to the second reason why we have to be cognizant of everything that happens in North Korea. A visitor to the DMZ will be compelled to notice that, at the frontline, near the table where the “armistice” was signed, North and South Korean sentries stand “eyeballing” each other. My impression is that the South Koreans detail their beefiest and most imposing soldiers for this duty. My impression is also that the North Koreans are increasingly failing to come up with any credible competition in this micro-contest. The estimate is that a North Korean is now about five or six inches shorter, on average, than a South Korean. The explanation for this is not complicated. In recent years, and while its leader Kim Jong Il has remained as chubby as ever, North Korea has inflicted a terror-famine on its population, at the cost of several million lives lost and several million children stunted both physically and mentally by sheer hunger and malnutrition. Even among the favored bureaucrats in Pyongyang when I visited the country in the year 2000, there were pronounced signs of emaciation and even foreign “guests” had difficulty getting a decent meal. One trembles to think of what was happening in the non-showcase cities or in the countryside. And as to what was happening in the prison-camp system . . .

Ideologically driven incompetence and stupidity played a role in this famine, to be sure, and so did the interruption of what had been a guaranteed subsidy from the former Soviet Union. But there is a much more important reason for the state-failure and societal implosion, and this indeed constitutes the third reason that further implicates our policy and our statecraft. Put bluntly: North Korea is a society organized for war. It is committed to a bureaucratic centralism that directs all effort and resources to the maintenance of a huge and parasitic military caste, and it meanwhile hopes to use conscription to muffle the effects of inefficiency and unemployment. More important, though, and seemingly difficult or even impossible for some people to understand, its militarism is its meal ticket.

May I explain what I mean by this? Every time North Korea does something insanely rash and destabilizing—and there is no shortage of examples here—a consortium of concerned neighboring states, under American leadership, takes measures to ensure that food-aid deliveries are stepped up, and that the regime of Kim Jong Il does not become ever more unstable as a result of further famine. Of course we cannot threaten to starve North Korean civilians because of a dispute over conventional or nuclear weapons with their “government,” but we must also be aware of an important corollary to this: namely, that for precisely as long as our aid can be used to condition good behavior, it can also be extracted from us as a protection payment resulting from thuggish behavior, and that over time the Pyongyang despotism therefore has a vested interest in prolonging the stalemate, and little if any interest in bringing it to an end.

There are those who believe, Mr. President, that “engagement” with North Korea will bring about incremental change, leading over time to the sort of evolution that we witnessed in mainland China. But North Korea, unlike China, is not a “real” country, or state, or society. It is an artificial entity, entirely consecrated to the cult of hysterical worship of a hideous crime family. This system could not survive in a modified version, any more than East Germany could survive the rush of oxygen that penetrated its hermetic seal in 1989. It has effectively no margin in which reform can take place, and it relies on a control of its people that is as near to the pure ideal of the totalitarian as it is possible to get. The North Korean state was founded in approximately the year that Nineteen Eighty-Four was first published and, when I visited Pyongyang, I could not rid myself of the impression that somebody had given a Korean translation of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel to Kim Il Sung and asked him to put its theory into practice. I know that my subsequent article, attempting to describe for American readers what it might be like to live in North Korea, was the biggest failure of my journalistic life, in that it involved the largest gap between what I saw and my ability to find the words to describe it. It may be one of those cases where a single photograph has more potency than a long essay: the picture I would recommend to you would be the one taken from space, at nighttime, of the Korean Peninsula. Below the 38th parallel, as if drawn by a ruler, is a blaze of electric light especially around the megalopolis of Seoul. Above the line is utter blackness, even where the capital city of Pyongyang is located. As Graham Greene once wrote about the Haiti of “Papa Doc” Duvalier: “Impossible to darken that night.” It seems that under cover of that darkness, perhaps three million North Koreans have been deliberately starved to death to feed a military oligarchy headed by a man who poses as a divine “reincarnation” of his father.

It is essential to understand that the three main aspects of the problem— Kim Jong Il’s recurrent bouts of saber-flourishing, his regime’s repeated obfuscations and betrayals of trust on the nuclear issue, and the ongoing enslavement of the North Korean people—are intimately related. By firing a missile over the Japanese home islands without warning, or by detonating a nuclear device as it did in October 2006, or by rolling out another missile at its test range and letting us take a good long look at it before giving it a (rather disappointing) test, the North Koreans contrive to keep the international community off balance. They then use the resulting tension as still further excuse to keep their people in a state of militarization and on highly propagandized and chauvinistic “alert.” And it is these very tactics that also “earn” the shipments of grain that allow the misery of their subjects to be prolonged. (The regime, incidentally, portrays these deliveries of food as a tribute that the outside world is happy to pay to the sun-like radiance of the “Dear Leader.”)

Thus, it was exactly right of you to state, by your meeting with Kang Chol-Hwan and by other gestures, that our quarrel with Kim Jong Il was not merely over non-proliferation. Lately, though, there have been signs that the necessary “linkage” between human rights and disarmament has started to fray. On December 1, 2007, you wrote a personal letter to Kim Jong Il, addressing him as “Dear Mr. Chairman” and promising him a process of recognition in return for concessions on the nuclear issue. (Incidentally, you may or may not know why he is not to be addressed as “Mr. President.” It is because the presidency of the country is still held by his late father, thus making North Korea the world’s only necrocracy.) It was then announced, by our seemingly tireless envoy Christopher Hill, that still another “timetable” had been agreed to and that North Korea, while continuing to dismantle its reactor at Yongbyon, would also furnish a full and complete list of all its uranium and plutonium and other “holdings,” thus allowing a verification process to begin. The deadline for this full and complete declaration was December 31. When this deadline came and went, the North Koreans said that it had never existed anyway, since they had already handed over everything by way of information that could possibly have been desired of them. (In the meanwhile, you may recall, Israeli jets identified and destroyed a nuclear facility in Syria, which appears to have been built with covert North Korean help. One of the very few ways that Pyongyang can raise hard currency on the open market is through the proliferation of this, its sole saleable expertise, which it partly acquired through the illegal piracy and franchising of the A. Q. Khan network in Pakistan. That was yet another proof of the deep connection between the despotic side of North Korea and its militarization.)

Evidently finding the response of your administration to be a little too indulgent in the face of this combined procrastination and provocation, your special envoy for North Korean human rights took a small hand in the argument and gave a speech to the American Enterprise Institute in mid-January 2008. The current combination of carrot and stick, said Mr. Lefkowitz, seemed to have all-too-obvious shortcomings. It might be time to “consider a new approach.”

Many of us were extremely disconcerted by the response to this from your Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. Asked for a comment, she asked to be quoted as follows about Mr. Lefkowitz: “He’s the human rights envoy. That’s what he knows. That’s what he does. He doesn’t work on the six-party talks. He doesn’t know what’s going on in the six-party talks and he certainly has no say in what American policy will be in the six-party talks.”

Was it by your wish, or with your knowledge, that your secretary of state uttered this grand rebuke? I ask because it appears to enforce a very strict distinction between our declared political policy and our disarmament strategy, and because this distinction seems to violate both the letter and the spirit of the North Korean Human Rights Act.

This is yet another case where the dictates of “realism” are actually easier to harmonize with the imperatives of negotiation and diplomacy and human rights. The merest common sense will inform us that one day the state of North Korea will cease to exist. We do not even have to argue about whether or not this is desirable because it is, as some Marxists used to say, inevitable. We shall then inherit the care and protection of yet another population that has been maimed and traumatized by an especially cruel and greedy version of fascism. Let us devoutly hope that this can happen without a war, and without a refugee crisis. But in the meantime, let us also be certain that our compromises do not prolong the life of the very totalitarian state that is the problem to begin with.

By the time this essay appears, it may even be that Pyongyang will have suddenly decided to remember that old December 31 deadline after all, and that there will be smiling pictures and glasses of champagne (as there were when Madeleine Albright visited in 2000). However, it is certain that Kim Jong Il will continue to consider his own unpredictability as a bankable asset, and it seems probable that he is now engaged in running down the clock until he can test the nerve of yet another and perhaps more conciliatory American administration. It would be pardonable, perhaps, Mr. President, if a slightly dishonorable concession on the human-rights front did in fact lead to a verifiable gain in disarmament and regional security. But by the very same token, it would be unforgivable if a further cynical stalling and postponement of non-proliferation were to be accompanied by an extension of the hellish regime of Kim Jong Il, and of the wretchedness and misery of North Korean life, not a day of which any of us could hope to endure. Your administration can still hope to be remembered for insisting that North Korea cannot be just a little bit nuclear, or partially or incompletely disarmed, as well as for stating boldly that Korea cannot long continue half slave and half free.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of the bestselling book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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