Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea

By Jasper Becker. Oxford Univ. 300 pp. $28


North Korea and the Kim Dynasty

By Bradley K. Martin

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's. 868 pp. $29.95

For a notoriously closed country, North Korea has provided surprisingly rich material for journalists keen on writing about tyranny and political intrigue. These two books -- by prominent reporters with lengthy experience covering Asia -- join the growing library of works that seek to explain to the general reader the mysteries and appalling behavior of this secretive country.

Bradley K. Martin's Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader is a sprawling volume of more than 700 pages of main text. It charts the author's long personal journey to come to grips with North Korea after first visiting Pyongyang in April 1979. Although this massive tome is rich with revealing detail, it could have packed a much stronger punch if it had been properly edited and more tightly written. By contrast, Jasper Becker's Rogue Regime, while providing less original material, crisply presents its assessment of North Korea in about a third as many words.

Martin and Becker cover a lot of the same ground. Both trace the consolidation of Kim Il Sung's power over North Korea and the establishment of the Kim dynasty with the transition from the "Great Leader" to the "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il, the odd son of the late dictator. Both describe the brutality of the totalitarian regime, the eccentricities of Kim Jong Il and the horrific plight of the North Korean people. And both present numerous testimonies of North Korean defectors to support their points.

But while their books are similar in scope, Martin and Becker offer significantly different interpretations of North Korea's past and present. They therefore point in quite different directions about how to deal with North Korea -- especially a nuclear North Korea.

Becker dismisses the heroic image of Kim Il Sung, who liked to portray himself as the guerrilla leader who bravely fought Japanese imperialists, and suggests that the elder Kim may have been an impostor, a puppet posing as a war hero. He quotes (without any footnote) a Soviet intelligence officer who brags that "we created him [Kim Il Sung] from zero." Martin, on the other hand, argues that Kim was "the genuine article: a Korean patriot of unusual determination and resiliency." He supports this conclusion by relying on South Korean intelligence reports as well as the work of scholars.

The two authors differ about Kim Jong Il, too. For Becker, the current leader is simply a paranoid, evil tyrant who has indulged his absurd lust for foreign luxuries while huge numbers of North Koreans are malnourished or starving. But Martin writes that Kim Jong Il is not a "total monster" like some other dictators' children (for instance, the late, unlamented and sadistic Uday Hussein). While he acknowledges that Kim is an "often insensitive and brutal despot," he also sees him as having developed a more "generous" and "charming" side. (This was certainly the image projected to South Koreans during the historic summit between Kim and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in June 2000.)

These divergent views of the North Korean leader naturally lead to different assessments of the prospects of really reforming his regime. Martin argues that, after years of incompetent economic management, Kim has shown his seriousness about economic change by introducing semi-private markets. Granted, this shift away from stridently Stalinist economics may have been originally motivated by a nationalistic, military-first policy; after all, maintaining a robust military demands a more efficient economy. But for Martin, this shift offers the potential for North Korea to follow the Hungarian model of reform, whereby market measures would be grafted onto state planning. The reform experiences of China and Vietnam are less appropriate models because North Korea is a more industrialized country to begin with.

In contrast, Becker paints a darker picture of recent North Korean reforms. Rather than decisively favoring reform, he argues, Kim has been acting haphazardly, supporting dubious export products such as ostrich meat, tropical fish and maple syrup. Instead of reviving the economy, he is engaging in drug trafficking, counterfeiting and missile sales to acquire much-needed hard cash.

Unfortunately, neither Martin nor Becker provides more than a sketchy picture of the reform measures undertaken so far or their potential consequences. Readers who want a more systematic and rigorous analysis of the economic challenges and opportunities facing North Korea will have to turn to specialized works by economists such as Marcus Noland of the Institute of International Economics.

Beyond economic issues lie the peninsula's political dilemmas, and here the authors agree far more. Is the Kim Jong Il regime on the brink of collapse? Probably not, Becker and Martin decide. Both write about anti-regime activities in the military that were quickly crushed by purges and executions. Becker goes further, discussing how the ruthlessness of the regime's response to food-related disturbances terrorized the horribly malnourished population into submission. Neither Martin nor Becker thinks that the North Korean regime is going to fall of its own accord anytime soon.

For his part, Martin also warns against thinking that a successful military coup against Kim -- however unlikely -- would yield a less dangerous, more enlightened leadership. Many of the regime's more cosmopolitan, Russian-trained officers, he reminds us, have either been purged or left without much influence.

Becker argues against comparing North Korea to East European communist states, which collapsed rapidly as the Cold War ended. North Korea lacks the nongovernmental organizations (such as Poland's Solidarity) that could provide alternative power centers, and most of the North Korean population has been effectively sealed off from the outside world. Furthermore, the Kim dynasty is not beholden to a foreign power for its authority, as the Soviet Union's satellites were. In Becker's view, Kim has shrewdly protected his regime -- both by avoiding domestic reforms that might unleash destabilizing political and social forces and by building a nuclear arsenal to deter the United States or anyone else trying to topple him from the outside.

So if we shouldn't hope for regime collapse, how should we deal with North Korea? Martin thinks that North Korea wants to join the international community and is prepared to strike a deal that would involve giving up its long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. As he sees it, the hostile policies of the United States have impeded rather than encouraged North Korean economic reforms and made Kim more insistent on pledges that his country won't be invaded. Martin views Kim as a "traditional Oriental despot" and thinks the best way to break the current dangerous stalemate over Pyongyang's nuclear program is through positive engagement -- offering a package of aid, normalized diplomatic relations and security assurances to allow Kim to back down and still save face. Becker could not disagree more. For him, the only viable and moral solution is to remove the impossibly cruel, corrupt and capricious Kim and his family from power. But that's easier said than done. Because the United Nations has been so ineffective, Becker proposes "a new framework of international law" that would legitimize the use of military force against rogue states such as North Korea. But the surreal military scenario that opens Becker's book, written in Tom Clancy fashion, vividly shows how dangerous such a course would be -- risking all-out war on the Korean Peninsula, the flattening of Seoul by North Korean artillery and the first wartime use of nuclear weapons since Nagasaki.

Given the appalling risks of military action, we should give the type of positive engagement that Martin proposes a serious try. Only by offering some diplomatic carrots now can the United States later persuade China and South Korea to use sticks, diplomatic and otherwise, if North Korea refuses to respond in kind. Positive engagement makes even more sense when we consider how overstretched the U.S. military is because of its operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the longer we wait, the more North Korea will move ahead on its nuclear weapons program and the more difficult it will be to turn back the nuclear clock. Under such circumstances, Becker's proposal of military strikes will seem even more far-fetched than it does today. *

Mike Mochizuki is director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University.

North Koreans celebrating the anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth; at right, current leader Kim Jong Il