Sunday, February 13, 2005

Stranger Than Fiction

The New York Times
February 13, 2005

Stranger Than Fiction


TO North Korea, diplomacy is another form of war. Under the leadership of Kim Jong Il, the Foreign Ministry has bullied the United Nations into submission and outwitted the United States into providing food aid - all the while developing a formidable nuclear arsenal.

This is, of course, the hard-line view of North Korea that prevails in some quarters in Washington. Yet it is also the official North Korean view of North Korea.

In the West, attention is almost exclusively focused on the official pronouncements released by Pyongyang's Central News Agency - statements that, for all their strange rhetoric, strive to present North Korea as a misunderstood country eager for more normal relations with Washington. Last week's announcement that North Korea has nuclear weapons, for example, said that while the country had "manufactured nukes for self-defense," it still sought only "peaceful coexistence" with the United States.

But the propaganda dinned every day into the North Korean people is of a different order. School textbooks, wall posters, literary works: all celebrate a cynical "attack diplomacy" that makes a frightened and uncertain world dance to the drum of Kim Jong Il. Again and again, comic effect is derived from stories of stammering American and international officials trying to placate the relentless "warriors" of the Foreign Ministry. Washington's refusal to follow through on veiled threats of military action is mocked as a failure of nerve.

The novel "Barrel of a Gun," for example, released in 2003, is an official "historical" work about how Mr. Kim's iron resolve forced the Clinton administration to its knees in 1998. "Excellency," the American negotiator says at the end of the book, groveling shamelessly before his North Korean counterpart, "you are also a mighty superpower."

"I like the sound of that," the North Korean answers with a chuckle and a sharp look. Then he lays down the law. The Americans want to inspect some caves for evidence of a nuclear program? Perhaps a "visit" can be arranged - if 700,000 tons of food are first delivered in atonement for the "strangulatory" blockade of the country. (If you ever wondered why Pyongyang allows food aid to be distributed with the Stars and Stripes on the bags, there's your answer.)

The North Korean people were probably the least surprised by the Central News Agency's admission last week. For years now domestic propaganda has claimed that the military has weapons capable of destroying any enemy nation in a single day, and there is an entire genre of poster art showing the United States Capitol under a missile attack.

Much of this stands in obvious contradiction to the agency's expression of a desire for "peaceful coexistence." The possibility of agreeing to disagree is all but excluded by an official worldview that allows for only three types of foreigners: hawks, who want to destroy the country through war; doves, who want to destroy it through subtler means; and those who acknowledge the greatness of the Kim regime.

In such a world, it is argued, North Korea may play by its own rules. Particularly troubling is the cheery admission in "Barrel of a Gun" that Pyongyang signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty only for diplomatic purposes, then simply "ignored" it. (North Korea signed the treaty in 1985 and withdrew from it in 2003.)

Granted, it is reassuring that not even the most bellicose North Korean propaganda raises the possibility of an unprovoked attack on anyone. The problem is that virtually all manifestations of American ill will are seen as grave provocations, as was evidenced last week in the histrionic reaction to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's characterization of North Korea as an "outpost of tyranny." In short, the Central News Agency and the poster artists agree that North Korea wants peace - but on its own terms.

Few things are more important to Pyongyang than its propaganda apparatus. Even when the rest of the nation came to a standstill in the mid-1990's, it never missed a beat. And yet Americans tend to dismiss North Korea's official culture as too ludicrous to warrant careful monitoring.

The glorification of "attack diplomacy" must be taken seriously. Either it reflects Kim Jong Il's real attitude, in which case any negotiations - bilateral or otherwise - are unlikely to bear fruit; or it is only part of a larger effort to shore up pride in the regime, in which case it still creates a mood - in the People's Army and the North Korean public at large - that will oppose any meaningful concession to the outside world. Either way, it is time that America started paying as much attention to North Korea's official rhetoric as North Korea does to America's.

B. R. Myers, an associate professor of North Korean studies at Korea University, is the author of "Han Sorya and North Korean Literature."