North Korea: It's All Relative

Envoys of the six nations attend talks on the North Korea Nuclear issue starting from left, Russsia's Sergey Ravoz, North Korea's Kim Kye Gwan, South Korea's Chun Yung-woo, Japan's Kenichiro Sasae, United State's Christopher Hill and China's Wu Dawei as they get ready for a group photo in Beijing, China, Sunday, Dec 17, 2006. AP Photo/Ng Han Guan,Pool

I'm Barry Petersen and this Letter from Asia comes from Beijing. North Korea is the most dangerous, and frankly, strangest country in Asia. As efforts continue over ending that nation's nuclear program, one seasoned hand is beginning to see North Korea slowly evolving. It has a long way to go.

James Lilley was ambassador to both China and South Korea. One of the few Americans to travel inside North Korea, he visited the country in 1995. According to Lilley, "Their system is so persuasive, so totalitarian. I mean, it almost makes Hitler look like a boy scout, what these guys do to their population." Their leadership, he says, is delusional as they drag out talks on their nuclear arsenal. "They're playing on it," says Lilley. "They think eventually they're going to take over the peninsula. You go up to North Korea, you're in George Orwell country."

But things are changing. For one, the current talks involve North Korea along with the United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea and China - the North's most important ally. "They just don't tell the Americans to jump in a lake," says Lilley. "They've got to look the Chinese in the eye, who keep them alive with food and oil and support, and tell them to go jump in a lake."

China supplies North Korea with both energy and food, and is using those as tools that could be reshaping North Korea's fragile economy. According to Lilley, "The Chinese have a much different technique of putting it through the border to many, many small organizations which feed into the free market aspects of North Korea. That's a much, I think, much more clever way of doing it... It's a stark society, but the cars are beginning to come in, the goods are beginning to come in, and people are beginning to get a taste that there is another life."

For Kim Jong Il, it's a tricky path. He has visited China several times, studying how that country transformed itself, but how the communists retain control. But he has convinced his isolated nation that North Korea is a paradise compared to the rest of the world. Opening doors to the real world could be very dangerous - to him.

"He's afraid if he starts doing that, he undermines 55 years of solid indoctrination that they are a paradise on earth and the South Koreans are starving to death," says Lilley. "If you begin to turn that around, you run big risks."

There is a nuclear bottom line, and that is why the pressure on the North cannot stop. "We want to stop the proliferation. That's the most dangerous thing," says Lilley. "If they get that weaponry in the hands of Al Qaeda or rogue states, that is very, very dangerous."

So think of North Korea as the crazy uncle who comes to dinner; you have to feed him and you have to talk to him all the while you have to hope that someday he will come to his senses.
by Barry Petersen
  • Bob Bicknell

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