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“Don’t Feed the Animals”

5th July 2006 - Family Security Matters

I spent part of my Independence Day enjoying New York's Central Park. I mention this in passing because there is a connection between my outing and the news I returned to my Upper West Side apartment to learn.

Ignoring warnings from the United States and other countries, the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il apparently decided that the potential gains to his strategic position outweighed the risks and marked the day by test firing several missiles, apparently including the long-range Taepodong-2. Fortunately for everyone—except perhaps the scientists and military officers involved, given Pyongyang's human rights record and the Dear Leader's dislike for disappointment—the long-range missile malfunctioned after less than a minute and fell into the Sea of Japan off of Hokkaido. However, America's respite from the threat of being within the delivery range of North Korean nuclear warheads—the country is thought to have several plutonium-based weapons since last year—will be short-lived: undoubtedly the humiliation suffered by the face-conscious regime of the rather ironically-named Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) will lead it to quickly redouble its efforts to build a working intercontinental ballistic missile.

Given the inhumane nature of the regime in Pyongyang as well as its dangerously provocative and destabilizing pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it is clear that the only sensible long-term policy strategy is one of regime change. Kim Jong-Il's ongoing tenure—or, for that matter, his continued physical existence in this vale of tears where he has been the cause of a disproportionate number of tears—is in the interest of neither the international community nor the United States, to say nothing of the long-suffering North Korean people. This does not mean, however, that we should be preparing a military campaign, even if no options should be ruled out a priori. Rather, what should be done immediately is that the United States and its allies should stop any policies that help strengthen a rogue regime that we need to ease off the world stage sooner or later. In substitution, we need to adopt the same policies that the Central Park Zoo and every other zoological institution has in place to cope with the risks associated with having wild animals in close proximity to urban humans, most of whom have long ago shed the hunter instincts of their distant ancestors.

First, strict segregation is employed; the animals aren't permitted to roam freely among the humans. The greatest danger represented by the DPRK's missile program is proliferation whether to terrorist groups or other internationally troublesome regimes like that of the Islamic Republic of Iran (the technical affinities between Iranian Shehab-5 and Shehab-6 missiles and the North Korean Taepodong betray the ties between Pyongyang and Tehran). Nor is the question of proliferation speculative: we now know that the two tons of enriched uranium that Libya surrendered came from North Korea and not from the A.Q. Khan network in Pakistan as previously thought. The U.S. must seek a regimen of strict inspections of every plane, train, and boat headed to or from North Korea. Pyongyang might not like it, but since its economy is wholly dependent upon external life support, it has little choice. And while Beijing and Seoul might also look askance, their national interests will dictate that they go along if only to avoid stronger action.

Second, visitors aren't allowed to feed the animals, lest they create dependencies and encourage bad habits. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell once asserted that he saw U.S. interests “separately and distinct from the humanitarian issue” in North Korea. In fact, even during the worse diplomatic crises of the last decade, the U.S. continued to supply food aid to Pyongyang even as international relief organizations like Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and Action Contre la Faim (ACF) which withdrew from the North Korea in the late 1990s because of barriers that the regime erected to their humanitarian action, documented the perverse inhumane affects of the shipments. The humanitarian problem, it seems, had more to do with access to food rather than lack of it. Kim Jong-Il treats his subjects according to their perceived loyalty and utility to his regime, distinguishing between a “core class,” centered in Pyongyang, holding strategic positions in government, the military, and industry, and a “hostile class” destined for lives of manual servitude in the rural sticks. Rations were distributed accordingly, with occupants of the lowest rung of the “hostiles” receiving, even during the height of the famine, barely a few kilograms of grain on “important” dates as the birthdays of the Kim Jong-Il and his late father, Kim Il-Sung, the DPRK's dead but constitutionally “Eternal Leader.” As I have argued a commentary for In The National Interest several years ago with specific reference to North Korea, despite the apolitical rubric under which aid is given, when it finishes by propping up the very governments that caused the humanitarian crises in the first place, it becomes a political part of the system of oppression to which donors become complicit. Will some innocent North Korean civilians suffer under an aid cut-off? Possibly, but it is also likely that most “innocent” civilians are already cut-off and the real crimp will come in the ranks of the more culpable military and Communist party ranks.

Third, do not attempt to touch the animals except for the carefully vetted specimens in the Children's Zoo. Lacking both historical and democratic legitimacy, North Korea's Dear Leader relies on smoke and mirrors to literally—he wears platform shoes and a pompadour hairstyle designed to add several inches to his height—and figuratively augment his stature among those under his yoke. While even his subjects probably question—at least in their minds—such “facts” like his birth under a mystical double rainbow atop a sacred mountain, his authorship of six operas more beautiful than all others in the history of music, and his beating the world record for a round of golf by twenty-five strokes the first time he visited a course, the respect that the international community accords him is another matter. How, for example, is one to explain obsequious performances like then Secretary of State Madeline Albright's during her 2000 visit to the world's biggest prison camp? Veteran North Korean analysts have noted the number of times images of the gushing Albright has been used by DPRK state media as proof of the Dear Leader's mythic importance not only in global affairs but in human history.

In the long run, it will be up to the North Korean people to change the regime that has terrorized them for over half a century. When that day comes, the free world may be called upon to assist them. For now, however, the very least the citizens of the United States and other democracies can do is to insist that their governments do nothing to prop up the DPRK's irresponsible criminal government and everything to heighten the pressure on the structural weaknesses of Kim Jong-Il's rule.

Undoubtedly, the Dear Leader will bitterly resent a strategy that prevents him from trading abroad in the only product that his country produces that anyone wants (weapons of mass destruction) and thus receiving the means to purchase at home the loyalty of the party and military officers on whom his regime depends (food and other basic supplies), while simultaneously denying him the international attention and stature that he believes himself entitled to and which he exploits for regime legitimization. So be it. The international community can ill-afford to continue indulging a tyrant in possession of nuclear weapons capable of striking South Korea and Japan and clearly pursuing the capacity to strike the west coast of the United States. Anyway, I recall no one at the zoo objecting that the poisonous snakes were kept behind glass—or caring what the snake thought of its surroundings.

J. Peter Pham, Ph.D., is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, and an academic fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He has written for a variety of publications, and has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies.