The pot labeled “North Korea” at the back of the stove in the kitchen of the roadside diner bubbles up suddenly. Uncle Sam, the sweating, tattooed cook, lunges for it. Out front, the pundits in their booth, who were expecting a long meal of Roast Iraq, hear the commotion and begin calling hysterically for the waitress ….
That is what the North Korean situation looks like in the pages of the daily newspapers. In fact, North Korea has long been on George W. Bush’s radar screen. In September 1999, Governor Bush, Presidential candidate, gave a speech at the Citadel in which he warned that “even a poor and backward country [like North Korea], in the hands of a tyrant, can reach across oceans to threaten us.” Given North Korea’s nature, the bellicose behavior that seems so threatening, and so surprising, was only a matter of time.
The best snapshot of North Korea’s nature is to be found in a piece by Radek Sikorski, “Pyongyang, Mon Amour,” in the current issue of National Review . Mr. Sikorski has been a journalist for years, writing for National Review , among other places. But in 1999, by a turn of post–Cold War politics, he was deputy foreign minister of his native Poland. In that role, he got to make a state visit to North Korea.
He had to leave his cell phone in Beijing, home of the free. Once he crossed the border, he found that North Koreans avoided all foreigners on the street, as sources of contagion and possible trouble to themselves. (“Why did you tell that man what time it was?”) There were no cars on the four-lane highways, since in North Korea there are no cars, except for official ones.
One of the high points of Mr. Sikorski’s visit was a trip to the House of Gifts-a collection of tchotchkes that had been given to Kim Il Sung (the Great Leader) and his son Kim Jong Il (the Dear Leader). This was not a small collection, for there were 241,000 items. No tribute had been discarded, for no tribute was too slight to throw back a ray of glory, reflected from its recipients. Among the junk-Iranian carpets, East German hunting rifles-Mr. Sikorski found that a “medal from Jimmy Carter and a trinket from Billy Graham [got] special attention.”
I saw such a surreal collection once myself, at the Stalin museum in his birthplace, the town of Gori in what was then Soviet Georgia. Two pieces that stuck in my memory were, from Czechoslovakia, an accordion and, from Mexican admirers, a ceramic statue of a peasant in a sombrero slumbering beneath a cactus. These are the rewards of despotism: You can starve and torture millions and, as a bonus, you can receive a tourist knickknack that an American with a college education would hesitate to bring back from Tijuana. The collection at the Stalin museum was rather small, however, for Stalin was dead, and even the Soviet state, at the time I visited, was visibly softening. But the North Korean dictatorship is in full and rank bloom, as much as when Mr. Sikorski made his pilgrimage. The production of nuclear weapons, to the extent that it wins North Korea’s rulers attention and revenue (think of all the eager buyers), only makes it flourish all the more.
It is essential to keep the bomb out of the hands of such lunatics as long as possible, for once they possess it, they must be treated with at least de facto respect. President Bush is right to move against the bombless despot, Saddam Hussein, before he turns his attention to the armed one, Kim Jong Il.
My theme is not strategy, however, but attitude. How long will it be before American peaceniks arrive in Pyongyang to stand in solidarity with the Dear Leader and the dead Great Leader? We know what the cast of characters will be: Unitarian ministers, Jewish Buddhists, unemployed poets, white-haired hippies from the Green Mountains. We know what they will do: form a human chain, give interviews to CNN, hold up hand-lettered signs (“Give Peace A Chance,” “Say NO To Cowboy Bush”). Nominally, they will be there because they don’t want war. Emotionally, they will be there because they admire North Korea. They admire it because it isn’t the United States. We know this will be the scenario, because it’s already happening, with Iraq as the peg for moral superiority.
Sept. 11 sucker-punched the American left. It would have taken serious nuts to pummel the country when 3,000 Americans had just been murdered-icing on the cake, as it were. But time passed; the country survived. It even won a war in Afghanistan. America’s warlords therefore could resume their role as symbols of all that is evil about the nation-and, by contrast, of all that is virtuous about the peacenik riffraff.
The American left shows its degradation in the causes that it embraces. For decades, it was effectively pro-Communist. But Communism was a venerable horror: It had endured for decades. Perhaps that meant it was doing something right. Communists also employed a universalist rhetoric, which could fool the inattentive into nodding approval. (How much of their approval was idealistic inattention, how much was clear-eyed admiration, is the question that should torment every ex-Communist.) But now look at the crackpot gangsters at whose side the left stands: Saddam Hussein with his palaces and his poison gas; Kim Jong Il with his starving subjects and his trinket from Billy Graham. “Make Love To Iraq” was the slogan I saw stenciled on a mailbox in the East Village. But is Iraq (more precisely, its regime) lovable?
Maybe the ragtag left is sincere, and what it truly deplores is war. But we already know the answer to that problem. War is not reserved for us to make. It can be made upon us; can be, and has. Now it is a question of how to fight, and on which side.