Jay who? Christopher Hitchens, President Bush, and the betrayal of the North Korean people

Christopher Hitchens is certainly one of our age’s most compelling thinkers and one of the English language’s best writers. I disagree with him about plenty of things; who could say otherwise? Hitchens’s greatest logical strength is his consistent argument for the moral superiority of freedom — for all of its flaws of application — over slavery. That is a woefully unfashionable idea among popinjays in Europe and America who are too sodden with the smug confidence of liberties taken for granted. No wonder Hitchens drinks so much. He bears the burden of knowing that nothing is granted. Sadly for me, I bear not only this, but the burden of senseless sobriety as well.

Whatever Hitchens is drinking — often enough “to kill or stun the average mule,” he says — there are moments when I resolve to drink more of it next year. They’re most frequent when I contemplate just what North Korea proliferated during the last lost year and speculate about which death cult will eventually try to use it against an American city. Then there was the moment when I read the conclusions of the North Korea expert and economist Marcus Noland about just how close we may have come to ending Kim Jong Il’s capacity to murder, starve, extort, and proliferate for good. That is, before President Bush’s legacy-grasping shift to the now-manifest failure of Agreed Framework 2.0. There’s nothing I could say about this that I haven’t said a hundred times; read it yourself here if you want:

Finally, there is my fury, partly fury at myself, that I was fooled by President Bush’s meeting with Kang Chol Hwan and the rest of his soaring and ultimately false rhetoric, but in retrospect, it pains me to admit that I was fooled.

If Hitchens is wrong about the existence of a vengeful God, I hope God would consider granting forgiving his blasphemy for the clarity he has shown on North Korea in particular. Several years ago at Seoul Station, I read Hitchens’s argument that North Korea was the worst place on earth. We live in a depressingly competitive world on that account, but Hitchens persuaded me enough to have planted one of the seeds of this blog. Today, with the same clarity, Hitchens laments President Bush’s abandonment of the North Korean people:

Now, for a small prize in the seasonal spirit, can you tell me the name of our special envoy? I rather thought not. [Slate, Christopher Hitchens]

untitled.bmpHe must mean the man whose resignation I called for nearly a year ago. Not that Jay Lefkowitz is necessarily a bad or a cynical man, but he’s smart enough to know just who he thinks he’s kidding. Unfortunately, he’s still kidding too many of us. Look at his beleagured expression in this picture. He looks, as he often does these days, like a man with smallness thrust upon him. It was taken at an event I attended at Heritage last spring, perhaps after I had pointed out just how little he and his administration had accomplished toward changing America’s own laws, policies, and priorities. Hitchens gets it:

In fact, I have to confess that if I had not run into Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a Washington cocktail party a couple of years ago and been told by her of his newly mandated appointment, I would not have heard of Jay Lefkowitz, either. The president named him to the job on Aug. 19, 2005. That was a banner year for the supporters of human rights in Kim Jong-il’s hellish and hermetic state. On June 13, Bush had received in the White House North Korean defector Kang Chol-Hwan, author of the chillingly brilliant memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang, which describes the gulag system that operates in that unprecedentedly wretched country.

If you’re new here, you really should know that for once, words fail Christopher Hitchens; wretched does not even begin to suggest the full horror of it. And had President Bush chosen a special envoy with the moral clarity, stature, independence, and the will to tell the American people and the world about those horrors, his State Department could never have buried human rights between the lines of Agreed Framework 2.0. That may have been exactly the idea of choosing a Bush loyalist of relatively little independent stature and with a part-time day job instead.

One might feel slightly ashamed that the Bush administration seemed to raise the hopes of the North Korean slaves before dashing them, but we can perhaps console ourselves with the thought that–absolutist control being what it is–very few of the enslaved ever got to hear of the promise before it was discarded.

Hitchens plants us directly before the uncomfortable truth that President Bush has betrayed the North Korean people for a rapidly dissolving illusion of diplomatic progress. Neither our own partisan prejudices, nor Bush’s broken promises, nor the crumbs Jay Lefkowitz tosses out to courageous human rights activists should interfere with the clarity with which we perceive or denounce this. Without question, clarity can be a hard thing to find when those “crumbs” happen to be human lives. But the greater moral imperative lies in forcing meaningful change upon the prison that still holds 23 million captives. A few tossed crumbs won’t fill the mouth of famine, and a few glasses of water won’t quench a holocaust. And if we don’t call the Bush Administration on that, we’ll eventually pay a price in credibility.

Jay Lefkowitz is the man whose nominal job is to lead the policies of this nation and others toward attaching consequences to Kim Jong Il’s atrocities. Instead, he has let himself become a caged pet of a State Department that wants no such thing. Lefkowitz can’t overrule Condi Rice, of course, but he doesn’t have to stay in his cage. He ought to step down. And if, when he does, he states clearly and publicly that he refuses to be an accessory to betraying the very people he is charged with saving, he will inject that issue into our national consciousness at the moment of optimal political opportunity. By doing so, he will have done the North Korean people far more good than any act he would be allowed to perform during the remaining months of his tenure.

There are some who would say that Lefkowitz is “our” only friend in the State Department, but one sympathetic yet powerless ear isn’t worth the price we pay by misplacing our hope in last year’s rhetoric. The fact that Lefkowitz is a living link to that rhetoric doesn’t change the fact that the Bush Administration either never meant it or no longer does. It has caused too many of us to excuse the Bush Administration’s deeply immoral appeasement of Kim Jong Il. When Lefkowitz goes, the hypocrisy of Bush’s words will be laid bare and his unprincipled, failing policies can be exposed, denounced, and possibly even reversed by the next president.


  1. I still believe — that 10, 20, or 30 years from now, as documents go through the freedom of information act, if anybody bothers to look, we will find that in 2006-2007, this administration became afraid North Korea was going to collapse in the near future and we blinked – unable to accept the likely and possible consequences of it.

    The norm in certain influencial circles like those Rice and Powell move in seems to be an inability to contemplate tackling the unknown. It was this kind of thinking that thought leaving Hussein in power during the first Gulf War was a great idea.