I’ve never expected anything good to come from a Bill Richardson visit to Pyongyang, and this visit fulfilled my expectations. A lot of journalists, bloggers, and academics in Washington and New York made a big deal out of this. (It was good for our traffic.) But in the places that really count — in Chongjin and Hamhung and Uijongbu and even in Pyongyang — it didn’t change a thing. It will not reduce the black market price of corn, it will not improve conditions in the camps, it will not save a single kkotjaebi from an early and lonely death, it will not crack open the borders or let in the truth, it will not slow the crackdowns on defections or South Korean soap operas, and it will not reduce the risk of a nuclear test or an attack on South Korea. It did not free Ken Bae or any of the Japanese or South Korean abductees or signal a Pyongyang Spring. But there was one delightful surprise in this — it did cost Kim Jong Bill his cred.
Just a few years ago, Richardson was in the running for Secretary of State. Sure, we hard-line types have always loathed Richardson, but the appeasers loved him, and he was at least respected by the center-left swing voters of the North Korea Industry. Judging from the tone of the commentary coming from the swing voters now, Richardson has lost them. I usually agree with Don Kirk, so I’m not surprised that he sees the trip as a failure. On the other hand, when the New York Times scores your “engagement” trip 1-0 Pyongyang, your wardrobe has malfunctioned. At least one swing voter, Nir Rosen, was inspired to completely rethink engagement and aid in this thoughtful essay. Stephan Haggard admits to scratching his head at the futility of it all. With few exceptions, those who didn’t criticize the trip ridiculed it.
Worse for Richardson, even the North Koreans gave him the Rodney Dangerfield treatment. Consider: KCNA is reporting today that a Vice-Premier met with a visiting Chinese delegation led by a Vice-Minister of Commerce. What North Korean of any stature met Richardson? The Rodong is touting that Kim Jong Un received a gift from the Chicoms; but characterized the Richardson visit as one to pay “tribute,” and said nothing about who greeted him. (As for Schmidt, KCNA reports that some North Koreans taught him a thing or two about technology.) Moving on to quasi-official media — that is, a certain foreign-owned news service that employs KNCA “reporters” — AP Pyongyang says they “met with officials,” but doesn’t identify anyone of significance. Why, when Richardson visited in 2010, he at least rated Ri Yong Ho. That’s no way to treat your favorite tool.
We know Richardson’s score, but how did the North Koreans do? That depends on what you think they wanted, and that question gets to the heart of a long-standing debate about the motivations and pathology behind North Korea’s foreign policy. Is it (a) all about domestic reenforcement, are they (b) trying to improve relations with and extract aid and investment from us, or do they (c) really want a Grand Opening to the world? (These theories aren’t mutually exclusive — myself, I’m 85% (a), 0% (c), and 15% (b), provided that (b) supports (a) and excludes the possibility of (c). Still with me?)
Let’s take these theories in inverse order, starting with (c). Schmidt’s pleas notwithstanding, the North Koreans certainly didn’t show any hint that they intend to open their society or economy in any meaningful way. (The better reporting on the subject strongly suggests the very opposite.) They may want their own people to think that Google and the U.S. recognize them as global technology leaders, but that would only reenforce a North Korean sense of self-reliant isolation. Also, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because that goes back to (a).
If (b) or (c) were true, you’d think the North Koreans would have at least empowered a proponent of (b) and (c) in America’s public debate in America about the utility and timing of the visit. The most obvious way to do that would have been to release Ken Bae, who is currently doing time in a North Korean jail for being dumb enough to believe (c).* Releasing Bae would have swung the argument in Richardson’s favor with a certain percentage of the audience. True to my previous prediction, however, the North Koreans aren’t letting Mr. Bae go just yet, at least until his captivity helps ensure that Susan Rice gives in to the Great Wall of China and abandons all hope of getting the U.N. to sanction it for that missile test.
Also, if (b) or (c) were true, this was a huge lost opportunity for the North Koreans. Imagine the reaction here if Kim Jong Un showed up unexpectedly, shook the hands of Richardson and Schmidt, and spent just five minutes talking about some hobby of his — say, Starcraft or the NBA or bondage porn or assassinating your siblings — in front of David Guttenfelder’s fully erect lens. This wouldn’t have made the visit any less meaningless, but it would have caused a mediagasm of talk about how enlightened and open-minded Kim Jong Un is as the dying went on unimpeded and safely out of our sight. That didn’t happen — praise be to Zeus — because sending His Porcine Majesty to meet some has-been ex-governor would have lowered His stature. Not that further proof is really needed, but this tells us that North Korea isn’t terribly interested in (c) or even that much (b), no matter how fervently some of us may want it. It is also is our segue to (a).
A lot of us hard-line types have been talking about what a great propaganda victory this was for North Korea, but we seldom explain our argument very well. How, specifically, does facilitating propaganda that Kim Jong Un is the Man of the Year, the Sexiest Man Alive, and the object of global respect, fear, and adoration stabilize the North Korean regime? Why, indeed, is KCNA filled with reports about delegations from Juche societies in Burkina Faso and Ecuador? Could any North Korean possibly believe that for the rest of the world, excluding Korea bloggers, it’s all about North Korea?
Oddly enough, I believe the answer is “yes.” Unfortunately, this isn’t a uniquely North Korean phenomenon.
This is one of those things that’s about 50% less mysterious to me for having lived in South Korea. For most Americans, it really isn’t all about Korea, but Koreans continue to expend finite diplomatic and financial resources on billboards, front-page newspapers ads, wines, and essay contests about two uninhabited lumps of guano that South Korea already occupies. The Tokdo Complex is diagnosed by one’s sincere and emphatic belief that people all over the world obviously care much more deeply about Korea than they do about other places, and therefore they must care deeply about Tokdo than they do about Darfur, Tibet, or less explicably, Camp 22. Now, as the former owners of Dokdo Sushi in Rockville, Maryland must realize by now, we really don’t. But the emotional roots of the Tokdo Complex must run deeper than 1945 and must also appeal to a powerful psychological need. If I’m right about that, North Korea’s propaganda machine feeds this, and probably also believes it to a certain extent. I can even believe this propaganda is an effective adhesive for people who latently despise the regime and His Porcine Majesty, and who would actively participate in its violent overthrow if they saw any prospect that this could be accomplished successfully.
What I can’t explain is why the Tokdo Complex doesn’t apply to China’s moves on Mount Paektu, its lease of Rajin to China, or China’s treatment of North Korean women like comfort women, or worse. All of these things seem like important matters of territorial integrity, nationhood, sovereignty, and humanity, yet they hardly exist in the public consciousness of South Koreans. For that matter, I’ve never known of a place so obsessed with the atrocities of the past, yet so apathetic about the atrocities of the present. If you can explain that, then for God’s sake, do.
* Assuming, of course, that Ken Bae’s purpose for being in North Korea really was to be a tour guide. I don’t really know what he was doing there or why he was arrested. He’s not my client.