John Kerry was right about North Korea (and so was John Bolton)

More than six months after a U.N. Commission of Inquiry found Kim Jong Un responsible for crimes against humanity, our State Department has offered no credible or coherent policy response to that report. At least it hadn’t until last week, when our Secretary of State, John Kerry — no doubt, after much agonizing deliberation — finally authorized the deployment of precision-guided tactical ballistic words:

“But make no mistake, we are also speaking out about the horrific human rights situation,” Kerry said. “We strongly supported the extraordinary United Nation’s investigation this year that revealed other grotesque cruelty of North Korea’s system of labor camps and executions.

“Such deprivation of human dignity just has no place in the 21st century. North Korea’s gulags should be shut down, not tomorrow, not next week, but now, and we will continue to speak out on this topic,” he said.

Kerry also said that the U.S. “will continue to promote human rights and democracy in Asia without arrogance but also without apology.” [Yonhap]

North Korea’s reaction to this was predictable and characteristic. It accused John Kerry of being a neocon pursuing a regime change agenda through fabricated accusations.

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry let loose a spate of invectives against the DPRK over its “human rights issue” in a speech on the U.S. “Asia policy” held in Hawaii recently.

Unfit for his position, Kerry pulled up the DPRK, telling sheer lies and citing groundless data. This is the most undisguised expression of the U.S. inveterate repugnancy and hostile policy toward the DPRK. [….]

Lurking behind this is a sinister political aim to tarnish the DPRK’s image at any cost and stir up the international understanding that its social system is the object to be removed by force of arms in a bid to justify the U.S. and south Korean warmongers’ military threat. 

In recent years the U.S. has become noisy in its anti-DPRK “human rights” racket not because of any sincere interest in improving “human rights” but in pursuance of its design to bring down the social system of the DPRK under the pretext of “human rights issue”. [….]

In the DPRK the popular masses enjoy genuine rights as true masters of the country and human rights are strictly guaranteed by the state law. [Korean Central News Agency (Pyongyang)]

In a separate Korean-language piece, which did not translate into English very well, North Korea called Kerrya wolf with a ‘hideous lantern jaw.’” North Korea’s derogation of the appearance of foreign leaders is odd, given that its propagandists have inadvertently acknowledged their absolute monarch’s resemblance to a post-op Chaz Bono.

Still, let’s at least be objective enough to acknowledge that both Kerry and the North Koreans make valid points. Our Secretary does look a bit like Jay Leno — if Harry Reid had embalmed him — and such a fearsome mandible might just be capable of masticating unshelled Brazil nuts. I could go on, but I’ve done enough work for the North Koreans for one night.

Of course, it is Kerry who speaks the greater part of the truth. Not only were his assertions true, but it was important for him to make them, because by failing to make them, he would have acceded to one of the greatest outrages of our age. I don’t think John Kerry has been a very good Secretary of State — for example, I’m skeptical that he’ll execute a North Korea policy that goes beyond talk — but differences of policy shouldn’t divide us so much that they blind us to what is true and what must be said, no matter who says it, and regardless of one’s party affiliation, preference, or bias.

Mr Bolton said that while Kim Jong-il lived like royalty, for millions of his people, life was a “hellish nightmare”. “While he lives like royalty in Pyongyang, he keeps hundreds of thousands of his people locked in prison camps with millions more mired in abject poverty, scrounging the ground for food,” he said. [BBC]

Naturally, Kerry was statesmanlike enough to join with his colleague across the aisle and associate himself with this necessary denunciation. Right?

At a critical moment with North Korea, in a speech that he gave in Seoul, that he attacked Kim Jung-Il, whom we all attacked, we all dislike, we all recognize is, you know, someone we’d love to see removed or in a different–you know, not leading that country; but, on the other hand, at this critical moment, to almost 50 times in one speech personally vilify him, was to almost guarantee the outcome of the diplomatic effort that he was engaged in. [Sen. Exec. Rept. 109-1, May 18, 2005]

By now, you’ve guessed that the critic was then-Senator John Kerry, in a confirmation hearing on John Bolton’s nomination to be U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Most of the news coverage of Bolton at the time largely mirrored Kerry’s criticism. It was cited as a reason for calling Bolton “controversial” and “an iconoclast” who “shattered diplomatic niceties and stirred anger.” Hardly a word was written about the temperamental immaturity of North Korea’s language.

There is, of course, no such reaction to Kerry’s tiff with the North Koreans in the newspapers today, nor should there be. So what justifies the distinction? If the moment (2003) when Bolton spoke those words was critical, the words themselves don’t seem to have spoiled the diplomatic ambience too badly. After calling Bolton a “scum and human bloodsucker” and refusing further negotiations with him, North Korea negotiated with another diplomat more to its liking instead. At the time, The New York Times said that Bolton’s absence was “to the relief of North Korean officials and not a few State Department colleagues” (colleagues of whom?). But let’s pick that back up again in a moment.

If we are not at an equally critical moment today, it is only because the Obama Administration’s North Korea policy — to the extent there is a policy at all — is so completely stalled, and North Korea has shown no interest in returning to the talks that our Secretary of State is waiting for it to show up for. Other than that, the clearest difference between Kerry’s statement and Bolton’s is that only one of them was made by the Secretary of State.

I don’t deny that the Bush policy on human rights in North Korea was also all talk, and I also recognize the Bush Administration’s responsibility for deepening the difficulty of Obama and Kerry’s position, if only because it eventually adopted a policy very much like the one that Kerry had advocated.

Ironically, the outcome that Kerry hoped for in May 2005 was North Korea’s signature on an agreement to disarm. The Bush Administration would not only achieve that very outcome four months later, it would also achieve it all over again in 2007! If that sounds like an outstanding record, it isn’t. Let’s just hope that Kerry isn’t vilifying Kim Jong Il’s son and heir today as part of his master plan to guarantee an equally successful outcome.

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Update: The State Department declines to respond to North Korea’s comments.

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