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Sunday, Jan. 15, 2006

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

CHECKING BOTH SIDES OF THE COIN

Two writers, two very different North Koreas


NORTH KOREA: The Struggle Against American Power, by Tim Beal. Pluto, 2005, 352 pp., £18.99 (paper).
NORTH KOREA: The Paranoid Peninsula, by Paul French. Zed Books Ltd., 2005, 352 pp.,£17.95 (paper).

The subtitles of these books reveal the sharply differing points of departure on North Korea for writers Tim Beal and Paul French. For Beal, North Korea is a product as much of American ill will as it is of its own internal ideology. Beal takes on the despairingly bad press it gets by challenging Western-accepted wisdom across the board. North Korea may spend the highest level of gross domestic product in the world on its military, but that's still less than 0.4 percent of the spending by the U.S.-Japan-South Korea axis combined.

With respect to arms sales, North Korea is outsold every year by those famous military powers Australia, Canada and Sweden; it sells 250 times less military hardware than the United States.

As for its nuclear-weapons program, first of all, whether one really exists is doubtful. Charles Kartman, the former head of the U.S.-led Korean Energy Development Organization (KEDO), is quoted as saying "the number of proven weapons is zero." Second, if it is developing one, it was forced to do so by the U.S. and South Korea, primarily the threat of American use of such weapons. Third, nuclear weapons are the cheap option that could enable North Korea to release hundreds of thousands of conscripts into civilian life to kick-start its failing economy.

For Beal, the current nuclear crisis was deliberately engineered by the Bush administration to enable it to renege on Clinton's 1994 Framework Agreement to use KEDO to build two light-water reactors in exchange for North Korea's freezing and dismantling graphite-moderated reactors capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.

Now the U.S. wants it all for free, a freeze without the benefits of "blackmail" with regime change to follow, if North Korea is foolish enough to disarm.

As for human rights, the U.S. is portrayed almost as bad as North Korea in light of the Guantanamo Bay scandals and the percentage of Americans jailed or imprisoned, said to be similar to the reported percentage of North Koreans in camps. The more colorful North Korean-abuse stories are seen by Beal as the product of media hype and elaboration by defectors wishing to keep their sponsors in South Korea or American Christian fundamentalist groups happy.

French, however, is in a different country, driven by his alliterative agenda "The Paranoid Peninsula." For him, North Korea is always at fault, with their enthusiasm for Leninist "War Communism," where all is subordinate to military policy and regime survival. The result was the late 20th century's biggest humanitarian disaster, when up to 3 million people starved to death in the late 1990s.

There is no mention of the contributions made to this disaster by U.S. intelligence and North Korea's military. Both knew what was happening on the ground. The former didn't want international aid to flow to the communist North, even as the world watched children starve live on prime-time TV, while North Korea's generals unwittingly conspired with the U.S. by trying to hide their weakness from an enemy that already knew well the situation.

French replays North Korea's Stalinist harmonies with the Chollima Movement echoing the Soviet Union's Stakhanovites, Kim Il Sung's enthusiasm for the Lamarckian theories of T.D. Lysenkto (successive rice crops could acclimate to cold weather), and the ideology of juche (self-sufficiency), designed to elevate "Red" over "Expert." Yet he misses the past three years of wage, farm and industrial reforms, which resonate more with Deng Xiaoping's aphorism: "Black cat, white cat -- who cares as long as it catches mice."

As with any author writing on contemporary issues, French's and Beal's books threaten to age quickly. Now the final phase of the six-party talks are under way with the North being asked to swallow the U.S.'s reneging on the 1994 Framework Agreement, which was concluded when imminent collapse of North Korea was forecast by the U.S. intelligence community. French, like the vast majority of Western authors, paints the North in dark colors and so, inevitably, says little that's new. Beal, by contrast, takes the white road and therefore is a fresh voice that will deservedly endure much longer.

Yet from time to time, Beal ventures an opinion too far. Not everyone with a persecution complex is in error; nor are all the stories of North Korean ill-doing. Few would agree, for example, that the assassination attempt on South Korea's President Park Chung Hee was led by Southern partisans rather than by North Korean commandos. That would include Park Geun Hye, the late president's daughter who lost her mother in the attack and who, as leader of the Conservative opposition Grand National Party, is still prepared to engage in a constructive dialogue with the North's leadership.

To make the case for engagement rather than confrontation, it is not necessary to believe everything North Korea claims, merely that they are rational actors.

Glyn Ford is Labor member of the European Parliament for Southwest England and member of the delegation for relations with Japan.


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