by Joe Shea
March 29, 2013
AN AMERICAN'S ADVICE TO N. KOREA: GROW UP
HELEN, Ga., March 29, 2013 -- On this holiest day of the Christian year - not to mention the 50th Anniversary of my brother Billy's wedding to Ruby Claudette Atha, the holy occasion that brings me to this lovely faux-Bavarian North Georgia mountain town toinight - it feels almost bizarre to be writing about the threat and bluster coming from North Korea, whose new young leader has ordered his rocket batteries to ready themselves for war against the United States and its treasured ally, South Korea. Yet if Our Lord Jesus Christ died for anything, it was to stop the terrible waste of human life that can arise through dented or false pride, misused political power and an indifference to human suffering.
It's hard to weigh, absent concrete information about America's true strategic goals with respect to Noth Korea, whether they have any grounds for feeling insulted, betrayed, tread upon or shamed by our presence in South Korea and the war games we undertake to ready ourselves for any confrontation that may occur.
As an honest American, I have to feel that the young leader of North Korea, who inherited the bloodied mantle of his father just a short time ago,, is more moved by his emotions than by reason, and that he was probably his father's favorite only because he was strident in calling upon him to strike out against the United States. We know little about their relationship, but such a tendency would have the power to exert itself in him after his father's death, as though to keep a promise made by him to his father at the time of his death. Trying to reverse engineer motivations is a difficult business, but that is my best guess.
Kim Jong-un finds himself at the center of the world today, at least in military terms. I believe he cannot know nor comprehend the absolute carnage and terrible devastation he invites upon his nation when he dares to threaten a first-strike, unprovoked nuclear or conventional attack against the United States or its South Korean ally. He cannot look beyond what may be the fulfillment of an old promise, or his uncontrolled anger against what he sees as American interference with "his" Korean peninsula.
Under this peculiar set of circumstances, he is setting himself up to be one of the great losers of world history. There is no way he can inflict substantial damage on America, or even survive long enough to launch an attack; either would be swiftly interdicted either by American weaponry and self-defense technology or direct Chinese intervention to assume power in a nation they can easily control - and openly would were it not for the cost to them in the future of the Sino-American relationship.
Perhaps the worst thing the young North Korean leader has to face is the fact he is very close to having cornered himself, in the sense that he has made threats and taken actions that would cause him to lose face if he suddenly takes a softer tack, as he is wont to do. His personality is very much bound up in his perception of how he and North Korea are seen by the world and the challenge of overcoming those perceptions to emerge as a strong, skillful leader of his people. When one has made so many preparations and made so many threats, it is difficult - especially for someone as young as he is - to turn away from them and embrace a new agenda.
But that is what Kim Jong-un must do. He must look beyond his father to the lessons imparted to China by Chairman Mao, who for all his faults was an able and brilliant strategist for China. Mao knew he didn't want to become the unchallenged leader of an isolated nation whose people were starving to death and dying needlessly of disease and ignorance.
Instead, in several disastrous but forward-looking steps, he undertook an agrarian revolution that would enable China to feed all its people. After several near-fatal missteps, it eventually did succeed. And he took the prestige and isolation of the Chinese health establishment away from the fellows in the white coats and put it instead in the hands of citizen-physicians who were not a lot unlike our own nurse practitioners, able to do many of the things that traditionally only a university-educated doctor could do. They were a lot like battlefield medics that worry first about stopping the bleeding and saving limbs and lives before thinking of their role in society and the privileges being a health practitioner might grant them.
Those were extremely difficult and very brave undertakings. I have no use for Mao's political philosophies, and especially his belief - like Kim Jon Il's - that power flows from the barrel of a gun. It can flow from military force, but that power cannot sustain itself indefinitely; ultimately, real power has to come from the celebration of a leader who cares deeply for his people, cares about feeding all his people, and even feeding them well. Do your best to bring modern education and medicine to the fifty-odd million North Koreans for whom it is presently unattainable except through joining the military. Try your best to be a truly benevolent leader whose care for his people is expressed through generosity, power sharing and incessant personal outreach. All the grand parades and massive portraits in Pyongang won't accomplish that; people won't love you merely because they have to worship your face every time they see it displayed. And in the West, to try to achieve power in this shortcut through achievement is only going to earn you greater derision. .
You have to wonder whether North Korea's leader ever truly peers into the gut of American life and gains any understanding of our political system. If he did, he would see that we are led by a man of whom most American do not fundamentally approve, even though they may vote for him; President Barack Obama is widely hated on the American right for reasons that elude my own perceptions; it's really just a racial thing, I tend to believe.
Kim Jong-un probably could not bear to be as hated - in their perfect freedom to hate him - by some 25 or 30 percent of the North Korean people, as Obama is by some Americans. He couldn't bear to hear at least one television network and the leading commentators on all of radio demeaning him hour by hour around the clock. President Obama has to take that hatred and disrespect in stride, and he does so very well. Kim Jong-un has to be in ultimate control of every printed and broadcast word that is said about him.
What turns a boy into a man? Survival, first. You have to live that long. Pain, next. You have to learn through painful experience that not all your great ideas are actually great, and that some don't work. Humility, too. You have to have some sense about the breadth of your own experience, and weigh the value of that experience in the context of a much longer life - if you get to have one - and in the lives of other world leaders. What would you have learned, had you lived through that nuclear instant, over the next thirty or forty years about how to lead and where you can lead your country?
Grow up, Sir. Take your filial obligations to their greatest height not in military posturing but in real achievements for your people. If you can send a million men to war, how many can you send to plant, and to heal, to paint and build and manufacture? How many men can you send to educate your unlettered millions? How great can you truly be if you transform North Korea by chooseing the right path of your destiny in these dark days ahead?
Don't even think about attacking the United States or South Korea, Sir. Between them, they can make your honored.and ancient country entirely vanish in several days, forgotten and unmourned. No flowers will appear at your father's grave unless you are there to lay them down, on some distant day when you are old and grey and weak, saying to him, "I have kept the impossible promise, Father. I bring you flowers of all the gardens of Korea, where they grow in peace and beauty amid a happy people.'
Even the President of the United States cannot say that at the grave of his father.
Jesus Christ died on this day 2,000 years ago for you, Kim Jong-un. He knew you would be young and untested, and that you could choose the brighter path for your country or mistakenly destroy it. He is ready every step of your path to to help you choose the right way. We hope you do.
Joe Shea, a former foreign correspondent for the Village Voice, ia editor of The American Reporter.