Foreign Policy

The Axis of Evil's Flat Tire

As the Middle East explodes, Kim Jong Il cries, "But What about me?"

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Kim Jong Il can't catch a break. On July 4, after the nylon-clad, Hennessy-quaffing North Korean leader sent a barrage of ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, he finally had the world's attention. A week later, Beirut was burning, and his banner headlines vanished.

Much unlike his brothers in evil axis-hood, Kim has trouble holding Washington's attention. Not that he hasn't tried: Three years after the Bush administration took on Saddam Hussein for a phantom cache of weaponry, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has launched an impresive P.R. campaign to hype its actual arsenal. Everything a Saddam-led Iraq could do, it seems, North Korea can do better: human rights abuses, threats on U.S. allies, WMD, missile sales. While Hans Blix was poking around Iraq in 2003, North Korea had already sent inspectors packing.

The country reportedly has eight bombs worth of plutonium backed by a standing army of 1 million. But after the July 4 spectacle, the commentariat dismissed the DPRK as a state in the midst of a temper tantrum. The administration appeared even less impressed. "A missile that fails after 40 seconds is not a threat to the territory of the United States," White House national security advisor Stephen Hadley said. President Bush's statements have bordered on denial. When CNN correspondent Suzanne Malveaux claimed that North Korea had "increased its nuclear arsenal," Bush replied "Can you verify that?" He then added, "I'm not going to dispute it. It's just curious." And though he has offered to speak directly to Iran about its nuclear ambitions, he won't grant the same to the DPRK.

The lack of bluster is almost certainly frustrating to Kim, whose dominant narrative involves massive exaggerations of North Korea's relative importance. But even if he continues to be more News of the Weird than Headline News, current U.S. foreign policy works in his favor. Kim has long told his people that the U.S is an unpredictable superpower poised to strike. At the moment, he doesn't need a direct attack on the DPRK to cast the U.S. as a rogue nation. He's got Iraq.

America's military adventures are rich fodder for a dictatorship in search of a threat. When the DPRK bothers to justify its weapons buildup—and its very existence—to its own people, the word Iraq appears in heavy rotation. The connection is not subtly put, at least not in Rodong Sinmun, mouthpiece for the Worker's Party of Korea and the most widely read paper in the most closed nation on Earth.

Shortly after the Iraq war began, an editorial filtered the conflict through the regime's self-obsessed logic:

This highhanded action of the U.S. against Iraq and the war preparations now being made by the U.S. and its followers in the Korean Peninsula compel the DPRK to do all it can to defend itself and help it clearly know for what it should do more.

An October 2004 article expands:

The Bush forces have undisguisedly launched wars for conquering independent countries, branding them as "possessors of weapons of mass destruction," "rogue states" under the pretext of preventing the "terrorist acts" after the September 11 incident… The Bush war-like forces are now bent on military pressure and war preparations against the DPRK, Iran and some other countries… The strengthening of defence power is the only way of defending the sovereignty and security of a country and nation and achieving prosperity.

And the U.S. just keeps on giving. In March, Rodong Sinmun readers learned that the "U.S. is intending to build a new concentration camp of the same type as the Abu Ghraib Prison."

Hardly a day goes by when, sandwiched between news of "anniversaries marked" and "wreaths laid," the DPRK doesn't justify its weapons buildup with U.S. foreign policy. And from the perspective of dictatorship boosters, the Iraq contretemps is mere warm-up. The peninsula is always, according to the DPRK's excitable editorialists, on the brink of nuclear annihilation. A July editorial tells of our impending Korean war:

Realities make it crystal clear that the fond talk of the U.S. about "dialogue" and "peace" is a false advertisement to mislead public opinion at home and abroad and its criminal attempt to start a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula at any cost is entering the stage of practice.

Convinced that peace is defended only by arms, the army and people of the DPRK are now in full preparedness to answer a preemptive attack with a relentless annihilating strike and a nuclear war with a mighty nuclear deterrent.

Permanent crisis has been the regime's raison d'être for a long time, and the setup is a lot more plausible when Iraq is in shambles. But while the people of North Korea appear to be well protected from the envious eyes of the Americans, their struggles against starvation (the United Nations' World Food Program reports that 37 percent of DPRK children suffer from chronic malnutrition ), government terrorism (an estimated 150,000 prisoners are being held in remote detention camps) and the economic predations of their neighbors to the south (South Korea's GDP of $925 billion mocks the Hermit Kingdom's paltry GDP of $31 billion ), are still being valiantly fought. Dare we say that the Dear Leader's skill as a dramatist is exceeded only by his genius in setting national priorities?

As with that of most crackpot regimes, North Korean agitprop is at once narcissistic and self-deprecating. North Korea assumes it is the United States' number one priority after Iraq; yet it constantly plays victim, emphasizing its smallness relative to the United States, which is cast as a cruel bully picking on a helpless, peace-loving child. Every time Washington pays attention, both narratives are reinforced: The U.S. as thuggish superpower, backward dictatorship as key geopolitical player.

The nature of dictatorship is such that only self-reinforcing information travels up the chain of command, so it may be that Kim Jong-Il believes much of his own storytelling. But Kim clearly understands that harping on current U.S. policy alone won't get him what he wants from the international community: aid and normalized trade relations.

The Bush administration's response is probably the right one, based as it is on the knowledge that a heated exchange is precisely what the regime seeks. The bad news is that even when Kim Jong Il sits low on the U.S. agenda, Washington does him plenty of favors.