Pyongyang, North Korea. -- Nowhere has the challenge of post-Cold War diplomacy been more vexing, nor the stakes higher than in the Korean peninsula.
The Demilitarized Zone, less than three miles wide and very tense, separates more than a million fighting men. North Korea, increasingly isolated, is using its newly public nuclear capacity to lever concessions from the South and from the United States in its attempt to reunify the peninsula and rejoin the world community on its own terms.
Recently the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, as North Korea calls itself, has signed two agreements, one with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the other with South Korea, to permit the inspection of its nuclear facilities in return for the right to inspect all military bases in the South including U.S. Army facilities. Implementation of the agreements has been stalled by the North on the pretext that inspection of their military bases is not covered, as if they could not possibly have nuclear facilities on military bases.
The real reason progress hasn't been made, I found in my meetings with President Kim Il Sung and senior officials of the ruling Korean Workers Party, is that the nuclear issue is seen as just one of several questions governing their entry into the wider community. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist countries of Eastern Europe, fully 60 percent of the DPRK's foreign trade vanished. The virtual absence of petroleum is a national crisis, access to technology is limited and the fear of isolation -- China has warned she can not close the gap -- is growing rapidly.
The government in Pyongyang knows that the sale of arms to the Persian Gulf and other troubled areas, state sponsored terrorism (in which it has been heavily implicated in recent
years), human rights questions, not to mention the current state of belligerency between North and South, are all matters in which clear progress must precondition normal relations with the West. Thus the nuclear card is being played carefully to gain position and perhaps concessions in other areas.
North Korea, though not the first to define this type of challenge for Washington's policy makers, has caused acute concern because so little is known about what the Victorians called the "Hermit Kingdom."
To the Western mind, North Korea is among the most secretive and bizarre societies in the world. Its President, Kim Il Sung, known to his people as the "Great Leader," combines the spirit and emotion of the church and the power of the state unlike anyone in modern times through a state religion, called "Juche," emphasizing self reliance and independence. Neither Mao Tse Tung nor Adolf Hitler sustained their totalitarian grip as long nor infused their nations so pervasively with their thought.
Juche emphasizes the independence and non-subjugation of the state and the requirement that individuals sacrifice for the majority. In a twist of this Orwellian autocracy, unity, it is said, is not imposed from the top but comes from the bottom.
Juche, moreover, cements an unprecedented concept in the annals of communism. The "Great Leader," now eighty, is credited with setting the nation's agenda in the mid-'50s and with the innovation of the last four decades. But his son, Kim Jong Il, known previously for his enthusiasms for the Swedish bikini team, has been sculpted by the state media into a hands-on manager -- "the Dear Leader" -- who is systematizing and implementing Juche on a daily basis. They are communism's first father-son chief of state team and soon to be dynasty.
But Juche doesn't stand alone in forging the world view of North Korea's people. The small red lapel pin bearing a likeness of the "Great Leader" (remember the Chairman Mao buttons) -- every North Korean wears one on his left breast -- is only one leg of a three legged stool. Two others add elements that complete the national myth: the heroism of the Korean Peoples army in ending Japan's imperial administration in Korea in the 1940's and the compass provided by world communism through its military and political support -- though its icons, Lenin, Mao and others, have been eclipsed by the Kims.
And it must be said that the impact of Kim Il Sungism on this homogeneous nation of 21 million has not been altogether negative. While offending our deeply held beliefs on individual protections, due process, the right to assembly and speech, Juche can point to achievements matched by few other developing countries.
Pyongyang was leveled during the Korean War; hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs were dropped and nearly every Korean lost family members. In quick flashes of emotion revealing the bonds of shared tragedy, my hosts were not hesitant to talk of the terror bombing and their distrust, even hatred, of America.
In the mid-'50s, following the Stalinist model, the nation collectivized, but unlike the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe, it didn't join Comecon, the Communist trading bloc. Instead, emphasizing self-reliance, it developed its infrastructure and productive capacity in the agricultural and heavy industry sectors, which were seen as vital for military strength. North Korea's 1.1 million-man army is among the largest in the world.
Equally important was the provision of social and support services. Health care is universal; 11 years of schooling and university are offered to all who qualify. There are no homeless, taxes or unemployment. Wages, though low, were recently increased. Food and basic consumer items seemed adequate; more plentiful, for example, than in Moscow before prices were free in January.
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and China's focus on how to mix Marxism and the free market, North Korea's support has lessened and her Achilles heel -- the lack of petroleum resources -- has forced a reckoning with a skeptical and largely hostile world.
Opening Pyongyang's shuttered culture to the outside is a near desperate act, and it will be painful. The city itself, where all art -- billboards, monuments -- serves the state and celebrates the "Great Leader," is a Potemkin Village writ large. The visitor arriving passes like Alice through the looking glass to oxymoronland where nothing is as it seems. Airports have no airplanes; passenger lounges have no passengers; cafes have no diners, the broad boulevards, dotted with immense realistic sculptures celebrating the "worker," "farmer," "soldier," "intellectual," have no cars, and few people of whatever occupation.
Awkward as it is, however, the DPRK is reaching out -- and the West holds the high cards. If they are played well, Pyongyang will be forced to conform to international standards on nuclear weapons, approach reunification in a flexible manner and stop fishing in troubled waters for hard currency. The alternative is to decline to a Cuban style donkey-and-bicycle economy.
Stefan Halper served three Republican administrations in the White House and State Department.