By DIDI KIRSTEN TATLOW
BEIJING — It seems scary, even crazy: talk of a “sea of fire” and an “arc of destruction,” nuclear missiles slamming into distant shores. North Korea, an “isolated state,” as we’re constantly told by media reports, hurls invective at the world while its people, abused, hungry and cold, are led by an apparently well-fed young man, Kim Jong-un, who sits in front of shabby-looking computers running nuclear programs that are going, literally, ballistic.
But is it all true?
“Public discourse about the North in most of our enlightened world is crippled, condescending, irrelevant, and, like heartburn, episodic,” says James Church, the pseudonymous author of a series of novels about the country, in an article titled: “NK and Pluto.” He insists on anonymity because of the nature of his past intelligence work.
As the rhetoric ratchets up again on the Korean peninsula with talk of mobilization, attack and counterattack, Mr. Church’s view is deeply counterintuitive and very valuable. His authorial name is a pseudonym for a former Western intelligence officer who has been in the country dozens of times and now, retired from government, writes about it through the eyes of a fictional North Korean policeman called Inspector O. (Full disclosure – I have met Mr. Church and he is definitely real.) In fact, the novels offer a superb demonstration of the idea that fiction tells the truth better than fact.
Here are two snippets of what Mr. Church thinks, based on the article, written some time ago but sent to me this week with a note that said, “Gloomily, it still rings.” Get ready for upending received wisdom:
1. It is we who are isolated from North Korea, not the other way round.
“If North Koreans inhabit the most isolated country on earth (hyperbole widely accepted as fact), then it must also be true that we are isolated from them. Isolation, after all, is a two-way street. In this case, however, the proposition is not symmetrical,” Mr. Church writes.
That’s because North Korean experts “tune in outside radio and television, read outside books and newspapers detailing our politics and society,” while, “To learn about them, we pick through chicken entrails,” he writes.
The North Koreans reap tactical benefit from our ignorance.
“We, on the other hand, have developed a fog of myths about them as a substitute for knowledge,” he writes. “These myths, handed down from administration to administration, are comforting in their long familiar ring, but make it difficult for us to avoid walking in circles. The North Koreans move nimbly through this fog, like Drake’s small ships among the galleons of the Spanish armada. Yes, at times they step on their extremities, but don’t we all?”
2. Stop obsessing about the nuclear thing.
The North’s strongest card is not nuclear. Its strongest card is its ability to “royally annoy” everyone, Mr. Church says. “Its strength does not come from chemical weapons, arrays of artillery, or brigades of mobile missiles. This small, sad country’s best weapon is not something stashed deep in a granite mountain or smuggled to a rusting port in the hold of a tramp freighter. To find it, no spies need be recruited, no costly, esoteric intelligence collection systems deployed,” he writes.
“The basis of the North’s greatest strength is deceptively simple: People who are irritated pay attention.” (The italics are in the original essay.)
“Behave badly – always careful to choose the time, always retaining control of the situation — and North Korea knows from experience that attention will be paid, even over the grinding of big power teeth,” Mr. Church writes.
What North Korea fears most is being swept away in the tide of big power history, says Mr. Church. So it is parlaying its few, weak cards as best it can. It seeks dialogue with the United States, which it fought in the Korean War, but that dialogue was virtually nixed after former President George Bush declared North Korea part of an “axis of evil” in 2002, as I’ve reported before.
As my colleagues Mark Landler and Choe Sang-hun report, there is a “disconnect” in North Korea today. Despite the rhetoric of threat, “We are not seeing changes to the North Korean military posture such as large-scale mobilizations or positioning of forces,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. “What that disconnect between rhetoric and action means, I’ll leave to the analysts to judge.” People like Mr. Church.
There are signs of growing calls for a different approach to North Korea. A recent article on CNN was titled, “Kim Jong-un is not crazy.”
Writing in the Los Angeles Times on Monday, a former U.S. ambassador and C.I.A. station chief in South Korea, Donald Gregg, called for the United States to talk to North Korea and negotiate a peace treaty. “An increasingly dangerous confrontation is building between the United States and North Korea,” wrote Mr. Gregg.
“The outrageous rhetoric pouring out of Pyongyang makes it difficult to do anything more than dismiss North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. But abandoning diplomacy would be extremely dangerous. The North Koreans are convinced that nuclear weapons are the only thing keeping them safe from a U.S. attack, and recent flights of nuclear-capable U.S. warplanes over the Korean peninsula only hardened that conviction,” Mr. Gregg wrote. “As distasteful as it may seem, we need to talk directly with the North Koreans.”
And Mike Chinoy, a respected commentator and author of a book on North Korea, wrote in the Washington Post recently, “the truth has to be faced: U.S. policy toward North Korea is not working.”
What might work? Face-to-face discussions, Mr. Chinoy wrote, to “enable the United States to judge whether there is any hope of dialogue and revived diplomacy.” President Obama should try that and “send a high-level envoy to Pyongyang.”
I have the feeling that Mr. Church’s fictional hero, Inspector O, the North Korean detective, would agree.
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