Yet again, the United States, and, indeed the world, finds itself having to confront a dictatorial regime led by a maniacal leader who continuously threatens both our country and that of our allies. Although Iran typically leads international headlines in this arena, the North Korean regime has taken center stage with both provocative acts and thinly-veiled threats.
Thus far, the US and its allies have taken a “wait-and-see approach”, which, it seems, has only hardened the North’s resolve to establish itself as a dominant player in world affairs and a nuclear-armed nation. As the world stood by and watched, North Korea launched a satellite into space in December of last year and conducted another nuclear test this past February. Although it has vocalized its plans to attack the United States with nuclear weapons, the conventional wisdom is that the North’s technological advances have yet to create a nuclear warhead capable of fitting on a missile that can reach the US.
And, as if the world needs more pseudo-pundits addressing the situation, Iran’s foreign ministry has ironically asked both sides to use restraint and not promote “provocative behavior.” As foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said, “We think that the event that is intensifying between North Korea, South Korea and the United states should be controlled as soon as possible. Both parties should not move toward a corner in which there is a threatening climate.”
Although the US can hardly afford to open a new front internationally and remains mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fact remains that Kim Jong Un continues to be caricatured by the press and not taken seriously enough. On April 7th, Saturday Night Live opened with a fake press conference in which Kim Jong Un brags about his sexual prowess and fist pumps Dennis Rodman towards the end of his address. While this is typical SNL fare, it is emblematic of the world’s failure to truly fathom the grave threat represented by maniacal figures like Un. To make matters worse and again reinforce this image of two clowns hanging out, Dennis Rodman traveled to North Korea in February where he called Un “a friend for life” and announced plans to “have some fun” with Un in August, saying that Un “just wants to be loved.” Episodes like this may end up creating an air of oblivion about what is truly going on behind the scenes and lulling the world into focusing on the amusement of the affair as opposed to Un’s nefarious intentions.
History has a habit of repeating itself, and we know from our experiences in the past that leaders who were not taken seriously while issuing existential threats often desire to carry them through. History is replete with examples of various countries placating or satirizing Adolph Hitler, who simply pursued his vision with uncanny fervor and focus. In 1940, Charlie Chaplin created the film, “The Great Dictator,” where he expressed his views through what has been called a “satirical attack on fascism.” Although creating a comedy about Hitler was very controversial, Chaplin stated “I was determined to go ahead,” “for Hitler must be laughed at.” In the film, Chaplin casts “A Jewish Barber,” who also plays the dictator “Adenoid Hynkel” and parodies Hitler.
As history would tell, society could ill afford to stop and laugh at a jingoistic megalomaniac like Hitler. The world waited, appeased, and ran away in fright until we no longer could, and by that time, Hitler’s Generalplan Ost, or Grand Plan to dominate Central and Eastern Europe and ethnically cleanse Jews and others in its wake had already had a devastating impact. The Holocaust was Hitler’s answer, and for the rest of the world, it was too late. In this same time period, caricatures of Mussolini and Stalin were also readily available during their regimes, helping mask the true dangers these tyrants posed not only to their citizens, but to the world at large. Stalin, of course, was one of the most murderous dictators in history who cause the death and suffering of tens of millions through his forced labor camps and purging “enemies of the people.” Mussolini was also known to severely torture or imprison his opposition, in addition to framing and murdering them at a later time. His secret police exerted influence over most aspects of daily life and were in charge of ending any anti-Fascist activity.
Among the most worrisome aspects of Jim Jong Un’s regime is his inexperience and youth, as he is only 30 years old and thus the world’s youngest head of state. Of course, North Korea’s lack of respect for human rights and attacks on its own people have been well documented. As an example, in early January 2011, the North Korean regime began either executing or detaining around 200 protégés of both Jong Un’s uncle-in-law Jang Sung-taek and O Kuk-ryol, the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission of North Korea, in an effort to rid the country of potential competitors to Un. The regime is known to continue its heinous policies of killing defectors, organizing public executions and sending the populace to prison camps.
Perhaps the most heinous of the crimes perpetrated by the North Korean regime is the mass slaughter of its own people. Up to about three million citizens are estimated to have perished through hunger, as its million-man army is fed and the populace is starved. Indeed, it was only a few days ago when a secret video shot in North Korea from the Chinese border purported to show a starving 10-year old boy left for dead in the street, while sacks of rice are unloaded near him to feed the army. Ordinary citizens, themselves suffering from starvation, simply meander by with no regard. Estimates are that millions of others live close to starvation and children are left to suffer from malnutrition due to being orphaned or having their parents imprisoned. The regime uses starvation to control the population, leading some North Koreans to resort to cannibalism or eating tree bark. According to Pastor Kim Seung-Eun, a cleric who has helped North Koreans flee, “One man was shot dead, executed because he ate half of another human being and sold the rest as meat. People are living like animals in that country.” The video also shows a North Korean prison camp where laborers are forced to carry wood to repair a bridge and dig crops out from frozen land.
Media reports indicate Un is thought to have been involved in the bombardment of Yeonpyeong and the Cheonan seeking to burnish his credentials and pave the way to a seamless transition of power from his father. He seems to have received the attention of the right crowd when the ruling Workers’ Party said in an editorial “We vow with bleeding tears to call Kim Jong-un our supreme commander, our leader.”
Beyond the threat Un poses to his own population, he continues to antagonize world powers, including the US. On March 7th of this year, for example, he threatened the US with a “pre-emptive nuclear attack” and to “wipe out” Baengnyeong Island, where battles have broken out before.
In addition, just a few days ago, the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, the Defense Intelligence Agency, announced that North Korea probably has a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a ballistic missile, although its reliability is low. Although James Clapper, the director of national intelligence indicated this was not the consensus view of the US intelligence community, this has only heightened tensions on both sides and the US has increased missile defense systems on the west coast and the island of Guam.
As the rest of the world, both allies and enemies, await the outcome of the near-brinksmanship being pursued by Un, the North Korean regime needs to be viewed through the prism of the past. Too many times, the world has learned the hard way by “turning the other cheek” while dictators terrorized both their own people and other nations who were fully capable of putting a dent in their plans. The path we forge as a nation has important implications not only for the Korean Peninsula, but for our relations with the Middle East, China, Russia, and other potentially aggressor nations. Iran, in particular, is watching closely.
This post was co-authored by Arash Farin, an investment banker based in Los Angeles. Arash Farin has degrees from The Wharton School, Harvard Business School, and also attended Oxford University, where he was President of Rabbi Shmuley’s L’Chaim Society, the forerunner to The Jewish Values Network.