The Topic At Hand: This Is A Test

What I am proposing to do here, I realize, is going to be difficult. First of all, I am going to try to convince you that Kim Jong-II — the bouffant-wearing, Elizabeth Taylor loving, female-reporter-kidnapping supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – is not batshit crazy. Then, just in case I have failed to alienate any of my potential readers by suggesting that we reconsider our attitudes towards the leader of a totalitarian state that is openly building a nuclear weapons program in defiance of pretty much the entire world, I will follow up by talking smack about Israel.

I’m just letting you know up front so that there is no chance that you will feel blindsided by these arguments, and compelled to write an angry response denouncing me for my insidious self-hatred as either an American or as a Jew. I’m perfectly aware that to a vast population of reasonable, affluent, well-educated people, this whole essay is going to seem totally nutty, if not downright dangerous. I know this because of the way I was taken aside by my committee, when I was writing an MA thesis that was critical of Israel, and advised to think carefully about how such a position might impact my job prospects down the road, and my chances for tenure. I know it because I have often found myself, even in the midst of what has been nearly universally acknowledged as a ‘global financial crisis’, an object of almost anthropological interest whenever I mention that I read, as part of my research, the works of Karl Marx. And I know it because I have, on quite a few occasions now, attempted to make an argument not unlike the one I am about to make here in the midst of casual conversation among people who are more or less well informed about current events, and I have paid close attention to their reactions.

Kim Jong-Il, in fact, seems to be the least loaded of the characters I have sought to rehabilitate. Few people in the US seem motivated these days, what with so many domestic concerns and the more vociferous looming threat of international Jihad to worry about, to get their dander up about saber-rattling at the 38th parallel. Kim, apparently, and the whole concept of North Korea — with its retrograde standing army of 1,000,000 soldiers; its enormous, empty, reinforced-concrete skyscraper; and its gigantic spectacles of synchronized gymnastics – seems more absurd than dangerous. And the threat that its nuclear program poses is far away (though, admittedly, I have not ventured into this particular territory with my South Korean or Japanese friends). Reactions have been somewhat less mild when I have risen to defend Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on whose alleged weapons program the bulk of the current alarm over nuclear brinkmanship is, after all, focused. My basic argument is transferable, with little friction, to the Iranian context. As I will be stepping directly into that minefield when I turn to the question of Israel, however, let’s leave Iran out of it for the moment and – as an exercise, perhaps – focus on the more whimsically dangerous situation in North Korea.

The most important difference between the two cases, of course, is that North Korea’s nuclear program has, however unspectacularly, accomplished its goal. In April, Mohamed ElBaradei — the head of the International Atomic Energy Association, who is probably best known in America as the guy who disputed the authenticity of Colin Powell’s claims about Niger and yellow cake uranium at the UN (and turned out to be right) — told reporters “North Korea has nuclear weapons, which is a matter of fact.” To drive the point home, the DPRK conducted a second underground nuclear test a little over a week later. There is less consensus about whether the country has the ballistic missiles necessary to reliably deliver its weapons to distant targets, but a series of unarmed test launches into the Sea of Japan have proven that it won’t have much trouble getting a warhead to its Southern neighbor or its old colonial nemesis – both of which, of course, have been key allies of the United States (or at least hosts to US military bases) since the end of World War II.

That longer view of history – and, based on my experiences teaching undergraduate courses even to Global Affairs majors, it seems that thinking back 60 years is more than most of us are used to doing – is important for contextualizing the current siege mentality of North Korea. In spite of bloody evidence to the contrary in the form of, say, the Vietnam and Iraq wars, popular sentiment among the industrial democracies of the global North tends towards an idea that the vast majority of people living under regimes that are antagonistic to Liberal globalizing capitalism do so under violent coercion, but in their hearts yearn to be freed so that they can participate in private enterprise and watch whatever they want on television. Such thinking, however, brutally simplifies the complex story of colonization, industrialization, and modernization that set the stage for the Cold War in the first place.

In order to understand what today’s North Korea is up to, we first have to take the plunge of accepting that in 1945, the Soviet Union offered an inspiring model for many nations that were just emerging from colonial rule of one kind or another. Especially to poor, largely agrarian new countries which, like Korea, had little industrial development, the Soviets – and then, more immediately, the Chinese – seemed to demonstrate that under the leadership of a centrally organized, highly disciplined socialist party, it was possible to build a strong, modern, self-reliant country without imposing the wide economic disparity and exploitation that was associated with capitalist development, or setting the new country up as a source for cheap labor and new markets to service the needs of the existing powers. In addition, Korean communists had led the most visible resistance to Japanese rule from 1919 onward, and the exploits of their military leaders such as Kim Il-Sung (founding ruler of North Korea and father of Kim Jong-Il) had been mythologized throughout the region. Much like in Germany, when Korea was partitioned into areas of Soviet and US control, there was widespread – if certainly not unanimous – support, in both parts, for the idea that a unified, socialist Korea would be the ultimate result of the period of reconstruction.

Korean 'comfort women' in US custody at the end of WWII

Korean “comfort women” in US custody at the end of WWII.

The United States, of course, was eager to make sure that didn’t happen. In order to quickly consolidate its influence and to tamp down the possibility of sympathetic organization in the South, the US military government in South Korea quickly restored the authority of the Japanese colonial administration and its Korean collaborators, ultimately installing ultra right-wing military dictator Singhman Rhee as the head of the independent South Korean government. Rhee (who ruled the Republic of South Korea until 1960 and was ultimately run out of office for election fraud and embezzlement) tortured and exiled suspected communists, and oversaw the extermination of entire villages where opposition to his government was strong. The people of Korea — who had just endured 60 years of particularly brutal Japanese rule under which the Korean language was outlawed, healthy men were conscripted to work in Japanese mines and munition plants, and healthy women were often forced to become prostitutes servicing Japanese soldiers – faced a grim choice as the increasingly violent border skirmishes between the North and South transformed, with a Chinese backed invasion from the North, into the Korean War. The North Korea that emerged from that three-year conflict, which resulted in an armistice that amounted to a stalemate (and which, to this day, has not officially ended), was a fragile state with a sophisticated military infrastructure and little else. For its entire history — as it sought to transform the productive power of that military infrastructure into industry; as its increasingly authoritarian communist party sought to suture a damaged cultural identity with revolutionary pageantry and a cult of personality surrounding Kim Il-Sung; as the socialist world that included its benefactors, its military allies, and its trading partners shrunk to almost nothing; and as it teetered on the edge of collapse in the wake of famine and massive floods – North Korea has had US guns trained on its southern border.

Please don’t misread my intentions. I recount all of this not so that you might pity the North Korean government, or forgive its many excesses. I nurture no vain fantasy that the DPRK (nor China, nor Cuba, nor Vietnam, nor Venezuela for that matter) offers a convincing model for how centralized socialist dictatorship can offer an alternative to some kind of participation in a global market-based economy. Similarly, I’m not seeking to vilify the United States. If you don’t know by now that the US was in the habit of throwing in with murderous right-wing dictators in order to eliminate the threat of left-wing insurrection, or that it has taken consistent advantage of its various foreign adventures in the name of freedom to install permanent military bases tasked with protecting and consolidating its economic power, then there is little use in trying to convince you here. I rather want to argue that North Korea, like all modern nations, emerged from a bloody and morally ambiguous history, fueled by the same odd combination of trauma and utopian hopefulness that has inspired so much progress and so much destruction throughout the world in the last century or so. Kim Jong-Il, no doubt, has had a unique life. He was born into a family intent on creating a political dynasty and inherited a personality cult from his father. He, unlike most of his countrymen, had the opportunity to travel and study internationally, and became a connoisseur of European and American cinema even as he waged one of the most comprehensive programs of nationalist propaganda the world has ever seen. He has a funny haircut. But the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is not, by way of its antagonistic posture to the current regime of global power brokers, a state intent on its own destruction, and Kim Jong-Il, just because he wants the credibility at the international bargaining table that only a nuclear arsenal could have bought him, is not crazy.

Kim Jung-Il might have funny hair, but he is not crazy

Kim Jung-Il might have funny hair, but he is not crazy.

And bargaining power, of course, is exactly what the Korean (and the Iranian) nuclear weapons program is all about. In the grimly fun parlance of late 20th century realpolitik, it’s what’s known as a “unit veto”, in which national actors who have the ability to enact nuclear-scale, obliterative violence are, de facto, granted a veto in international negotiations. In its most idealized form, among the same Dr. Strangelove-esque social scientists who engineered the strategic equilibrium known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the unit veto system would require a meaningful space for international discourse and incentivize participants to make compromises and to take opposing positions seriously – i.e. it becomes the necessary precondition for a lasting peace. It is an idea that has been in disfavor for some time now, what with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The concept, however, is built in to the very heart of international cooperation. Not only does the NPT grandfather in five nations that are recognized, pre-agreement, as nuclear states, but those same states make up the permanent members – the ones who always have a veto -– of the UN security council.

Currently, there are only four recognized nations in the world that are non-signatories to the NPT, and they round out the balance of the small club of nuclear powers. They are North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Israel. There is a great deal to say, of course, about the conditions under which the South Asian powers came to abstain from the treaty, the border dispute between India and China and the domino effect on Pakistani security concerns, the role that India’s nuclear arsenal might have had in the slow change in global trade and economic policy negotiations towards greater inclusion of developing countries, the role that Pakistan’s arsenal might have had in stringing the tightrope the United States has had to walk while chasing Al-Qaeda and the Taliban across the Pakistani border, and the relationship between the Pakistani nuclear weapons program and those in both Iran and North Korea. The case that is of greatest interest to me, however, in light of this discussion, is Israel.

The grossly disproportionate influence that concerns over Israeli security have on US foreign policy and in the international community at large — as well as Israel’s relative impunity from the kinds of diplomatic and economic measures that are regularly leveled in repudiation of actions (primarily by smaller nations) that are deemed against the international interest – is most often attributed either to a strong cultural bond between Israel and the United States or (less benignly) to an aggressive, powerful and savvy pro-Israel lobby that knows how to leverage the guilt, fear, and wealth of American Jews into a serious political hammer. Taking another brief detour into history beyond the tips of our noses, however, should remind us that the US has not always taken such an unambiguously rosy view of Israel. Pre-Israeli Zionism was an explicitly socialist project, and Israel walked the line in Cold War politics pretty narrowly before throwing in with NATO in 1960 in order to secure a regular supply of arms. In 1956, Israel’s invasion of Egypt with the aid of France and the UK (who were cynically using the opportunity to consolidate their control over their remaining colonies in the region) threatened not only to unravel US-Israeli relations, but the integrity of NATO itself. Most importantly, however, is recalling that Israel thumbed its nose at international calls for non-proliferation throughout the 50s and 60s, and consistently deceived both the US and international monitoring agencies while developing the real key to its exceptional status on the current world stage in the form of at least 60 (but probably more like 400) nuclear warheads – a unit veto.

Declassified US Satellite surveillance image of Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility, taken in 1968.

Declassified US Satellite surveillance image of Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility, taken in 1968.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Lieutenant Colonel Warner D. Farr of the US Army Air War College, in his 1999 paper “The Third Temple’s Holy of Holies: Israel’s Nuclear Weapons”:

Israel used many subterfuges to conceal activity at Dimona.  It called the plant a manganese plant, and rarely, a textile plant.  The United States by the end of 1958 had taken pictures of the project from U-2 spy planes, and identified the site as a probable reactor complex…On 2 December 1960, before Israel could make announcements, the U.S. State Department issued a statement that Israel had a secret nuclear installation.  By 16 December, this became public knowledge with its appearance in the New York Times.  On 21 December, Ben-Gurion announced that Israel was building a 24-megawatt reactor “for peaceful purposes.”

That sounds familiar. Here’s a little bit more:

The final resolution between the U.S. and Israel was a commitment from Israel to use the facility for peaceful purposes, and to admit an U.S. inspection team twice a year.  These inspections began in 1962 and continued until 1969.  Inspectors saw only the above ground part of the buildings, not the many levels underground and the visit frequency was never more than once a year.  The above ground areas had simulated control rooms, and access to the underground areas was kept hidden while the inspectors were present.  Elevators leading to the secret underground plutonium reprocessing plant were actually bricked over.

So, you see, this is simply how it’s done. In fact, compared to Israel, which has deliberately maintained a policy of “opacity” about its nuclear capabilities, North Korea has acted in remarkably good faith. After becoming a signatory to the NPT in 1985, the DPRK first began to make noise about withdrawing in 1994 – at the same time that the combination of massive flooding that devastated domestic food production and a slow breakdown of special trade agreements with post-Soviet Russia was driving the country towards implosion. The underlying logic of that decision is consistent with that of the more recent nuclear tests, the primary objective of which is fairly straightforward: it wants normalized relations with the United States. The so-called “Agreed Framework”, which tenuously kept North Korea in the treaty until 2004, was a bilateral agreement that basically promised the US would help the DPRK develop a civilian, non-weaponizable nuclear energy program in exchange for the latter’s full compliance to the NPT. By most accounts, North Korea was poised to cooperate, but the US began to equivocate about the terms of the agreement almost from the instant it was signed. Throughout the late 1990s and the early oughts, as the agreement careened towards breakdown, Kim Jung-Il repeatedly demanded direct, bilateral talks with the US. The reply came in the form of George Bush naming Kim’s regime in the 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech, and a hard line that all negotiations would be done through six-party talks that include Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea – the later two of which don’t recognize the legitimacy of North Korea’s sovereignty. The Bush administration was particularly good at saying ‘fuck you’. Even so, Korea officially withdrew from the treaty before bringing its own weapons program back on line and made sure that the world knew about it when it blew up its first bomb. The ambiguity surrounding Israel’s nuclear arsenal is a sign, in part, of its strategic desire not to lay down its hand lest it need to make use of its warheads. The Korean strategy, by comparison, seems desperately performative.

Don’t expect to see Kim Jong-Il sharing a beer in the rose garden with President Obama any time soon, but there are small signs that the strategy has started to work. On October 11, 2008, the United States quietly removed North Korea from its list of states that sponsor terrorism. It is no accident that the visit of a US president – even one no longer in office – is what got Kim Jong-Il to pardon Laura Ling and Euna Lee and send them home. It will take time, but North Korea will slowly start to be integrated into regular diplomatic circulation.

A final point for the sake of clarity: The way to assure a more peaceful future certainly does not require that more and more small and isolated countries become nuclear powers. As the technology and materials necessary to create nuclear weapons becomes more available, however, it is important not to instantly associate a weapons program with genocidal intentions. Nuclear politics have, after all, loomed large in the current structure of power in the world. Developing the bomb has proven a lucrative strategy for securing a place at the table. The case of Iraq has demonstrated that disarming at the behest of the UN or the IAEA guarantees very little in the eyes of suspicious countries with powerful armies. And North Korea, remember, is not the only nuclear power whose leaders, from the outside, might seem totally nuts.

The Great Leader and the Dear Leader gaze together into the bright future of North Korea. The light behind them may and may not be from an exploding nuclear device.

The Great Leader and the Dear Leader gaze together into the bright future of North Korea. The light behind them may and may not be from an exploding nuclear device.


Comfort women photo from Women And War.

Satellite image from Wikipedia.

Image of the two Leaders from the official web page of The Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea.

Version of the two Leaders image used as preview on the RF “This Is A Test” issue page from yeowatzup.

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    8 responses to “Test Regime”

    1. Name says:

      I love the tone of this piece.

    2. fritzglunk says:

      whom do we have to ask for the translation rights (into German, for the political magazine DIE GAZETTE ( of Cohn's article?
      Please advise asap:
      Fritz Glunk

    3. randallcohn says:

      Fritz: Authors retain their own copyright here, so it's my call. Why don't you get in touch with me directly at

    4. Julio Ramirez says:

      You got it mostly right Bud.Thirty years ago this article would have had you labeled a “commie” or worse an “anti-Semite;” the latter being a career killer. Come to think of it in some quarters you would still get nailed with those labels. As Adam Clayton Powell use to say, “keep the faith baby.”

    5. rachelmb says:

      This line is sheer gold: “fueled by the same odd combination of trauma and utopian hopefulness that has inspired so much progress and so much destruction throughout the world in the last century or so.”

      Thanks for this essay: for its intelligence, clarity and honesty. It's sad that as Americans and Jews (to paraphrase you) we are somehow obligated to take a certain stance.

      The real tragedy is that few Americans have even 1 percent of the the knowledge about history and politics that you do, and the media is carefully curated to ensure that they never do.

      Keep at it.

    6. allanfifield says:

      I was prepared to hate it but a very good article in general.

    7. Randall says:

      I’ve been asked on a few occasions in the last couple of weeks by a small group of close associates who remember that I wrote this piece last year to comment on the recent hostilities. So, in brief:nnIt should not be surprising to us, I think, for precisely the reasons I outline above concerning Kim Jong-Il and his government’s long term objectives in leveraging their nuclear capabilities, that they would want to press the issue of potential military conflict. As Israeli leaders, among others, have long understood, military capabilities are meaningless without regular reminders that the people with their fingers on the button aren’t afraid of a fight.nnAgain, although it may seem counter-intuitive considering the almost universal swell of Kim-is-crazy talk in the English language media, the jury is still out on the final impact of this most recent provocation. The US state department is particularly hopeful right now, after all, in light of the WikiLeaks debacle, about the short memory of the public under the spell of the 24-hour news cycle. The Kims are smart enough, I think, not to be surprised or offended or cowed by the necessary posturing of just about everyone who has a camera to talk to — they are far more concerned with what happens down the road. nnEveryone involved is savvy enough to make sure that the new relationships that are being forged save face for both sides, so it will probably never be narrated this way…nonetheless, the terms of the future compromise between the western powers and North Korea are being forged through these actions, and it is the North Koreans who are strengthening their position.nn

    8. A sea of protesters flooded downtown Cairo on Monday, brushing aside concessions by President Hosni Mubarak and vowing to topple his regime with …

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    The Author

    Randall K. Cohn

    Randall K. Cohn is no longer a graduate student. In addition to Revolving Floor, his writing has been published in Reviews in Cultural Theory and Die Gazette, and he co-wrote a chapter for the recently published anthology Renewing Cultural Studies. He lives with his fiance in Minneapolis, where he is an outreach worker and shelter advocate for homeless adults. View all of Randall's Revolving Floor contributions.

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