With All Due Respect: North Korea

Apr 10, 2013

Jay Solomon's "With All Due Respect" commentaries can be heard occasionally on First Coast Connect.

One summer evening when I was less than 10, I was sitting under a very tall tree near my home. It was twilight. 

I happened to look up and there was an object in the sky: ball-shaped, rotating, shimmering, and heading right at me.  It seemed to be growing, moving faster; the shimmer becoming a pattern of light around and around.  It was scary.   

Just when I thought I was a goner, it began a slow turn. No longer round – it looked like a football. The points of light became recognizable patterns:  letters.  It was a news blimp: like those movie-marquee-style lights flashing out headlines over Times Square, except attached to an airship.  “Twitter in the sky.”

It was the first installment in one of my life’s most important lessons: things are not always what they seem. There’s often more in life than meets the eye, all that glitters is not gold, you can’t tell a book by its cover.

As someone heading for a journalism career, it was a good lesson to learn early. Life is complicated. A collection of facts may not present a clear picture of what’s going on.  Journalists are trained to withhold final judgment, relate verified information as clearly as possible and leave it to the news consumer to reach conclusions. 

Ultimately, I would cover many stories demonstrating that appearances can be deceiving. Facts don’t lie – but full information and context are often missing. Take North Korea: remarkably, we have little idea of what is really going on in that country, even though South Korea is a strong ally and we have a large strategic force there.

Even China’s insight and influence appear to be fading. How can we know how to respond?

Based on decades of actual experience, we do know to expect bombastic pronouncements and tactics. Kim Jong-Il, the bizarre but canny, now-dead dictator, repeatedly walked up to the confrontation line without crossing it. The strategy earned attention from us as well as occasional meetings and foreign aid. In return we got various agreements, which North Korea had no problem later abandoning, as they’ve done now by announcing they’ll reopen a nuclear power facility capable of producing material for weapons.

Of course that was the move of Il’s hand picked replacement, his son Kim Jong-Un. Un came pretty much from out of the blue but seems to have studied well his dad’s knack for outrageous provocation. 

It appears he got the job by default.  The third of three sons, all born to daddy’s mistresses, Un moved up when the eldest got caught trying to go to Disneyland Paris under an assumed name with a phony passport, and their father decided the middle son was too “girly.” So Un wasn’t groomed for the job; he was considered pretty much a playboy – so much so that when named at age 28, he was reported to have health issues associated with an indulgent lifestyle. This in an impoverished nation ravaged by famine so severe that the average teenage boy there is more than 4 inches shorter than his counterpart in South Korea. 

Sent to Switzerland for expensive schooling as a teen, Un was introduced as the son of a diplomat, not a dictator.  He had his own apartment and a personal chef. He didn’t do well academically, except for math. He did develop a passion for video games and basketball – especially Michael Jordan. That’s not unheard of behavior for a child of the rich and famous – but certainly disconnected from the realities of his homeland, and maybe reality in general.

And now this 29 year old video gamer is playing a nuclear game – holding at bay great nations like Japan, China and the United States. Would he really risk a preemptive strike? 

Many argue that China, North Korea’s economic lifeline and only ally, should threaten to withdraw support. But how wise is backing into a corner an inexperienced dictator who’s acting like a bully?

China and the rest of the UN security council have already placed new economic sanctions on North Korea – which will make life even more miserable for the people, but the ruling class has a record of ignoring that.

We threaten awful retaliation should Un make good on his threats to attack – but what will our world look like through the smoke of a smoldering North Korea? 

Things are often not what they seem. We need to be careful about jumping to conclusions without really knowing what is going on in North Korea. Let us remember the “weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq.  

I don’t advocate appeasement or otherwise rewarding bad behavior. But we must find a way to engage this wayward child-leader and nation. If NBA bad boy Dennis Rodman can find a way to have a conversation with Un, the world community should be able to come up with something more promising than threats. And it might not be a bad idea to involve Michael Jordan in the process.