Kim Jung-un and North Korea have been in the news quite a bit lately. North Korea seems to be on the cusp of successfully launching a nuclear armed missile not only into Japan, but North America.
When Kim Jong-il died in 2011, Gordon Houlden, a former Canadian diplomat, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, and the first Canadian diplomat and the most senior Canadian diplomat to date to have visited the DPRK wrote that he hoped “that the arrival of a younger Kim will trigger economic and political developments that would offer hope to the North Korean people and greater stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
British journalist, Allan Hall, also in 2011, shared a similar hope that Kim Jung-un’s prolonged exposure to the west and its values during his school days in Switzerland would imbue him with democratic values.
Kim Jung-un attended middle and secondary school in Switzerland; first at the International School of Berne at £16,000 a year. But he was a poor student and his father moved him to a less expensive school when he was fifteen. He may not have excelled at school but he did learn all about the Western lifestyle and the values that come with living in a free and open society. He loved playing basketball and admired Michael Jordan. Perhaps that is the reason for his friendship with Dennis Rodman.
He had access to TVs, a video recorder and a Sony PlayStation. He loved Jackie Chan movies. He had a cook, a driver, a private teacher.
I used to believe, or hope, like Gordon Houlden and Allan Hall and so many other writers and journalists and pontificators, that exposure to western values would turn despots into freedom fighters. After all, don’t all people want our values? Aren’t they universal?
Sadly, the answer is “no” to both queries. First, freedom is difficult. Erich Fromm wrote about fear of freedom and flight from freedom in the 1940’s. We have within us a desire to cared for. Be told what to do. One might say return to the the Garden of Eden. Free-will is hard work. And free-will is a prerequisite for living in a free society. The story of the Exodus in the Bible is a perfect paradigm to explain this. Since when does it take 40 years to walk from Egypt to Israel even if one is going via Jordan? The explanation is that those who had lived in slavery were afraid to be free. Taking care of oneself is hard work. They wanted to go back to Egypt where they had food, clothing, and lodging. In their longing to have someone else take care of them, make decisions for them, they put aside the horror of slavery itself. The generations exposed to slavery had to die before freedom could take hold.
Second: all of us are bathed raised and swaddled in the values of the culture into which we are born and most of us maintain those values despite the fact that we may be exposed to other cultures. Kim Jong-un is the third in a dynasty founded by his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, known as “Great Leader.” Kim Jong-un was raised, bathed and swaddled in an autocratic, secretive North Korea. His exposure to the west came when he was about nine. So he was exposed to western values during some of his most formative years. Yet, on his return to North Korea and his ascension to leadership, he became just like his father and grandfather. Perhaps worse.
Despite living in Switzerland, where there was no shortage of anything he wanted or needed, when he returned home to North Korea and took on the mantle of leader he continued to deny his people the basics of life in order to build nuclear weapons.
The West has gone out of its way to negotiate with North Korea. Today, we still have politicians and pundits calling for more negotiations while the country has developed a miniature nuclearized warhead.
Nathan Vanderklippe the Globe and Mail’s Asian correspondent wrote “But successive U.S. administrations have also underestimated the country – and nowhere could such a mistake be more dangerous than in the case of military conflict.Take the isolated regime’s willingness to endure staggering human and economic losses that, in the event of military conflict, would likely far outstrip what any other country would be prepared to endure.Those who have spent time in North Korea describe it as a “religious state,” animated by a profound reverence for the ruling Kim family – and in particular the heavily indoctrinated military. ‘They are willing to take losses like no army in the world,’ said one Western analyst who has travelled extensively through North Korea, and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of those travels.”
In 1999 during an interview with the late Tim Russert, Donald Trump said:
We have a country out there in North Korea which is sort of wacko, which is not a bunch of dummies and they are going and developing nuclear weapons.
Wouldn’t it be good to sit down and really negotiate something?
Now if that negotiation doesn’t work, you better solve the problem now than solve it later, Tim. And you know it and every politician knows it and nobody wants to talk about it … these people are laughing at us.
And America did it again with a treaty with Iran that was meant to stop nuclear proliferation. Obama et al negotiated with a tyrant the same way they would negotiate with a leader with our set of values. Not all world leaders read the same manual on Rules of Engagement in war and peace.
Despotic, autocratic leaders, by definition, do not play be the same rules as leaders in the West. No wonder they are laughing. We do the same thing over and over with expectations of different outcomes. What if the West had been more forceful in 1999? And not handed Iran 1.5 billion dollars in cash for agreeing to stop developing a nuclear arsenal.
And Kim Jung-un is no different than Bashar al Assad, the various Saudi Princes, Erdogan of Turkey who has taken a country on the cusp of liberal democracy back to a theocratic autocracy that is bereft of loving kindness, or Hugo Chavez and now Maduro, both of whom pulled their people back from the brink of democracy. All of these men had the opportunity to live and breathe western air and enjoy the gifts of the west. Yet, all of them experiencing what we have been told are universal values, chose not to share them with their people, and despite the attempts of some people to fight back, most have stood beside their leaders.
These are men who, at the very least, could have become benign despots; a step along the way to democracy. They could have satiated their need for power and money and at the same time, introduce some freedoms to their people. Provide their people with hope for a better future. But none of them did.
We seem to be fashioned more by the culture into which we are born than we had believed. Western, democratic values and freedom, are not so universal.