»  National Review Online

April 4th, 2003

  Kim Jong Il - A Modest Proposal


At the time of writing, things look to be going well in Iraq. It may therefore not be out of place to take a pause for some reflection on the other two members of the Axis of Evil.

About Iran, I can think of nothing useful to say. There are good signs: Iran seems to be trending towards democracy, having tested the idea of Islamic revolutionary government pretty much to destruction. There are bad signs: the Iranians are far along in the development of nuclear weapons. It seems to me that these are probably two independent variables. I mean, getting nukes will do little to extend the life of the current dictatorship; and conversely, a switch to democratic and constitutional government may do nothing to reduce the belief among her people that Iran needs nuclear weapons. Iran, after all, shares a 500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that (a) mainly* practices a different form of Islam, (b) is seriously unstable, and (c) has a good stock of nukes. If I were Iranian, I would want democracy and nukes. Dealing with Iran is going to be the diplomatic equivalent of brain surgery, but there is a decent chance that everything will go right in that country.

North Korea is a very different case. For one thing, the people of the "Hermit Kingdom" are cut off from the rest of the world in a way that Iranians are not, and cannot be. I'm sure you have seen those satellite pictures of the world at night, with South Korea, and even northeast China, ablaze with lights, while North Korea is dark. Darkness — the darkness of utter ignorance about the world beyond their borders — is indeed what North Koreans dwell in. Their state TV and radio tell them nothing. They have no internet and are not permitted to make international phone calls. There are people in Iran reading NRO. I know there are, I've had e-mails from them. On one occasion, in fact, when I seemed to have lumped Iranians in with Arabs in an opinion column, I got twenty or thirty angry e-mails from Iran, objecting in the strongest terms to the implication that they resembled Arabs in any way. I have never had an e-mail from North Korea, and do not expect to get one any time soon.

For another thing, though the present rulers of Iran have a lot to answer for, they cannot compare in depravity, either singly or jointly, with Kim Jong Il, the North Korean dictator. To take two items from the charge sheet at random:

(The Rangoon incident was not the first attempt on the life of a South Korean president, by the way. The presidential palace was assaulted by a team of commandos in 1974, and the president's wife killed. I don't know of any hard evidence that Kim Jong Il was involved in that, though. There are in fact people who will tell you that North Korea was not involved at all, though I think that is a minority view. The then-president of South Korea, military dictator Park Chung Hee, had plenty of enemies on his own side. Five years later, in fact, he was shot dead across the dinner table by his own CIA chief.)

There is also the other stuff you've heard about Kim — the kidnappings, the selling of nasty weapons to unsavory regimes, and so on. This is one seriously bad guy. What on earth can we do about him? Well, I have a modest proposal: let's kill the son of a bitch.

I don't offer this suggestion lightly. However much you or I might dislike a particular national leader, and however indisputably our nation is Top Dog, we can't of course go round killing presidents, prime ministers and kings willy nilly. There is such a thing as the International Order. No, stop laughing, there really is — see below. On the other hand, we've shown, with this recent "leadership strike" against Saddam Hussein, that we can do assassination, and are willing to do it, in the context of dismantling a dangerous regime. Kim's regime is at least as dangerous as Saddam Hussein's (as all the lefties and paleos are pointing out — watch them switch to indignant outrage if we turn our military attentions on North Korea). And since Kim is known to have been involved in at least one attempt on the life of a foreign leader himself, he doesn't have much grounds for complaint if we decide to punch his ticket.

There are a number of obvious objections to my suggestion. The following list is not exhaustive; these are just the main objections that come to mind, with my ripostes to them.

It would be immoral..  You can come at this from several different points on a spectrum. At one extreme, there are people who believe that all willful killing of other human beings is immoral. The range of thoughtful opinion then shades through those who think that killing is moral only in a just war, then via death-penalty non-believers and believers, to people (like, obviously, me) willing to sanction certain kinds of pre-emptive killing by agents of the state, outside the sphere of actual warfare or formal justice. Each of us has to figure out where he stands on that spectrum, according to his innermost convictions, and proceed accordingly. I am not going to set out a comprehensive philosophy of killing here. I am only going to say that, as I see it, a national leader who has brutalized his own people to the astonishing degree that Kim has, and who has also committed acts of gross violence against foreigners on foreign soil, as Kim undoubtedly has, is a person who, as they used to say in the Old West, "needs hanging."

It would be illegal.  Since we are talking about agents of one state killing the leader of another, the law in question here is international law. Now, international law is a very admirable and necessary thing. Without it, international commerce would hardly be possible — a point of major interest to a commercial republic like ours. The problem with international law, of course, is that it is strong on the civil side, but weak on the criminal. In this respect, international law resembles Anglo-Saxon law in its early days.

As it happens, I have just been reading Richard Fletcher's excellent book Bloodfeud, which deals with events in late Anglo-Saxon England. One thing the historian points up, which I was not fully aware of before, was the prosperity of England in the 10th and 11th centuries. She was, says Fletcher, "an extremely wealthy country," thanks to a flourishing urban economy. The rulers of the time were of course anxious to maintain that state of affairs — for them, the vibrant economy was a milch cow. They did their best to see that laws of property, contract and exchange were firmly enforced. In laws relating to non-commercial matters, things were much more rough and ready, with such practices as feuding, duelling and assassination all current, and, even when not actually sanctioned by law, mostly beyond the reach of adjudication or punishment.

In Anglo-Saxon England (and in fact still today, in theory, in nations with systems of law derived from the English) the principle of outlawry was in place. That is to say, a person whose crimes, or even civil offenses, were sufficiently egregious could be declared beyond the protection or aid of the law. The Anglo-Saxons called such a person a wearg, "wolf," or weargesheafod, "wolf's head," with the implication that he could, like a wolf, be slain on sight, without ceremony. (By strangulation for preference, in the manner of old Germanic sacrifices to the gods. This was the origin of the custom of hanging capital offenders.) "Without ceremony" means, of course, without any of the elaborate processes of judicial inquiry and deliberation we moderns have come to cherish. Out on the frontier of Anglo-Saxon society — and of 19th-century American society, too — those processes were just not always practicable.

So it is today in the international sphere. I will be the first to raise a cheer for international law; but then I will ask what international law did to apprehend Muammar Gaddafi, who caused the destruction of Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland in 1988, or Yasser Arafat, author of numberless terrorist outrages ("the teflon terrorist," my colleague Jay Nordlinger calls him), or the Iranian and Syrian government officials who sponsor suicide-bomber attacks on Israel and US troops, or the organizers — chief among them Kim Jong Il — of the 1983 Rangoon bombing and the destruction of KAL flight 858. In these crimes there was no trial, no investigation, no deliberation, no justice. Nor, indeed, should we hope for any such processes, at the present stage of development of international relations. As the career of the farcical "International Criminal Court" demonstrates, such processes would be easily manipulated by third-world thugs and their swooning admirers in the self-loathing Western intelligentsia to persecute the likes of Henry Kissinger and General Pinochet, while letting Kim, Gaddafi, Assad and the rest of the grisly crew go scot-free. We are on the frontier here. Kim Jong Il is not a "suspect," he is a weargesheafod, a wolf's head, an outlaw.

It would be imprudent.  Setting aside all considerations of morality or legality, killing Kim is a dumb idea because it would rebound on us. After all, if we can kill their leaders, then they can kill ours. We then find ourselves at the wrong end of a serious asymmetry, since operations of this kind are much easier to carry out in a free country like the USA than in a tightly-controlled despotism like North Korea.

That is undoubtedly true, but the asymmetry does not all work against us. In at least two respects, it works with us.

(1) Though the assassination of a US president is a terrible and deplorable thing, it is politically almost inconsequential. Of course, the politics, or the style, of a Teddy Roosevelt or a Lyndon Johnson may differ in some respects from those of a Bill McKinley or a JFK. There is, though, no national upheaval, no shattering outbreak of disorder, no rewriting of the Constitution. A consensual democracy like ours is extremely robust, and is not brought down, nor even temporarily derailed, by the loss of a leader. Other than for sheer spitefulness or revenge, there is really no point to assassinating an American president. It doesn't accomplish anything. (These remarks need some modifying for shakier democracies. Asked about prospects for the continuation of Gaullism after the death of Charles de Gaulle, François Mitterand is supposed to have said: "Gaullism without de Gaulle would be like jugged hare and redcurrant jelly without the jugged hare." You can depend on the French for a gastronomic metaphor … if for nothing else.)

A dictatorship of the North Korean type, by contrast, is made in the image of the Leader. All its structures, doctrines, practices and laws depend to some degree on his personality. The Nazis actually had a name for this fact: the Führerprinzip. The downside of the Führerprinzip is that the system falls when the leader does. Hitlerism perished with Hitler. "Mao Tse-tung Thought," at least in its virulent form, did not long survive the death of Mao, nor Stalinism that of Stalin. "KimIlSungism" was carried forward intact after the death of Kim Il Sung by the principle of hereditary succession, but we could reasonably hope that it would not survive the death of Kim Jong Il.

(2) The inner circles of a dictatorship are fraught with bitter rivalries. Lin Biao, Mao Tse-tung's own Minister of Defense, attempted to kill the old despot in 1971 (that is the official Chinese Communist Party line, anyway — there are some reasons to doubt it). Hitler escaped an inner-circle assassination by a fluke, and suspicions linger that Beria may have had a hand in the death of Stalin, and Stalin in the death of Lenin. In seeking to take out a Kim Jong Il, there is always the possibility we could enlist the aid of someone in his entourage. This can't be made to work in a democracy. No doubt George W. Bush and, say, Donald Rumsfeld have differences of opinion, but I don't think there is much prospect that you could persuade Rummy to knock off his boss.

Well, I leave my suggestion there for the powers that be to cogitate upon. Immoral? Look at Kim Jong Il's appalling crimes and decide for yourself. Illegal? Only if you take international law much more seriously than, at the present stage of human development, it has any right to be taken. Imprudent? Much less so for us than for them. I say let's whack the bastard.

* The Sunni-Shi'a-other breakdown in Pakistan is 77-20-3. In Iran it is 10-89-1.

** Korean names can be really, really embarrassing. It is possible for a Korean to be named "Noh Rae Mi" or "Whang Mi Dong" or "Oh Jae Kil." When I first heard of Lee Bum Suk, I asked a Korean colleague to pronounce it for me, thinking that perhaps it didn't sound as bad as it looked. Nope, the spelling is perfectly phonetic. "Lee Bum Suk" is pronounced "Lee Bum Suk." To make things worse, as if they could be worse, "Bum Suk" translates as "huge and hard."  I apologize to Koreans — a charming, hospitable and enterprising people, in my considerable experience — for pointing these things out. I hope "Derbyshire" sounds like something really hilarious or disgusting in Korean.

*** She converted to Christianity, renounced Kimilsungism, "wrote" (I.e. had "ghosted" for her) a best-selling book, and is now a millionairess living in a fancy apartment in Seoul. Funny place, Korea.