The bouffed monster who presided over the one-man psycho-state of North Korea is dead, and good riddance. We in the west think of "concentration camp" as an archaism, but Kim Jong-Il's regime actually built them - somewhat superfluously, as the entire country is a prison. Some years ago, at the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld showed me a now famous satellite photo of the Korean peninsula at night - the South ablaze in electric light, the North in all but total darkness. At the presidential palace, the light was on - but, with Kim, it was never entirely clear whether anybody was home. Viewed from space, amid the bustling emergent Asian tigers of capitalism, North Korea was the black hole in the donut.
The son made it nuclear. His father built the prison camp. As I wrote in America Alone:
North Korea is the weakest power of all. But on the Fourth of July 2006 its dictator gamely got in the spirit and held a fireworks display. Impressive stuff: the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air – though, as sometimes happens with your highest-price firecracker, it was over sooner than expected. Kim Jong-Il has No Dong. Please, no giggling. It's not a side effect of that counterfeit Viagra that North Korea manufactures (seriously). No Dong is the name of his missile system. "Dong" is Korean for "dong", and "No" is Korean for "big swinging", and that's how Kim Jong-Il sees himself on the freelance nuke scene. Anyway, on the Glorious Fourth, he decided to test the latest version of his No Dong. That's a "test" in the sense that I test my new shotgun by firing it through your kitchen window and seeing if it penetrates to the living room. Kim's Dong went up and came straight down again 40 seconds later. From the trajectory, experts calculated that it was headed to Hawaii. Instead, it fell in the Sea of Japan.
And everyone had a big laugh. What a loser, what a bozo. Mister Nukes R Us talks the talk but he can't nuke the nuke. Ha-ha, what a joke.
But no, that's the point. That's why he's dangerous. He's not the United States, not the Soviet Union, not India, he's not even France. He's an incompetent but he's got nuclear weapons. In 2006, he aimed for Hawaii and hit the Sea of Japan. Next time, he might aim for Hawaii and hit San Diego. Or Oakland. Or Calgary, or Presque-Isle, Maine. Or Beijing, Addis Ababa, Salzburg or Dublin. He's a self-taught nuclear madman and he hasn't quite got the hang of it. If you're on the New Jersey Turnpike and there's a confused 93-year old granny behind the wheel of a Toyota Corolla, that's mostly a problem for her. If she's in an 18-wheeler and coming across the median, that's a problem for you. North Korea has millions of starving people; it has one of the lowest GDPs per capita on the planet, lower than Ghana, lower than Zimbabwe, lower than Mongolia.
But it's a nuclear power.
Kim figured North Korea could grow rich by making export products designed to appeal to the niche market of Islamic terrorists and rogue states. How lucrative this speciality mail-order catalogue is remains to be seen, but he was enormously helpful to Iran, to Syria, and to who knows who else. In turn, China was indulgent of him: in 2003, for example, it shipped 20 tons of tributyl phosphate to Pyongyang for extracting plutonium from their stockpile of spent reactor fuel. Between, say, the ambitious madmen of Khartoum or would-be nuclear bandits in Somalia and a house-trained member of the UN Security Council, Kim was happy to be the middle man.
As I say, North Korea has an all but undetectable GDP, but is a nuclear power. Whereas South Korea has one of the highest GDPs per capita on the planet, yet is all but defenseless without American military protection. As I write in my latest book After America,the geopolitical contradictions on the Korean Peninsula could stand for those between the broader west and the "developing", nuclearizing world of Pakistan and Iran, and beyond that whichever other basket cases the mullahs offer to share their technology with. Kim Jong-Il did not live to see it, but these contradictions will resolve themselves in entirely predictable ways.