The website for North Korea's Korean Central News Agency isn't usually a repository of hope. The best one can usually expect from reading it is a guilty chuckle.
The rote totalitarian rigidity apparent in stories like "Every Korean Urged to Swim with Trend of Times in National Interests," "Kim Jong Il's Exploits For Party Building Praised" and "Colored Granite Made" would be hilarious if they were parody.
Unfortunately, these are actual news items – earnest propaganda from a delusional, paranoid dictatorship obsessed with getting respect from the outside world. It's bad enough these news stories exist at all. It's downright terrifying to think North Korean leaders clearly don't realize how completely insane their own propaganda makes them sound.
With that in mind, imagine my amazement at KCNA's sane-n-subdued report on the recent visit of U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth to North Korea's capital, Pyongyang:
"Through working and frank discussion the two sides deepened the mutual understanding, narrowed their differences and found not a few common points. They also reached a series of common understandings of the need to resume the six-party talks. ... Both sides agreed to continue to cooperate with each other in the future to narrow down the remaining differences."
Wha-wha-what? "Mutual understanding"? "Common points"? "Narrow down the remaining differences"?
What the heck is going on? I mean, KCNA seldom makes reference to the U.S. or its allies without including phrases like "imperialist aggressors" and "bellicose puppets." Did someone hack the KCNA server?
It turns out North Korea's leaders are in a sincerely good mood for a change. Bosworth reportedly made it clear to his North Korean counterparts that the U.S. is more willing to normalize relations with the Hermit Kingdom than at any time since the Korean War ended in 1953.
We're not only offering to loosen the economic and political noose around North Korea, but according to Voice of America, "normalization" could include opening a permanent U.S. liaison office in North Korea – the first step toward opening an actual embassy. For a country as obsessed as North Korea is with being perceived as legitimate, it's a huge offer.
In exchange, North Korea has to be less crazy. It must stop building nukes. It must stop exploding them to get the world's attention. And it has to stop shipping ballistic missiles to Iran and Burma.
Notable for its absence from any recent official discussions about North Korea: human rights. President Bush removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, but no one outside North Korea disputes that it terrorizes its own people on a scale Americans cannot fathom.
North Korea's dictatorship runs a chain of Stalinist gulags – remote prison camps warehousing tens of thousands of people accused of crimes like buying or selling food, trying to escape to China, or insufficient enthusiasm for the regime. A survey of former prisoners who eventually escaped North Korea showed that 60 percent witnessed deaths due to beating or torture, and 90 percent had witnessed forced starvation. A famine in the 1990s in North Korea is believed to have killed between 650,000 and 1 million North Koreans. The cause: the regime's insane economic and agricultural policies.
It's not that the U.S. doesn't care. It's just that we're more worried about nukes and missiles right now than we are about ordinary North Koreans. Easing relations with North Korea would be a huge plus for the U.S. It would free up military resources tied down in the Pacific. Meanwhile, stopping the flow of arms out of North Korea would buy the U.S. time to deal with Iran before it's fully nuclear.
In fact, just a couple days after Bosworth departed Pyongyang, an airplane carrying 35 tons of North Korean weapons was intercepted while refueling in Thailand. Thai investigators say the bulk of the cargo was ballistic missile parts headed for Iran – a violation of U.N. sanctions disallowing the export of North Korean arms.
A less antagonistic relationship with North Korea, even at the expense of serious human rights concerns, could pay dividends as far away as Tehran and Tel Aviv.
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