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The Atlantic Monthly’s North Korean Fantasy
Thursday 21 September 2006, by Thomas Riggins

The mainstream American media seems incapable of publishing anything rational concerning North Korea or its leader Kim Jong Il The latest example of a truly ridiculous and sloppily written article appears in the October issue of the Atlantic Monthly written by right-wing ideologue Robert D. Kaplan (author of “Imperial Grunts.”) The cover of the magazine has Kim on it and the tag “The Menace of North Korea, Its Collapse Could Be Worse Than Iraq’s, Why America’s Nightmare Is China’s Opportunity.” Inside we come to the article proper. Its title is “When North Korea Falls.” Here are some of the highlights of this exceedingly lame article.

Kaplan early on informs us that Kim is not impulsive. The North Koreans even have the “equivalent of think tanks” where they figure how best to respond to an attack from the US or South Korea. Imagine that! How would such an attack come about? According to Kaplan the North Koreans would trick the US and South Korea into attacking it! So this is what Kim is up to. He wants to be attacked. Here is what Kaplan says about potential attacks upon the North, they “would be reactions to crises cleverly instigated by the North Korean government in Pyongyang.”

All is not going well in the North, we are told, despite Kim’s “canniness.” We are then treated to this general observation: “totalitarian regimes close to demise are apt to get panicky and do rash things.” Kaplan would be hard put to find any historical examples, The Soviet Union and all the East European Socialist countries , considered “totalitarian” by the ultra-right among others, seemed to go rather peacefully into the history books. Franco’s Spain also made a peaceful transition to bourgeois democracy. In recent history the only example I can think of a rash action was the US invasion of Iraq. Ill thought out, no plans made for the occupation, and planned by people basically ignorant of the country and its culture. What can be more rash than that. Perhaps a panicky Sadaam Hussein tricked the US into attacking him.

Kaplan gives as evidence that the North is up to no good the fact that in 2003 70 per cent of its combat forces were deployed along the DMZ— up from 40 percent in 1980. That this might be a natural reaction to the US invasion of Iraq and the labeling of the North as part of the axis of evil is not considered. Nor does Kaplan mention that the US has an official policy of preemptive attack with regards to the North. It should also be noted that the New York Times reported in 2003 that when John Bolton, then undersecretary of state for arms control, was asked what the US policy was towards the North he pulled out a book entitled “The End of North Korea” and said “That is our policy”(NYT 9-2-2003)

Kaplan then goes on to fantasize about what will happen when the North, with all its problems, falls apart. He envisions lawlessness, warlords arising, the Chinese taking over, “the Chinese have plans for the northern half of the Korean peninsula that do not include the ‘Dear Leader’,”

We are then treated to a theory about the North called “The Seven Stages of Collapse” which are 1) depleted resources leading to 2) infrastructure collapse, then 3) warlord like fiefs vs a failing central government, 4) attempts to put down the fiefs by the central government, 5) active resistance to the government, 6) the government breaks down, 7) a new national leadership is formed. Kaplan thinks that North reached stage 4 in the 90s but was saved by aid from the US [how thoughtful], China and South Korea and is now back to stage 3. It is absolutely ridiculous to think that North Korea is under the control of warlords. Kaplan describes this stage as follows, “ the rise of independent fiefs informally controlled by party apparatchicks or warlords, along with widespread corruption to circumvent a failing central government.” Kaplan doesn’t seem to notice that “independent fiefs” are incompatible with a totalitarian state.

Well, Kaplan’s fantasy does not stop at stage 3, it goes all the way to stage 7 and the Chinese takeover. It seems all the Korean refugees in China are now Chinese agents! Here is what will happen in stage 7: “China harbors thousands of North Korean defectors that it would send back after a collapse, in order to build a favorable political base for China’s gradual economic takeover of the Tumen River region— the northeast Asian river valley where China, Russia, and North Korea intersect, with good port facilities on the Pacific.” This act of Chinese imperialism may also be accompanied by its troops carving “out a buffer zone in the part of North Korea near Manchuria.” Russia will be upset, of course, because North Korea was its “client state”, but there is not too much it will be able to do— however it will be “truculent.”

While China is scheming for the long haul, the immediate responsibility, at the beginning of stage 7, will fall to (unofficially) PACOM, the US Pacific Command and US Forces Korea— they will have “operational responsibility” for “humanitarian assistance” but not “sole command.”

But what if Kim reads Kaplan’s article and decides to avoid the terrible fate awaiting his regime? There is an alternative Kaplan says. He might launch “a surprise attack on the South.” If that should happen and the US and South Korea counter attack in “robust” fashion millions of people could be killed and the North would risk being destroyed. Kim would be betting that all that bloodshed will somehow be avoided because the prospect of such a war “would lead the South Korean left, abetted by the United Nations and elements of the global media [not the Atlantic Monthly I hope], to cry out for diplomacy and a negotiated settlement to violence.”

Kaplan thinks one of the reasons the North recently tested its missiles is that it may want the US to target it and give it an excuse to attack back against Seoul. “The South Korean left— which has been made powerful by an intrusively large American troop presence and by decades of manipulation by the North”— backed by the UN and global media would demand peace talks and the North “would get a new lease on life.”

I think we have seen enough to conclude that Kaplan’s article is just a lot ot right-wing silly ranting. He goes on to say if Korea were ever united it “would have an instant, undisputed enemy: Japan.” There is even more future telling, or tea leaf reading, towards the end of the article. He concludes that a united Korea will end up a Chinese “satellite.” It seems that the only choice for Korea is to be created according to American or Chinese plans. He says, “the question of whether it’s to be the American or the Chinese vision of North Korea’s future that gets realized may hinge on political-military decisions made in the midst of an opaque and confusing crisis.” Kaplan doesn’t allow for the possibility that maybe the Koreans may have their own vision for the future. The editors of The Atlantic should be ashamed of themselves for publishing this pulp fiction as if it were a serious article by a serious scholar.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

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