Politics & Policy

Democracy & Human Rights

58 years of tyranny.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final installment of a week-long series of excerpts from Rogue State: How a Nuclear North Korea Threatens America by William C. Triplett, which as released Monday. The first installment of this series can be read here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.

The Kim family has ruled over North Korea for fifty-eight years. These have been years of unremitting state terror directed at the population, famine, and an exploding political camp system. The people of North Korea are worse off than they were even under Japanese colonialism. In the same fifty-eight years, South Korea has moved from authoritarian rule to full, and often raucous, democracy. The people of South Korea live far better than Koreans have ever lived in their homeland before.

Communist China has been the guarantor of the North and the United States has been the guarantor of the South. It’s worthwhile looking at the stewardship of each. The Americans recognized that South Korea was under unremitting internal and external aggression generated by North Korea, but felt that the key to success for the South was democratization and respect for human rights. Throughout the 1960s-1980s, the leader of the Republic of Korea was always an army general. But most officials, including at the cabinet level, were civilians.

Beginning in 1987, the U.S. began a major push on the South Korean leadership to achieve democracy and human rights. President Ronald Reagan felt the time was right to move. He appointed Gaston Sigur the top State Department official on Asia and James Lilley as the U.S. ambassador to South Korea. Sigur began with a public speech in New York calling for constitutional reform aimed at regaining civilian control over the South Korean military. In June, President Reagan sent a personal letter to then-South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan pointedly supporting “democratic institutions” in South Korea. To reinforce the point, Ambassador Lilley personally delivered the letter after meeting with U.S. military commanders in South Korea. He was able to tell South Korean officials that the entire United States government was united behind the idea of democratic reform in Seoul. The message was received and understood. Free and fair elections were held within a year.

Not surprisingly, communist China has not attempted to promote democracy or human rights or even halt the North Korean programs in weapons of mass destruction or nuclear proliferation. Rather, it has been an enabler of Kim’s regime. Beijing has not even shown the most basic humanitarianism toward the North Korean people. Every day, PLA guards turn back dozens of North Korean refugees to their tormentors. With the early help of Joseph Stalin, Beijing created North Korean regime, supported its aggressions, rescued it from the United Nations, nurtured it for decades with subsidized food so it could spend its money on weapons, and today keeps it from collapse. The tyranny in Pyongyang has so far suited Beijing’s purpose, and its continued existence depends on China’s support.

William C. Triplett, a national-security expert, is the author of Rogue State: How a Nuclear North Korea Threatens America.

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