It’s late at night when the phone rings at the White House:
Kim Jong Il, the ruthless oddball dictator of nuclear-armed North Korea, is dead. His apparent successor is his 20-something son, about whom practically nothing is known. South Korean officials have rushed to put the nation’s military forces on high alert.
Do we want Mitt Romney answering that phone call?
We learned Sunday night what happens when Barack Obama is on the receiving end of unsettling news from one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints. There’s a round of consultation with allies, a carefully worded official statement, an assessment of the status of diplomatic efforts to defuse North Korea’s nuclear program — in other words, a cautious and measured response.
Implicit in Obama’s actions is the recognition that nothing a U.S. president says or does at this moment is likely to influence North Korean events in a positive way. Intemperate words or deeds, however, could be destabilizing at a moment of sudden transition. This is no moment to apply sharp pressure to a hermetically sealed, supremely paranoid regime that considers itself perpetually besieged and happens to possess nuclear weapons.
The White House was particularly concerned about how Kim’s son — Kim Jong Eun, the “Great Successor” who may have already assumed power — would react to anything seen as a provocation. The young, inexperienced leader might believe he had to make a show of belligerence to prove himself. Aggressive action could prompt a sharp South Korean reaction, and suddenly a situation could become a crisis.
All this is lost on Romney, who came out guns blazing with what sounded like a call for regime change.
“Kim Jong Il was a ruthless tyrant who lived a life of luxury while the North Korean people starved,” Romney said in a statement. “He recklessly pursued nuclear weapons, sold nuclear and missile technology to other rogue regimes, and committed acts of military aggression against our ally South Korea. He will not be missed.”
The statement continued, “His death represents an opportunity for America to work with our friends to turn North Korea off the treacherous course it is on and ensure security in the region. America must show leadership at this time. The North Korean people are suffering through a long and brutal national nightmare. I hope the death of Kim Jong Il hastens its end.”
Well, that’s what we all hope. But dancing on the dictator’s grave is hardly presidential. How can anyone be certain what approach is most likely to lead to reform in North Korea until we know more about the Great Successor? Or until we can ascertain who now controls the nuclear weapons?
Romney is eager to show that he would somehow be tougher than Obama in foreign policy — a high bar, given Obama’s record of killing Osama bin Laden and helping orchestrate the demise of Moammar Gaddafi. It’s possible that Romney understands what his responsibility would be if he faced a similar circumstance as president. But if you take his words seriously, the former Massachusetts governor sounds like a dangerous hothead.
That’s nothing compared to Gingrich, whose past statements about North Korea have been shot from the hip.
In 2009, Gingrich said the United States should have used force to prevent North Korea from testing a new long-range missile. “There are three or four techniques that could have been used, from unconventional forces to standoff capabilities, to say, ‘We’re not going to tolerate a North Korean missile launch, period,’” he said.
No, there are not any “standoff capabilities” that could have been used, at least not without starting a nuclear war. Gingrich has expressed his enthusiasm for a laser-beam weapon that the Pentagon tried to develop, but that program was radically scaled back. We could have just destroyed the missile on its launch pad, perhaps with a cruise missile strike, but the North Koreans might well have responded by destroying Seoul.
One of Gingrich’s worries is that North Korean scientists will be the first in the world to work out how a nuclear device can be used to create a massive electromagnetic pulse — and fry electronic circuits from Malibu to Maine. Would somebody please cancel the man’s subscription to Popular Science?
During the 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton famously asked whether Obama was ready for the 3 a.m. phone call about a foreign crisis. Kim’s death reminds us that it’s always 3 a.m. somewhere in the world.
With Hosni Mubarak stepping down in Egypt, tyrants around the world may be anxiously wondering who will be the next to fall. Here are some gentle suggestions:
Kim Jong Il, North Korea
Sometimes called the Hermit Kingdom, North Korea has been ruled since 1994 by the ruthless and retrograde Kim Jong Il, who took over after his father’s 46 years at the helm. Kim Jong Il holds numerous titles, but rules as the chairman of the National Defense Commission, the “highest office of state,” since the presidency itself was permanently dedicated to Kim Il Sung in a 1998 constitutional revision. The Kim family’s combined 63 years of leadership has not been kind to the people of North Korea, creating the world’s most fearsome state, where surveillance and famine are equally prevalent. To prevent its citizens from receiving news from abroad, the North Korean authorities forbid Internet use, jam foreign radio broadcasts, and monitor international calls. Meanwhile, the beleaguered population is deluged with Cold War-like propaganda through the Korean Central News Agency. A grim system of labor camps and detention facilities is used to forcefully control any dissent. Given the closed and secretive nature of the regime and the society it lords over, it is impossible to know precisely how many North Koreans are in the modern-day gulags. Some estimates suggest as many as 150,000 people are currently being held in detention.
Now ailing, Kim Jong Il is reported to have plans to install his son, Kim Jong Un, as the country’s leader, likely prolonging the misery of the long-suffering North Korean people.
Muammar al-Qaddafi, Libya
Forty-one years ago, a young army captain named Muammar al-Qaddafi led a military coup against King Idris of Libya. Now 68 years old, Qaddafi has been in office since the first term of U.S. President Richard Nixon, who called him the “mad dog” of the Middle East. In Libya’s long history of ruthless, ossified dictators, Qaddafi is in a league of his own.
Better known abroad for his long-winded antics than his governing style, at home Qaddafi is less amusing than fearsome. Although power theoretically lies with a system of people’s committees and the indirectly elected General People’s Congress, in practice those structures are manipulated to ensure the continued dominance of Qaddafi, who holds no official title. It is illegal for any political group to oppose the principles of Qaddafi’s 1969 revolution, which are laid out in the Green Book, a multivolume treatise published by Qaddafi in the early years of his rule. (A flip through its pages will yield a bizarre mix of Arab nationalism, socialism, and Islam.)
After decades of Qaddafi’s bizarre and repressive rule, key institutions — to the extent that they operate at all — are largely incapable of meeting ordinary people’s needs. An estimated 500 people are currently being held for political crimes. Rife with corruption and without even the rudiments of a functioning modern state, Libya today is ill-equipped to succeed in the contemporary world.
Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe
There was once a time when Robert Mugabe was the darling of the West among fellow African leaders. Having defeated the white-majority rule of Rhodesia to create his black-majority state, Mugabe looked at first like another Mandela. But even in those early days, he distinguished himself for his use of violence as a means to govern. His early targets in the 1980s were tribes that had favored other resistance leaders; his forces slaughtered as many as 30,000 members of the Ndebele minority.
In recent years, Mugabe has grown even more ruthless. His target of choice these days is the principal opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). His thugs have harassed and even attempted to assassinate high-level opposition figures, as well as regular voters (or presumed opposition voters). Others have felt his wrath too; a 2005 campaign labeled “Operation Drive Out the Trash” bulldozed the homes of 700,000 slum-dwellers. Equally devastating, Mugabe has overseen the complete destruction and impoverishment of what had been one of Africa’s economic success stories. GDP growth was negative off and on between 2001 and 2008, and by the end of that period, inflation had hit a rate of tens of thousands of percent.
The past several months have brought another uptick in political killings — perhaps because Mugabe has much to worry over: The MDC was the leading party in the most recent elections, and public discontent is growing toward Mugabe’s murderous rule. If Zimbabweans take a hint from Egypt, the Mugabe dictatorship’s days may be numbered.
The Castros, Cuba
In 1959, the revolutionary Fidel Castro overthrew Cuba’s former strongman, Fulgencio Batista, beginning a 50-year transformation of Cuba into a dismal communist state. Although medical issues prompted Fidel to formally hand over the presidency to his brother, Raúl, in 2008, Cuba remains a one-party state in which nearly all political rights and civil liberties are severely curtailed.
Start with political organizing, which is strictly banned outside the auspices of the state’s Communist Party. Dissent can result in harassment and long prison terms. Freedom of movement, including the right to leave the island and the right to choose one’s residence, are severely restricted. The government maintains strict control over all media outlets, these days also tightly controlling Internet access and content. Academic freedom is nonexistent, and any unauthorized gathering of more than three people may result in fines or imprisonment.
Today, years of economic stagnation have weakened the state services that once provided the regime its sole legitimacy. Under Raúl Castro, very limited reforms have taken place, including modest economic openings and the release of several dozen political prisoners in 2010. Nonetheless, the future of Cuba remains in the hands of an aging set of leaders for whom a true political opening remains anathema.
By: Freedom House, Original Post: February 11, 2011