Pyongyang Perseveres

Why Washington Should Learn to Work With North Korea

A North Korean man walks in front of a huge billboard with the North Korean national flag.
A North Korean man walks in front of a huge billboard with the North Korean national flag ahead of a celebration event to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Stadium in Pyongyang July 28, 2013. (Jason Lee / Courtesy Reuters)

The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia BY ANDREI LANKOV. Oxford University Press, 2013, 304 pp. $27.95.

Around 10:30 PM on April 3, Lee Hyeok-cheol, a fisherman who had defected from North Korea six years earlier, stole a boat docked on South Korean–controlled Yeonpyeong Island and sped back to the country he had abandoned. South Korean surveillance did not pick up his vessel for 15 minutes, and by the time they could organize a pursuit, Lee had already crossed into North Korean waters. The boat’s owner managed to get a call through to Lee, imploring him to come back to the South, but Lee would have none of it: “You son of a bitch!” he replied. “You should have been nicer to me when I was there!”

Lee made his daring nighttime voyage during a period of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In late March, North Korea had been launching an almost daily barrage of threats against the United States and had cut off the military hotline to South Korea. In a demonstration of support for Seoul, Washington sent a pair of nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers to do a mock bombing run off the west coast of South Korea. And South Korean officials responded by promising to bomb downtown Pyongyang, including statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, if North Korea attacked. The new Korean heads of state -- Kim Jong Un in the North and Park Geun-hye in the South -- were off to a particularly bad start.

On that night of April 3, North Korean border patrol agents, caught off-guard by Lee’s sudden homecoming, could have easily mistaken the fisherman’s return for a South Korean covert operation and shot at him. Had they done so, South Korean naval commanders -- who were under orders, in the words of Park, to “respond powerfully [to a provocation] in the early stage without having any political considerations” -- could have mistaken the fire as an act of aggression and launched an attack on the North Korean coast. And so Korea’s 60-year-old semi-cold war could have quickly become a hot one again -- and a nuclear one at that.

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