How the U.S. handles the baddest of bad actors: ISIL, Cuba and North Korea

Special to

DonKirk3By Donald Kirk,

WASHINGTON – The hype surrounding President Obama’s visit to Cuba quickly gave way to fear and loathing as the world absorbed the news of the slaughter perpetrated in Brussels, for which ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, immediately claimed “credit.”

No sooner were we treated to live coverage of Obama building ties with Cuba than images of bloodshed, terror and panic filled TV and computer screens. The news from both Havana and Brussels had to resonate in Korea for obvious reasons.

The success of opening ties between the U.S. and Cuba might seem superficially to set a precedent for the U.S. forming diplomatic relations with North Korea. Certainly advocates of negotiations on a “peace treaty” with North Korea see reconciliation between the U.S. and Cuba as one step on the way to achieving that goal.

Barack Obama and Raul Castro enjoy the moment.
Barack Obama and Raul Castro enjoy the moment.

The comparison is all the more tempting considering that Cuba has been one of North Korea’s greatest friends. North Korean leaders might squirm under constant pressure from China, but they could always count on Cuba for unqualified words of undying fraternal friendship.

Like so many comparisons between the standoff on the Korean peninsula and confrontations elsewhere, however, this one soon falls apart. Repression in Cuba, no doubt harsh, was never nearly so bad as in North Korea.

More than 120,000 Cubans made it in the Mariel boatlift in 1980 when, for a brief period, Fidel Castro said they were free to leave. Yes, like North Koreans fleeing to China in hopes of getting to South Korea, Cubans have taken terrific risks fleeing on flimsy boats to Florida. None, however, faced torture and execution if forced to turn back, and the U.S., unlike China, has never had a policy of hunting down and “repatriating” those who navigated their way to freedom.

Nor, for that matter, did Fidel, or his successor and brother Raul, talk about raining missiles tipped with nuclear weapons on the U.S. In fact, they’ve never tried to drive U.S. forces from Guantanamo Bay on the southeastern tip of the island. U.S. forces captured the base in the Spanish-American war in 1898 and have held it ever since, most notoriously for harboring hundreds of prisoners from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama wants to close the prison ― but not the base.

If conditions in North Korea seem infinitely worse than in Cuba, however, what about comparisons between the terrorism of ISIL and other Islamic organizations?

Yes, over the decades since the Korean War, the North Koreans have been guilty of acts of terrorism. The bloodiest examples include the raid on the Blue House in January 1968 in which 29 North Koreans, 26 South Koreans and 4 Americans were killed, the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 over the Andaman Sea in November 1987 in which 115 people died, and the sinking of the South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan in the Yellow Sea that killed 46 sailors six years ago this month.

Nonetheless, for all the episodes of sporadic shooting across the North-South Korean line, the kidnapping of scores of Japanese and others, the imprisonment of hundreds of South Korean fishermen, the random assassinations, we don’t live in fear of North Korean agents blowing up subways and airports in New York or Los Angeles or Seoul or Busan. We don’t have an image of pro-North suicidal fanatics wearing vests filled with explosives, killing themselves and hundreds of others.

We do, however, have to consider the long-range possibility of terrorism. The North Korean media regularly carry reports of Kim Jong-Un visiting bases, ordering missile and nuclear tests, praising scientists and technicians for their success in developing weapons of mass destruction, urging solders to be ready to “defend” their country against enemies near and far.

Could it be that one of these days Kim Jong-Un or someone else up there will seriously consider making good on this stuff? We’ve heard the rhetoric so often we’re inclined to shrug it off, but who knows what terrorism might sweep the region years or decades from now? Is Kim Jong-Un play-acting, for the sake of his image, when he stands beside what we’re told is a nuclear warhead and claims it’s now possible to fit it onto the tip of a long-range missile?

President George W. Bush in 2008 dropped North Korea from the U.S. list of state “sponsors of terrorism.” That decision was prompted by the misguided belief that North Korea might live up to agreements negotiated by Christopher Hill under which the North was to have given up its nuclear weapons program.

Cuba was removed last year from the list of “sponsors of terrorism.” Clearly Obama saw cultural and commercial interests as taking priority over considerations of human rights, democratic reform – or sponsorship of radical revolution elsewhere in Latin America.

When it comes to North Korea, the U.S. has nothing to gain from following the Cuban example. The real question is whether North Korea presents dangers far worse than that of the terrorists responsible for the bloodshed in Brussels and Paris.

Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s