North Korean ‘regime change’? Give dreamers a chance

Special to

By Donald Kirk

In the excitement over impending summits, we may have forgotten one other solution everyone was talking about, oh, just a month or two ago.

Whatever happened to all the enthusiasm for forcing Kim Jong-Un out of his job by internal upheaval, external attack, or maybe just a plain old heart attack? Just because he’s seeing President Moon Jae-In later next month and then maybe President Donald Trump in May, should we forget about “regime change”?

The incoming secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, was known to call for “regime change” in Pyongyang when he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives before Trump made him CIA director.

Cover art for ‘Nuclear Blues’, by Bradley Martin.

Now what’s he telling the North Koreans as the U.S. top diplomat, whose job is to smooth relations with foes as well as friends? And how will the North Koreans view this emissary in talks that may or may not calm things down on the Korean Peninsula?

For quite a while “regime change” was on the tips of the wagging tongues of conservative experts, talking heads on TV, even a few ranking people at the State Department and National Security Council and Pentagon. Then, as the regime marched on, firing missiles and testing nukes, it got unfashionable to predict Kim’s demise. Those who speculated about the impending collapse of him and his regime were mocked as “collapsists,” a word that came into vogue to show how stupid everyone was to think his time was coming.

As we watch a new era in which Kim is inviting Moon and then Trump to chat, talk of regime change or collapse has faded while everyone speculates about new milestones in the improbable course of modern Korean history.

Nonetheless, one noted journalist has come up with a fictionalized account of Kim’s downfall.

Bradley Martin, who covered the region for newspapers and magazines and then wrote “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty,” spins the unlikely yarn of a guy who gets killed running across the North-South line at Panmunjom with the info needed to reveal Kim’s plot to fabricate nukes and make a financial killing besides.

Reading this thriller mystery, “Nuclear Blues,” we need to remember that much of what we know about North Korea is stranger than fiction.

Mysterious ways of shipping funds overseas and making a fortune for the ruler? Sure. Enormous caves and tunnels in which weird stuff goes on away from the prying eyes of spy satellites? Absolutely. Palatial residences where the top guy and his friends watch American movies? Why not? Love between a foreign hack journo and a gorgeous lady who’s so close to the center of power no one would think she hates the blood relative on the throne? Anyone who saw “The Interview,” the film about two crazy Americans who got mixed up with Kim Jong-Un, the CIA and a temptress in the inner circle, might appreciate a convoluted tale in which Kim gets his in the end.

As a journalist, Martin is accustomed to writing facts and analysis, not making up dialogue and color. Here he tries mightily to get away from journalistic style with pithy quotes and asides. “Under the Loving Care” runs to more than 900 pages, this one a mere 320 or so. Some of the people whose praise appears on the cover should have told him, if you bring it down another hundred, we won’t have to keep flipping back pages to figure out what’s going on.

There’s a special art to thrillers and mysteries. Those who write them aren’t hailed as literary heavyweights, but they have ways of creating tension from the most prosaic of scenes, the simplest of sentences. Reporting and writing for the mass media is different.

Martin brings his journalistic lore into play in a fanciful rendition of how Kim might just meet its fate. He’s got the material, the first-hand impressions and understanding. That background makes this book worth reading, absorbing hardcore truths lurking within about the nature of North Korea’s long-ruling dynasty.

Pompeo, as he works to set up a meeting between Trump and Kim, in which he should definitely play a role, might refer to Bradley’s book for a fictional picture of the “regime change” he once talked about and still might fantasize.

Donald Kirk has visited North Korea, the Chinese side of the North Korean border and Panmunjom many times.