It would appear that Kim Jong II is the political leader of North Korea, but behind the smoke and mirrors he’s no leader at all — he is a dictator who feasts off the abject poverty and desperation of his subjects. Today, he smiles upon them from his distant throne: “A great leap forward,” for our country, he claims.

Yesterday, the North Korean government boasted a successful testing of a nuclear bomb. Varying reports from Japan, China, South Korea and the U.S. Geological Survey put the strength of the seismic tremor measuring somewhere between 3.6 and 4.2 on the Richter scale. That could be enough, some experts say, to send 200,000 people up in a cloud of chemical smoke.

In the days to come, we will hear much to do about foreign policy. Pundits and politicians will make conflicting proposals about how the United States and its allies should respond to this well-calculated provocation. Some will point to America’s ultimate success in the Cold War and suggest a hard-line proposal that includes an escalating threat of military might and action. Others will suggest a softer touch. They will remind President Bush (and their own constituents) that America’s image abroad is in crisis. There’s just too much war out there, they will say, and we have enough going on in Iraq.

But with all the talk of North Korea, we won’t hear much about North Koreans.

The Unification Ministry of South Korea reports that nine percent of defectors from North Korea into its own borders since the year 2000 claim “political dissatisfaction” as their motive for escape; 8.7 percent say they fled to avoid “punishment for wrongdoing” by the Stalinist regime, and 20.2 percent say they jumped ship “to join family members in the South who had already defected.” The Ministry itself was astounded by the figure that follows.

According to their study, 55.5 percent of North Korean defectors say they made the harrowing trip away from their homeland to escape “destitution and starvation.”

Few people know first-hand the degree of poverty in the North, and those who do know better than to talk out loud about it. A friend of mine has been a missionary to the peninsula for over 40 years. Besides his spiritual work in the South, he leads a humanitarian-aid mission to the North. The on-again, off-again relationship his organization maintains with the North Korean government fluctuates according to levels of suspicion. If the government “supervisors” even remotely suspect that aid workers are engaging in religious “propaganda” or sowing seeds of political unrest, they are expelled. No thought is given to the starving population that awaits this international aid.

In other words, in North Korea, no thought is given to the North Koreans. Sound familiar?

As we listen to political commentary today, tomorrow, and beyond, let’s remember what we are talking about. Just as a cloud of chemical smoke is a real and present danger for us, so is North Korea’s present regime for the North Koreans. Any proposal that forgets this, as pragmatic as it may sound, is a proposal that stinks. A good time to remember this would be at our next meal, or as we snack at our desk, or as we enjoy the freedom of reading this column and the columns of all those who disagree with me, and who do so freely.

Our options are not easy. The United States has already asked the United Nations Security Council to take firm action against North Korea for yesterday’s provocation, and we know what a divided international membership considers firm — statements of regret, promises of sanctions, and the assurance of no further action. Going it alone, on the other hand, is no longer possible. The world is small and inter-dependent on many levels — lone rangers won’t survive long-term.

As we weigh our options, Kim Jong II will be replaying in his head, and on state-controlled television, the images of a fellow nuclear crusader, Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as he spoke last month on the floor of the United Nations. He may also review the clips of the brave speech of his Venezuelan cousin, Hugo Chavez, who reminded the world that the devil does not just roam in hell. But mostly, he will remember the warm welcome they received.

All that reminiscing will remind Kim Jong II why a divided international community is so advantageous for a dictator like himself. He can, for example, count on Russia and China to make simple things sound complicated, like why a dictator shouldn’t be allowed to have nuclear weapons.

Then he will look back down upon his people from his distant throne and remind them of their country’s “great leap forward.”

They won’t smile back.

Whatever we do about North Korea, must also be about North Koreans.

God bless, Father Jonathan

P.S. Many have been asking me to post some e-mail messages and my responses to them. I’ve got some ready and will post them here on Wednesday.

E-mail Father Jonathan

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