That's an assessment he shares with the U.S. President. "After a succession of statesmen—Jiang Zemin, Vladimir Putin, Kim Dae Jung, Sweden's Goran Persson, Madeleine Albright—have returned home to tell us how rational, well informed, witty, charming, and deeply popular Kim Jong Il is, President Bush's judgement that Kim is loathsome seems the only honest and truthful one," Becker writes. He measures Kim's odiousness not just in nuclear weapons but in corpses. Kim and his father, Kim Il Sung, are responsible for the deaths of millions of North Koreans, he estimates, including as many as 1 million political prisoners and 3 million in a 1990s famine driven by Kim's failed policies, which Becker calls "an unparalleled and monstrous crime."
When it comes to monstrous crimes, the author knows his subject. His 1996 book Hungry Ghosts is the definitive account of China's 1958-62 famine, which killed some 30 million. For that work, Becker traveled through the heart of China, talking with peasants who recalled Mao's disastrous social engineering project, the Great Leap Forward. His research exposed a calamity that had been largely hidden from the world.
Rogue Regime breaks less new ground. He retraces some familiar stories like the rise of North Korea and the Kim dynasty after World War II, the Korean War, and the South Korean economic miracle. But the book remains vivid, especially when Becker describes his encounters with people fleeing Kim's totalitarian rule. In northern China, Becker joined a Chinese shopkeeper to hunt for refugees, for whom the Chinese government was paying 60˘ bounties. They found one near a garbage dump. "As the shopkeeper fished around in his pocket for some plastic twine, a dirt-covered face scabrous with pellagra that looked about fifty years old shrunk back into the shadows of a hood made from grey sackcloth, like a medieval leper," he writes. The woman, who was in fact only 28, had crossed the border in a final effort to avoid starvation. As a prisoner, she would be sent back to North Korea, to face possible torture or even death in a labor camp. Becker bargained with the shopkeeper for her freedom, ultimately paying about $24—"the market price for a North Korean life."
That sort of personal connection to the North Korean people animates the book. Becker challenges anyone he considers to be aiding and abetting their suffering. Former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with the North is denounced as a prop for Kim Jong Il's shaky regime. China, which treats refugees as illegal immigrants and repatriates them to face a nightmarish fate, is criticized for ignoring basic Geneva Convention obligations. The United Nations gets the harshest criticism. Becker spends a chapter cataloging the failures of U.N. aid agencies during North Korea's famine. Their chief mistake, he writes, was their failure to speak out in protest against Kim: "This undermined the credibility of those that accused Kim Jong Il of allowing millions to die and made the United Nations a silent partner in the North Korean holocaust."
But as Becker acknowledges, it's difficult to prevent starvation in a country where the paramount leader is unmoved by the suffering of his subjects. The author makes the case that the world should act against Kim, not simply because of his nuclear program, but because of what he's done to his own people. The only way to achieve any meaningful change, Becker asserts, is to remove Kim from power. "With the right political will," he writes, "the world could quickly agree on remedies to disarm a criminal state." Perhaps, but after years of trying, the best diplomatic efforts of the U.S. and North Korea's neighbors have done nothing to demilitarize a dictator who could level Seoul with conventional weapons alone. It's not as if the world lacks reasons to defang Kim. It just lacks a way.