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Christopher Hitchens on the Korean Peninsula crisis, and concerns with Judge Sotomayor

Thursday, May 28, 2009
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HH: I begin this Wednesday as I do when I am lucky with Christopher Hitchens, the columnist for Vanity Fair. Mr. Hitchens, welcome back.

CH: Kind of you to have me back.

HH: North Korea is rattling many sabers today, announcing that they abrogating the 1953 Armistice, and that they are going to, they’re going to go to war, in essence, if anyone bothers their ships coming in and out of port. What do you think about that?

CH: Well, an abrogation of an armistice is in effect a declaration of war. And in some ways, as the armistice were, the armistice itself implied, there’s never been a serious peace treaty. What they’re doing, as they’ve done so many times before, is trying to blackmail us into doing what they cannot do, which is to feed their people. There’s another round of famine due for the long-suffering people of North Korea who are already six inches shorter than the average South Korean. Just let that sink in for a moment, and picture it for the children, the stunted, malnourished, enslaved generation. They expect that we will, because of this blackmail, give us the food that will keep their regime going. I don’t see how much long we can allow this relationship to go on.

HH: And what’s the alternative?

CH: Well, the alternative is to call their bluff. The alternative is to say we don’t believe you. We don’t believe you’re willing to go to war with Russia, Japan, South Korea, the United States, all signatory powers to that armistice. By the way, if you’ve ever been to Panmunjom, which I have, the so-called De-Militarized Zone, I don’t know why they call it de-militarized. It’s the most heavily militarized strip of territory in the world. I’ve actually looked at it from both sides. I’m one of the very few people who have. The innumerable flags of countries including Greece and Turkey, perhaps the almost any place where that happens, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, all of which were part of the United Nations force that prevented Kim Il Sung from conquering the South. Are they really saying they’re willing to go fight all of us? Of course they’re not.

HH: What do you make of the nuclear test, though? Doesn’t that give them the biggest deterrent of them all?

CH: It will if we let it ride. That will be true a few years from now, that they will not just have the stuff, they’ll have the delivery system, and they’ll be able to say, by the way, while you weren’t looking, we handed it out to a few of our proxy friends, and you don’t know where it is now. But it might hit you anywhere in the world if you do something we don’t like. That’s what they will be able to say if we go on like this. But it’s the same with Saddam Hussein. If you wait until you’re at his pleasure, you’ll be at his pleasure.

HH: And so what would you, other than not giving him more blackmail money, food, fuel, other than urging the Chinese not to do the same, over which we have very little authority…

CH: Not enough authority at all.

HH: What do you think we could do?

CH: In the meanwhile, of course, they’re effectively compelling the Japanese to go nuclear. I mean, it can’t be very much longer now before the Japanese lose patience, and they can become a nuclear power overnight if they really, really want to. They have the stuff, they haven’t just put it together. And they’d have to amend their constitution. You’d think that would deter the Koreans, the North Koreans. They can’t want that to happen. The Chinese can’t want it to happen, but nothing in the negotiating line does work.

HH: So we should just simply call it all off, look over the fence, and say we dare you?

CH: Yes. I honestly think it’s come to that. At least I believe that has to be associated, that can’t be excluded any longer. I think it was Mr. Perry, I’m reaching for the name, Mr. Clinton’s Secretary of Defense for a while…

HH: Yes, William Perry.

CH: Yeah, who said that he had come to the conclusion that the dogma, that if you faced them down, or at the very extreme, took out their facilities while they still can be taken out, that it isn’t true that there’d be massive retaliation from this stunted, impoverished, insane slave state. Who would want to be the one taking that decision? I’m glad it’s not me. I bet you’re glad it’s not me, too.

HH: Well…

CH: But the thing is, the one thing one can say for sure, each time you put it off, the stakes get higher and nastier, as has just been demonstrated.

HH: Now…the estimated casualties in 1994, when the Clinton administration considered that, was about a million, Christopher Hitchens.

CH: Well, they’d have the city of Seoul as a hostage. It’s very, very near the De-Militarized Zone, the militarized zone, rather, and with non-conventional weapons, it’s estimated, with artillery and ordinary rockets, in theory, Seoul could be saturated, and that a huge number of people could be killed. And we can’t be indifferent to that. It’s the civilian capitol of what is now at last a democracy and an ally.

HH: And so, can you ever imagine the West preemptively striking North Korea? I cannot.

CH: I can’t, but I have to force myself to do it. But I can imagine the reverse. I can imagine a preemptive strike of North Korea against us.

HH: Oh, yes, in which case…

CH: Well, you know, the thing is, how long is Korea going to endure half-slave and half-free, and how long will the enslaved part, the slave power, be able to hold up in this manner? I mean, that’s the way it has to be phrased, not let’s have another go at sanctions. I mean, that’s quite clearly been proven of course a folly now.

HH: You can’t possibly hope, or maybe you do, that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are going to go hard-nosed with the North Koreans.

CH: Well, not if George Bush didn’t, no.

HH: That’s what I mean.

CH: I mean, George Bush even stopped mentioning the human rights question, which under pressure from the State Department.

HH: I’m going to talk with John Bolton later today, and he was a ferocious critic of his own…

CH: You should try and talk to Jay Jerkewitz, who was the luckless guy who got appointed to be the human rights rapporteur on North Korea, and then got told by Condoleezza Rice and George Bush to shut up.

HH: Right, they folded up on North Korea at the end of the Bush administration, and I can’t imagine, and I guess you can’t, either, that the Clinton/Obama administration will be any tougher stewards of this.

CH: No, I can’t, either, no. But it’s not really, if you like, it’s really not in our hands. I mean, the North Koreans continue to humiliate anybody who tries to negotiate with them as if they were rational actors. So they’re, they continue with what Richard Nixon used to call the madman theory of war. You just want to find out how crazy we are? Keep on pushing. This is a tiny, tiny little state. It’s not even a state. It’s not even a country. It’s a bit of North Korea that’s owned as a slave property by the crime family of Kim Jung Il. And to have the whole world doing their bidding? This cannot stand.

HH: Would you favor assassinating Kim Jung Il if it was possible to do so?

CH: In Washington, it’s illegal to have that conversation.

HH: No, it’s not illegal to have the conversation.

CH: Well, it isn’t if you’re a civilian.

HH: That’s right. So what…

CH: But I mean, I point out, I think it’s a presidential executive order since Gerald Ford that a member of the administration can’t be in the room if that’s brought up.

HH: Yeah, but you’re not. What do you think?

CH: I don’t, I have a feeling that it’s not him, that the system itself in North Korea is crazy.

HH: Okay, I’ll give you the top ten.

CH: It’s based on a negation, that there’s no such place as North Korea. There is just a crime family and a military dictatorship.

HH: But Christopher Hitchens, you’re sidestepping this. Ought we to take out the top of the crime family? Get the don? Go for the dad?

CH: Would I be sorry if that would happen?

HH: No, not would you be sorry, would you want us to do it. Do you urge that policy?

CH: No, I don’t think the United States should use assassination as…I mean, I have other reasons for saying this, which whatever the subject may be.

HH: Okay, now…

CH: I think it shouldn’t be part of our arsenal, because it expresses contempt for people to say we’ll change your regime by a bullet rather than we want to bring you, or we’d rather for you to have democracy and self-determination.

HH: Is it more moral to…

CH: It’s an old CIA nostrum that’s never been anything other than a failure and a disgrace.

HH: But is it more moral, if the possibility or if the potential existed to actually accomplish regime change via assassination, is it more moral to wait for war of general sort in order to forego the black stain of assassination?

CH: Well, okay, you’re really trying to force me. I mean, if there was to be an assassination, that would be regarded by the North Korean regime as an act of war in itself. It simply replaces the question.

HH: You know, that train blew up rather mysteriously a few years ago when Kim Jung Il was coming back from China.

CH: That’s true. That’s absolutely true.

HH: You think the Chinese have had enough with their…

CH: No, because I think if the Chinese wanted him gone, he’d be gone.

HH: All right, let me switch before we run out of time to Judge Sotomayor. What do you make of this nomination?

CH: Well, I think it’s mediocre. I think that’s the worst thing I would say. I mean, she’s not stellar in any particular department. Being a hero to her clerks and so on is nice, of course. I’m glad to hear it. But it doesn’t really recommend her, particularly. She has done nothing enormously good, and when she had to face a tough call, this New Haven affirmative action case, she ducked it, and ducked it in what I thought was a rather shady way. I also think that if we’re going to have endless discussions about what a wonderful triumph this is for identity, and for people who think with their identities, which I think is a bad thing, and by the way, is she Puerto Rican? Is she Latina? Is she Hispanic? We’re going to have to work this out, too. Puerto Rican, I’d have thought, would be quite a title of honor enough. Is it not allowable to mention this makes six out of nine Roman Catholics on the Court? That’s a lot.

HH: Why?

CH: It just is.

HH: Well, why?

CH: Well, the ten to fifteen percent of us who have no God don’t have anyone speak for us on the Court if it’s going to be allocated.

HH: Well, that’s the ultimate identity politics.

CH: No, no, it’s not. It’s absolutely not. It’s not an identity. It’s a matter of principle.

HH: Well, you just said those ten or fifteen percent of us…

CH: Six out of nine Catholics, six out of nine being Catholic seems to me extraordinary.

HH: Oh, I don’t know why, because I’m colorblind and religion-blind. I really don’t know why that is.

CH: Well, you don’t think that Roman Catholicism bears on any matter currently challenging American lawyers, right?

HH: Obviously not by the decisions of this Court.

CH: I could think of several things. I can think of several things.

HH: Yeah, but by this Court, not in any decision they’ve handed out. We’ll continue this conversation as soon as you come back, Christopher Hitchens.

End of interview.

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