Is the regime of Kim Jong Il the cruelest the world has seen since Adolf Hitler’s in Germany or Josef Stalin’s in the Soviet Union? For all the world has heard about North Korea and its people’s suffering, the answer is no. The dubious distinction of cruelest probably belongs to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. That regime took over Cambodia in 1975 and ruled from the once-tranquil capital of Phnom Penh until December 1978, when Vietnamese communist troops drove it out. About 2 million people are estimated to have died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, from disease, starvation, executions and torture.
The suffering under the Khmer Rouge is resonant with the plight North Koreans have endured for many more years. Today, however, Phnom Penh is bustling, alive with shops selling an incredible variety of silk, statuary, silver objects and souvenirs. Restaurants offer just about any menu. The streets are swarming with traffic as motor scooters dart in and out and larger vehicles carry people and commercial products. Motorcycles pulling what look like small, old-fashioned carriages offer taxi services. Internet cafes thrive in every marketplace. Casinos and nightclubs lure those in search of higher-priced fun, and the National Museum and Royal Palace offer lush and rich glimpses of Khmer civilization and heritage going back 2,000 years.
So what lesson is there -- for North Korea and the world -- in the transformation of Cambodia from a frightening dictatorship into a hustling if not exactly democratic society? The revelation of North Korea’s role in torpedoing a South Korean navy ship in March, with the loss of 46 lives, suggests why it’s necessary to transform rule in the North as urgently as it was to end the Khmer Rouge’s rule in Cambodia nearly 22 years ago.
Cambodia’s current system, in which Hun Sen has ruled as prime minister, with the backing of Vietnam, almost continuously for 25 years, is not at all ideal. Many of the country’s 15 million people continue to suffer economically. And it’s fair to assume that torture and killings go on, although not on a mass scale.
In an imperfect world, however, Cambodia gives every appearance of having recovered its erstwhile reputation as an “oasis of peace.” That was how Prince Norodom Sihanouk described his kingdom when navigating a treacherous course of neutrality as American and South Vietnamese forces fought the North Vietnamese until the U.S.-backed regime fell in Vietnam two weeks after the defeat of Cambodia in 1975. It was a measure of Sihanouk’s incredible finesse that he was able to return to Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, even though a number of his children were killed by the forces that isolated him in his quarters.
Sihanouk has somehow survived, even though he has no real power. He is more or less a king emeritus, a revered figure who is able to appear above the tawdry power politics that periodically shakes up the elite six years after his eldest surviving son, Norodom Sihamoni, was crowned as his successor. The Pol Pot regime had to fall, and the men around him -- those responsible for forms of torture comparable to the security apparatus of North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il -- had to flee, be killed or be captured. They had to disappear forever. That should not be lost on South Koreans or their U.S. ally in weighing how far to go in attempting reconciliation or “talks” with North Korea. Someone in responsibility has to face the question: At what point does intervention become necessary?
In that debate, the Khmer Rouge comparison assumes still greater relevance. The question is how was it that the forces of a communist country -- against which the Americans and South Vietnamese, supported by two divisions of South Koreans, had fought for a generation -- accomplished such a stunning success for the everlasting benefit of the Cambodian people? The answer in part is that Vietnam, after the communist victory in 1975, was never a terrible dictatorship. As Vietnam’s leadership went through its own tortuous policy shifts, market capitalism began to flourish. Vietnamese gained a level of cultural and economic freedom that had not appeared possible in 1975. Moreover, Ho Chi Minh, who led Vietnam’s communist regime until his death in 1969, never gained a reputation for pervasive cruelty over his own people, even as he ruthlessly suppressed opponents.
It’s difficult to compare such different societies and cultures as those in Cambodia and North Korea, but the lesson is clear. There can be no real compromise with the Kim regime. The history of regimes such as Cambodia’s under the Khmer Rouge is that they do not willingly yield, do not suddenly adopt humanitarian policies and do not give up the props of their rule, notably their weapons. It’s wishful thinking to expect North Korea to shift its policies or honor any agreement on much of anything, including its nuclear weapons program. It took an upheaval to bring about relief from suffering in Cambodia, and it will take another on that scale to reform North Korea.