The Washington Post Column

007 in the DMZ

If you haven’t seen the new James Bond film, “Die Another Day,” and you don’t want to know what happens, stop reading here. If you can guess what happens anyway (hint: the good guys win) or are intrigued by the thought of a movie the North Korean government denounced as “a dirty and cursed burlesque aimed to slander and insult the Korean nation” then read on. For yes, the villain of the film is a North Korean, a renegade colonel in possession of a newfangled weapon that can destroy the world. And yes, the North Koreans are not the only ones offended by a film that “distorts Korea’s image,” in the words of a South Korean actor who refused to appear in it.

Look closely at the plot, however, and it’s hard to see why the Koreans, North and South, are so upset. For although the renegade colonel does indeed start out as a North Korean, during the course of the movie he undergoes radical gene therapy (with the help of sinister Cuban scientists), emerging as, well, a white man. Furthermore, it becomes clear by the end of the film that the keys to his success are not his evil connections in North Korea but his evil connections at Harvard. The hidden conspiracy revolves not around the mysterious agents of the Dear Leader but around the lifelong friendships formed on the Harvard fencing team. In order to make him truly hateful, in other words, the filmmakers had to transform their North Korean villain into a fully paid-up member of the American establishment.

The Koreans need not feel offended. For the question posed by the film is not why we have demonized the North Koreans but why we have so consistently failed to demonize them. We had no trouble, in the past, inventing fictional Russian bad guys, or in seeing the Soviet Union as a political opponent. In the post-Cold-war era, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, even Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed have all emerged as American anti-heroes. By comparison, Kim Jong Il, whose list of crimes against humanity may well run longer than any of the other three, is hardly known. Why do we find it so hard to perceive the North Koreans as a real enemy?

I suspect that there are several answers, some political, some cultural, some geographical. North Korea is far away, its history apparently remote. Despite some 36,000 American lives lost there, the Korean War remains relatively unknown to most Americans. Perhaps because its domestic impact was more limited, the Korean conflict has been overshadowed by the Second World War before it and by the Vietnam War, which followed.

Until recently, North Korea hardly seemed a threat to us: Its guns are pointed at Seoul, after all, not Washington. Until Pyongyang’s nuclear program kicked into higher gear, the North Koreans didn’t have any weapons that could reach the United States, and they haven’t got much of a global terrorist reach either. Despite our enormous military presence on the Korean peninsula, Kim’s jails and torture chambers have long seemed like someone else’s problem.

None of this is strictly true anymore, of course: North Korea’s ballistic missiles can already reach Tokyo and may someday be able to hit Alaska, if not Los Angeles. North Korean arms dealing threatens to spread nuclear and missile technology around the world. Nevertheless, politicians continue to tiptoe around North Korea, keeping the level of rhetoric deliberately low. In his most recent radio address, President Bush mentioned Iraq and al Qaeda but not North Korea, despite North Korea’s recent resumption of its nuclear program. Last weekend, Secretary of State Colin Powell called North Korea a country “in deep distress,” which is quite a long way from “charter member of the axis of evil.” Filmmakers can hardly be blamed if they struggle to make the place seem bad at all.

In the end, North Korea is simply the wrong enemy at the wrong time: There isn’t enough political energy right now to deal with it. The North Korean regime rules through terror. It inflicts starvation upon its own people and has cultivated an isolationism so strong that the inhabitants of Pyongyang will cross the street rather than pass a foreigner on the sidewalk. Its concentration camps rival those of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Nevertheless, North Korea wasn’t, in the end, responsible for 9/11 and Kim Jong Il isn’t, like Saddam Hussein, a familiar face on the evening news. Perhaps the American imagination simply can’t handle more than a couple of villains at once.