Learning to Love the Axis of Evil 

Koreatown creator Alex Hahn thinks he has found the key to peace with North Korea: Good old business as usual.

Everyone knows Alex Hahn is a visionary. When he bought an old tire store in Oakland's Uptown district and leased it to two Korean-American businesses, he planted the seeds of Koreatown, the remarkable string of mom-and-pop shops that lines Telegraph Avenue. Since then, Hahn has become a prominent real-estate developer and now serves as president of the Korean-American Chamber of Commerce, USA. But all that is nothing compared to his next big scheme: pulling us back from the brink of nuclear war with North Korea, arguably the most hellish place on earth.

Prior to Hahn's two-year-old ascendancy at the chamber, there was virtually no relationship between Korean-American businesses and North Korea. Churches have collected millions of dollars in donations to keep the country's famine casualties to a minimum, but chamber officials rebuffed every overture from Kim Jong Il's government. But once Hahn assumed a leading role, he was in a position to say yes when officials with a state-owned trading company came calling. In May 2002, he and fourteen other businessmen took their first trip to North Korea, ready to help advise their communist compatriots how to export clothes to America.

Hahn and his associates toured textile factories and the Demilitarized Zone, accompanied by trade officials and a few shadowy security types. As a grand finale, he and his friends were treated to a rally in which tens of thousands of people performed elaborate choreography. Most Westerners consider these events gruesome totalitarian spectacles, but Hahn walked away impressed. "Amazing; I think that North Korea so disciplined," he recalls in his awkward English. "Really, they are doing real well. Discipline. Practice. Forty thousand students." Hahn left North Korea convinced that the United States could end fifty years of hostility simply by buying North Korean products and investing in the country's fledgling industries.

It wasn't exactly the most opportune moment to arrive at this conclusion. Four months earlier, George W. Bush had branded North Korea as one of the three pillars of the "axis of evil." The very month of Hahn's trip, Newsweek reported that Bush ranted to several senators that Kim Jong Il was a "pygmy" who was operating a "gulag the size of Houston." These remarks triggered another round of pathologically belligerent North Korean rhetoric.

But one month after his return from North Korea, Hahn fired off the first of many letters to the State Department, suggesting that he and other Korean-American businessmen might be able to sidestep the brinkmanship with goodwill and investment. "We have to listen why they sending arms to Middle East," Hahn says. "They need the money. Dollar. To buy oil, they don't have even drops of oil. They have to buy sugar, they have to buy necessary items for import into their country. Where they gonna get the dollar? ... So only their option selling illegal items to the country for survival."

In the fall of 2002, tensions between North Korea and the United States suddenly ratcheted up. North Korea was caught working on an illegal nuclear-weapons program. Officials reacted by throwing out international inspectors, and declaring that they would begin processing spent nuclear fuel rods for use in bombs. And suddenly the Bush administration discovered that North Korea was not to be disrespected or ignored.

For two years, the Bush administration had blithely assumed that all rogue states follow the logic of the bully: Challenge them, and they back down. Then it realized that "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il was ready to immolate the world rather than submit to the slightest perceived humiliation. So last January, Hahn got a phone call. David Straub, the State Department's director of Korean Affairs, asked him to fly to Washington, where Hahn talked about his trip to North Korea and offered his views on the North Korean psyche. Hahn claims that the only thing Straub did during this meeting was listen, which, if the previous two years were any indication, may have been a novel experience for the Bush administration.

According to one former State Department official who specialized in Korean affairs, the Bushies still haven't figured out how to deal with North Korea. "Over the last year, their position has changed so much and has been tweaked so many times, that I don't know what their position is," says this former official, who only agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. "And if I don't know what their position is, the North Koreans are definitely not going to know what it is. We've gone all over the place, and that shows the schizophrenia that's going on in the administration."

But if the Bush administration has been hopelessly belligerent, Hahn may yet prove to be equally naive. This May, he will embark upon his second trip north of the DMZ, where he hopes to keep doing his part to broker a solution to the greatest nuclear threat of our age. He's worked wonders in Oakland over the last ten years, but most experts remain unconvinced that the only way to do business with North Korea is by doing business with North Korea.

First, there's the morality issue. Hahn seems untroubled by the labor camps and summary executions, even though he lived through the war as a boy. Young Cho, the pastor of the East Bay Korean Baptist Church, is much less willing to give North Korea the benefit of the doubt. "We know that the evil doing of the communist country," he says in broken English. "North Korea is the communist, and as a young boy, I experienced the horror of the Korean War. We hate the North Korea, and most of the older generation feel that way about the situation."

More importantly, Hahn may simply become another one of countless optimists who thought they could deal with North Korea, only to get suckered. According to one expert in Korean affairs, Hahn's is a fool's errand. "There are too many guys who want to be Kissinger on this matter," says this expert, who would only speak if not identified by name. "The issue between North Korea and the United States is not something that the Korean Americans can resolve. ... I hope the Korean-American community is realistic enough to do something which can tangibly benefit North Korea, like food and clothing during the winter, rather than trying to help resolve the big issues between the United States and North Korea."

In other words, North Korea has honed the art of using détente to manipulate others, and Hahn may just be the latest sucker. After all, according to Monday's New York Times, Kim Jong Il may even have conned Saddam Hussein out of $10 million in a bogus deal to acquire missile technology in the months leading up to the US invasion.

But despite North Korea's trail of blood and lies, Hahn sees the seeds of hope. Back home in his downtown Oakland office, he looks forward to going back to North Korea -- and, ultimately, doing business with the last Stalinist outpost on earth. "They really treat us nice," he says. "The government is really grateful to see us, because they think they can do business, they can help their business to exporting here."


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