Kim Jong-il as Hirohito
By Jason Lim
The good news is that the U.S. was able to hammer out a verification agreement with North Korea by removing it from the list of terrorism sponsoring states. The bad news is that North Korea, as long as Kim Jong-il remains as the head of state, will never give up its nuclear arsenal.
Although the wheels of the six-party talks keep creaking along, pushed forward by the indefatigable Christopher Hill, it will eventually run into that immovable mountain: Kim Jong-il's need to hold on to his nuclear arsenal to ensure the survival of his regime.
Kim's regime has staked its political legitimacy firmly on being a nuclear weapons power, using it to engineer the personal prestige and domestic credibility necessary to govern a country. And in North Korea, Kim's personal prestige and the government's political legitimacy go hand in hand because North Korea is, in effect, an absolute monarchy best exemplified by Louis XIV's famous statement, ``I am the state."
Most experts agree that North Korea is not a conventional military threat anymore; the only real credible self-defense capability is that North Korea has a nuclear arsenal with retaliatory capacity. And Kim Jong-il is the great general who has taken on the imperialist superpowers of the world and kept his people from a humiliating subjugation by developing nuclear weapons against all odds, fulfilling his father's sacred charge.
Therefore, by having nuclear weapons, Kim Jong-il becomes both the prototypical dutiful son in the Confucian tradition to his legendary father and the great independence-fighter general keeping the real Korean nation free from foreign invaders, unlike South Korea that is likened to a collaborator.
So, how can you reasonably expect Kim Jong-il to give up his nuclear weapons when all this, including his legacy as the hero of the Korean people, is riding on them? You can dismiss it all you want as illusions of grandeur, but you are not the one who controls North Korea's nuclear weapon's program.
Everyone knows that the North Korean situation is primarily an economic issue; North Korean government is currently unable to provide for even the most basic necessities for its citizens. Thus, in order to survive, North Korea must inevitably make the required concessions that will lead to international economic support.
If North Korea were a normal nation, albeit even an unreasonable one, promises of international economic support and non-aggression pact might eventually be enough to entice North Korea to agree to a verifiable dismantling of its nuclear weapons program. However, as explained before, this is very difficult as long as the person of Kim Jong-il is so closely identified with the state of North Korea.
Therefore, any negotiations with North Korea will have to deal with Pyongyang's attempt to reap the benefits of economic assistance while keeping its de-facto monarchy intact. But at the same time, the world does not want to help the North get back on its feet only to see the perpetuation of the current regime. It is in the world's interests to see a democratic, unified Korea.
Which leaves us with only one solution: For lasting stability and prosperity of the region, the North Korea and Kim Jong-il must be delinked. But not in the way you think.
A solution could be to show Kim that his only choice is a face-saving way to remove himself from real power and occupy only a symbolic position, much like Hirohito at the end of WWII. Promise him personal safety for him and his family, immunity from prosecution for crimes against humanity, and retention of whatever money he has stashed somewhere.
Such an option will guarantee him not only personal safety but also a legitimate place in history, instead of meeting an ignoble end like Romania's Ceausescu, which we know was a personal shock to him. It would also ensure a peaceful transition toward a regime that is pro-West, perhaps with Kim Jong-il himself leading the way. It might not be emotionally and morally satisfying, but it would be effective and bloodless.
While he is alive, Kim Jong-il could be permitted to present himself as a patriotic leader who kept Korea safe from foreign invaders and is only stepping aside after heroically rescuing the country from dire straits. Such an offer of an ``honored place in history" might be enough to convince Kim to get off the sinking ship that is North Korea, before he is overtaken by the worsening situation.
Of course, this is all just a thought experiment at this point. But let's take the case of post-WWII Japan to heart. Although it required two nuclear blasts to force Hirohito to give up his power, deteriorating personal health and increasing danger of imminent economic collapse might be enough to convince Kim Jong-il to turn himself into the Hirohito of Korea.
By tactfully allowing an empty but, nevertheless, a culturally symbolic honor for Kim Jong-il, the world could negotiate for stability and democratization of a unified Korea, finally providing the North Korean people a way out of their endless desperation.
Jason Lim is a research fellow at the Harvard Korea Institute, researching Asian leadership models. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.