(4) Kim Jong-il: perpetuator of N. Korea’s failure
By Michael Breen
In the past 30 years, no foreigner has exercised more influence over South Korea than Kim Jong-il.
Since his emergence in 1980 as the heir to his father’s throne in Pyongyang to the selection of his own son, Jong-un, as his successor, Kim’s leadership explains so much of what South Koreans have come to take for granted: why we spend so much on defense, why the northern parts of Gangwon and Gyeonggi provinces are littered with army bases, why young men have to do military service, why Korea is not whole, why South Korea’s image suffers internationally, why so many old people will never see their families again, and why we can’t drive round to Haeju and up to Pyongyang for a weekend.
What he has done to his own people, of course, is much worse. In perpetuating the virulently racist form of Korean nationalism he inherited from his father, and along with it, the crushing restrictions on rights and useless thinking on economics, he has wrought disaster on his country.
Kim is a monumental failure as a leader. And that’s a pity because there was high expectation of change when his father died in 1994. It’s also a pity because, despite his political character, there is something attractive and artistic in his personal manner that appeals to South Koreans whose own leaders are often wooden and two-dimensional.
When told he had suddenly become popular in South Korea in 2000 after the first inter-Korean summit, Kim Jong-il told a journalist, “After I appeared on TV screens, I'm sure, they came to know that I am not like a man with horns on the head.”
Indeed, there were no horns. Those who have met him say Kim is rather artistic. A small man - just five foot two inches - with a boyish hairdo, he is engaging with visitors, fussy on the small details as a ruler, and occasionally bad-tempered with those close to him. He may be a dictator, but there is no evidence to suggest he is a monster.
That, of course, may be an academic distinction as the system he helped build up and which he has presided over since 1994 ranks among the most monstrous of the communist regimes. North Korea under Kim Jong-il has been so dysfunctional that it literally devours its own people: hundreds of thousands died in a famine in the mid-1990s brought on by incompetence; hundreds of thousands labor under appalling conditions in the gulag.
Despite decades in the spotlight and the shelves of propaganda and daily column inches devoted to him in the North Korean media, he has remained as much of a mystery to his own people as to the outside. The masses didn’t even hear his voice until 1992 when he issued a one-liner in a public broadcast on Armed Forces Day, saying, “Glory to the people’s heroic military!”
Making of the Dear Leader
The myth-making began with his birth. According to official accounts, he entered the world in a log cabin in a secret guerrilla camp on Mount Baekdu, the peninsula’s highest peak, on the Korea-China border on February 16, 1942. Russian accounts, however, suggest that he was actually born in an army camp in Vyatskoye, near Khabarovsk in the former Soviet Union, where his father, Kim Il-sung and mother Kim Jong-suk, both partisans fighting against the Japanese, were based.
As a child, he went by the Russian nickname “Yura”. He had a younger brother, Man-il, whose nickname was “Shura,” and a sister, Kyung-hee. There is tragedy in his early memories: in 1947, three-year-old Shura fell into a pond in the back garden and drowned; two years later, his mother died of complications from an ectopic pregnancy.
His father remarried and had three more children. Judging by the lower profile his stepmother, Kim Song-ae, adopted since his father’s death in 1994, we may assume that if there were not tensions in the blended family in the early days, the choice of Jong-il as the leader certainly created them. North Korea’s communist leaders at first viewed hereditary succession as feudal, but began to change their minds when they saw how Stalin’s memory was trashed by his successor, Nikita Kruschchev. The need for a successor who would remain loyal to the founder became apparent. And the idea of Kim Jong-il as the best candidate – because both parents were revolutionaries – began to take hold in the late 1960s.
After graduation from college Kim worked in the party Central Committee’s Department of Organization and Guidance, where he is credited with having purged, in 1967, some “vacillating elements influenced by external factionalism and opportunism” in the party.
Although not made public until later, Kim was made a secretary of the party’s Central Committee in 1973 and a member of the Political Committee of the Central Committee the following year. At the time, the media began referring to him simply as the “Party Center.” Later, he became known as the “Dear Leader.” Finally, at a rare party congress in 1980, his position as the successor to his father was made official. He then became number four in the Politburo, number two in the Party Secretariat, and number three in the Party’s Military Commission. He was 38.
Kim Jong-il always had to take care that he did not upset his father and get passed over for one of his half-brothers. For this reason, he kept the truth of his love life from his rather austere father. His first love was a movie star named Sung Hae-rim. They lived together in secret and had a love child, Kim Jong-nam.
In the early 1970s, his father told him he should marry the daughter of a military officer. He dutifully obeyed and with this official wife, Kim Young-sook, had at least one child living in a parallel household. A decade later, he took up with Ko Young-hee, a Japanese-born Korean whom he met when she was in a state dance troupe. The new successor Kim Jong-un is their younger son. Propaganda before her death from cancer in 2004 referring to her as “respected mother” was the first clue that one of her sons was being groomed for the top job.
Kim Jong-il has for a long time been portrayed as a dangerous lunatic. A CIA profile described him as a “malignant narcissist.” He had sent commandos against South Korean targets. He had orchestrated the terrorist bombing of a South Korean passenger airliner. He was thought to be a playboy. He was known to be the world’s biggest single purchaser of Hennessy’s pricey Paradis brand of cognac. He was such a movie buff that he had a top South Korean director and actress couple kidnapped so that they could upgrade the North Korean film industry.
But he remained an enigma. It says something of his secretive political style that when his father died, there was serious doubt overseas as to whether Kim Jong-il would be able to maintain power. This uncertainty persisted as Kim officially mourned for three years.
It did, however, reveal his priorities as a leader in that, by “mourning,” he chose to demonstrate faith to his father’s revolution rather than step up and solve the famine as a way to establish his credentials. In 1995, when the time came for him to assume the presidency, he took this one flakey step further and had his dead father named “President for Eternity.” Already chairman of the all-powerful National Defense Commission, he took the post of general secretary of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party in December 1997.
It was now apparent that Kim Jong-il would not substantially reform his country. Coming out of the cold was more than the son of Kim Il-sung could do. And so, while North Korea went backward, the world moved on.
Kim missed another opportunity in June 2000, when South Korean President Kim Dae-jung arrived in Pyongyang for a historic summit. The famine was behind him and the economy, which had shrunk through the 1990s, was showing signs of recovery. After decades of Cold War containment, South Koreans were experimenting with a “Sunshine Policy” of engagement. Southerners watching on TV went warm and fuzzy. Polls showed that their expectations of a North Korean invasion dropped from 40 to 10 percent.
The next U.S. administration, however, took an altogether harsher view. George W. Bush was quoted describing Kim as a “pygmy” and saying that he “loathed” him. This hard line seemed to have been justified when in October 2001, the U.S. exposed a uranium-based nuclear weapons program which North Korea was working on in secret and in contravention of its international agreements.
But, just as the Clinton administration had before them, the Bush people after some years began to see the wisdom of engaging North Korea in talks on their nuclear program. This eventually led to an agreement in a six-nation format that included South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, with the stated objective of persuading Kim to mothball his weapons.
That didn’t work out either. North Korea is now a nuclear-armed power. It also remains unpredictably aggressive, as evidenced by the attack on the Cheonan and the shelling of a South Korean island last year.
Generally, however, for South Koreans, the once-feared northern neighbor had become irrelevant to their lives with interest in reunification at an all-time low.
Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.