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How Secure is the `Great Leader Mantle?

Mystery surrounds North Korea's Kim Jong Il and his inclinations, fueling speculation about his ability to hold onto power

ACCORDING to one former South Korean diplomat, there is only one thing to do as North Korea mourns the death of Kim Il Sung and as a new leadership emerges.

``We should be cautious, but we should not close our minds,'' he says. ``We should be open to all kinds of possibilities.'' These words echo the comments of presidents and experts around the world, but in the case of North Korea, such an approach is harder to pull off than it sounds.

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The man who seems certain to take over, Kim Jong Il, has a truly mixed reputation. The propaganda apparatus in the North has created an inflated, sycophantic portrait of Kim Jong Il that is impossible to take seriously. (See story below.) Southern propagandists, although they have moderated their efforts in recent years, have described him as cruel, salacious, and bizarre. There may be truth on both sides, but discerning it is another matter.

He is the deceased dictator's oldest son, and North Koreans were told at least 14 years ago that he would be their next leader. But outside of North Korea, officials, diplomats, and experts have confessed that they do not know the man.

There is little in the way of a track record. Mr. Kim has rarely met foreign visitors, and his voice has almost never been broadcast. Western diplomats in Seoul say they have never seen a transcript of a speech by Kim.

What is clear is that Kim Jong Il, as he takes the helm of an isolated nation, faces conflicts and constraints that analysts say may shorten his rule.

Kim was born on Feb. 16, 1942. Non-partisan experts say the birth took place in the Soviet Far East, where Kim Il Sung was in exile, but official accounts say Kim was born on a holy mountain in North Korea. Reports say he received some education in Communist countries abroad, but he apparently returned to Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University to study political economy.

He reportedly distinguished himself in his early work for the revolutionary cause in North Korea by producing films that effectively deified his father.

In the mid-1970s, he began to emerge as the heir-designate, and was formally named successor to Kim Il Sung at a congress of the Workers' Party of Korea in 1980. In 1991 he was named commander of the military, the most important of the many party and government titles he has accumulated.

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Based on intelligence reports provided mainly by defectors, South Korean authorities allege that Kim was behind a 1983 attack on southern officials in Rangoon, Burma, that killed four Cabinet members. Kim is also held responsible for the downing of a South Korean passenger jet in 1987, which killed 115 people.

He seems to go to great lengths to get what he wants. In 1986 a South Korean director, Shin Sang Ok, and his wife, Choi Eun Hui, an actress, defected from the North, saying they had been abducted eight years earlier under Kim's orders. Apparently, he admired their work. They brought back tales of Kim's adventurous social life that have since formed the basis of some of the South's more vitriolic accounts of him.

The passing of the elder Kim has ignited a sense of opportunity in South Korea. With the instigator of the Korean War out of the way, says Lee Sei Ki, an influential member of South Korea's ruling Democratic Liberal Party, ``We have a bigger possibility for unification.''

But that analysis, says Cha Young Koo, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis in Seoul and a member of the government's Unification Board, is a long-term view.

In the near future, Dr. Cha says, southern officials view the prospect of a North Korea under Kim Jong Il with ``dread.''

Because of the conflicts likely to emerge within North Korea's ruling hierarchy, there is a strong likelihood of instability, in the view of Cha and other experts.

North Korea watchers in Seoul and abroad have argued that the government in Pyongyang is split along several lines.

A group variously termed as reformers, pragmatists, or technocrats has emerged that reportedly wants to ease North Korea's economic peril by opening the country to international aid and trade. These officials - including Foreign Minister Kim Yong Nam and nuclear negotiator Kang Sok Ju - appear more inclined to abandon the country's alleged nuclear-weapons program in order to achieve that opening.

But experts say there are also old-line revolutionaries who see the putative atomic weapon as a key to North Korea's survival, which cannot be traded away. It is unclear where Kim Jong Il's sympathies lie.

Kim also faces some family trouble. His stepmother, Kim Song Ae, and his father's brother, Kim Yong Ju, are both thought to oppose Kim, and North Korea watchers say their stock has risen recently.

Then there is the economy. Again, accurate information is nonexistent, but defectors' accounts and economists' analyses suggest it is on the verge of collapse. Opening the country might help, and many observers say Kim will be forced to do this in order to win popular support, but experts are divided.

Citing 1993 writings attributed to Kim, former South Korean intelligence official Kang Induk says the North Korean leader remains opposed to any real opening. Mr. Kang says Kim continues to insist that the worldwide failure of Communist states is attributable to the liberalizations of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and others, and that Kim vows not to repeat their mistakes.

In the late 1970s Kang was in charge of North Korean affairs for the South Korean Central Intelligence Agency. He concludes that Kim Jong Il is ``radical and capricious, but intelligent.''

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