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Man of contradictions
Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader by Michael Breen

Reviewed by Gary LaMoshi

Except for those 23 million or so unfortunates trapped between the Yalu River and the 38th Parallel, there's general agreement that North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il is crazy. The debate centers on whether Kim is crazy like a fox or a genuine wacko.

The wacko case stems from his history of bizarre personal and political behavior. Kim was Hennessy's biggest customer for Paradis cognac, spending US$700,000 a year, before his doctors ordered him to cut back on his drinking, driving him to French reds. To upgrade North Korea's movie industry, he ordered the kidnapping of South Korea's first family of film.

More menacingly, he ordered assassination attempts on South Korean leaders in Seoul and third countries, commando raids across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and bombing of civilian aircraft. While stoking an outlandish personality cult for himself and his father, Kim let his country's economy decay so badly that an estimated 13 percent of the population died in a 1995 famine (in the United States, that would mean nearly 30 million dead) while Kim remains his nation's lone fat man.

On the fox side of the ledger, Kim managed to parley the accident of his birth into succeeding his father as head of state, the first such communist dynasty on record, against heavy odds and several rivals, including the children of his father's new wife. Kim's feat may seem less impressive now that dullard presidential offspring rule three other Pacific nations, but only Kim took office through decades of hard work rather than getting friends to bend the rules for him.

As North Korea's commander in chief, Kim heads one of the world's biggest and readiest military machines and a major supplier in the global death business. Despite his nation's dismal failure by virtually any other measure, he has managed not just to hold the world's only remaining superpower at bay, but to blackmail it into providing billions in aid.

Smart bomb
It's a dangerously effective combination: Kim Jong-il has been smart enough to develop a credible nuclear threat - one that may include a handful of warheads along with missiles able to deliver them to South Korea, Tokyo and even Alaska - and he may be dumb enough to use it.

The veil over North Korea, the traditional Hermit Kingdom more isolated than ever under the Kim dynasty, contributes to the fear of Kim Jong-il. Journalist-turned-consultant Michael Breen lifts the veil in Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader.

The book provides a single source in English on Kim (including "I made pizza for Kim" from ATol's own Ermanno Furlanis) with an extensive bibliography. Breen has lived in Korea - Seoul, not Pyongyang - since 1982 and understands Korea and Koreans well. While strong on facts, Breen's analysis betrays contradictory notions that may leave readers uncertain about who Kim is and what to do about him.

In one sense, Breen's conflicted ideas mirror those of his neighbors in Seoul (see Korean nukes mean (bad) business , February 7, 2003). South Korean polls have declared the US a greater threat to peace than North Korea. After centuries of persecution and colonization, there's some element in South Korea that welcomes a Korean bomb. A generation that's enjoyed peace, political liberalization and economic growth increasingly sees North Korea as a wayward brother to be embraced rather than a dangerous, murderous opponent.

Is Kim evil?
Breen tackles the key question of whether the Dear Leader is evil, concluding that Kim is neither evil nor insane. He bases that verdict largely on Kim's flexibility, a willingness to apologize, and a wry self-awareness that the public adulation comprising his personality cult is less than genuine, traits atypical of politicians (and many Koreans, according to Breen). However, Kim's singular qualities may be natural outcomes of his unusual upbringing and road to power.

To succeed his father, Kim didn't need to develop the skills of a typical politician; he had to convince his father he would remain loyal to the causes of Korean independence and communism to which the Great Leader dedicated his life. In fact, it was Kim Jong-il who introduced the term "Kim Il-sungism" to describe North Korea's governing philosophy and constructed the personality cult around his father that bathed him in its reflected light.

As a dictator, Kim can afford to have a laugh at his own expense, a privilege granted few others in the country, and he can utter whatever words he feels suit the occasion without fretting over their consequences. That license goes beyond simple fibs about his nuclear program. It's unlikely (and Breen doesn't say otherwise) that Kim's 2002 apology to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for kidnapping Japanese citizens to train Pyongyang's spies was widely reported in the tightly controlled North Korean media.

These details don't prove or disprove Kim's sanity or core values; they indicate the limited evidence we have about Kim. In the big picture, though, we see a leader who orders killings of his own citizens and foreigners with impunity; lets a severe famine decimate his population, with a legacy of 3 million dead and a malnourished, stunted young generation; and risks his nation's future in a quest for nuclear weapons. Wherever you land on the "insane or evil" questions, what really matters is what to do about Kim's rogue state.

L'etat, ce n'est pas moi
Breen contends that while the Dear Leader is neither evil nor insane, the North Korean state is both. That's an interesting conclusion that ignores Kim's central role in that state for decades, perhaps as far back 1976.

To deal with North Korea's nuclear program, the book reasonably suggests that the US opt for broader engagement, including economic and security assurances, in exchange for verifiable non-proliferation, with a side order of human-rights concessions.

"Somehow, though, it is hard to envision such a smooth outcome being achieved as long as Kim Jong-il is in power," Breen writes, adding that comprehensive engagement would set the stage for the Dear Leader's exit, "what we're all waiting for", and until then North Korea's people will continue to suffer.

However, if it's the system that's evil rather than Kim, deposing him won't change the fundamental calculus. It could even bring a (more?) crazy and evil leader to power. Perhaps from where Breen sits in Seoul, it's hard not to have irreconcilable views about those strange folks on the other side of the DMZ.

Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader by Michael Breen, John Wiley & Sons (Asia), 2004. ISBN: 0-470-82131-0. Price: US$24.95. 200 pages.

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Jan 16, 2004

Interview with Michael Breen: 'Kim's no fool'


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