North Korea's Dear Leader by Michael
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
Is Kim evil?
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.
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
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
L'etat, ce n'est pas moi
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.
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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