BEIJING - Sohn Kwang-joo, author of The Anatomy of Kim Jong-il, starts
his book by saying: "Why should we know Kim Jong-il?"
In South Korea, that's a somewhat odd question, because most South Koreans
think they know the North Korea leader well enough. South Korean media outlets
constantly have reports on the size of the Dear Leader's libido or his appetite
for luxury goods.
For Sohn, all of this touches only the surface, providing a superficial grasp
of Kim that also fails to give hints on some of the most important questions
surrounding his country. Is there a
possibility of a "Jasmine" revolution in North Korea under Kim? Will Kim ever
give up his nuclear weapons, and will he ever consider carrying out
Chinese-style "reform and opening-up"?
For starters, Sohn rejects the idea of regarding North Korea as a "state",
despite the fact that it is a member of the United Nations. "Today's North
Korea is not a 'state', but is more similar to a 'mafia group' run by the boss,
Kim Jong-il," writes Sohn, who heads Daily NK, a Seoul-based Internet newspaper
specializing in reporting on North Korea. "The Kim Jong-il regime basically
sustains its survival by exploiting the labor of the 23 million North Koreans.
Sohn also rejects looking at North Korea's "Songun" or "military-first"
drive as a "state policy" but as an "act of military violence" that creates
tension on the Korean Peninsula and surrounding East Asia to extort economic
aid, all of which is aimed at prolonging the lifespan of the Kim regime.
Basically, Sohn sees the entire population as being held hostage by Kim's
regime. "[They] are born as human beings but don't live as human beings but
only to live their entire lives for the single person, Kim Jong-il".
Sohn claims: "Only when we correctly know Kim Jong-il, are we able to see
through North Korea and have an accurate understanding of the lives of North
Koreans ... [O]nly when we know Kim Jong-il, we will know what kind of policy
we should take toward North Korea and save North Korean people".
Sohn, a harsh critic of the "Sunshine" policy of South Korea's previous
administrations under Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, describes the engagement
policy in a single world - "failure". But he attributes this to "their failure
to understand Kim Jong-il".
Sohn's thesis will be seen, at the most, as an "insult" by South Korea's two
previous liberal administrations. Each of them held a summit with Kim, in 2000
and 2007, respectively, not to mention frequent meetings with ranking North
Former officials who worked for these administrations often accuse the current
Lee Myung-bak administration of failing to understand North Korea. That
Unification Minister Hyun In-taek, who is President Lee Myung-bak's frontman
for inter-Korean affairs, has never been to North Korea, is regularly raised by
Putting aside the partisan debate, Sohn's argument comes as a refreshing
challenge to the world, to go beyond the easy and common demonization of Kim
and re-examine our understanding of the dictator, under whose whim the lives of
the 23 million human beings depend. It also resurrects the dead yet fundamental
question, "Who is Kim Jong-il?"
For Peter Beck, Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi research fellow at Keio
University in Tokyo, the fact that debate on Kim still often resurfaces among
North Korean experts is only natural. "I think Kim Jong-il tries to be many
things to many people," he said in an interview. "Kim Jong-il himself makes
contradictory statements. For example, he told a visiting South Korean media
delegation in 2000 that it would be OK for the US troops to continue to stay in
a unified Korea," going against North Korea's long-standing demands for the
withdrawal of the US military.
According to Beck, Kim makes surprising statements for the very purpose of
surprising people, so that he stays difficult to "pin down".
"Kim Jong-il is a leader who has a very good grip on running matters," said Kim
Keun-sik, a professor of North Korean Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul,
who had a personal encounter with Kim Jong-il in 2007 as part of a delegation
for an inter-Korean summit. Kim Keun-sik sees the media's wholesale negative
portrayal of the Dear Leader as a delusional maniac as too simplistic. "Kim
displayed a character which was sharp and rational."
Today, how to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons remains a key
international dilemma. Kim sees North Korea as a country run by one single
person, Kim Jong-il, who possess nuclear weapons primarily as a deterrent. "The
best way to solve this problem is to put on the table and trade the demands of
North Korea and the United States."
Unlike Sohn who argues for dismissing the Kim system as something less than a
state, Kim says the US should formally recognize the Kim Jong-il regime, saying
that's the best conduit to integrate the country into the international
community. "Establishing diplomatic relations will do," said Kim.
Zhao Huji, a political scientist at the Central Party School in Beijing, an
elite institution that grooms promising mid-career Communist Party cadres,
argues that the world should apply a multi-dimensional approach to Kim Jong-il,
looking at him from different analytical frames, for example, on an individual
level and also as a political leader. "As a political leader, Kim Jong-il sees
everything as a conflict and struggle," he said.
Chang Yong-seok, director of North Korea research at the Institute for Peace
Affairs, in Seoul, argues the prevalent idea that sees North Korea as a country
run by a single leader Kim Jong-il and the efforts that try to find a solution
to the North Korean problem by primarily analyzing Kim Jong-il is flawed.
"All these approaches focusing on Kim Jong-il and seeing him as a 'god' who
rules over North Korea, cage us in a box that prevents us from recognizing that
there are alternatives," said Chang. "Simply put, North Korea is not a system
run by Kim Jong-il. For example, on the nuclear weapons front, even if Kim
Jong-il wanted to give up nukes, he may not make such a decision because there
are power factions who benefit from the nukes in internal North Korean politics
and oppose the idea. Kim has to factor in different constituencies in his
For Beck, in Japan, the very presence of debate on Kim Jong-il, which is
unresolved, just like different claims on how to best approach the North's nuke
problem, is only natural because that's what he wants. Lately, Kim has not
shown up in public for over two weeks. "People are again speculating on him,
saying 'oh Kim Jong-il must have worried about a Jasmine revolution in his own
country'," said Beck. "I think Kim Jong-il likes to have the world make
different assumptions about himself, whether it's correct or not. He likes to
be a man of mystery."
Beck then offers his ultimate diagnosis Kim Jong-il. "He is crazy like a fox,
but is a shrewd leader. He knows how to maintain power."
Sunny Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Seoul-born columnist
and journalist; he has degrees from the US and China.
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