BEIJING - North Korea announced
last weekend that it would convene the 12th
Supreme People's Assembly, its rubber-stamp
parliament, in Pyongyang on April 7, an occasion
analysts predict will see a key step in the power
succession to Kim Jong-eun, by promoting him to a
vice chairmen of the powerful National Defense
With the world's attention
fixated on the young son and heir, who is believed
to be in his twenties, we don't seem to pay enough
attention to the Dear Leader, not as we did in the
That's understandable in a sense
because the Kim Jong-il show is nearing its end.
After reportedly suffering a stroke in the summer
of 2008, the aging leader has remained frail. So,
it would come as
no news to readers that many
news outlets, including the New York Times,
prepared a pre-written obituary ready to print
when the almost immortal Dear Leader finally
So, who is Kim Jong-il? How much
does the outside world know about him? In fact,
knowing the Dear Leader is a tricky business.
Given the elusive nature of his life, compounded
by inaccessibility to the country, a Japanese
professor at Waseda University, Toshimitsu
Shigemura, has even claimed that Kim actually died
in 2003 from diabetes and the current one is a
As late as 2009, Kim surprised the
world - when speculation on his waning health was
reaching a climax - by showing up in person to
meet the former US president Bill Clinton, who was
visiting the nation on a mission to secure the
release of two detained US journalists.
While Kim's talent in surprising the world
is nothing new, time is still ticking.
Intelligence communities in the US and South Korea
as well as diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks
all point to Kim's lifespan being anywhere from
two to five years at most.
death, analytic reports studying his life will
certainly ensue. It may even become an academic
specialty, as we saw in the case of the former
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and German leader
But even before "the day"
arrives, talking with analysts prompts a call to
correct a widely-held misconception of Kim
Jong-il. That is, he started as a reluctant
A reluctant leader
According to North Korea's official
records, Kim Jong-il was born on February 16,
1942, in a guerilla camp on Mount Baekdu in
northern North Korea where his father Kim Il-sung,
the founder of the country, was fighting against
the Japanese occupiers. Soviet records, however,
state that he was born in the village of
Vyatskoye, near Khabarovsk, in the former Soviet
Union in 1941.
Analysts give more weight
to the Soviet records, saying the North fabricated
Kim's birth place to add legitimacy to his
leadership, by linking his birth to a mountain
that is revered by Koreans.
his father Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, and took
command of the fourth largest standing army in the
world. North Korea officially referred to him as
the "Dear Leader".
However, as the top
commander of a nation, Kim was a reluctant leader
who lacked the charisma of his father. “He was
groomed for many years for the top position but he
did not seem to want to politically lead the
country, although he became interested in what
power offered to him,” said John Feffer, the
co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus, a
was someone who liked to work behind the scenes
like a movie director, he was not comfortable in
front of the camera," Feffer said.
fact, analysts often gauged Kim by comparing him
with his father. Selig Harrison, director of the
Asia Program at the Center for International
Policy, who met Kim Il-sung and visited North
Korea many times, said: "The big difference
between Kim Jong-il and his father was that Kim
Il-sung was a natural politician. Kim Il-sung was
very charismatic. He had many personal followers.
Kim Jong-il, on the other hand, didn't like to be
a politician. He was very different from his
Kim junior was never free from
his inferiority complex, according to Nobu
Sakajiri, a Japanese journalist who has covered
North Korea for many years with Japan's Asahi
Shimbun. "The second generation leader tends to
have an inferiority complex, compared to his
father. Kim Jong-il felt that he was not as
talented as his father."
said Kim has over the years gradually developed
the skills to run the country. "He became a very
clever manipulator," Harrison said.
son and the father lived in very different
circumstances. Kim Il-sung had to survive fighting
against the Japanese and United Nations forces
during the 1950-53 Korean War, whereas Kim Jong-il
came to power in a much easier way. "All he had to
do was inherit his father's position", said
Kenneth Quinones, a former US State Department
official, who was in charge of North Korean
Understandably, the biggest task
for Kim Jong-il since he took charge has been to
sustain the regime that he inherited from his
father, by resisting opening up to the outside
world. In the process, he has starved his
country's people, purged those who displayed signs
of a potential rival and relied on a personality
cult to keep his authority. In refusing to
cooperate with the international community, he has
shown his policy posture as primarily defensive.
But observers say he lacks a long-term vision for
"Ultimately, he will be
remembered as a transitional figure, unable to
prepare his country for transition for modernity,"
Kim has been depicted in the
international media as a dictator who suppressed
human rights and who eats imported caviar and
drinks Italian wine while watching Hollywood
movies and gambling with missile and nuclear
brinkmanship. He had been over the years the
subject of numerous character assassinations and
caricatures which portrayed his as deranged or
Analysts, scholars, and
intelligence officials point out a more
dispassionate view. "It's flawed to describe Kim
Jong-il as 'irrational'. That's completely
inaccurate," said Quinones.
the common view that Kim has run the country
alone, analysts say the dictator has had to
negotiate with different factions to keep power;
for example, military hardliners and those who
emphasize economic reforms.
deterioration of his health gave hardliners a
chance to be more powerful," Harrison said.
As for Kim's overall appraisal as a state
leader, however, even scholars of the North's
closest ideological ally, China, have some
reservations. "It would be difficult for Kim
Jong-il to be regarded as a good manager of the
country," said Zhao Huji, a political scientist at
the Community Party's elite Central Party School
Eventually, analysts say,
Kim's legacy will judged by what happens to the
nation after his passing.
Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a
Seoul-born columnist and journalist; he has
degrees from the US and China.
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