Kim Jong Il: The Lessons of Life and Death

Kim Jong Il inspects Korean People's Army (KPA) Air Force Unit 1017. (Xinhua/KCNA, 2008)

I remember my first close encounter with Kim Jong Il in July 2000 in Pyongyang, when he briskly walked into the room in Paekhwawon Guest House, where Russian President Putin and his entourage, of which I was honored to be a part, was waiting for him. He energetically shook hands with everyone without looking them in the eyes. My first real-life impression of this man whom I had seen in photos and videos (as well as from a distance) so many times was that he was more than met the eye. Having encountered several Koreans from all walks of life both in the North and South and abroad during my decades as a Koreanologist, I was impressed how this particular Korean was different: he emanated charisma and intellect, looked free and relaxed. His speech was fast and witty, he seemed to draw on enormous resources of intellect and had a remarkable memory on almost any subject (one exclusion might be modern economics, in which he, it seemed, was not so very interested, regarding it just as a tool for rich Westerners to extract profits from their fellow compatriots and poor countries).

This first impression of Kim as a really remarkable personality only deepened during subsequent meetings lasting for many hours, both in Russia (especially on one trip when we travelled on Kim Jong Il’s train for almost two weeks across Russia) and in Pyongyang, in the company of many Russian dignitaries, sometimes in a quite informal atmosphere. Kim would freely talk on subjects as varied as relations with the United States, the situation in South Korea (which he knew well, much better than we did as Russian diplomats), international politics as well as Russian cinema and folk music. He was inquisitive, open to argument and never forgot what was said. He even remembered details about Russian diplomats and dignitaries involved in North Korean affairs from the time his father was in power and had a judgment on each one. He highly valued sincerity and wholeheartedness. The North Korean leader’s aide (known worldwide as Kim Ok) would prompt him with some details if he would ask, and Kim Jong Il would never hesitate to ask his subordinates about certain specific issues (like economic or military ones); he was not trying to show his “superhuman abilities.” It is true that Kim was fond of wine, good food and song, but for us Russians, not bound by Western political correctness, that was not something appalling. He was quick enough to make decisions on the spot, and usually these decisions proved later on to be right.

Of course, he wielded enormous power as a hereditary dictator and had an innate feeling of his sacred right to use that power; on the other hand, he was put on top of this system by his birth, not because he invented it. Therefore, throughout his lifetime, Kim used his considerable abilities and ruthlessness to fulfill what he saw as his mission: to guard this system and the power of his clan as well as to preserve his country—these elements were inseparable, handed down to him by his ancestor, which is a special thing for any Korean. Developing the country economically or socially was not his aim, so there was little if any progress in these spheres.

Was he a successful politician? If we judge from the point of view of a “normal” country, his achievements were hardly positive. Sadly, he never took the chance to embrace economic reforms, at least legalizing the grassroots business system that emerged in the wake of the famine of the 1990s. That could have been done without opening up the country, which he saw as dangerous to the regime. Many thousands of North Koreans paid dearly, even with their lives, for this stubbornness. But he was successful in fulfilling his true goal: to keep his country intact and to guarantee the survival of the system. He lived long enough to appoint an heir to ensure the continuity of his clan’s rule; how smart his choice was we will have to wait and see, but he probably could not have made this choice earlier, even though it would have made things easier for the succession.

Kim was resisting enormous external pressures but, in fact, had a draw in what he himself called “a chess party” with three American and four ROK Presidents along with a score of other leaders, most of whom were his bitter opponents. The price the latter had to pay was a nuclear North Korea, but on the other hand, major conflict on the peninsula was avoided. Kim, however, should be credited with moderating earlier North Korean practices: he scaled down the repression, at least at the highest echelons of power, and rarely resorted to violence to reach his external goals (the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island was a notorious exception, although it is not yet clear, if he had personally approved it). In fact, Kim longed for international recognition and tried to extend his hand out, especially in early 2000s, but his bid was rejected. He even went as far as issuing an unprecedented apology for kidnapping Japanese citizens to Prime Minister Koizumi, which turned out to be a diplomatic faux pas, as it unleashed anti-North Korean hysteria in Japan and undermined Pyongyang’s position in further diplomatic talks. But the lesson about the impermissibility of concessions, seen as manifestation of weakness, was well learned and so he ended up in his own bed on a train, unlike Gaddafi.

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