2003 October 21 Tuesday
Peter Maass On Kim Jong-Il, The Last Emperor

In a lengthy New York Times Magazine profile Peter Maass discusses what is known about the nature of the North Korean regime and its ruler. (or if that link doesn't work try this one)

Dictators come in different strains, like poisons. Some are catastrophically toxic; others, less so. Quite often, the harm a dictator will cause is associated with an internal drive to violence or a paranoia that begets violence or a mixture of both. Saddam Hussein is a case in point; his personal viciousness is legendary. Dictators of this sort are easy to read and easy to despise because they are obvious killers.

But what is to be made of a dictator who is charming, as Kim can be, and has never been known personally to raise a weapon or even a hand against anyone? This can be a no-less-dangerous strain of dictator, and in the world today, Kim Jong Il is its most striking example. Though friendly with important visitors, Kim is vicious to his own people. An estimated two million of them died during a preventable famine in the 1990's, and several hundred thousand are in prison and labor camps; many have been executed.


Kim's regime is best understood as an imperial court, clouded in intrigue, not unlike the royal households that ruled Japan, China and, throughout most of its existence, Korea itself. Until the 20th century, Korea was led by feudal kings, notably the Yi dynasty. By creating a personal and uncaring regime, Kim Il Sung wasn't stealing a page from only Stalin; he was also stealing it from Korean history, a fact that helps explain its durability.

''North Korea is a semifeudal society that is still based on traditional Korean values,'' says Alexandre Mansourov, a scholar at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies who was a Soviet diplomat based in Pyongyang in the 1980's. ''There are traces of modernity, but if you look at the structure of thinking, it is very traditional, in a medieval sense.''

The article is a fascinating read. His 22 year old son Kim Jong Chul, born to one of his mistresses, is now considered the front runner for succession when he dies.

Update: Maass was on the Charlie Rose show with former US ambassador to China Winston Lord and KEDO executive director Charles Kartman. Maass argued a point that I've made here repeatedly: The United States should focus more on China than on North Korea because China is the country which has the most amount of leverage over North Korea. Where does most of North Korea's energy come from? China. Where does nearly half of North Korea's food come from? China. Kartman tried to argue that China does not have that much leverage over North Korea. But if the Chinese cut off their aid to North Korea the regime would probably fall. That's a lot of leverage. If China and South Korea cut off aid the regime would definitely fall.

By propping up the North Korean regime the Chinese and South Koreans are making the United States much less secure in the future. The United States should hold countries accontable when they behave in ways that make the world a more dangerous place for the United States. We shouldn't call such countries allies or friends. The bottom line results of their policies should be what we measure them by.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 October 21 01:18 AM  Korea


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