Kim Jong-il: the Hazards of Charisma

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Kim Jong-il: the Hazards of Charisma

‘Comrade’ Kim Jong-il has once again piqued our interest, making unexpected remarks on important issues which not only Korea but all the world is curious about. The comments were made to South Korean media heads visiting the North.

His remarks made me think that the dramatic reunion after 50 years of separated families on August 15 will not be just a one-time event like the reunion in 1985. Kim's comments that two more reunions for the displaced families would be organized within this year, and that next year they may be allowed to travel to their hometowns, mark new promise and progress for inter-Korean relations.

If his idea of exchanging 100 tourists from each side to tour Mt. Paektu in the North and Mt. Halla in the South is put into practice within the year, it will contribute greatly to further improving relations between the two sides. Each of his proposals, such as making Kaesong a tour destination, opening a direct flight between Seoul and Pyongyang regardless of his military's opposition, and mobilizing 35,000 soldiers right away for the restoration of the inter-Korean railroad, come like a breath of fresh air.

As President Kim Dae-jung said, Kim Jong-il seems to be a leader equipped with knowledge and good judgment. His remarks that we must not emphasize only humanity and love for the nation in dealing with separated families are rational and realistic. And on the whole, he sounds more like a nationalist than a communist.

Though his vision and rhetoric will be analyzed and evaluated with time, the immediate impact is positive and encouraging. The problem is his style. Those who are careful enough will be able to notice problems which cannot be overlooked in his extraordinarily straightforward and candid speech and behavior; the reflection of an absolutist, one-man system and Kim Jong-il's monarchical manner.

When he was asked about the timetable for unification, he replied, "It's all up to me." Though this answer could be interpreted in various ways, it basically betrays his immense confidence in himself, which could amount to dogmatism or arrogance. He appears to believe sincerely that he can do anything as he likes, including in such important matters like unification. He seems careless of the circumstances and views of the South and other countries.

On diplomatic relations with the U.S., he said, "With one word from me, we could establish diplomatic relations with the U.S. tomorrow." Though he added that diplomatic relations could only be established if the U.S. removed North Korea from its list of terrorist-sponsoring countries, he put stress on "one word from me." Discussing the estabishment of a direct flight between the two Koreas, he said though the military was opposed to the idea, it would support him if he suggested it.

On his proposed exchange tour of Mt. Halla and Mt. Paektu, he gave instant orders, saying, "Secretary Kim Yong-sun, I want you to take steps to realize the tour program right away." When an aide notified him of another meeting waiting for him, he simply said, "Tell them we can start the meeting the moment I get there." He seems so unconstrained. He reminds me of Louis XIV, who asserted that he was the nation.

However distinguished a leader he may be, he cannot attend to everything by himself. This will become all the more serious in the complex society of the 21st Century. In North Korea, there seems to exist a dogma of his infallibility, that the great leader is above mistakes. There is no opposition party to argue a different position nor media to criticize the leader's wrong turns. It is dangerous that big national issues such as North-South reconciliation and cooperation depend upon a single North Korean leader and are not influenced by contribution of opinion.

A powerful leader can make swift decisions with immediate consequences. If Kim Jong-il had not been powerful enough to maintain the reins of leadership in North Korea, the North-South summit and the following talks and steps forward might have been much more difficult. However, the process of reconciliation and cooperation is a long one - even more so reunification.

For the first time in communist history, Kim Jong-il has succeeded in inheriting power, with his realism and energy. However, we feel a little uneasy about him leading this new era in North-South relations. Here Kim Jong-il's charisma may play too decisive a role.

by Kim Young-hie

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