[OUTLOOK]Who does Kim Jong-il think he is?In the negotiation that begins Wednesday in Beijing, U.S. President George W. Bush may hold the stronger diplomatic hand and wield the most military power, but the man who will determine the eventual outcome is surely North Korea’s plump, pompadoured “Dear Leader.” So it may be useful to consider what manner of man Kim Jong-il is.
Officially ― that is to say in North Korean mythology ― he is semidivine. At his birth on sacred Mount Baekdu a star and a double rainbow appeared in the heavens and a swallow descended to announce the advent of a great general. He is “the man of 10,000 talents” who scored a hole in one the first time he played golf. He is the author of 1,500 books. And he is the son of Kim Il Sung, the “Great Leader,” the mummified “President for Eternity.”
A more sordid version of Mr. Kim has circulated in the West, presumably drawn from South Korean intelligence sources. He is a luxury lover and debauche, with a vast pornography collection and an oenophile’s fantasy cellar of French wines. For some years pundits recited tales of the playboy prince with a yen for blondes to buttress their predictions that he would not last long in the power struggle after his iron-fisted father’s death.
But Mr. Kim is still in charge, and as it appears increasingly likely that his power is secure, a different picture has emerged. Western diplomats describe a technophile with a sophisticated knowledge, honed by cable television, of the outside world ― the implication being that Mr. Kim therefore is fully responsible for his misrule; he knows better.
Which raises an interesting question. In other countries failure is punished: How does Mr. Kim manage to remain in control of a state whose people starve or flee, a mendicant state existing on handouts as it proclaims an ideology of juche, or “self-reliance”?
The standard answer is “Stalinist” control of the organs of repression. But even Stalinists get ousted. Just look at the Kim family’s friend Nicolae Ceausescu, who ruined Romania and was stood up against a wall and shot.
Bruce Cumings’s slipshod history, “Korea’s Place in the Sun,” has been widely execrated, and not least by me, but he has an interesting section on the source of the Kim family’s legitimacy. It is not communist, he argues, but Confucian.
Karl Marx, and Marxists since him, have insisted that communism was not a theory or ideology but a science as hard and pure as physics or chemistry. Properly understood, the Marxists said, communism explains the historical development of human social and political organization, and can accurately predict their future unfolding. Communist rule was justified by the collective wisdom of the party and its leaders who understood this science.
Mr. Cumings traces a tradition of European corporatism and compares it to classical Confucianism, and to the polity of North Korea under the Kims. The key principles of all three are hierarchy, the organic connection of the people and family. The body politic is indeed a single body, bound together as in a family and ruled by a wise father, the sage-king. And juche is not quite equivalent to “self-reliance.” It means living by our own abilities and resources, but in a way that is more personal, even “solipsistic” in Mr. Cumings’s word, involving the privilege and responsibility of being (North) Korean in a world of not-Korean entities, many of them hostile.
In the familiar Stalinist “cult of personality,” the people are ruled by a genius leader, too, but when the limit of his genius is reached and his leadership fails, the people eventually turn on him, pull down his statues and say they always hated him. But in the Kims’ North Korea, the social bond is organic. Failure is not personal to the leader but corporate, perhaps due to the people’s impure thinking. The sage-king em-bodies all that is best in the people and therefore can be perfect only if the people are perfect.
That is the idea, anyway. Of course, families fight, and Korean history is filled with feuding and factionalism in the courts of the kings. The Confucian sage-king, like most political ideas, works better in the imagination than in the messy affairs of human beings.
And anyway, so what? The Beijing talks next week are about nuclear weapons, not Kim Jong-il’s charisma. But negotiations are always about understanding your opponent. What does he want? How does he think? If often pays not to have overly rational expectations when negotiating with another human being (as most husbands and wives learn).
If Washington thinks it is dealing with a communist dictator, the last remnant of the Cold War, it may misunderstand Mr. Kim’s motivations, the constraints upon him and the pressures that may be effective against him. If Washing-ton, fixated on Mr. Kim’s record of brazen lies and broken promises, focuses on nailing him to the wall, with every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed, it may come away with nothing when a more intuitive approach could have been tried.
If I were a negotiator what I would want to know is this: How does Mr. Kim understand himself? Is he simply a contemptible cynic who enjoys blondes and Bordeaux while his subjects suffer? Or does he believe in himself as a man of destiny, with a responsibility to the myths he has cultivated about himself?
* The writer is editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Hal Piper