[Viewpoint] Kim Jong-il is sagging in the saddleThe latest newspaper photograph of North Korea s National Defense Commission chairman Kim Jong-il was shocking. The North Korean leader is 67 years old, an age that is no longer considered old in the South. Energetic senior citizens in the South play golf, climb mountains, take the subway to Cheonan and attend social events. The 67-year-old South Korean president travels all over the world and you rarely find him tired.
However, the sickly North Korean leader looks more like a feeble octogenarian. His washed-out face reflects the dark shroud now covering North Korea. In a society that is not ready for the death of the leader, the end might be far closer than expected. His picture reminded me of the warning on the side-view mirror: Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.
The three leaders who exert the most influence on the fate of the Korean Peninsula will be the highest office holders in South and North Korea and the president of the United States. Kim Jong-il has had many partners in the political shaping of the peninsula. A year and half before Kim came into power in 1994, after the passing of his father, Kim Il Sung, Kim Young-sam was elected president in South Korea, and Bill Clinton became the president of the United States. The North Korean dictator remained in the seat of power while the partners in the democratic countries changed. Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun succeeded Kim Young-sam in the South. The eight years of the Clinton administration were followed by eight years of the Bush administration. Kim Jong-il has had two Americans and three South Koreans as dance partners, or duelers.
Kim Jong-il wielded rogue power to draw world attention with his malevolent mischief. Ironically, U.S. President George W. Bush was the one who elevated the rogue power the most. In the State of the Union address in January 2002, President Bush declared that North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, was a card-carrying member of the axis of evil. Seven years have passed, and now the North is at the top of the list. Saddam Hussein s regime in Iraq was toppled by cruise missiles, and Iran s temper has softened considerably. Kim Jong-il is the only one to keep the anti-American spearhead sharpened. And it is the only regime among the axis of evil to possess nuclear weapons. It was during the Bush administration that North Korea became the world s ninth nuclear power. North Korea had been a forgotten country in terms of gross national product. However, it became one of the top three in what I call modified GNP, or Global Notoriety Product.
If the North s nuclear program was meant to elevate Kim Jong-il, the climax of his life must have been October 2006, when the North successfully tested an atomic bomb. The South Korean president at the time was Roh Moo-hyun. According to Roh, North Korea s nuclear program was for self-protection, to defend the regime from the United States. He thought it did not pose much threat to the South. President Roh was a partner who had tried to understand Kim Jong-il and behaved as a friend of the North throughout his administration.
Like cowboys dashing across the frontier in jeans, George W. Bush, Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il recklessly pushed their own doctrines. In the critical period of the 2000s, the three cowboys were galloping on horseback in the plains of the Korean Peninsula. President Bush and Kim Jong-il had rifles aimed at each other. Bush and Roh Moo-hyun dismounted from their horses and wrestled. Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il drank coffee together in a tent on the prairie under the stars.
However, the flamboyant cowboys have disappeared, or are fading away. President Bush went back to his ranch in Texas, while President Roh Moo-hyun is resting in peace. Maybe a man can keep up his spirit and energy only when there is someone who understands him or upsets him. As if the destiny had a design for them, the last cowboy is growing dramatically enfeebled as the other two cowboys have departed from the scene. He is so weak that he might fall off his horse any moment. But when the cowboys up and leave the frontier without any plan, peace is at stake. I wonder if 26-year-old Kim Jong-un even knows how to ride a horse. What will happen to the ranch when a clash takes place if the father leaves behind only a young son? Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Barack Obama need to clip on sheriff s badges as soon as possible.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin
More in Columns
A new epicenter of social conflict
Lessons from a president
Tales of Chairman Lee
Chinese way of tackling challenges
Time to step up climate action