[Viewpoint] Where the North went wrongI had mixed feelings as I covered Kim Jong-il’s fifth visit to China last week. The five-day, four-night trip was a complicated one.
In retrospect, I felt exactly the same when I visited Dandong - the Chinese city bordering Sinuiju, North Korea - in 2007 and again in December 2009.
This time around, it was uncomfortable to see the chairman of the North’s National Defense Commission touring the bustling Chinese industrial towns of Dalian and Tianjin.
The motorcade of over 50 luxury sedans rolling through the streets of the Chinese capital of Beijing - which were lined with high-rise buildings, a testament to its progress - evoked bitter feelings.
China has accomplished an astonishing level of economic development through market reform and openness over the last three decades. Chairman Kim was so impressed by the country’s prosperity and advancement that he called it a “cataclysmic change.”
In contrast, North Korea has been keeping itself shut off from the outside world, advocating the juche ideology of self-reliance. The juxtaposition between China and North Korea was very distinct on the trip, and the contrast made me uneasy.
The differing outcomes for each country can be traced to the ruling styles of the two leaders, who were both born in 1942. The lives of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and Chinese President Hu Jintao have certain similarities, though they also feature crucial differences.
Both leaders graduated from the most prestigious university in their respective countries. Kim Jong-il went to Kim Il Sung University, and Hu Jintao was educated at Tsinghua University. Chairman Kim majored in political science and is an expert in propaganda and ideology. President Hu, in contrast, is a technocrat with a science and engineering background and solid experience in industrial fields.
In the early 1980s, Kim and Hu were standing at a similar starting point. Kim was selected as the heir to North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in 1980; Hu was recognized for his competency and was promoted to the position of the secretary of the Communist Youth League.
However, the two leaders are facing reality from completely different positions 30 years later.
President Hu practices a CEO-style leadership and values the process of searching for a solution based on established facts. He is the leader who solved the long-cherished task of fully feeding the people. His focus on humanism is garnering the support of the Chinese people. Also, China has become the world’s hottest market, and people and money from around the world are flocking into the country to realize the “China Dream.”
Today, China is the only country in the world that is able to stand up to the United States. Through peaceful discussion within the Communist Party of China, Beijing internally selected a successor without generating too much controversy.
So how has Kim fared? He has adhered to a dogmatic ruling style. And, because of that, he has failed to accomplish proper reform and has shifted accountability for failure to Korea and the United States.
Kim Jong-il is not providing his people with rice and soup. So many North Koreans choose to defect primarily because of the extreme poverty and starvation they face.
Moreover, Kim Jong-il is getting ready to hand over power to one of his sons. A three-generation power transfer is something that can only be found in a country with a monarchy.
When Kim Jong-il met with Hu Jintao this time, the North Korean leader made a significant remark: “I have come back to China after four years, and this time, I am able to newly understand and appreciate the remarkable development that China has accomplished.”
He also reportedly confessed that it was his duty to improve the standard of living for the people of North Korea.
At the moment, it is unclear if Kim Jong-il will be able to make another visit to China in his lifetime. However, he has already made five tours of China so far, and they must have been enough for him to realize how the country was able to achieve such glorious economic development and why North Korea is struggling.
The time has come for the North Korean leader to show that the country is changing by actually practicing reform rather than just talking about it.
Chairman Kim Jong-il does not have much time to prove himself.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is the Beijing correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Chang Se-jeong