[Viewpoint] Challenge, opportunity in the North

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[Viewpoint] Challenge, opportunity in the North

A nurse named Chaesun was assigned to Kim Il Sung. She recorded Kim’s blood pressure everyday and sometimes chatted with him. Kim Jong-il ordered her and secretary Ri Dae-chon to manage the North Korean founder’s health. Kim Jong-il also controlled the telephones to make sure his father could not make calls late at night. He received a real-time briefing on his father’s last field trip to meet economic workers. When Kim Il Sung died, his doctor could not hold up his head before Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-il signed his father’s death certificate, which said he died of a myocardial infarction, complicated with heart shocks. Kim Jong-il chose a photo of his father smiling brightly to be used for the funeral. He then said, “The Great Leader’s dying instructions are our eternal guidelines.”

The above story is part of a 1997 North Korean novel, “Eternal Life.” It chronicled the last months of Kim Il Sung’s life, January to July 1994. Although fiction, it reads like a documentary. The book allows readers to make an educated guess about what life was like for Kim Jong-il toward the end and how the North Korean military moves during funeral and mourning periods.

The cause of death for Kim Il Sung in the book was exactly the same as for Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-il’s photo on the front page of Tuesday’s Rodong Shinmun also shows a bright smile. It seems the atmosphere in the North hasn’t changed much in 17 years.

But the situation surrounding it differs fundamentally. Did Kim Jong-un control Kim Jong-il’s telephones? Was he briefed on his father’s field tours? Kim Jong-il fought for power, while Kim Jong-un inherited it. Kim Jong-il established Kim Il Sung’s eternal leadership. Kim Jong-un has not had time to build up his legitimacy beyond his Mount Paektu blood line and an independent ideology.

His father’s “military first” policy could be a shackle. While the country’s capital and technology have seen no improvement, labor forces are limited. He has no choice but to rely on China, and the pro-China faction could win power.

Although the state media called Kim Jong-un the sole leader, a collective leadership appears unavoidable. The hole created by Kim Jong-il’s death is too big for his son to fill.

Around the time “Eternal Life” was published, another novel, the “Saga of History,” appeared in the North to discuss Kim Jong-il’s nuclear game against the United States. It may be an irony of history that Kim Jong-il ended his history of madness this year. Will Kim Jong-un be able to publish sequels to “Eternal Life” and “Saga of History” three years from now?

North Korea’s transition is both a challenge and an opportunity for us. There has never been a similar power vacuum in Pyongyang. A great game to fill the vacancy has begun on the Korean Peninsula, and Washington and Beijing are moving fast. They appear to be in line with the North Korean leadership, trying to facilitate a soft-landing for Kim Jong-un.

What is required of us? To start, should we recognize the Kim Jong-un regime? If we do, the time and method are important.

We must see the North as it is, not as we went it to be. Third-generation power succession is a reality, and it is happening right in front of our eyes. Whether we like it or not is an attitude, not a policy.

What does the North want from us and what can it give? We must open a channel. Until now, the administration’s slogan was, “Trust nothing, verify.” The North, however, could open up when the slogan changes to “Trust, but verify.” Only then can we create our policy. It is never too late to make a new game plan.

At the same time, we must pay special attention to our domestic situation. It is the government’s duty to handle an emergency in the North. Information is the starting point for policy and response. The National Intelligence Service and the military’s information on the North must be consolidated. It is time for a foreign affairs and security strategist to be appointed as head of the main spy agency. It must be a nonpolitical person who will work for national interests, not those of an administration. That is also a sign of advancing democracy.

Foreign affairs will also need prioritizing for some time. The more diplomacy between the four superpowers’ presidents and working-level officials, the better. How the Lee Myung-bak administration handles the current situation in the North could decide its legacy.


*The writer is the editor of international news at the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Young-hwan
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