[Viewpoint] The inconvenient truth of Kim

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[Viewpoint] The inconvenient truth of Kim

In March 2009, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visited the construction site of a hydroelectric power plant in Heecheon, Jagang Province. When he was told that construction would be completed in 10 years, Kim murmured that he probably won’t see its completion during his lifetime, according to a businessman who does business in North Korea and has connections with the elites up North. The ailing North Korean leader commanded them to speed up the construction, but as he suspected, he died in December last year without seeing the completion of the power plant on April 5.

Since his collapse due to a stroke in August 2008, Kim prepared meticulously for his posthumous hereditary succession to his third son Kim Jong-un. He wanted to leave a stable political, military and economic ruling order for his not-yet-30 and inexperienced son. He visited the Heecheon Power Plant construction site more than eight times, underscoring his state of urgency to complete the power grid that would supply electricity to the capital city, Pyongyang.

In the constitutional revision in April 2009, he added new authority to appoint or dismiss military commanders and leaders, and to declare a state of emergency and an at-war posture to the chairman of the National Defense Commission to establish an ironclad power arrangement for his heir Jong-un.

By shifting the combined responsibility from the defense committee council to an individual chairman, his son’s ruling authority will be safe and unquestioned by military elites. Despite his fragile health, Kim also visited China three times to campaign for support for his son’s leadership.

Thanks to his father’s endeavors, Kim Jong-un’s succession to power happened relatively smoothly despite his father’s sudden death. Last week, he formerly moved to the country’s top leadership positions as the first secretary of the Workers’ Party and first chairman of the National Defense Commission. The unprecedented hereditary rule for the third generation in a nonmonarchic society has been established. Nobody can say how long the Kim Jong-un regime can last.

But it is now official. The new leader of nuclear-armed and unpredictable Pyongyang regime Seoul and Washington must deal with is a young man in his late 20s. How to address the inexperienced Kim Jong-un regime remains the biggest test laid upon candidates running for presidential election in December.

South Korea’s policy on North Korea over the last two decades has been shifting to extremes. Under a conservative government like the incumbent Lee Myung-bak’s, Seoul demanded a denuclearized and open regime in return for aid and cooperation while hoping for implosion in Pyongyang.

The government was waging a kind of waiting and patience game. The liberal Kim Dae-jung government was more engaging and aggressive. It warmed up to Pyongyang with the so-called Sunshine Policy. It remained all-forgiving and charitable even after North Korean security guards fired at South Korean patrol ships and killed soldiers, saying it could not have been ordered by Kim Jong-il himself. Both policies failed to improve inter-Korean relations in a genuine sense. North Korea took revenge against South Korea’s hard-line government and attempted to control the generous liberal government.

We need to abandon the old uncreative policies and seek a third way to approach North Korea. The ruling and opposition parties must concoct and agree to a set of fundamental North Korean policies that would remain intact and consistent regardless of who takes power.

South Korea must respond strongly and decisively against any provocation from North Korea. It should impose sanctions to contain North Korea, but be aware that punitive actions cannot persuade North Korea to open up. North Korea had become less dependable to outside help due to financial patronage from China.

We need to pursue more engaging policy toward North Korea which will also help prevent further provocations. Seoul must be more aggressive in settling nuclear issues, improving inter-Korean ties and offering humanitarian aid.

*The writer is a senior fellow of the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Institute.

by Ahn Hee-chang
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