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Kim Jong-Il: The “Great Successor”

December 19, 2011

Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung

Updated after the death of the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il.

As the world speculates over what makes “Brilliant Comrade” Kim Jong-Un tick,  I figure it may be worthwhile to give this 1994 cable a re-read and remember that the next leader of North Korea won’t necessarily be better than the last.

It’s the 9 July 1994 cable announcing the death of North Korea’s “Great Leader,” Kim Il-Sung.  This State Department cable reported to embassies that it had learned of Kim Il-Sung’s death through North Korean media reports (not intelligence sources), and implied that other countries may have better intelligence on the situation than the US.  It instructed embassies abroad to use their foreign contacts because they “have representation in Pyongyang and are well positioned to provide information on developments.”

Father and Son

The cable alluded to the warming of relations between North Korea and the US during the early Clinton administration and appeared to be cautiously optimistic that Kim Il-Sung’s death would not derail North Korean engagement.  The cable hedged that “DPRK public themes are focusing on continuity of policy” although “we assume that North Koreans will turn inward during the is period of morning.”

This optimism  stemmed from the belief that Kim Il-Sung’s son, Kim Jong-Il would steer North Korea in a more pragmatic and engaged direction than his father.  In fact, an earlier 1990 Department of State memo entitled “Kim Jong-Il Takes Charge,” gave Kim Jong-Il almost complete credit for Korea’s recent foreign policy engagement.

9 July 1994 State Department Cable announcing Kim Il-Sung's death.

The 1994 cable announced that Kim Il-Song’s death was due to a heart attack.  (Not the softball-sized calcium deposit he was reported to have on his neck.)  It also reported that Kim Jong-Il was being referred to by state media as the “Great Successor,” and that he was heading his father’s funeral committee—firm signs that he would be the next leader of North Korea.

The cable also reported that there were “no signs of unusual military activity in North Korea or along the DMZ.” (Phew).  And that despite President Clinton’s willingness to send a delegation to Kim Il-Sung’s funeral, “foreigners would not be invited to attend.” North Korean television footage of the funeral portrayed it as an incredibly traumatic event; after I watched it, I had no doubts that Kim Il-Sung’s cult of personality was genuine.

Kim Jong-Il and Vladimir Putin in Pyongyang. On another occasion, Kim -who is afraid of flying- traveled all the way to Moscow on an armored train. He had fresh lobsters airlifted to him along his journey.

Hopes that Kim Jung-Il would be easier to do business with than his father did not materialize.  Despite meetings with Jimmy Carter, Madeline Albright (who gave him a basketball signed by Michael Jordan), and on-and-off participation in six party talks, North Korea continues to maintain nuclear weapons, menace South Korea, and even recently demanded that the United States pay it $64.95 trillion in reparations for “human and material damage.”  (A tough sell in this economy.)

Kim Jong-Il “routinely shot three or four holes-in one” per round of golf, produced a film entitled Diary of a Girl Student, amassed a 20,000 videotape collection, composed six operaskidnapped a movie star, was a self-proclaimed “internet expert,” stared in a Parker/Stone film, invented an invisible telephone, and ordered his World Cup coach to implement a cockamamie strategy that made his nation’s team lose embarrassingly 0-7.

More soberingly, he starved, purged, and killed millions upon millions of his own subjects.  Defectors report that staying alive in North Korea is “worse than death.” The difference between living “free” in North Korea and living in a camp is “more one of degree than of kind.”

Let us hope that Kim Jong-Un –who cuts his hair like (and may have had plastic surgery to resemble) Kim Il-Sung– is a better successor than Kim Jong-Il.

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