Kim Jong Il: The Truth Behind The Caricature

As one with long experience in the Vietnam War--first in Washington, D.C., as we slid into the abyss and later as a CIA officer in the provinces surrounding Saigon--I am deeply concerned by the American establishment's tendency to demonize antagonistic foreign leaders we do not understand. Kim Jong Il of North Korea is now being subjected to the same ridicule that we applied to Ho Chi Minh of North Vietnam for years. We now see "Uncle Ho" as a man who was not necessarily our enemy--but that perspective came too late to avoid war and its tragic consequences. As we did with Ho, we are now filling in the gaps of our knowledge about Kim with prejudice.

Let's face it: Chairman Kim is easy to caricature. And no one should entertain any illusions about the horrendous human costs the system over which he presides exacts from the people of North Korea, many of whom don't have enough food to survive the winter. At the same time, I believe it is counter-productive to treat Kim in a derisive or disdainful manner. For all his defects, he demonstrates a willingness to learn from neighboring countries' economic policies and to differentiate his rule from that of his father, Kim Il Sung.

I've spoken with Chinese, Russian, South Korean and American officials who have seen Kim in action. When Kim visited a Buick plant near Shanghai, the Chinese heard him excoriate members of his entourage, saying, "Why aren't we doing this in North Korea!" Kim shows a consistent interest in establishing "special economic zones"--the key to China's development.

A senior Russian diplomat who sat with Kim during his month-long train trip to Moscow in 2001 told me that Kim admitted he does not like to fly, but said the reason he was traveling by rail was to "see how Russia is changing, something you cannot observe from the air." Kim's questions as his train passed through both industrial and agricultural areas were "perceptive and highly intelligent." A second Russian diplomat told me that upon his return to Pyongyang, Kim sent a note to President Putin that said, "You have made wise choices for your country. Communism will never return to Russia." (The Putin-Kim relationship is flourishing. During my visit to Pyongyang last November, the hotel was festooned with pictures of a recent Kim-Putin meeting in Vladivostok.)

I have spoken at length with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung about his 2000 summit meeting with Chairman Kim. President Kim said that the northern leader was highly intelligent and a flexible thinker. Another Seoul official told me Kim has become interested in "re-evaluating" the late Park Chung Hee, South Korea's president from 1963 to 1979. (North Korean agents tried to kill Park in the infamous "Blue House raid" of 1968.) Last April, Kim told this official he realized that North Korea needed "someone like Park" to stimulate its economy. Kim subsequently invited Park's daughter, Park Geun Hye, a member of South Korea's National Assembly, to visit him in Pyongyang. I met briefly with Ms. Park last June, and she spoke enthusiastically of her visit--like many South Koreans, she is willing to set aside her bitterness in favor of her hopes for the future.

Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright told me Kim has a strong desire for improved relations with America. She and others who accompanied her to Pyongyang in October 2000 know that there are hard-liners, military leaders and staunch Marxists within Kim's government who do not share that objective.

In my view, the most significant indication of Kim's independence of mind was his confession to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan last September that North Korea had abducted 13 Japanese citizens during the 1970s and '80s. Kim's reference to those acts as "mistakes that will not be repeated" was an indirect rebuke of his father for operations undertaken on his watch. It was a stunning admission that the Great Leader had not been infallible, and a clear effort to establish better relations with Japan. Sad to say, the Japanese blew that chance with their hysterical and solipsistic reaction. (Their own government has never apologized for kidnapping thousands of Korean women to serve as Imperial Army prostitutes during World War II.)

So how are we to deal with this man, who stands staring at us, surrounded by the horrid detritus of 50 years of dictatorial rule? Are we to believe that he embodies hope for a new and different North Korea? Now we are filled with legitimate doubts, but reasonable certainty about Kim's potential cannot be reached through ridicule. We need to talk to him and to test him. Only then will we know what Kim Jong Il represents for the future of Korean-American relations.

Kim Jong Il: The Truth Behind The Caricature | News