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The Folly of Cozying Up to the Son of a Dictator

August 28, 1994|Michael Shapiro | Michael Shapiro, who teaches at the Columbia Journalism School, is the author of "The Shadow in the Sun: A Korean Year of Love and Sorrow" (Atlantic Monthly Press)

NEW YORK — It was one thing for departed North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung to consider negotiating away the one asset his country is believed to possess--its nuclear bomb--and not risk losing his head. It is quite another for his son and heir, Kim Jong Il, to so much as try.

The tentative agreement recently reached in Geneva between U.S. and North Korean negotiators, which would freeze Pyongyang's nuclear program, may well prove illusory. North Korea may balk at inspections that could determine whether it has diverted enough plutonium to build a bomb. There are also rumors of a power struggle in the North Korean capital.

The crisis has nothing to do with the younger Kim's presumed madness. Rather, what the United States confronts is a son who, his excesses aside, cannot be what his father was.

Think of North Korea after Kim Il Sung not as a Stalinist state in the midst of a transfer of power but as a condensed Yugoslavia after the death of Josip Tito. That is the degree to which factional bitterness and hatreds have dominated life on the Korean peninsula for virtually all its 5,000-year history. In Korea, power has always been a zero-sum game: If you have it, you have it all; if you lack it, you have nothing. Winners gloat and punish the losers, who brood and wait for their chance to turn the tables.

In his North Korea, Kim Il Sung was the state--the omniscient authority to whom legions of bureaucrats, military officers, and men and women of ambition were indebted. He was the mythologized founder, whose Orwellian cult of personality demanded--and in many ways achieved--a devotion his son cannot duplicate. And the debts Kim Il Sung accumulated do not necessarily pass from father to son, especially in the rush to fill the vacuum, now that the old man is gone.

The deceptive thing about tyrants, especially those who display the particular evil of a Kim Il Sung, is that the fear they engender masks their political skills. Kim stayed on his throne for almost 50 years not only because he was adept as playing the powerful off each other--Josef Stalin against Mao Tse-Tung was no mean accomplishment--but also because he could play the angry factions in his own country to his advantage. Kim knew when to purge, when to kill and when killing risked making blood feuds that he did not need. He knew when to call friends-turned-sudden-enemies back from internal exile and replace them in the cold with others he perceived as challengers. By doing this, he managed to survive at least three coup attempts.

Kim learned the lessons of manipulation and terror because there was no other way to rise and then to endure. Not so his son, who, at 53, has eased into middle age celebrated by his father's propagandists as the son of god. For years, Kim Jong Il has been sold to his nation as the apotheosis of filial piety, first, the propaganda goes, in trying

to ease the burden of leadership for his aging father and now, after his death, as the distraught and haggard heir, lost without his master. And while that is a powerful image in a society that so values the good works a son performs for his father, it is also an indication of just where Kim Jong Il finds himself--alone, no longer able to move beneath his father's considerable shadow.

His father gave Kim Jong Il his crown and put him in charge of the army and commissioned a mountain of hagiography celebrating the manifold accomplishments of the boss' boy, "the Dear Leader." But despite talk of Kim Jong Il's running the "day-to-day" business of government for some time, there is nothing to suggest that this is a man who knows--or, for that matter, has ever had to know--how to play the game the way his father could.

Now, he will have to play the army off the technocrats, the putative economic reformers against those who insist that any erosion of state control is tantamount to treason. Kim Jong Il will have to mediate between these antagonists as well as between his own relatives, distant and close, many of whom hold high government positions.

For Kim Jong Il to be seen as conciliatory toward his nation's most hated enemy--the United States--may damn him in the eyes of those in the military who see compromise as surrender and who might well move to topple him. On the other hand, if he resumes the pose of obstructionism, he risks losing the economic incentives that could come in a deal with the Americans. This, in turn, means alienating those who insist upon the need for reform; his countrymen who, by many accounts, are getting poorer and hungrier, and his last patron, the Chinese.

All this leaves the United States, for the foreseeable future, negotiating the end of the nuclear crisis with the representatives of a leader who has almost no room to maneuver.

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