Kim Jong-il, the North Korean “Dear Leader” (as well as Secretary-General of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Chairman of the National Defense Commission, Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, etc, etc.) is dead at 69. The news that the diminutive leader of the most unpleasant despotism in the world is no longer going to regale us with his elevator shoes, oversize glasses and bouffant hairdo would be unworthy of attention, were it not for the existence of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and the anachronistic presence of U.S. troops in South Korea.
Kim was the son and heir of North Korea’s long-term Communist dictator Kim Il-sung. He was born in late 1941 in the Soviet Far East, where his father commanded a Red Army brigade composed of Korean and Chinese exiles. His official biography was doctored, however, to claim that he was born on Korean soil in 1942, in an area controlled by the Communist resistance forces led by his father. Everything else that is officially known about him is also a lie, including the miraculous signs that supposedly attended his birth (according to the official North Korean News Agency it was accompanied by the appearance of a bright star in the sky and a double-rainbow that touched the earth), the details of his education, and the intricacies of his complex family life. What we do know is that he was a film buff with a collection of 20,000 foreign movies and a connoisseur of fine French cognacs, neither of which appears to have softened his propensity to cruelty and capricious eccentricity.
By 1982 Kim Sr. had bestowed on him several senior Party, legislative, and military posts. As heir-apparent he took the designation of “Dear Leader” and was hailed as “the worthy successor to the cause of the revolution.” A grotesque personality cult was swiftly built around him, similar to the one enjoyed by his father, whom he succeeded on Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994. Hymns were composed in his honor, his images were hewn into rocky mountainsides, and his pictures added to those of his father in every office, classroom, and home.
In the late 1990s Kim Jong-il invested heavily into the already bloated military (songun, “army first”), with an emphasis on the nuclear program which was crowned with an A-bomb test in 2006, and a second shortly after President Obama’s inauguration. He pursued his father’s ruinous economic policy of strict autarky (“self-reliance,” juche) with fanatical zeal, effectively ending foreign trade even with North Korea’s only foreign friend, China. Economic mismanagement eventually resulted in a catastrophic famine which is conservatively estimated to have claimed over two million lives, or ten percent of the population, by 1997.
In late spring 2009 Kim Jong-il started grooming his youngest son, Kim Jong-un (b., 1983), as his successor. The youngster was duly designated “The Brilliant Comrade,” but since the rules of succession had not been formally announced prior to Kim Jong-il’s death it is uncertain whether it will proceed uncontested. His ability to establish himself in power will depend primarily on the loyalty of the army top brass and the willingness of the narrow ruling elite—which includes several relatives from his grandfather’s extended family—to respect Kim Jong-il’s wishes. The first signs are encouraging for the youngster: the ruling party has called on the nation to unite “under the leadership of our comrade Kim Jong-un,” and he was also named head of the committee that will oversee his father’s funeral on December 28.
On the foreign front the successors will inherit a position fairly stable in the short term. Kim Jong-il proved a capable negotiator, extracting a series of American concessions in return for a halt to his nuclear weapons buildup. The U.S. put North Korea on its list of state sponsors of terrorism after North Korean agents planted a bomb that blew up a South Korean passenger jet in 1987, on Kim Jong-il’s direct orders, according to one of the agents who was caught alive. In October 2008 the Bush Administration agreed to remove Pyongyang from its terrorism blacklist in return for the North’s commitment to dismantle its nuclear program. The deal was reached within the framework of the six-party talks (China, Japan, Russia, the United States, North and South Korea), whereby Pyongyang agreed to allow teams of international inspectors to visit its Yongbyon plutonium-processing facility in return for much needed foreign aid.
Playing the nuclear card—the only one he had amidst economic ruin and political isolation—had paid handsome diplomatic and economic dividends to Kim Jong-il over the years. “When the history of this era is written,” Graham Allison, a Harvard professor and expert on proliferation, was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “the scorecard will be Kim 8, Bush 0.” But if “he was the greatest master of survival, against all odds,” added Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, “it was his own people who paid the price, and the price was pretty high.”
Whoever succeeds Kim, the United States should plan on withdrawing the remaining American troops from the Korean peninsula. It should be left to the countries immediately concerned—South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia—to deal with his successors to the best of their abilities. The U.S. response to Communist aggression in Korea in the summer of 1950 was fully justified. In the ensuing decades it was necessary to maintain U.S. forces in South Korea, as neither China nor the USSR could be relied upon to keep Kim Il-sung in check. Over the past three decades, however, the picture has been altered beyond recognition. China and Russia owe no favors to Pyongyang and are loath to underwrite its ruinous economic policies at home, let alone to condone any adventurism abroad. More importantly, South Korea is now one of the most powerful economies in the world. It has the financial and scientific wherewithal to become a first-class military power. It is more than capable of checking threats from North Korea, which remains mired in an Oriental brand of Stalinism—the most oppressive police state in the world, and one of the poorest in terms of per capita consumption.
As I noted in this column over three years ago, removing the American umbrella from South Korea would be beneficial to both sides because the U.S. would be disengaged from a spot where the dangers of continued military presence exceed benefits, while South Korea would be forced to end its dependence on Washington for its defense:
American withdrawal would prompt South Korea finally to become a mature, self-reliant regional power fully responsible for its self-protection, as befits one of the most highly developed industrial economies in the world. It would also force it to diversify its portfolio of foreign contacts, possibly leading to a Russian-South Korean or a Chinese-South Korean alliance, either of which is preferable to an open-ended American guarantee… America has no national interest in retaining troops in Korea or in continuing to protect Seoul. Old habits may die hard, but the 55-year habit of garrisoning South Korea has to be kicked because it is dangerous, expensive, and unnecessary. To the argument that South Korea’s military is not strong enough to withstand the threat from the North, the answer is clear: only by removing our tripwire can America finally force South Korea to upgrade its military and to make its people assume the full economic and political burden of defending their own country. For exactly the same reason American troops should be removed from Japan and Germany. A strategic anachronism five decades old would thus be finally ended.
The above conclusions from October 2008 still stand, word for word. It is to be feared that the Obama Administration will not contemplate an American withdrawal from Korea because of its newly-fangled policy of encircling China, which is manifest in the decision to station U.S. Marines in Darwin, in northern Australia. In view of President Obama’s sudden outburst of bellicose oratory at the sixth East Asian Summit in Bali last month (China must “play by the rules” and stop her “military advances,” he declared, and the United States “will send a clear message to [the Chinese] that we think that they need to be on track in terms of accepting the rules and responsibilities that come with being a world power”) the GIs will stay put along the 38th parallel for many years to come.