Who We'll Be Dealing With

Article excerpt


It now appears U.S. and North Korean delegations will meet soon in Beijing, with the possibility of taking the Bush administration off the collision course it has maintained with reclusive North Korea over the past six months.

We should be thankful for that. War with North Korea is not an acceptable option. We would win a classic "Pyrrhic victory" with casualties in the hundreds of thousands among Americans, South Koreans and Japanese.

Just who is the leader of the country we will be dealing with, Chairman Kim Jong-il? Enigmatic, erratic, unpredictable, despotic, secretive, crazy, weird, loathsome: quite a list of heavy adjectives used often in the American media (often quoting Bush administration officials) to describe Mr. Kim, "The Dear Leader." This presents an interesting question because those in America who write about the 60-year-old Mr. Kim have never even met the man. Thus, conclusions about him are drawn from secondhand accounts or based on sheer rumor.

Unfortunately, the profile of Mr. Kim used by our intelligence agencies to advise government policymakers is drawn from similar sources. There is nothing necessarily wrong with disinformation as a tool of diplomacy so long as you don't get trapped into believing it yourself.

The Bush administration should think carefully about this as the debate develops over whether we should or should not hold talks with/ negotiate with/isolate/ use economic sanctions against/ use military force against the Stalinist state ruled by Mr. Kim in the name of his deceased father, "The Great Leader," Kim Il-sung, founder of North Korea.

So, the son. Who is he really? Depends on whose disinformation you believe that which has been spun by our intelligence agencies in Seoul and Washington during the decades of the Cold War, or that which has been propagated by Pyongyang for an equal period. There are stereotypes on both sides.

First, our stereotype. "The kid" was born during World War II and was pampered by his father from the beginning. He was privately tutored and never had to mingle in school with "common" North Korean kids. The name of the "grow-up game" was to make him happy and show him off around Pyongyang on special occasions.

There was no discipline, just catering to his whims while his father got on with the business of governing. He never had a serious thought in his life and, by the time he hit his 20s, was nothing but a troublemaker.

He became a binge drinker and a chain smoker. He drove fast cars around Pyongyang, sometimes shooting out traffic lights. He was a womanizer who had Scandinavian girls imported for service in his "Pleasure Palace." He became a devotee of porn films. When he did any serious work, it was studying acting or planning acts of terrorism. Bottom line? He has been an aberrant wastrel all his life.

Now a second stereotype based on some disinformation provided carefully to me in private sessions by his father, by his personal counselor and confidant, Secretary Kim Yong-Sun and by his former professor at Kim Il-sung University, Hwang Jong-Yop (before he defected to South Korea and changed his tune about "The Dear Leader"), and by many other senior North Korean civilian and military officials during hundreds of hours of meetings during my visits to the North.

That profile? He was a serious young man who spent countless thousands of hours at his father's knee learning leadership responsibilities he would inherit under the North Korean system of hereditary succession. …