Although Kim Jong Il is not responsible for starting nuclear research and development programs that were begun while his father was in control of the country, Kim has perpetuated them. Despite numerous serious problems within his country, Kim Jong Il promises to cease producing nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable weapons, but then violates the agreements. Countries close to North Korea, like South Korea and Japan, are concerned for their own safety. They believe that a nuclear attack against their countries is a real possibility. Other countries are angry at what they see as Kim's brash disregard for any agreements; some see any agreements made with North Korea as essentially worthless and consider time spent on negotiations wasted.
One reason for Kim's behavior might have to do with his own background. Since childhood, he has been denied nothing. He is never contradicted within his own country; and, as dictator, Kim has total command over North Korea. He controls both the government and the media. This being the case, some believe that Kim feels as entitled to have his own way outside his country as he does within it. Although North Korea is quite small in comparison to other countries, Kim knows that his country controls a legitimate threat. That threat is the North Korean potential to harm other countries with its nuclear weapons.
As to the state of his mental and physical health, because Kim keeps any mention of his personal affairs under tight control, it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction about the leader of
this tiny country. Some say he is a brilliant strategist, whereas others insist he is a madman. Either way, nuclear weapons at the disposal of this man is an issue that governments around the world watch closely.
An ongoing insecure relationship exists between Kim, the United States, and other countries over these nuclear issues. Kim Jong Il shows no sign of breaking the pattern of making and then backing out of nuclear agreements, begun when his father was in power. For instance, in 2002, North Korean officials admitted
they had a program to enrich uranium for producing nuclear weapons, a direct violation of the 1994 agreement. Additionally, that same year, North Korea expelled United Nations nuclear inspectors who were carefully monitoring more than 8,000 plutonium rods. The inspectors were concerned because these rods could be developed into material for nuclear warfare.
In 2003 when the United States offered humanitarian aid to North Korea, if, in turn, North Korea would show good faith by decreasing their nuclear program, North Korea rejected the offer. In fact, the North Korean government strongly hinted that they were, at that time, reprocessing those rods for nuclear weapons and had reactivated their nuclear reactors. According to experts, the rods had the energy potential of twenty nuclear bombs. However, since inspectors had been hindered in their work and then expelled from the country, they were unable to determine if bombs had actually been made. Additionally, North Korea committed a threatening gesture by firing a missile into the Sea of Japan in March of that same year. Also in March, the government of North Korea said it would reject all demands to allow further nuclear inspections. In June, the United States insisted that not only did North Korea have to stop its nuclear weapons program completely, it also had to dismantle its program before talk of concessions or aid began. These conditions were set because previous efforts by the U.S. government to buy North Korean compliance had been unsuccessful. For instance, during the Clinton administration (1993–2000), the United States had tried such incentives as food, fuel, and committing to build North Korea two less dangerous nuclear plants, but North Korea continued churning out nuclear devices, despite its agreements not to do so.
North Korea responded by threatening to build a nuclear deterrent force that would be capable of neutralizing any attack and insisted that the United States end its hostile stance toward North Korea. Other verbal volleys were fired between the United States and North Korea, with North Korea, despite ongoing threats of its nuclear capabilities, claiming it has no uranium enrichment program and the United States insisting that it has. The United States also criticized Kim and North Korea for developing its nuclear program while allowing its people to go hungry.
Kim appears to delight in his role as a nuclear blackmailer. With his habit of threatening to renounce all previous agreements, which he appears to be ignoring anyway, the United States and its allies are well aware that North Korea is a serious problem. In fact, North Korea makes little effort to hide the fact that it has been doing nuclear-related business with Iran.
As Kim continued to posture and threaten, the United States and allied countries worked to figure out how to deal with this nuclear blackmail diplomatically, while avoiding a situation in which every country in proximity to North Korea felt the need
to have its own nuclear deterrents. Such a scenario could lead to full-scale nuclear war in East Asia. Regarding diplomacy, China may be the key. Although Chinese relations with North Korea may not be as close as they once were, China still has some leverage over Kim. As of 2003 China was the North Korean's major source of food and fuel. Like the United States and other countries, China does not want Kim and North Korea to have nuclear armaments. In addition, North Korean refugees have overrun the Liaoning province in China, causing many problems in that region. It would be better for China if North Koreans remained in their own country and if the refugees in the economically depleted Liaoning province returned to North Korea.
Despite whoever acts as go-between, negotiations appear to have little effect on North Korean nuclear programs. North Korean officials stated that the country had performed its first nuclear test in October 2006 in the Hwaderi province, near Kilju City. China was given a twenty-minute warning of the impending test, and China told the United States, Japan, and South Korea. The closest North Korean ally, China, condemned the test and demanded that North Korea stop any further action that could make the situation worse.
The Chinese foreign ministry was outraged by this blatant display. They made their feelings known in a formal statement on their national website: “The DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) has ignored the widespread opposition of the international community and conducted a nuclear test brazenly on October 9.”17
A little more than two years after the test, despite its earlier tough stance, the United States again promised North Korea food, fuel, and even the possibility of economic recognition in return for their good behavior. For its part, North Korea was expected to put a freeze on its plutonium facilities and allow nuclear inspectors admission to the sites. However, North Korea said that the deal the United States was offering was not enough. They also wanted back the $24 million in funds that had been frozen in the Banco Delta Asia of Macau, a measure the United States had taken when they suspected North Korea of counterfeiting American currency. This was an especially sensitive issue, because it is believed that
if these funds are released, Kim will pocket the money and, as is his habit, violate his part of the agreement, likely conducting another bomb test, in a show of strength.
April 2007 brought another development in the talks, an announcement in the Chinese capital that, by December 31, North Korea would provide a complete list of its nuclear programs and allow an inspection team, led by the United States, to oversee the disabling of an experimental reactor, a nuclear fuel rod facility, and a reprocessing plant. However, by the end of 2007, nuclear talks were at another standstill.
Kim Jong Il's Sixty-fifth Birthday Bash
On February 16, 2007, a lavish production of military displays, huge precision dance troops, and flowery speeches marked the sixty-fifth birthday of Kim Jong Il. Korean television showed a huge flag of the Korean Workers' Party prominently displayed as a backdrop for a host of party dignitaries. In honor of the occasion, the state-controlled media issued this statement: “Your birth as a bright star of Mt. Paektu was the greatest event as it promised the happiness and prosperity of the Korean nation.”
It appears the North Korean people may have to wait longer for this prosperity. In fact, analysts doubt that the citizens received the extra food ration that generally marks Kim's birthday. The country is experiencing chronic food shortages as well as economic sanctions.
Peter Walker, “Kim Jong Il Celebrates His 65th,” Guardian.co.uk, February 16, 2007. www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/feb/16/northkorea.
According to a March 2008 article in the Christian Science Monitor, Kim was eager to talk about the issues of the December
impasse. However, despite considerable proof to the contrary, he denies that the North Korean nuclear program is active. He also denies the charges that his country has been exporting nuclear aid to unstable areas such as Iran and Syria. Despite the lack of success of previous agreements with Kim and his officials, parties involved in the negotiations continue to hope for and work toward a resolution.
If there is anything as uncertain in North Korea as the state of its nuclear agreements, it is the state of Kim Jong Il's health. First, according to sources, his eyesight is growing weak. He now relies on television, rather than newspapers, to keep up with world news, including reactions to his nuclear activities.
Other health-related issues are considerably more serious, such as the emergency heart bypass procedure he supposedly underwent in May 2007. Despite the cloak of secrecy that surrounds his personal life, sources say that a team of German doctors was flown into Pyongyang to perform the surgery. Allegedly, he also suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney and liver problems, and digestive problems. Reports state that Kim receives treatment, under extreme secrecy, for his other health problems in Beijing, China, because the North Korean health system is so inferior.
If these sources are to be believed, Kim's diabetes has progressed to the point that he cannot walk any distance without having to rest. Very short-winded, he must be accompanied by an assistant with a chair so he can sit and regain his breath. If this report is true, he could also be suffering from congestive heart failure.
As reclusive as he has been in recent years, his public appearances were even more curtailed in 2007 and 2008. He has only been seen in public a couple of dozen times since 2007, about half of the number of appearances of the previous year. The only positive report about his physical health is that he has stopped smoking and lost weight. He has even forbidden anyone to smoke
in his presence. Wherever he goes, his surroundings immediately become no smoking areas. If his officials feel the need to smoke, they go outside. Accounts of his weight loss may not be an encouraging sign, however, as another report indicated Kim appeared physically emaciated, with dry skin and noticeable hair loss.
Some stories have circulated about Kim's mental condition as well. One intelligence source states that since about 2005 Kim has been suffering from symptoms that may be Alzheimer's Disease or senile dementia. Dementia is caused by damage to the cerebral nerve cells. This damage causes loss of memory and intelligence. Alzheimer's Disease is similar to senile dementia, except the earliest symptoms may appear as early as in one's forties or fifties. The first symptom is usually impaired memory, followed by difficulties with speech and thought. This pair of symptoms usually becomes apparent somewhere in the person's seventies. The condition finally progresses to complete helplessness.
Supposedly, his inner circle of aides is bypassing Kim on some policy decisions. Whereas Kim had always made decisions after personally approving reports submitted directly to him, his aides now handle some of these policy-making decisions, because they are concerned about his behavior and his mental state. His aides also worry about potential behavior problems when Kim goes on a tour. They are fearful of what he might do or say, and they are unable to control his sometimes strange behavior, which might include not recognizing some of his own key people or unprovoked angry outbursts.
As with many stories about Kim, it is difficult to verify this information. Official reports from North Korea indicate that Kim is fine and is taking care of business as usual. In fact, one report states that Kim's disappearance from public in 2007 is a political strategy to get international attention. The purpose of such a strategy, however, is unclear.
In October 2007 South Korean president Roh Moo Hyun traveled to Pyongyang to meet with Kim for the first North-South summit since the end of World War II, when the country was divided. The first evening of Roh's visit, Kim appeared pale and weak, but seemed recovered the next day. He told the press: “I have no reason to stay home. I'm not a patient.”18
As to what could account for such a rapid turnaround in his physical appearance, one report out of East Asia in 2006 indicated that Kim has at least two exact doubles, men of a very similar body type to Kim, who had extensive plastic surgery and were taught to speak and behave like Kim at public events. It is said
that their resemblance to Kim is so exact that it is difficult, even at close range, to tell whether the Kim presiding over an event is the real thing or one of his doubles. Supposedly, Kim uses these doubles when his health is poor, because as a dictator, it is not to his advantage to appear weak. They are also used when there is danger of an attack against Kim. Whether or not this is the explanation for Kim's drastic change during the summit is merely speculation.
Kim has supposedly responded to reports of his deteriorating health. Official North Korean sources say he called these accounts about his declining health the work of novelists. He insists that his health is still fine and that he is fully in charge of his country.
Chances for Reunification
According to some analysts, North and South Korea have no desire to reunite. For such a reunification to take place, the North would have to abandon its nuclear program which, history has shown, is probably not on Kim's agenda. Kim's regime may also fear the thought of open trade, which goes against their principle of juche. Additionally, many South Koreans fear that unification might significantly lower their standard of living.
The United States and a number of other countries favor reunification. It could result in stronger east-west ties. It could also greatly reduce the burdens currently on the shoulders of U.S. peacekeepers, who are already spread thinly throughout the world.
In 2008 at only sixty-seven years old, Kim was a bit young for the advanced effects of Alzheimer's or senile dementia, but his excessive lifestyle, including heavy partying and his consumption of large quantities of liquor and rich foods throughout his lifetime, could have caused the early onset of some potentially serious health conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. His father, Kim Il Sung, died from a heart attack, and heart conditions run in families. Regardless of any reports supporting or denying health problems, these are conditions that may negatively affect the present and future condition of Kim's health.
Unsubstantiated reports concerning Kim's health have led to speculations about who will replace him, when the time comes. His brother-in-law, Chang Song Taek, husband of Kim's younger sister, Kim Kyung Hee, was one of his closest confidants and vice-director of the Organization and Guidance Department. Chang was described at one time as the number two man in North Korea. However, he apparently dropped from favored status in 2003 or 2004. He no longer lives with his wife, Kim's sister, but it is not known if this is the reason for his fall from favor.
Kim's eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, was at one time high on the list of potential successors. With a natural talent for languages and working with computers, he had some significant skills to bring to the table. However, he seriously damaged his opportunity due to his well-publicized attempt to sneak into Japan. He was arrested at the New Tokyo International Airport, now Narita International Airport, in Narita, Japan. After his arrest, he was deported to China. Apparently, he has not worked his way back into his father's good graces. As of 2006, he was living in exile in Macau, China. He moves from one five-star hotel to another, where he enjoys the nightlife and lives it up in and around the gambling capital of Asia.
Other possibilities include Kim's two sons by Ko Young Hee, Kim Jong Chul and Kim Jong Woong. Kim Jong Chul, Kim's eldest son by Ko Young Hee, was educated at the School of Berne in Switzerland under an assumed name. Students who knew him there referred to him as a “nice guy” and said he played on the basketball team. After school, he worked in the North Korean propaganda department and, in 2007, was named chief deputy of a leadership division of the Workers' Party. Because he is the elder of the two brothers, some people who have inside knowledge of North Korean government say he is being groomed for North Korea's highest post and that, although he has no military training himself, he nevertheless has the backing of the military. This support may have eroded, though, since his mother's death. Said to have been Kim Jong Il's favorite consort, she was often referred to as “esteemed mother” and “most loyal companion.”
It is a possibility according to some people close to Kim that the dictator believes that Kim Jong Chul would not make a good successor because Kim thinks this particular son may be too soft and sensitive for the position.
Kim's youngest son by Ko Young Hee, Kim Jong Woong, is considered another strong contender. However, the issue of his age could get in the way of his succession. Only in his early twenties
in 2008, analysts say he is far too young to lead the country, should Kim die. Of all potential successors, less is known about Kim Jong Woong. Many news agencies did not even know of his existence until about 2001.There are not even any known photographs of this young man. Like his older brother, he is thought to have been educated outside of North Korea and is also a basketball fan. Nicknamed “Morning Star King” by his late mother, those who know him say he looks, speaks, and acts much like his father, who apparently dotes on him.
Despite Kim Jong Woong's favored status with his father, Kim Jong Nam apparently still has some influence. Chung Hyung Geun, an official with an Asian conservative party, speculated about who would be the next leader of North Korea in an interview in 2006: “For now, (first son) Kim Jong Nam is said to be a favorite, but his carefree life got him into trouble with Kim Jong Il. However, since China supports Kim Jong Nam, this could touch off something like a ‘war of princes.’”19
Regardless of who succeeds Kim, though, analysts say that a change in leadership could cause chaos in North Korea, which could lead to problems for other communist countries. China, for instance, fears that the fall of the North Korean government could lead to an even greater influx of North Koreans into China. They also fear that, if North and South Korea reunify, U.S. troops could some day be stationed on the border between China and Korea. Russia, too, is worried about a possible collapse of the communist government, the Workers' Party, in North Korea. Their concerns are much the same as those of the Chinese, an influx of North Koreans into Russia and the presence of U.S. troops on their borders.
Asia Times journalist, Sung Yoon Lee, predicts what the future could hold if Kim's regime collapses: “Should the regime collapse, providing North Korean refugees with basic necessities like food, water, medicine and shelter will be just one part of a large-scale crisis management project. The reconstruction of North Korea will be a monumental undertaking that will require the concerted effort of the international community.”20
Should Kim Jong Il die anytime soon, his top military officers would probably take over. An extreme scenario for such
a takeover would be tremendous loss of life in both North and South Korea as well as economic disaster for the entire Korean peninsula. At the very least, if the border between North and South Korea were thrown open, the North Koreans, isolated and brainwashed for decades, would likely suffer a severe culture shock. The most disastrous consideration, though, is the thought of nuclear weapons in a country in chaos.
However, if Kim's health holds out, he will still have time to groom his successor as well as to open the country to a more mainstream economy by putting more goods and property into the hands of average people, not just the privileged classes. Despite being the absolute ruler of North Korea, there may yet be time for Kim, if he is physically and mentally healthy enough, to make changes that would benefit his country and bring it into a more cooperative position with the rest of the world. Though his past behavior does not support such a spirit of cooperation, given the right circumstances, anything is possible.