Against All Odds: How 'Crazy' Kim Jong Il Outfoxed the World

Underestimated since he took power in 1994, the North Korean leader was shrewder, smarter, and saner than the popular caricatures give him credit for

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For years, almost any major news out of North Korea has been occasion for a special brand of grim humor about the country and its leader, Kim Jong Il. The man seemed to be wacky, we joked, and his style of rule was wild and crazy.

Kim's death, announced yesterday amid unrestrained crying by a matronly television announcer on the country's national network, was no exception. Official accounts attributed his demise to mental and physical exhaustion while riding on a train. Like so much about the country, this had an odd, even preposterous ring to it.

Today, as journalists, diplomats, and other analysts try to explain the workings of a country that has remained remarkably closed even as the world has grown hyper-connected, there is one story line, as commonplace as it is tempting, that demands refuting.

With his bouffant hair and elevator shoes, a fear of airplanes, an obsession with Hollywood movies, and an indulgent fondness for Scotch and caviar and other delicacies even amid famine, Kim was colorful and eccentric, and one might even argue evil. The one thing that he wasn't, though, was crazy.

The focus on Kim's foibles and on his reputed unpredictability always hampered understanding of the man and of the real nature of the regime. From beginning to end during 17 years of rule, he was capable of minutely sliced and, it must be stressed, rational calculations about how to stay in power and how to keep the world at bay.

The word rational will irk many, who find the images of craziness easier to swallow, given the immense suffering the Kim regime has visited on its people. Normally, most of us would like to believe that reason serves good ends and nudges people and nations toward relatively better outcomes. But that is a matter of our delusion, and not Kim's.

To understand another person, it is usually helpful to try to put oneself in his or her place, and with countries I can think of few examples where this exercise is more useful than on the Korean Peninsula. Kim Jong Il inherited power on his father's death in 1994, an era when the bloom had come suddenly off of the rose for North Korea.

It is hard to imagine this today, given the astonishing prosperity of South Korea, but during much of his father's rule, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was more prosperous than its neighbor to the south. Even during the early years of relative decline, the economy remained fairly robust, thanks to the balancing act that Kim Il Sung, the regime's founding father, played with his two big, mutually suspicious allies, China and the Soviet Union. It was on this foundation of success that the regime built much of its legitimacy.

By the time Kim Jong Il took power in 1994, though, the Soviet Union, along with its financial subsidies and spare industrial parts, was but a memory. The younger Kim was underestimated right from the start, but he keenly understood how weak his hand was and quickly learned how to play it to maximum advantage.

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Howard W. French is the author of China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa, and is writing a book about the geopolitics of East Asia.

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