Kim Jong Il's Death: Time to Stir Up Robber-Baron Envy?

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Team_America__World_Police(271010171653)team-america-1.jpgNorth Korea's despotic "Dear Leader" has died and is now succeeded by the newly dubbed "Great Successor."  It may be time for the makers of Team America World Police to issue a sequel to memorialize in Western pop culture both the demise of Kim Jong Il and the rise of a son, Kim Jong Un, few know much about other than alleged, celebrated ruthlessness.

As the media race to tell the story of the weirdness of hereditary succession in a communist state, I wanted to share a couple of observations and historical slices in time that should add color and nuance to what little we know about Kim Jong Il and his kingdom.

First of all, watch for any writing by North Korea expert and scholar Peter Beck as well as Center for International Policy senior fellow Selig Harrison, who met Kim Jong Il on several occasions.  Evans Revere, a former senior state department official and former Korea Society President, is also of of America's best experts on all things Kim.  Wendy Sherman, newly installed Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, also played a role during the Clinton administration as an envoy on North Korea affairs and laid the groundwork for the historic visit of then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to North Korea in October 2000.

Several other interesting policy practitioners on the US side are Ambassador Christopher Hill who now heads the Josef Korbel Center of International Studies at the University of Denver; US Special Representative for North Korea policy and Fletcher School Dean Stephen Bosworth, former Korean Talks envoy Charles Kartman; and senior Asia policy adviser to President George W. Bush Michael Green.

Some miscellaneous thoughts. . .

First, China knows more than it tells the US on North Korea (of course) but its influence over North Korean leadership decisions has been weaker than many presume.  An imperfect but still useful analogy for the China-North Korea relationship is America's relationship with Israel, in which the ties that bind are tight but where the smaller party has figured out how to impose painful costs on the patron in the relationship.  Yes, Israel is a democracy and North Korea is one of the most backward, repressive regimes on the planet -- but they share a resolve and confidence about their status that often has more influence on more cautious, large states than the other way around.

Chinese Premier Li Peng in the late 1990s was frustrated with the lack of high quality intelligence the Chinese government had on North Korea's Dear Leader and thus decided to up China's brief by inviting himself to visit Pyongyang to visit Kim Jong Il.  The North Korean government sat for a bit on Li's self-invitation only to counter that it would be more appropriate for Kim Jong Il to visit China -- and this he did in May 2000 in his iron train.

While North Korea depends on Chinese economic support and does enjoy some privileged access and latitude in the relationship that is greater than any other nation, the threat of instability on the Korean peninsula and prospect of millions of refugees streaming into China from North Korea in the event of a crisis has emboldened the regime in Pyongyang to push the limits in its demands from China and the rest of the world. 

Essentially, North Korea survives through extortion -- and thus has had few incentives to stabilize itself, rid itself of nuclear weapons, and to stand down militarily.  It's too lucrative for North Korea to threaten the world with its naughtiness -- and for the rest of the world, including China, paying off the North Korean regime is cheaper than all other options.

Chinese intelligence and the senior political leadership has probably known for some time the severity of Kim Jong Il's ailments -- though some told me as recently as two months ago that they thought his health was rebounding, that in the recent trip Kim had made with his heir apparent son that Kim Jong Il was more robust than he had been in other trips. 

US intelligence on the other hand had a remarkably good read on Kim's coming, likely demise -- arguing in a number of sensitive analyses that the violent clashes, missile launches, and the mysterious sinking of a South Korean warship were a function of leadership succession struggles inside Pyongyang.  Former Ambassador Christopher Hill once told me that what we were seeing was the manifestations of "Kim Jong Il being 'Kim Jong Not Well'".

One other measure of the North Korean regime's isolation from the world hit me in 1995, after Kim Il Sung's death and in the early period of Kim Jong Il's reign.  At that time I directed the Nixon Center in Washington and was hosting Japan's Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Koichi Kato for a meeting.  Kato told me that he was getting frequent calls from Kim Jong Il and other elites close to the leader at his home phone number.  These calls ranged from questions about potential rice imports from Japan to various other kinds of political, economic, and cultural queries. 

Because of the outreach, Kato worked hard to understand who the new power centers around Kim were -- and what was driving the rise and fall of political players in Pyongyang.  I called Senator John McCain's office to see if he would like to meet with Kato and hear the reports on these calls he had received as well as other intel info that the Japanese government had assembled.  McCain listened carefully, taking precise and extensive notes -- and then asked Kato if he could share the material with the Central Intelligence Agency and defense intelligence.  Kato agreed.

The takeaway from Kato's telephone encounters was that the North Koreans had almost no sense of what was happening in the outside world.  These calls eventually led to large scale visits of Japanese Diet members to North Korea -- the slow-built honeymoon ending with the counter-trend of Japanese anger at revelations about North Korea's abduction of scores of Japanese citizens who were later held against their will in order to inform Kim Jong Il and the North Korean state about culture and events beyond their border.

As my colleague Max Fisher points out, doubts abound about the solvency and stability of a regime under the new "Great Successor", Kim Jong Un.  He will face not only self doubt about the genuineness of loyalty from those in the military -- but will face tests from China, Japan, South Korea, the US, even Russia in how competent he is and how solid his control of the political and economic machinery of the country is.

A Neo-Nixonian approach that I have been supportive of for some time would be one that strongly promoted political and economic engagement with North Korea's leading generals and political glitterati.  As they have watched former comrades in Russia as well as China join the world's billionaires rosters and be courted into outfits like the World Economic Forum, there may be a substantial amount of robber baron envy stirring inside North Korea. 

One way to change a regime is to seduce half of a nation's top leadership with gold and treasure and a horizon for increasing their power while leaving the other half alone.  Some senior Chinese authorities believe that this approach is something that they feel is the only way to eventually get North Korea on a China-like track that emphasizes economic development and progress while not necessarily yielding on political control.

Chalmers Johnson used to pay back-handed respect to Kim Il Sung, grandfather to the new leader of North Korea, by suggesting that he dug a big hole and painted a bucket red, saying that he had a nuclear weapons program underway -- and the world began to grovel.  Former President Jimmy Carter went to North Korea, preempting an American attack on the big hole in the ground during the Clinton administration.  Madeleine Albright visited with Kim Jong Il -- and Bill Clinton came remarkably close to visiting North Korea as the closing act of his tenure in office -- choosing instead to distract himself with another failed act in Israel-Palestine peacemaking.

When George W. Bush came into office, Secretary of State Colin Powell worked hard to maintain continuity with the progress the Clinton team had made with the North Koreans -- only to be undermined by then Under Secretary of State John Bolton's sharp attacks on the North Korean leader (which were substantively true but undermined US diplomacy) as well as George W. Bush's own disdain (then) for the kind of realist foreign policy track that emphasized deal-making with thugs over regime change.

President Obama's foreign policy team did not make much headway with North Korea.  Attempting "not" to over-react to North Korea's predictable, global irascibility has marked Obama's approach more than anything distinctly proactive.  Obama & Co. will no doubt work to test the waters of a more stable, more sane and constructive relationship with the new North Korean leader -- but my hunch is that the leadership will double down on its misbehavior and threaten its neighbors and the global system.

Now may be the time for Obama, as well as leaders in Japan, South Korea, China and Russia to offer trips to North Korea's political and military elite -- to show them what they could have if they engineered some shifts inside the regime. 

Then just stand back and watch.

(photo credit:  Paramount Pictures)

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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