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.

The shtick of apparent madness flowed from his country's fundamental weakness as he, like a master poker player, resolved to bluff and bluff big. Kim adopted a game of brinkmanship with the South, threatening repeatedly to turn Seoul into a "sea of flames." And while this may have sharply raised the threat of war, for the North, it steadily won concessions: fuel oil deliveries, food aid, nuclear reactor construction, hard cash-earning tourist enclaves and investment zones.

As a bureau chief for the New York Times in northeast Asia in the 1990s and 2000s, reporting from Japan, the Koreas, and later China, I had a front row seat for much of this. Up close, I covered the Nobel laureate and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's moneybags approach to the North, which he labeled Sunshine Diplomacy. It won the South's Kim a summit meeting with his counterpart, which the "crazy" Kim hosted and managed to totally dominate. At the level of appearances, which was all-important for the internal propaganda purposes of a "hermit regime," he reduced Kim Dae Jung to a mere supplicant.

I flew to Pyongyang with Japan's most successful and assertive prime minister in a generation, Junichiro Koizumi, as he sought to confront Kim over Japanese citizens who had been kidnapped over the years and effectively held hostage by North Korea. Once again, Kim extracted maximum benefit, while conceding little.

In 2002, I took passage on a ship to the North Korean city of Kumho to witness work on a United States-backed $4.6 billion nuclear reactor that was being built as part of an elaborate diplomatic scheme to get the country to close down its two decrepit but proliferation-prone graphite-style reactors. American officials did not have an easy time explaining why the arrangement shouldn't be considered appeasement, but the fact was that North Korea's hardline approach to playing its very weak hand, otherwise known as brinkmanship, had won it these big concessions.

From China I watched as even Beijing, North Korea's sole putative ally, grew frustrated as it tried to nudge its small, destitute neighbor toward less provocative behavior. Even though his country had no other powerful friends in the world, Kim managed to maneuver Beijing into the classic patron-client conundrum, where the former concludes that it mustn't push too hard lest it risk losing its influence with the latter. In situations of such embarrassing impotence, the real question is whether the patron -- in this case, China -- actually has much influence at all.

Where does all this lead? Don't believe anyone who says they have insights into who the new leader, Kim Jung Un, the baby son now dubbed "the great successor" really is or how he will rule. What we do know is that the country's hand, in rational terms, is steadily weaker, making big concessions less, not more likely.

Imagine what the world looks like from the leadership compounds in Pyongyang. Embracing China means the risk of being smothered. Reconciliation or rapprochement with South Korea means admitting inferiority and the loss of legitimacy. Détente and disarmament in negotiation with the United States means becoming another Libya.

The country may sometimes look crazy to us, but count on its leaders doing everything they can to stay in power.