DPRK Briefing Book: Korean Monarch Kim Jong Il: Technocrat Ruler of the Hermit Kingdom Facing the Challenge of Modernity

DPRK Briefing Book: Korean Monarch Kim Jong Il: Technocrat Ruler of the Hermit Kingdom Facing the Challenge of Modernity

Alexandre Y. Mansourov, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies

The Man, his Nature, and the System

The views expressed in this essay are personal views of the author, and they do not represent the official positions of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, and the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies

Who is this 170-centimeter tall man, who dresses up like a revolutionary in the Mao-style khakie-colored suits, wears unruly hairdo and big-rim sunglasses, and puts on narrow-tipped Italian leather elevator shoes; an 80-kilogram epicure with cultivated taste in exquisite food and wine who loves French, Japanese, Russian, and Chinese cuisines; a man of arts in soul who appreciates music and cinema and is proud of his 20,000-strong universal movie collection, including all Oscar-winning performances; a dare-devil who has a passion for car-racing and untamed horse-riding; a man of letters well versed in ancient Confucian teachings on statecraft and virtues and contemporary Western philosophical literature; the “Net man” who challenges his aides to provide him with data and analyses better than what he can find by himself surfing daily the Internet; a conflicted dictator with a black sense of humor and penchant for self-doubt and occasional remorse?

Decades of intense domestic worship and foreign demonization left the legacy of so many groundless myths and malicious rumors surrounding the name of Kim Jong Il that it is hard to separate facts from fiction and compose a fresh objective portrait of the Dear Leader of the North Korean people. The man behind the mask is neither God nor ordinary person. He is a flawed but extraordinary human being who was born to be the deified leader and dictator of North Korea. This is his lot. If he removes the mask, he is sure to perish in the ensuing turmoil.

Kim Jong Il is not evil. He is a good-natured man who lives in the Orwellian world, a cruel product of the fifty-eight year old North Korean revolution. He is perceived as the Emperor of his revolutionary kingdom, but in reality he is a slave of the impersonal administrative and political system that is the true master of his daily universe. He was raised and socialized in communist traditions, ideals, and practices in a besieged military garrison state. As a filial son, he inherited from his dictatorial father a broken brutal Stalinist system of governance with Korean juch’e-style specifics, which provided the original basis for his political power and legitimacy.

Kim Jong Il is not Satan, but his station in life is to be Devil’s advocate. From his early childhood, he bought into the promise of the juch’e-style communist ideal and Marxist-Leninist paradise. Now he has to repudiate his lifetime beliefs and achievements, scrap his father’s legacy, and reincarnate as a saint, if he were to reform, let alone to dismantle the North Korean Gulag and Pyongyang’s world of “1984.” At the age of 61, Kim Jong Il can adjust at the margins, but he is unlikely to abandon his core. For Kim Jong Il is a survivor, not a martyr.

The Filial Son and the First Family

Kim Jong Il is the first Korean ruler who was born in a foreign land on February 16, 1942, and, hence, who can claim dual citizenship of Korea and Russia. The “cradle of the North Korean revolution” was an army camp near the village of Vyatkino in the Russian Khabarovsky region, not a secret guerrilla base on the Mount Paektu, as the official DPRK propaganda claims. Kim Jong Il was born in Russia and might choose to die in Russia should he ever be forced to decide between the prospect of certain death from hostile military strike or comfortable political asylum in his birthplace.

Kim Jong Il belongs to the war generation of the Korean people. Although he was somewhat shielded from the war-inflicted devastation and near universal suffering by the relative calm and well-to-do life in foreign exile in the Soviet Union in 1942-1945, and his family enjoyed a relatively comfortable lifestyle at one of the medium-size villas abandoned by the fleeing senior Japanese officers during the inter-war period, Kim Jong Il, like all other ordinary Korean kids, experienced the full gamut of war horrors and deprivations during the Korean War in 1950-1953. In his war-scarred childhood, he saw pain, blood, and death up close and personal. Kim Jong Il is not a war maniac. Kim Jong Il likely hates war and is very cautious not to plunge his country into another abyss of war.

By all accounts, Kim Jong Il is a very well educated, well-read, and well informed person. He has quick wit, excellent memory, and astute insight. He appears to understand Russian and have a working knowledge of the Chinese and English. Kim Jong Il graduated from Pyongyang’s elite school No.1 in 1960 and the economics faculty of the Kim Il Sung National University in 1964. In 1961, he joined the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). In 1964, he went to work at the WPK Central Committee for the rest of his adult life.

Kim Jong Il’s character and personality formed and developed under the shadow of his authoritarian father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of the guerrilla state of DPRK. Kim Il Sung was his role model, life mentor, and sole judge. The Great Leader groomed his son tirelessly for almost twenty years for leadership roles within the WPK. In 1980, he chose Kim Jong Il, to the chagrin of his uncle Kim Yong-ju and younger stepbrother Kim Pyong-il, to be his sole heir to the throne of the first communist guerrilla band dynasty in the world.

As an anointed successor and early disciple of traditional Korean neo-Confucian thought, Kim Jong Il feared and revered his father. When the Great Leader was still alive, the Dear Leader often felt frustrated at his inability to step into his father’s shoes and was seen as an underperformer by many outsiders. Consequently, pent-up frustrations allegedly led to decadent lifestyle, bouts of alcoholism, and chain-smoking in the 1980s and early 1990s.

These days, Kim Jong Il freely admits that he liked to drink a lot before he turned fifty, but he adds promptly that “my doctors won over me, prohibited hard liquors, and recommended that I drink not more than half a bottle of good red wine a day. I prefer Bordeaux or Burgundy, and strictly follow their advice.” In diplomatic circles in the 1980s, it was rumored in the diplomatic community in Pyongyang that after his father’s death, he shut down his international harem notorious for late night orgies among his party cronies in the 1980s. But, he could still tell his foreign guest in 2001 that four out of five professional entertainers at a Paris cabaret “Lido” were beautiful Russian females, the information reportedly received from the DPRK Embassy staff in France. Thus, Kim Jong Il’s hedonistic interests continue and he has his own channels of reporting from the DPRK diplomatic corps. He admits that he tried to quit smoking in 1982 but failed; in 1999, he tried to quit it again and has been successful so far. In general, in social settings, Kim Jong Il is said to be gallant, engaging, and even captivating; he can be jolly, affable, and vivacious. If he likes someone, with exception of his subordinates, he does not hesitate to hug and kiss that person even in front of others. His humor is funny but acerbic.

Kim Jong Il allegedly shied away from a unique opportunity to assume the reigns over his absolute monarchy when “the Great leader lay in coma, passing away,” in summer 1986. Instead, he saved Kim Il Sung’s life and cemented the dictator’s trust in his judgment and confidence in his filial piety. On July 8, 1994, Kim Jong Il chose to move on and launched a new era in Korean history when the court doctors were ordered to cease their efforts to bring the 82-year old Great Leader back to life. Interpretation and implementation of his father’s last will (“yuhun chongch’i”) has been the raison d’etre of Kim Jong Il’s rule ever since.

It is noteworthy that despite such tremendous psychological dependence on his father’s judgment and support, it was the loss of his beloved mother Kim Jong-sook at the age of seven that left a never-closing wound in Kim Jong Il’s heart. Even half a century later, when asked who was the dearest and closest human being on earth to him, he replied without a second of hesitation that it was his mother because “she always wished me only well; she could never imagine that I would become who I am today; and I owe to her so much for her faith in me, love, and care.” No one was ever able to fill in that maternal void: the Dear Leader was said to hate his stepmother Kim Song-ae and to resent his stepbrother Kim Pyong Il. None of his three wives who gave birth to two sons and a daughter of the Dear Leader could compete with his single-minded devotion to his prematurely deceased mother.

Politician and Statesman

Kim Jong Il began his political apprenticeship at the WPK Central Committee by spearheading the internal party purification campaign against the so-called anti-party revisionists in the Korean People’s Army and military-administrative bureaucrats at the Ministry of National Defense in the spring of 1967. These “dissident bureaucrats in military uniform” rejected the party line and guidance in military units, abused their military powers, attempted to suppress the role of party organizations within the KPA, and even allegedly plotted a military coup against Kim Il Sung’s leadership. By January 1969, that “creeping anti-party revisionism in military uniform” had been defeated; and after Kim Il Sung’s death official DPRK hagiographers began to laud Kim Jong Il for re-establishing total party control over the military and imposing a single uniform idea system on the KPA ranks.

Since the early 1970s, Kim Jong Il has concentrated his attention on the military and party-building. Without doubt, today, he respects the armed forces and pays tremendous attention to military affairs. But, he is not a militarist. He is a rational individual who understands that the armed forces constitute his foremost power base. Therefore, he has to nurture the military, advance their interests, and accommodate their demands as much as the country can bear. But, it would be a profound mistake to assume that Kim Jong Il is a mere figurehead on the top of an invisible military junta. It is a mutually dependent and reinforcing relationship. Like yang and yin, Kim Jong Il’s absolute monarchy and KPA cannot survive one without the other.

Despite his “modern views,” Kim Jong Il is xenophobic and lives with a siege mentality underpinned by the constant perceived threat of imperialist subversion. He believes that the DPRK is surrounded by hostile superior powers, and it is faced with a threat of military attack. It is easier for him to run his country as a military garrison state, which he inherited from his father, rather than to change its highly militarized economy and society gradually or through shock therapy. Besides, he likely believes in the old Roman dictum – “if you want peace, prepare for war.”

Kim Jong Il is a maverick and risk-prone individual, but he is not a suicidal madman. In his mind, strengthening national defense, including its unconventional components, elevating the prestige of the national armed forces, ensuring the unity of the army and the people, and maintaining the spirit of patriotism do not represent belligerence or reflect his aggressive impulses. These are legitimate self-defensive measures required of any responsible incumbent statesman, let alone a traditional Korean nationalist like Kim Jong Il. Besides, the Dear Leader believes that military might ought to be publicly demonstrated regularly in order to justify popular sacrifices at home and boost deterrent potential abroad.

The second nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula resulted in further amalgamation of the interests of Kim Jong Il’s clan and the North Korean military and led to the rise of the army-first politics (“songun chongch’i”) in the 2000s. The army-first politics is self-defensive and survivalist in essence and aimed at self-preservation of Kim Jong Il’s regime. It should be seen as an extension of his traditional reliance on military power in domestic politics and deference to military judgment in international affairs amidst aggravating sense of insecurity and rising threat perception at home and increasing challenges to the DPRK’s sovereignty and independence and his regime legitimacy and survival from abroad.

Although Kim Jong Il is a hands-on technocrat, he admits that the Great Leader often told him not to get involved in economic matters and to leave economics to party functionaries. This way, it would be easier for him to assign blame for the structural shortcomings of the juch’e-type socialist economic system and for chronic failures of economic performance, and subsequently to purge the senior party ranks and reshuffle the economic cadres without undermining the ruling pillars of the Kim’s absolute monarchy.

The problem is, of course, that in a highly centralized political administrative system centered on one man like in the DPRK that has no room for internal dissent and requires total conformity, no radical or even gradual economic policy changes can be instituted without the explicit order or implicit consent of the Dear Leader. As long as the people are afraid of the omnipresent power of Kim’s arbitrary repressive apparatus, policy innovation can come only from the very top. Unless Kim Jong Il winks or nods, no one dares to take the initiative to introduce new ideas and to pursue new methods in economic management.

Kim Jong Il is not a malignant narcissistic egotist who is self-absorbed, lacks the ability to empathize, and has no conscience, as some of his detractors believe. But, he is not a selfless altruist either. He is a rational calculating self-preservationist. He is an autocrat who does want to see his people to live better, assuming that he stays in power to reign over them.

Kim Jong Il is not ideologically blind. Although he is not exactly an open-minded person, he absorbs new information like a sponge and tends to be rather pragmatic and adaptable. During his recent trips to Russia and China, he saw plenty of advantages of sweeping economic reforms and private property rights over the state and collective ownership. He did not deny that private entrepreneurship would be more efficient and profitable and could pull the North Korean economy out of a decade-long depression, but he kept saying that it was impossible in the DPRK for political reasons.

Kim Jong Il is well aware of the economic morass facing the DPRK. He seems to be determined to find a way out for his country, his people, and his regime. He sent out ambitious teams of young economic experts to Germany, China, and Russia to study and report directly to him their findings about radical socio-economic transformations in these countries. Unlike many of the senior government and party officials in their seventies and eighties who surround him, the Dear Leader understands that the days of socialist parasitism are over, that the search of yet another “big brother” to shake down is futile, and that the market-oriented structural adjustment of the North Korean economic system is long overdue.

All signs indicate that Kim Jong Il welcomes creeping privatization of public property by the principal state authorities including the leaders of the armed forces and security services, senior party functionaries, and the “red directorate.” If such socio-economic transition in a partially de-industrialized, re-ruralized, extremely atomized, and increasingly isolated semi-feudal North Korean society were to proceed without civil strife, one may expect the formation of privatized chaebol-like economic conglomerates on the ruins of the North Korean socialist economic edifice with substantial government stakes in flagship industries. With time, the latter may well be able to attract South Korean investment in the cheap labor-based export-oriented sectors, which could form the growth poles for the long-term recovery of the North Korean economy. Such gradual economic reforms are unlikely to bring prosperity to the DPRK’s working classes but they may bring about a more decent life, at least by removing the daily threat of starvation. If in the process of change the absolute power of the Kim monarchy is to be eroded or curtailed, Kim Jong Il is unlikely to halt it as long as his dynastic rule is assured of continuing survival.

In 15 to 20 years, Kim Jong Il’s heir (who is being considered for nomination now) will inherit a very different country possibly embarked on the government-sponsored capitalist development road and engulfed in close economic ties with the Republic of Korea. Far from being a bona fide democracy, a post-Kim Jong Il North Korea may well develop into a constitutional monarchy more acceptable to the international community. However, Kim Jong Il intends to advance economic reforms only as long as they do not generate civil strife at home; and no war or loss of state sovereignty are looming over the horizon in the international arena.

Kim Jong Il is not a religious person. In contrast with his father, who was raised in a Protestant family and with age grew increasingly interested in the Bible and its disciples, conversations about God do not attract Kim Jong Il’s attention. He is an atheist and, like an orthodox Marxist, still considers religion to be “opium for the masses.” This notwithstanding, since the late 1990s, he has increasingly turned a blind eye on the spread of Christian beliefs and revival of Buddhist traditions among the North Korean people for practical reasons, not the least of which was the regime-sanctioned initiation of contacts with the Western and South Korean Christian missionaries bringing humanitarian aid to the famine-stricken North. These days, religion has become an additional source of foreign income and external legitimization for Kim Jong Il. He is not interested in its spiritual side, as well as personal redemption and salvation yet.

As for real opium, once in August 2001, Kim Jong Il frankly told one of his foreign guests “The use of narcotics by our youths is of great concern to me as the head of state. In my country, I ordered to shoot to kill both the sellers of narcotics and those people who consume them – we have a large population and can do without a few bad apples. With respect to the Chinese merchants who facilitate the spread of narcotics in my country, I ordered to cane them and repatriate to China…As for your country [Russia - author], if you catch [North] Korean drug dealers, I authorize you to shoot them to kill on the spot.”

In my judgment, although there may be some rogue elements within the penumbras of the increasingly amorphous DPRK government, especially its foreign trade establishment posted overseas, some local military commanders, and special services apparatus, who may be somehow clandestinely involved in illicit international drug-trafficking, especially across the PRC-DPRK border and on high seas, it is hard to believe that Kim Jong Il himself or his government as a whole would concoct or sanction or profit or stand behind from such a flagrant violation of international law as drug-trafficking. At least on the record, Kim Jong Il considers illegal drug use to be a serious domestic criminal problem facing his government and he seems to be determined to apply the harshest possible punishment to eradicate it without causing undue stress on foreign relations with neighbors.

Ruler and Demi-god

Kim Jong Il rules a unique country, which has demonstrated a remarkable ability to exist for decades in a “stable state of permanent crisis,” an “institutionalized, continuous emergency.” The main source of regime re-legitimization and system maintenance under such harsh political conditions is the cult of personality of the Kim family, which is the symbolic center of the extremely centralized North Korean communist monarchy. The Dear Leader inherited an unprecedented cult of personality from the Great Leader. The cult of the “Father of all Koreans,” the “Sun of the Nation,” and the “Human God” combines the images of neo-Confucian familism, especially the virtue of filial piety and ancestor worship, psychological chords of quasi-supernatural matriarchal shamanism, buttressed by the elements of Japanese emperor worship and overtones of evangelical Protestant Christianity, dressed in Stalinist garb and charismatic anti-colonial nationalism.

The Kim Jong Il cult is not a simple imposition of an unwilling populace. The bureaucratic authority of the ruling party built the cult on pre-existing traditional values and beliefs of the Korean people and made it more routinized and outwardly benevolent than similar cults of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao Zedong. Kim Jong Il is a reasonable person who understands the value of fanatical popular worship and charismatic legitimacy. Therefore, he certainly will never dismantle the cult because that would remove one of the fundamental pillars behind his throne and may lead to the collapse of his overall power and rule.

If dynastic survival is the paramount strategic goal of the Kim family, then nothing can offer the Dear Leader a better model of dynastic perseverance in the face of tremendous adversity than the Chrysanthemum dynasty in Japan, which survived the U.S. nuclear bombardment and military occupation in the 1940s and remains one of the symbols of the Japanese national power and unity today.

It is no wonder that despite traditional Korean-Japanese animosity, Kim Il Sung is said to have advised Kim Jong Il repeatedly to step back from the domestic political arena and economic policy-making and leave both to the party and government officials, while concentrating his energy on cultivating national military power, advancing international interests of the DPRK, and acting as a symbol of national unity, sovereignty, and dignity before the North Korean people and the world. If Kim Jong Il succeeds in redefining and re-legitimizing the constitutional space for his absolute monarchy through bold constitutional compromises and insulates it from political and economic processes pressuring the North Korean society from inside and outside through radical administrative reforms without undermining its charismatic legitimacy, then he may be able to extend its life for more generations to come.

Negotiator and Survivor

Kim Jong Il is an extrovert and internationalist by his outlook. Not only is he a man of “modern views” who appreciates modernity, but also a man “one can do business with,” as the Russian President Putin called him.

Kim Jong Il attaches paramount importance to personal loyalty among his subordinates. At the negotiation table, the Dear Leader looks for sincerity and commitment to deal from his counterparts, not simple diplomacy. He believes that interstate partnerships must be based on inter-personal relations among leaders. In his opinion, lasting interstate friendships are based on sincerity and loyalty, not diplomacy.

Although he appreciates professionalism, he likes to say, “I am not a diplomat. The Foreign Ministry folks can call the “black” the “white” and say “tasty” when food is disgusting. I always call a spade a spade.” If he establishes a certain degree of understanding and trust with his counterpart, then he can open up and become more forthcoming, soft, and even gullible. At the same time, he guides his subordinates with a steel glance and an iron fist. He does his homework and negotiates without notes. He always has strategic purpose in mind. On the international arena, he is a strategic chess player, not a fleeting gambler.

Despite official North Korean propaganda, Kim Jong Il never said in private conversations that he advocated immediate reunification, especially by military force. Instead, he stresses that unification is serious business and that all actors involved must seriously think through all its possible consequences before contemplating any serious action. Although he hopes that one day Koreans will live in a unified state, he concedes that reunification may not happen in his lifetime. In the meantime, he seems to be willing to increasingly rely on the South in his efforts to revive the North Korean economy and to deflect the U.S. military pressure.

Kim Jong Il deeply regrets that President George W. Bush changed the U.S. policy towards the DPRK from engagement to hostility, which, in his mind, undermined his immediate plans to reform his country along the lines of a more open and market-oriented society. He resents the labels of a “rogue state” and “axis of evil,” as applied to his country, and dismisses personal insults addressed to him from the White House as signs of ignorance. Before the second nuclear crisis erupted, he had tried to wish away the Bush administration’s hard-line policy towards the North and hoped that the previous U.S. administration’s strategy of engagement would make a comeback. Now, he seems to have decided that he could not trust or deal with President Bush at all and would have to wait him out in the White House.

In the meantime, in order to ensure the survival of his regime, he appears to have chosen to build an A-bomb as a powerful deterrent against the perceived U.S. nuclear threat. He seems to be determined to transform North Korea into a nuclear state in Northeast Asia. Kim Jong Il is a quick learner, tough negotiator, and survivor. He will continue to hedge any bargain he may be able to strike with the international community as long as he stays in power.