North Korea The Tyrant and the Bomb
Nuclear weapons as a political tool: North Korean President Kim Jong Il has triggered an international crisis with his arrogant declaration that his country is now a nuclear power. Both the United States and China are attempting to bring the irrational dictator to reason. But what is he trying to accomplish with his provocation?
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il is one of the world's bizarrest figures. Now he says he has nuclear power.
Pyongyang is putting on its best face. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il turns 63 this Wednesday, and to celebrate his birthday, his subjects will be paying tribute to their "Dear Leader" with song and dance. Of course, Kim's subjects are also required to look presentable for the occasion. In an official decree, the omnipotent leader has ordered that everyone's hair must be cut to a length of no more than seven centimeters. But the god-like birthday boy gave himself the biggest and best gift of all last week. It was expensive and it came at the cost of years of effort, but it's precisely the reason why all of Kim's subjects have been ordered to participate in the good news. The world's sole remaining Stalinist leader announced to the world that his starving nation is now a proud member of the nuclear club.
"We have produced nuclear weapons to defend ourselves and to oppose the increasingly obvious intentions of the Bush administration," a spokesman of the foreign ministry declared , using a martial tone of voice. "The current reality proves that powerful strength is needed to preserve justice and truth." It sounded like a declaration of war against the rest of the world.
Elsewhere, the week had begun in relative harmony. People in the Far East launched the Chinese New Year with fireworks, and in the Middle East, Palestinians and Israelis were reaching to begin a new peace process. In "Old Europe," America's new secretary of state, Condoleeza Rice, ever charming, had embarked on a fence-mending mission with the most vocal opponents of the Iraq war, Germany and France.
They weren't exactly magical beginnings, but beginnings nonetheless. But shortly before Rice boarded her aircraft back to Washington, she and the rest of the world were confronted with new, potentially catastrophic news. In issuing his official confirmation that he already has nuclear weapons, the dictator of beleaguered and isolated North Korea sent a shock wave through the world's capitals, from Washington to Tokyo, Moscow and Berlin. The US State Department even referred to the announcement as a "diplomatic nuclear strike."
The world is accustomed to dictators decisively denying their intentions to build nuclear weapons. But it isn't accustomed to a tyrant such as Kim Jong Il openly bragging that he now has the bomb. It's both a novelty and an affront. What exactly are his intentions?
The Stone Age communist justifies his nuclear aspirations as a purely defensive move, saying that nuclear weapons are "clearly" intended to serve as a deterrent. In Kim's view, an increasingly hostile United States harbors the intention to "isolate and suffocate" his country. For this reason, he says, he wants to "protect the ideology and the state system."
Washington not taken by surprise
US President George W. Bush told journalist Bob Woodward, "I detest Kim Jong Il."
North Korea against America -- it's an especially absurd variation on the David-and-Goliath story. But almost as an aside, the bizarre dictator also criticized his ally, China. Until now, the up-and-coming world power had been hosting the so-called six-nation negotiations, which also include the United States, Russia, Japan and South Korea. The five countries have demonstrated exceptional patience in attempting to bring the sixth member of the group, North Korea, to reason. Now it appears that their efforts have been futile, because Kim Jong Il seems to have something else in mind.
The US reacted cautiously to Kim's provocation. Rice, for whom the North Korean move represents her first official crisis, mildly expressed her hope that North Korea will return to the diplomatic negotiating table. Then she simply reiterated Washington's well-known position on the subject: Washington is not planning an attack on the communist regime. Japanese Prime Minister Yunichiro Koizumi also spoke in favor of perseverance: "I want to continue convincing North Korea that giving up the nuclear weapons is in its own best interest."
These are carefully words. Only one official, US Undersecretary of State John Bolton, was willing to express what many fear: "Time is not on our side."
The new world in the post-September 11 world has brought back war as a political tool. But what's even more dangerous is the return of the bomb as a political trump card. And the dictatorships that the US president famously referred to as the "Axis of Evil" -- Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- have clearly chosen to resort to this weapon. After regime change had been brought about in Iraq, the Wall Street Journal's headline read "One Down, Two to Go."
But George W. Bush's challenge to rogue states Iran and North Korea has also led to consequences Bush failed to foresee. Saddam Hussein was unable to offer much resistance to the Anglo-American invasion because, contrary to the US government's belief, he had no weapons of mass destruction. For Iran and North Korea, this meant that only the bomb can offer security against forced regime change. Only nuclear weapons can guarantee the existence of dictators and dictatorships.
Iran is presumably on a fast track to acquiring nuclear weapons, but still about three to five years from its goal. That's why the mullah-controlled state is playing such a complicated game. On the one hand, it is willing to negotiate with the Europeans, to whom the Americans have delegated the task of diplomacy. On the other hand, Iran has made it clear that it is resolved not to tolerate any intervention in its internal affairs. Because the mullahs don't have what they want yet, the United States is threatening preventive action. President Bush has made it clear that he will not tolerate a second nuclear power, besides Israel, in the Middle East, and has not ruled out a US military strike against Iran's nuclear production facilities.
North Korea: An outpost of tyranny
Map of Nuclear Powers
The Americans aren't the only ones who view Kim Jong Il as the ultimate rogue, a man who squeezes and starves his 22 million people and is reprehensibly indulging his father's fantasy of owning the bomb to prevent America from attacking.
After Saddam Hussein was toppled, Kim Jong Il disappeared from public view for fifty days. When he resurfaced, he had his views about regime change in Baghdad announced over Radio Pyongyang, which issued a statement to the effect that if the Imperialists believe "that we will agree to disarmament, they are sorely mistaken."
Bombs make countries invincible. Those who have them are protected against invasion. This, at least, is the belief of this dictator whose country Condoleeza Rice aptly referred to as an "outpost of tyranny," a phrase later echoed by the US president. Bush makes no secret of his scorn for the dictator. In his book on Iraq, "Plan of Attack," Bob Woodward quotes Bush as saying "I detest Kim Jong Il. The man turns my stomach, because he lets his people starve."
But Bush essentially took a backwards approach to implementing his plan of attack against rogue states. He began his campaign by striking the weakest of the tyrants, Saddam Hussein. And now is focusing on Iran. But Kim Jong Il is the most dangerous of dictators; he's a man who possesses nuclear weapons and sells them to paying customers. A well thought-out North Korea strategy has long been absent in Washington, and remains so to this day. The New York Times calls it the "most dangerous failure of US policy."
Unlike the explosive Middle East, East Asia is in fact a relatively peaceful part of the world. This is a consequence of the Cold War, which hasn't officially ended there yet. The division of Korea goes back to the Korean War in the early 1950s, when America, with UN support, prevented the entire Korean peninsula from being taken over by the communists, who were supported militarily by China's Mao Zedong. Close to 1.8 million troops still face off on the two sides of the 38th parallel. When the Soviet empire collapsed, there was hope that the two Koreas would follow Germany's example and reunite. But this is an illusion that seems dead in the water, at least for now. The status quo in Asia would probably be overturned if North Korea intends to possess and keep nuclear weapons. Japan would be forced to abandon its nuclear abstinence and acquire nuclear weapons, as would South Korea. The region would fall out of balance, leading to a new nuclear weapons race between age-old enemies Japan and China, a situation in which the United States would ally itself with Japan and South Korea and China would support North Korea. Kim Jong Il, of all people, could be the one to upset the current balance of power in East Asia. But who really is this bizarre ruler who sports a pompadour hairstyle and usually appears in public wearing a mud-colored Mao outfit? Is he an insane player, a calculating strategist or a genial statesman?
The Dear Leader
Is Kim as weird as he seems?
The North Korean capital Pyongyang is a city filled with monumental structures. It boasts a triumphal arch taller than Paris' Arc de Triomphe, as well as one of the world's largest soccer stadiums, where the Dear Leader goes to get cheered by the masses. He sees his subjects essentially as extras, not unlike those in his many colorful films about the revolution. The rest of the world is the audience, which is permitted to watch as the Stalinist master of survival stages what is his most dangerous role to date: A challenger, armed with nuclear weapons, to the world's only remaining superpower, the United States.
Kim's puzzling aura is part of his cult of personality. Prior to his historic North-South summit with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in June 2000, the world had only heard the dictator speak once when he proclaimed in a smoky voice, standing in front of the VIP pavilion in Pyongyang's stadium: "Glory to the Peoples' Army!"
For many years, the television images shown of Kim were extremely blurry, such as at the memorial ceremony for his father Kim Il Sung, the founder of the North Korean state, who died in 1994. Kim Jong Il, his corpulent mid-section stuffed into a tight-fitting, dark suit and wearing oversized glasses, conveyed the impression of an apparently reclusive heir to the throne.
When Kim subsequently disappeared from the public eye during three so-called years of mourning, foreign observers were already speculating that the Kim dynasty was coming to an end. Only in 1997, as the General Secretary of the Workers' Party, did he assume the position of North Korean leader, declining the office of the presidency, claiming that it would forever be held by his dead father.
But even after his inauguration, Kim initially showed a preference for controlling the state from behind the scenes. The outside world -- including other world leaders -- were left trying to read him through old stories and new rumors, as well as a long list of excesses and sinister machinations. But the sources of these rumors were themselves often suspect.
First there was Kim as a man about town who, in his younger years in Pyongyang, had supposedly displayed a preference for leggy Scandinavian blondes. Then there was Kim the insane who would drive through the capital at night, shooting at streetlights. And then there was Kim the ruler of a starving people, the world's biggest private buyer of Hennessy cognac, a man who, as his nation was struggling through its worst crisis, seemed to have nothing better to do than order 200 Mercedes S Class vehicles worth $20 million.
And then there was the Kim regime, which has been accused of committing serious crimes. In 1974, a Korean living abroad assassinated the wife of South Korean President Park Chung Hee. In 1983, Kim Jong Il, then head of his father's secret service, was allegedly behind an attack in the Burmese capital, Rangoon, in which several South Korean cabinet ministers were murdered. In 1987, two North Korean agents used a time bomb to blow up a Korean Airlines jet, killing its 115 passengers.
In September 2002, Kim Jong Il admitted to Japanese Prime Minister Yunichiro Koizumi that North Korea had been kidnapping Japanese citizens for purposes of espionage since the 1970s. And the more former Kim regime insiders fled the country, the more apparent it became that the clammy dictator rules his country like a Mafia boss. It seems that no form of business is too dirty for Kim, from drug smuggling with the assistance of North Korean diplomats, to counterfeiting US dollars, to exporting weapons.
But then, in June 2000, Kim surprised the world by taking on a completely new and unexpected role -- that of the jovial host and diplomat. A deeply impressed South Korean President Kim Dae Jung later said that the North Korean had impressed him as a man with "a healthy understanding of human beings." Suddenly, for many, the potentate had transformed himself into "Mr. Nice Guy." He himself seriously believed that he had acquired recognition as a moderate, international statesman.
His father's legacy
Given these efforts, Kim must have found it all the more infuriating that his counterpart in Seoul was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2000. After all, Kim Jong Il had already ordered hundreds of thousands of his subjects to line Pyongyang's streets to celebrate the coveted award.
Kim had his own way of getting his revenge. He reneged on his promise to reciprocate with a visit to Seoul. Later, Kim Dae Jung had to admit that he had essentially bought the meeting with his counterpart in the north with a monetary gift of at least $300 million, apologizing to Koreans just a few days before his term ended.
A typical North Korean military parade.
Kim inherited his aggressive , daredevil-like approach from his father, the "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung (1912 to 1994). With the 1950-1953 Korean War, Kim senior already instigated a crisis the rest of the world wants to prevent at all costs this time around. By attacking the south in June 1950, a move sanctioned by Stalin, he managed to bring the United States and Russia, both nuclear powers, to the brink of a third world war.
The invasion, which at the time completely took the United States off guard, culminated in the Americans' first military debacle since the victory in World War II. The South Korean army was defeated barely a week after the attack, with 44,000 of its 98,000 troops either dead or captured. Although Kim's military had suffered at least equally high losses, it also achieved a symbolic partial victory that still feeds its ego today. The North Korean troops then proceeded to drive the fleeing South Koreans, initially lacking a leader, as well as their US allies to the extreme southeast of the peninsula, just short of Pusan.
With some initial hesitation, but with subsequent ferociousness, the United States counterattacked. General Douglas MacArthur's first move was to recapture Seoul, which had been flattened by the troops from the north. Soon afterward, MacArthur occupied Pyongyang and led his troops on to the Yalu River, a move that provoked China. In November, Mao Zedong deployed 180,000 troops to repel the American offensive. The US was ultimately forced to retreat to the 38th parallel. The two Koreas have not signed a peace treaty to this day.
The heroic example set by his father has apparently encouraged Kim Jong Il to repeatedly provoke the United States. Playing a highly explosive poker game, he attempts to outdo his father in sheer brazenness.
Kim's martial craving for admiration, fueled by an almost pathological fear for his own well-being, is probably also rooted in his personality. For reasons of physical stature alone, the 5'3" dictator takes advantage of every possible opportunity to make himself seem larger than he is. He prefers to wear thick-soled shoes and uses his blow-dried hair to create the impression of being larger than he is. As a boy, Kim suffered from being overshadowed by his charismatic father. In fact, his position as heir to the throne was not nearly as secure as he likes to imply.
This is the first part of a two-part story on Kim Jong Il. Click here to read Part II.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
© DER SPIEGEL 7/2005
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