Although caricatured in the West, Kim Jong-il, who died on December17, was an astute statesman well aware of global developments.
THE sudden demise of Kim Jong-il, the leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea), took the international community by surprise. Scenes of mass grieving were witnessed in North Korea.
The country known as the hermit kingdom became independent in 1948. The Korean Workers Party, which was led by the resistance hero Kim Il-sung, has been in power since then. After President Kim Il-sung died in 1994, he was succeeded by his only son, Kim Jong-il. Despite widespread scepticism about his political longevity, Kim Jong-il remained the unquestioned leader of the country, piloting it through tense times. Technically, North Korea and the United States are still at war. The U.S. had intervened militarily in the Korean peninsula to stop Korean reunification under the leadership of Kim Il-sung. The Korean War, which lasted from 1950-53, also saw the Chinese army intervening on behalf of the north. Three million Koreans died in the war. The scars from that war are yet to heal.
Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea's main trading partner at the time, North Korea's economy was doing quite well. The country's juche (self-reliance) policy had helped it make big strides in many fields, including agriculture and science. North Korea is a highly militarised society because of its history and the unremitting hostility from the West. The U.S. has its biggest military bases in South Korea and holds massive annual war games on North Korea's borders along with the now muscular South Korean army. For that matter, South Korea, too, until the mid-1990s was a highly authoritarian society, with U.S.-backed military dictators ruling the roost.
When Kim Jong-il took over from his father, things were looking slightly better for the beleaguered communist country. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter had made a visit to the capital, Pyongyang, the first by an American leader after military tensions had risen alarmingly in the Korean peninsula. The Bill Clinton administration alleged at the time that North Korea was using its experimental reactor in Yongbyon to produce plutonium for a nuclear bomb. There were reports that the U.S. was readying cruise missiles to attack nuclear reactors and missile bases in North Korea. The Korean peninsula seemed to be on the verge of a nuclear holocaust. During the Carter visit, an agreement was signed whereby North Korea pledged to give up its quest for a nuclear deterrent in exchange for two U.S.-supplied nuclear reactors that would provide energy for the power-deficient country. Both the U.S. and South Korea had also pledged to supply fuel oil and end the diplomatic and trade embargo imposed on the country.
Soon after the Carter visit, Kim Il-sung passed away. Kim Jong-il would have liked the thaw with the West to have continued. North Korea, suffering from a series of natural disasters, including floods and drought, was desperately in need of a helping hand.
But the U.S. and South Korea started demanding more concessions. At the same time the work on the reactors was proceeding at a snail's pace. No substantial economic aid from Washington and Seoul materialised.
North Korea has historically followed an independent foreign policy, keeping a distance from both the Soviet Union and China when the socialist bloc was a powerful force. North Korea never joined the Comecon (the common market of the East Bloc). In 1956, the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) and China jointly tried to replace Kim Il-sung with a more accommodating collective leadership. After the Cold War ended, Pyongyang, in view of the new realities, wanted to open independent lines of communications with the West but was continuously rebuffed by Washington. The last straw, from Pyongyang's point of view, was when President George W. Bush clubbed North Korea along with Iraq and Iran in the so-called axis of evil.
The hardening of the U.S. position came immediately after Bush assumed office in 2001. At the fag end of the Clinton term, his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, made an official visit to Pyongyang, where she was given a high-profile welcome. The North Korean leadership has made no secret of its desire to engage in direct negotiations with Washington, bypassing Beijing and Seoul. Kim Jong-il's efforts were aimed at establishing diplomatic relations with Washington and normalising relations with the West.
Although caricatured in the West, Kim Jong-il was, from available evidence, an astute statesman, well aware of what was happening in the rest of the world. Kim Dae-jung, who was elected President of South Korea in 1998 on a platform which included establishing normal relations with North Korea, had taken the first step to normalise relations between Seoul and Pyongyang. The South Korean President made a path-breaking visit to the North Korean capital in 2000, ushering in the Sunshine Policy of rapprochement between the two Koreas. His successor Roh Moo-hyun, who continued with the Sunshine Policy despite hostility from Washington, had described Kim Jong-il as very outspoken and the most flexible man in North Korea. Roh, too, had made a state visit to Pyongyang. The North Korean leader never visited the south. The only countries he visited were China and Russia and that too in his customised train. Kim, like his father, preferred trains to planes.
The North and South Korean leaderships swear by reunification. In reality, the southern leadership is alarmed by the prospect. It feels that the high levels of prosperity the country has achieved will be impacted adversely if there is a sudden influx of people from the north. The high cost of German reunification is not lost on the South Korean ruling elite.
The Bush administration was not enamoured with the Sunshine Policy of the South Korean government, especially after bracketing North Korea in the axis of evil. Washington raised the stakes in 2002 by accusing Pyongyang of secretly enriching uranium. The North Korean government responded by walking out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in January 2003 and then expelling United Nations nuclear inspectors. It also promptly restarted work on building a nuclear deterrent.
The Bush administration had clearly marked out North Korea for regime change along with Iraq and Iran. But with the U.S. caught in the Iraqi quagmire and Pyongyang increasing its nuclear and missile capabilities, the Bush administration agreed to participate in six-party talks initiated under the leadership of China to defuse the military tensions in the Korean peninsula. The first North Korean nuclear test took place in 2006. The last nuclear test was in 2009. This led to tough U.N. sanctions being imposed on the country. To prove that it could deliver nuclear warheads, North Korea successfully test-fired accurate long- and short-range missiles. The ultimate goal of the six-party talks is to achieve denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
Under President Barack Obama, Washington has tried to further ratchet up the pressure on Pyongyang. President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea ended the Sunshine Policy and has cut off most diplomatic and trade contacts with the north. Food aid has been curtailed drastically. The U.S. and South Korean armies held large-scale military exercises adjacent to the North Korean border in 2011.
China, which ended its one Korea policy in 1994 by recognising the south, today provides invaluable help to shore up the North Korean economy. It is the biggest aid giver and food provider. North Korea also appreciates China's policy of not interfering in its internal affairs. The strong relations between the two countries were forged during the Korean war. Together they withstood the military might of the U.S. Beijing wants stability on its border. If North Korea implodes, U.S. troops could be soon stationed along the Chinese border. Many of China's neighbours, led by Japan, are trying to form an anti-China alliance under the tutelage of Washington. In the past 18 months, Kim made four trips to China. Pyongyang seems to be making the first moves to replicate the Chinese model of development.
The 69-year-old Kim seemed to have made a recovery of sorts after reportedly suffering a stroke more than three years ago. He was evidently following a busy work schedule. Kim never took the title of President. His father had been designated the Eternal President of North Korea. The son dutifully implemented his father's military first policy. North Korea has a disciplined and well-armed million-strong army. A few days before he died of a heart attack while travelling on his train, he was photographed with soldiers at a military base.
The Dear Leader, the term used for Kim in the North Korean media, however, had intimations of his mortality. Starting from 2010, he brought his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, into the political limelight. The young Kim was promoted recently to the rank of a four-star general. Reports emanating from Pyongyang hint at a collective leadership emerging to guide the young Kim Jong-un.