The enigmatic Kim Jong Il: N. Korean leader's governing style shows no sign of changing

Yomiuri Shimbun/February 22, 2004

On Aug. 23, 2002, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was drinking vodka when he was asked to empty his glass at a welcome luncheon held for him by the administrative body of the Russian coastal region and the city of Vladivostok during his visit to the Russian Far East.

Enjoying borscht and other Russian delicacies, such as salted pork fat, Kim told his subordinates that the previous day's visit to a church in Khabarovsk was useful to understand the "heart of the Russians." And he boldly promised Russians to build a Russian Orthodox Church in Pyongyang "definitely in one year."

Kim then made a surprising remark: "I'll pray at the church. My country won't become like Russia...I prefer China, which launched economic reform before political reform, to the former Soviet Union, which did the reverse."

All the party attendees looked at Kim. The president of a trading company in Vladivostok remembered Kim being sober and speaking calmly. Kim, who can handle his liquor, drank at least 15 glasses of vodka at the party, only turning faintly red.

"I believe Kim was criticizing the former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for having put the Soviet Union into a state of turmoil," the company head said.

Gorbachev promoted the perestroika reforms in the late 1980s as secretary general of the Soviet Communist Party. The reforms resulted in the abandonment of one-party rule by the Communist Party and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first post-Soviet president, became close with South Korea, chilling relations between Moscow and Pyongyang. With his remarks about the Soviet Union, Kim showed he intended to keep his dictatorship intact even if the country went through economic reform.

Kim hoped for practical benefits by rebuilding Russian-North Korean relations through his two visits to Russia in July and August 2001 as well as in August 2002.

Kim toured a department store, factories and other places in the Russian Far East to show the Russian officials he was interested in learning about the Russian economy.

He talked to Konstantin Pulikovsky, Russian President Vladimir Putin's representative plenipotentiary in the Far East District, who was accompanying Kim on his tour in 2002, about the need for economic reform in North Korea. Kim said, to reform successfully, he had to learn from the experience of other countries.

Before the August 2002 luncheon, Kim visited a port in Vladivostok, and asked the company president to cooperate in developing North Korea's Rajin Port the same as South Korea's Pusan Port.

Having apparently made thorough preparations, Kim spoke on the plan, displaying knowledge of such data as the Pusan port's annual volume of cargo and the facility layout.

Based on these conversations, several Russian officials concluded Kim was a reform-minded, flexible leader. Pulikovsky said Kim was a far-sighted person.

But that was nothing more than an impression they had, based on limited contact with Kim during a mere two-year period.

In July 2002, North Korea launched economic reforms to liberalize price and wage systems. If Kim's words and deeds are compared, however, it becomes clear that Kim lacked economic insight.

In April 1986, Vadim Tkachenko, the head of the section in charge of North Korean affairs in the international department of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee, made a clandestine visit to Pyongyang. His mission was to tell North Korea that Gorbachev, who had assumed the position of the Soviet Communist Party's general secretary the previous year, would begin wide-ranging reforms.

Tkachenko met then North Korean leader Kim Il Sung on the first day of his visit.

Tkachenko spent the entire following day talking with Kim Jong Il. The Soviet Union considered the younger Kim to be important as he was beginning to grab the reins of power to succeed his father.

Tkachenko remembered Kim Jong Il as a middle school student as he had been acquainted with Kim Il Sung since the 1950s.

"He was an active boy with a curious mind. He was fond of soccer and went to see all the soccer games played in Pyongyang," Tkachenko said.

During his talks with Kim Jong Il, Tkachenko explained Gorbachev's reform policies, which were an attempt to restart the stalling planned economy.

But Kim only wanted to present "a wide range of knowledge of politics, technology and culture." Kim talked enthusiastically about his plan to hold a world youth and student festival as a major event to rival the 1988 Seoul Olympics, ending the conversation.

Kim Jong Il did not respond to Gorbachev's reforms at that meeting. He did not even try to learn from the experience of China, where reform and open policies were already in full swing.

According to Hang Jang Yop, former secretary of the Workers' Party of (North) Korea, Kim slammed China's leadership, saying that Chinese reforms and liberalization were capitalistic.

In the 1990s, North Korea was hit by a political earthquake--the collapse of the Soviet Union and its system in Eastern Europe--and fell into serious economic doldrums.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asked Kim if he was ready to liberalize the economy when she visited North Korea in October 2000.

According to Albright's memoirs, Kim asked her what liberalization meant. He said North Korea would not accept Western-style liberalization, and liberalization should not harm his country's traditions. Kim added he was not interested in Chinese-style liberalization either.

Wendy Sherman, who was traveling with Albright as North Korea policy coordinator, said Kim showed an interest in the Swedish economic model during his conversation with Albright. But the difference between the Swedish and North Korean economies made Sherman wonder why Kim brought it up.

Kim Jong Il, who visited Shanghai in January 2001, three months after the talks with Albright, praised the development of the Chinese city as a "display of the talent and power of the Chinese people." But he did not say he would introduce Chinese reform and liberalization policies into his country.

North Korea launched an economic reform program in July 20002. But the country's production remains stagnant, and inflation has been the main result.

Experts say North Korea's excessive emphasis on military power, as indicated by massive military spending, is the primary cause of the country's economic deterioration.

The Workers Party of (North) Korea newspaper reiterated its claim in an editorial on Feb. 16, Kim's birthday, that "the party's revolutionary achievement, giving priority to military might, is sure of victory and invincibility."

Kim's governing style, refusing to liberalize and trying to overcome difficulties by depending on the armed forces, shows no sign of changing.

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