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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

FINALLY, A LEADER

Kim Jong Il's accession raises new questions about his nation's direction

By Tim Healy


Go to a time line of recent events

Go to a story on relations with Japan

Go to a story on South Korean opposition leader Kim Dae Jung

FEW MEN IN THE WORLD ARE AS ATTUNED as Kim Jong Il to the symbolic importance of titles. He has collected many, including "Creator of the Best Operas," "Most Scientific" and "Great Maker of Witty Remarks." Now, Kim has acquired a truly substantive title. On October 8, said North Korea's official news agency, he was named head of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea. That makes him in name what he has been in fact for the past three years: successor to his father Kim Il Sung as the nation's leader.

Since the elder Kim's death in 1994, speculation has swirled that his son was involved in a power struggle, perhaps with the military, over who would lead North Korea and in which direction. It now seems probable there was no such tussle. More likely, Kim felt duty-bound to wait a respectful amount of time after his father's demise before accepting the top title. Normally, he would have been expected to spend two years in mourning. But because his father, the founder of North Korea, was such a towering figure, an additional year was deemed appropriate.

In fact, Kim, 55, had been tapped as heir apparent more than two decades ago. Since then, he has accumulated not just the trappings of power but real authority to fill top military and government posts with his own people. If Kim seems widely underrated, that is partly his own doing. He is reclusive even for a leader of the "Hermit Kingdom." So much of what is said about him domestically is hyperbolic propaganda that reveals little. The lack of solid information and scarcity of outsiders who have met Kim have only fed the extensive range of rumors about him.

Still, some of his background is known. Official mythology says Kim was born in a secret military camp on sacred Mount Paektu. But according to Russian researchers, he was actually born on Feb. 16, 1942, in a Soviet military camp in the Russian Far East where his father was hiding from the Japanese. Kim was apparently sent to China in 1950 with his sister to ride out the Korean War. In 1964, he graduated from Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University with a degree in politics. He worked in a variety of government jobs before his father announced in 1974 that Jong Il would succeed him.

The early designation does not diminish the importance of the move to name him party leader. For three years, the world had come to see North Korea as a kind of rudderless ghost ship -- a starving, faceless country run by aging military men with scant respect for the lightweight son of their late "Great Leader." Kim's emergence gives the lie to that scenario. Now established as the head of both the armed forces and the party, he has only to become president to follow fully in his father's footsteps. However, the presidency is a secondary position in North Korea, and Kim appears in no particular hurry to add that title.

China is likely to be pleased at Kim's formal accession. Han Zhenshe, a Korea specialist and professor in the influential Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says Beijing is keen to see more balance in its relations with the two Korean governments, which have recently become skewed toward Seoul. "In the last five years, high-level Chinese officials have met more than 20 times with their South Korean counterparts," notes the Korea expert. "It is imperative for China and North Korea to restore high-level contacts." Han says a Sino-North Korean summit is likely now that Kim is officially the top man in Pyongyang. He expects Kim to be traveling to Beijing to meet President Jiang Zemin within the next six months.

The United States will also have taken note. North Korea has been a significant impediment to progress in four-party talks in New York City involving Pyongyang, Seoul, the U.S. and China. State Department officials in Washington have reportedly been dismayed by demands from North Korea's negotiators. The talks are nominally about drawing up an official treaty to end the Korean War, which has been technically in ceasefire limbo since 1953. However, Pyongyang has insisted that the negotiations also cover the withdrawal of 37,000 U.S. troops on the border between North and South Korea, removal of economic sanctions by Washington and Seoul, and delivery of a million tons of food aid next year.

Also hindering progress has been the reluctance of South Korea to accept any compromise. Domestic politics is a factor. A severely weakened President Kim Young Sam is unable to take the bold step of making a conciliatory gesture to the North. For his part, Kim Jong Il is said to be thoroughly disenchanted with his counterpart in Seoul. He may be content to wait until after the South's December election before resuming four-party talks in earnest.

Kim may want to wait for another reason. The next couple of months give him a chance to get closer to Japan, which would provide him leverage in the talks as well as improve his nation's economic condition. In a Tokyo investment seminar just two days before Kim's new status was announced, two officials from North Korea showed a promotional video to 50 potential investors for its Rajin-Sonbong Free Trade Zone, which borders China and Russia. The video featured the latest in computer graphics and painted a dynamic, progressive picture of the zone. But the Japanese remained cool. Now six years old, the Rajin-Sonbong zone has been the North's primary experiment in capitalism. Pyongyang has injected nearly $100 million to improve roads and build an airport, but the zone seems moribund for now. Undeterred, North Korean authorities last week announced plans to set up two new free-trade zones. They will be located in Wonsan on the east coast and Nampo on the west coast.

Some analysts believe that Kim's confirmation as party boss will provide him the platform from which to launch further changes. But others think that is unlikely. Says a North Korean defector now living in the South: "Oh, yes, Kim understands what needs to be done. The question is whether he has the guts to do it." And why not? "If Kim is to seek change and reform," says the defector, "he will have to tell his people that the 'paradise' his father created no long exists. He will have to tell people that his father was wrong. I seriously doubt that he will do anything to change."

Even so, Kim Jong Il may have little choice. Although the famine that has ravaged North Korea over the past two years has apparently eased, there is little doubt that the country's economy is in a shambles. Per-capita GNP last year reportedly was less than $1,000, not even a tenth of the figure in South Korea. Production has fallen in real terms for seven straight years. As for the famine, Namanga Ngongi, an executive of the United Nations World Food Program, reported after her visit early this month that it "has been contained. But it is not a victory." Many relief agencies believe that this year's harvest, along with assistance already sent, will provide only temporary relief. A new crisis may come as soon as early next year.

No one knows how North Korea, or Kim, will respond. He is receiving more credit these days for his political savvy, but there are questions about how successful he might be as a reformist leader in the Chinese mold. "He signed the framework of a [nuclear-power] agreement with the U.S., and he has been able to play cat and mouse with Washington every step of the way," says China's Han. But the Korea specialist adds that domestic change will not come quickly: "It will take a while for workers and peasants to transform their thinking and accept new policies." One of the few things the experts agree on when it comes to North Korea is that time may be Kim's most deficient resource. Only now, three years after his father's death, is he officially in charge of the country. If Kim wants to make his mark, he will need to pick up the pace.

-- With reporting by Laxmi Nakarmi / Seoul, David Hsieh / Beijing and Murakami Mutsuko / Tokyo


UPS AND DOWNS

1994

July 8

"Great Leader" Kim Il Sung dies of a heart attack aged 82. His titles of president and party leader are left vacant, but effective power transfers to his son Kim Jong Il.

October 21

North Korean negotiators ink a deal with the U.S. in Geneva to abandon an alleged nuclear-weapons program and submit to international inspections. In return, Washington recognizes Pyongyang and pledges to help replace existing nuclear reactors with safer, light-water models.

November 7

South Korean President Kim Young Sam lifts a longstanding ban on direct trade and investment in the North.

1995

January 27

The North's ties with Washington continue to improve, with the lifting of a ban on U.S. imports and a partial end to American sanctions.

December 16

Eight months after the deadline, North Korea signs an agreement to allow a South-financed, U.S.-led consortium to supply two new nuclear reactors.

1996

April

Several hundred North Korean soldiers enter the DMZ in defiance of the ceasefire. U.S. President Bill Clinton and Kim Young Sam propose four-way talks involving China and the U.S.

September 18

A North Korean submarine reportedly carrying commandos runs aground off the South's coastline. The occupants are arrested or killed in a massive manhunt.

December 30

Pyongyang expresses "deep regret" over the submarine incident.

1997

February 12

Top Pyongyang ideologue Hwang Jang Yop defects while in Beijing.

March 5

Representatives from North and South meet in New York to discuss four-way talks. Speculation grows that the North is facing famine on a massive scale.

June 30

Coaxed by promises of food aid, Pyongyang agrees to participate in the talks.

August 22

North Korea's ambassador to Egypt, Chang Sung Gil, and his wife defect and are granted political asylum in the U.S. The move complicates progress toward full four-way talks.


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