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Kim Jong-il: Strategy and Psychology
Region: Asia
Location: Korea, North
Published December 25, 2006
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In October 2006, Kim Jong-il’s North Korea again seized international attention. With its claimed underground nuclear test, Pyongyang upped the ante in its confrontation with the United States and the world community and appeared to return to its established habit of manufacturing crises. And, as always, outside observers began once again to engage in endless speculation about the motives and reasons behind North Korean policy. Most of this analysis tends to refer to North Korea as if it were a unified entity, a classical rational actor on the international scene. Of course, it is not; it remains a dictatorship that, although in all likelihood riven by factional disputes and palace intrigue, nonetheless largely reflects the preferences of one man—Kim Jong-il. In similar examples of tyrannies dominated by a single figure—Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Saddam’s Iraq—outsiders in fact discovered that, when those countries later opened up and documents came pouring out, the opinion of a single man usually determined large-scale state policy. 1 If the situation in North Korea is the same, discovering Kim Jong-il’s worldview, his personality, and his political psychology becomes essential to understanding the challenge posed by North Korea. And yet comparatively little attention has been devoted to understanding Kim the man.

The lack of consensus about Kim’s essential character is on display in various public statements by those who have known or encountered him. Routinely described as a tyrant, despot, and madman, Kim in the popular imagination looms as a sort of Asian cross between Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler. President George W. Bush has famously said that he “loathes” the North Korean leader. The North’s most prominent defector to date—Hwang Jang-yop, Pyongyang’s former chief of ideology—has characterized Kim as arrogant, impatient, rageful, and cruel.

Others have been more charitable. Professor Stephen Haggard of the University of California, San Diego, suggested after Kim’s summit with Kim Dae-jung, the president of South Korea (Republic of Korea, or ROK), that “Kim Jongil appeared relaxed, magnanimous and—above all—in complete control. Stereotypes of an insecure recluse . . . can no longer be justified.” The former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Don Gregg, has argued that “For all his defects, [Kim] demonstrates a willingness to learn from neighboring countries’ economic policies and to differentiate his rule from that of his father” and reports that former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung told him that Kim Jong-il was “highly intelligent and a flexible thinker.” After their 2000meetings, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright was almost generous in her praise: Kim was “very decisive and practical and serious,” a “good listener and a good interlocutor.” One Clinton White House official said bluntly at the time, “We misdiagnosed this guy.”

University of Hawaii professor emeritus Dae-sook Suh has rightfully suggested that we need to see Kim Jong-il “as he is, rather than a distorted version.” 6 But the paucity of verifiable facts about Kim makes this a difficult challenge. Virtually everything we know about him comes secondhand from sources of sometimes uncertain veracity who— whether coached on their comments, as sometimes charged, or not—may see good reasons to offer scandalous anecdotes about Kim Jong-il’s habits. What little direct evidence we possess is sketchy, drawn from outsiders who spent a few hours or a few days in Kim’s company, hardly enough time to make conclusive judgments about his personality. Even more than in the cases of many other dictatorial heads of state, from Hitler to Stalin to Saddam Hussein, Kim’s personality remains the subject of guesswork.

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