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☞ Issue 120
글씨크기 크게 글씨크기 작게 기사 메일전송 기사 출력
Why Kim Jong-Il's Health Remains the Elephant in the Room

The Kim regime is like a time bomb that is set to explode

Lee Byong-chul (2008/09/21 22:37)  

Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, caught the greatest attention outside North Korea as he fell ill. He is apparently about to disappear but his country now appears to be immune to facts that the absence of his 'absolute power' can bring about a crisis from the very highest levels of the Kim regime. Apparently, the durability of the regime has been proved as strong as the grim-faced stepping goose soldiers on parade. The probability looks very low that North Korea, which is revving up the military first politics with much fanfare, will be unable to handle the shock of a leadership crisis. Improbable as it might seem, perhaps the most important thing for non-North Koreans to remember is: the regime can survive longer than they expect.

Designated as successor of the late Kim Il-sung in 1974, Kim Jong-il is likely to orchestrate the communist regime by seizing control of the military that shows endless loyalty toward himself, unless another grave stroke decisively weakens his leadership. Just as the crisis of North Korea can be developed into the tragedy in the region of Northeast Asia, so no countries surrounding the Korean peninsula -- South Korea, the US, China, Japan and Russia -- want to see North Korea collapsing suddenly, though some of them may hope to let it fail more slowly. When Kim reportedly suffered stroke, many pundits talked about the need for a contingency plan for "orderly liquidation" of the nuclear-armed regime on the brink.

Kim was reportedly born in 1942 but North Koreans don't care how old the 'Dear Leader' is. Kim is older than Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate but younger than Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate. It seems however apparent that Kim's days are numbered. Kim's political influence looks quite similar to that of President George W. Bush whose tenure ends with no significant achievements in just four months. President Bush has embraced a more active approach to North Korea to clean up his foreign policy legacy before he exits the stage but the North Korean nuclear issues have been replaced by the unprecedented crisis of the American financial institutions. The Washington establishment has no time to take a careful look at the power struggle in Pyongyang. Whoever will be the next leader of North Korea must not be in the best interest of the outgoing Bush administration, only if the nuclear weapons are kept safe.

No countries other than China are indeed able to get a granular look into the deepest part of the North Korean decision-makers. It should go without saying that China already knew the urgent status of the North Korean leader long before raw and unconfirmed rumors have started leaking out recently. US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill's visit to Beijing offered a good example of demonstrating that the US highly estimates the intelligence qualities that China obtains with regard to the North Korean leader whose locations are rarely to be found. China's proximity means that it can play an active role in the politics of regime survival in the event of contingencies in the North.

The South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS) has developed a cadre of analysts with unique expertise on North Korea and a clandestine service capable of conducting espionage but there remains much difference between China and South Korea in terms of qualities and quantities of human intelligence. To wit, the Chinese ambassador to North Korea can bring the North Korean generals to explain themselves to their friends at the embassy in Pyongyang. Truly, China began to lay the foundations for a pro-Chinese regime in Pyongyang as soon as Kim Il-sung suddenly died in 1994.

Considering that the Chinese leadership already obtained the result for the operation on Kim's stroke around mid-August, it is very meaningful to see whether South Korean President Lee Myung-bak asked Chinese President Hu Jintao about Kim's health while Hu was making a state visit to Seoul on Aug. 25-26. Yet I guess that they probably did not discuss each other about the ailing leader in the North. For China, Kim's health remains the elephant in the room. Moreover, South Korea has less sufficient intelligence network regarding Pyongyang, in part because the previous presidents were not so much interested in the intelligence as the domestic political maneuvering through the spy agency. I find it necessary to set up a North Korea Task Force, which aims to exclusively monitor the whole situations in North Korea in a more strengthened way than ever. The Task Force can serve as the top decision maker's eyes and ears on the Kim regime, as if China is currently pinpointing the North Korean power elites like a laser beam.

Whether North Korea will follow the Chinese example of state-sponsored capitalism remains unclear but the Kim regime is like a time bomb that is already set to explode in due course. All the neighboring countries have good reason to fear that the North might explode itself in one way or another. Their major concern is how to implode the bomb in a safe manner and how to keep the as-yet-unverified nuclear weapons secured inside the country. Now that Kim's death would not end the threat he represents, it is totally different from killing bin Laden.

The White House spokesperson Dana Perino's recent remarks reflect concern about the nuclear weapons program that North Korea successfully developed, as well as an American view that North Korea lacks the will to disable the plutonium-producing reactor and other facilities. She also said that the six-party process was important, while keeping a low key on reports about Kim's health. It seems that Washington and Beijing realized the politically sensitive situation quickly enough by implicitly drawing a line that they, unlike South Korea, would no longer comment on Kim's health. A wait-and-see strategy can, in their judgment, be a good choice, if they decided to believe the unscientific faith that time is on their side.

If there were an Olympics for hyperbole, yet, the South Korean media surely would have more gold medals than US swimming hero Michael Phelps, because it was inappropriate to see the media reporting as if they obtained the top secret of Kim's medical record, albeit it was intentionally offered in terms of psycho-intelligence warfare. Given the unpredictable volatility of the North Korean leader's death or incapacitation, the strategically low-key attitude can help deconstruct the time bomb that started ticking.
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