Joshua PollackKim Jong Il and the Grim Reaper

When Jimmy Carter was last in Pyongyang, according to KCNA, he was reminded that “it is the behest of President Kim Il Sung to denuclearize the peninsula.” How wholeheartedly NDC Chairman Kim Jong Il shares that wish is another question. In the judgment of Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution, not so much: “The best chance for a significant change in DPRK policies (the ‘silver lining’ of the current situation) is a political succession, apparently now underway due to Kim Jong-il’s poor health.”

Just how nigh is the moment? (The apparent delay of the 3rd WPK Party Conference has people wondering, certainly.) No one can say, but you’ll get a sense of it by viewing this sequence of photos from Xinhua. It commemorates KJI’s handshakes with Chinese President Dorian Gray Hu Jintao over the last few years — behold!

April 2004:

October 2005:

January 2006:

May 2010:

August 2010:

Going by the trend, KJI would be well advised to stop shaking hands with Hu; it’s clearly not doing him any good.

Of course, there is no guarantee that post-succession North Korea will prove any more tractable on the nuclear issue than the North Korea of today.

Update. Jimmy Carter reports in the New York Times that North Korean officials he spoke with in August were “ready to demonstrate their desire for peace and denuclearization. They referred to the six-party talks as being ‘sentenced to death but not yet executed.'”

Separately, in an account of his subsequent trip to China (posted at the Carter Center website), he relates the following conversation with Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao:

He was quite interested in my visit to Pyongyang and confirmed that the positive messages I received there were the same that Kim Jong Il had brought to China. He surprised us by quoting the DPRK leader regarding the prospective promotion of his son, Kim Jong Un, as “a false rumor from the West.” We’ll just have to wait to learn the truth about the succession in power.


  1. Abjectief (History)

    I wouldn’t put my money on it yet, as the saying goes ‘old soldiers never die’, and it seems like old communist who like to wear uniforms have similar life-expectancies, Fidel Castro is the living example of this theory.

    Look at it from the bright side, the North Korean-regime will remain in a state of insecurity and behind-the-screens-rivalry as long as Kim is still around, and his successor hasn’t taken firm grip of his reign of power, thus making it more likely for dissidents to cross over.

  2. Justruss (History)

    Kim’s impending demise and the certain, ensuing, power struggle that could seriously destabilize Asia with China having perhaps the most at risk. Certainly China doesn’t want to see the DPRK come under the influence of the ROK through reunification as such an outcome upsets the balance of power in the region much to the benefit of the US. Nor does China care to experience a sudden influx of millions of refugees from the DPRK that would occur were the government to go into chaos instead of an orderly transition of power.

    China has been playing a cool hand with the DPRK while the US has been ratcheting up the pressure on China to take a stronger stance in controlling the destructive tendencies of the ‘Dear Leader’.

    These next months and years will be very interesting. It’s difficult to predict a complete turn-around in the north of the Korean peninsula. A catastrophic result could be could be even more likely, especially as China seems most willing to demonstrate the capabilities of its growing military forces as it continues to reject the diplomatic prodding from the west.

    Bur, by far, the most interesting aspect of this situation is the potential for a positive outcome for the people of the DPRK. It would be refreshing if the liberation and well-being of these badly victimized people were to become paramount in the considerations of the likely engagement of competing powers in the opportunity Kim’s passing will provide.

  3. Brad Arnold (History)

    North Korea now is eerily analogous to imperial Japan right before Pearl Harbor. A government modeled after imperial Japan (i.e. racist, God dictator, military totalitarianism) whom we are embargoing and refusing to negotiate with unless unacceptably preconditions are met (i.e. nuclear disarmament). Also, the Japanese general in charge of the Pearl Harbor attack was shown that was the best strategy by an American think tank intending to prove Japan couldn’t win a war with the US. North Korea has the Dark Winter table top exercise to go by – a devastating bioterrorist pandemic scenario.

    • joshua (History)

      Sure — all they need is weaponized smallpox, a way of delivering it, and a death wish.

      I don’t think NK is remotely analogous to imperial Japan, except for hereditary rule by a semi-divine monarch. And if a surprise attack on the USA was the “best strategy” for Japan, I’d hate to see a poor strategy. But we are getting way off topic.

    • Ummm (History)

      The men in charge of the Pearl Harbor operation – which was a naval operation – were Japanese admirals, not generals.

  4. 3.1415 (History)

    The Dear Leader does not waste his time dyeing hair; he has more urgent needs to keep the food on the table for his “Republic”. Kissinger once said that not all countries or peoples can adopt the successful experience of China. DPRK is a good example. If it were good at doing that, there would already be a Northeast Asia Free Trade Zone and the US Forces Korea would be asked to leave.

    The Dear Leader is doing the US a favor by creating a situation for the USFK to stay indefinitely. An empire needs a few trouble makers at strategic locations so that it can righteously inject its forces either directly or through client states.

  5. anonymous (History)

    Kim’s western educated son is the best chance the North Korea has to pull itself out of its own economic ineptitude. If NK could adopt the Chinese model with economically open boarders, they do have a population ready to work. Its just been bad centralized planning and hopeless reliance on Juniche that has kept the country in the current near starvation state. Economic liberalization would result in a China or Vietnamese resurgence, and then the elimination of the need to brandish nuclear weapons with vitriolic rhetoric to keep the population roughly in line with the leadership’s control.

    A new, young Kim would surely more enjoy his life as the leader who freed the North Korean economic miracle than as the ruler of a starvation economy. Certainly in his mind, a strong economic aide package (i.e. USD $10 billion) beats saying you have the worlds least effective nuclear arsenal. He may even be able to marry a movie star. The question is whether the military command can accept change. Its in their interest too, they just haven’t figured it out yet.

  6. Gridlock (History)

    Were shoes with a lifted heel on put on the Restricted Import list around 2006?

  7. Inst (History)

    The photos could be a reference to Chinese photoshoppers, photographers, and government policy.

    It’s also interesting to see how KJI seems to be ailing, he can’t even keep his normal expression. Perhaps he’s not even ruling NK anymore and he’s being kept as a figurehead by his partisans until his son can replace him.

    Also, regarding our Chinese Dorian Gray, do you mean that he’s a chipper extrovert with liberal political views on his secret portrait or that he has 6-inch long fangs on the canvas?

  8. Andreas Persbo (History)

    Best post in a while. You’re right about the Dorian Gray analogy.

  9. rwendland (History)

    anonymous, if the article below in a right-of-centre UK newspaper is to believed, NK is already more in motion toward the Chinese model than is generally believed in the west.

    I was very surprised to read from a western entrepreneur in Pyongyang “[The idea of bare roads] might be five or 10 years old. Nowadays there are lots of cars and traffic is more and more crazy.”

    Maybe our image of Pyongyang is already a bit too dated?

    • joshua (History)

      I don’t think this tracks with the majority of reports about the aftermath of last year’s closure of the markets and botched currency reform.

    • joshua (History)

      Just to elaborate a bit, there are North Korean elites, and money does come into the country from Japan. But reports of boom times are, I think, greatly exaggerated.

      On the other side of the coin, we might discount slightly some of the claims of certain aid groups that have a vested interest in portraying the situation as exceptionally bleak. They need donations, after all. On balance, through, they’re probably closer to the truth, especially after the current reform and market closures, this year’s floods, and the lack of investment or infrastructure to date outside of basically one spot in the entire country.

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