North Korea's Domestic Succession Creates International Tension


Few rising national leaders have acquired reputations on the way up that would match North Korea's 51-year-old Kim Jong Il.

In the small community of diplomats who follow Asia's last bastion of unreconstructed Stalinism, the crown prince of the Marxist world's only dynastic succession plan gets credit as chief patron of stunning feats: the 1987 bombing that killed all 115 people aboard a South Korean jetliner and the 1983 Burmese Buddhist temple bombing that killed South Korea's foreign minister and 18 other officials.

At home, he is fulsomely promoted as the "Dear Leader" of all the Korean people and "the most outstanding strategist of our age" -- a degree of modesty, actually, keeping him respectfully in the shadow of his 81-year-old father. Founding Stalinist Kim Il Sung is the "Great Leader" and "the greatest military thinker in world history."

Among smaller groups at home and abroad, the younger Mr. Kim has a reputation for outbursts of cruelty toward subordinates and for bringing a stream of elegant young females to Pyongyang from selected parts of Europe and Asia.

This month, the world began to give closer scrutiny to some more serious prospects -- that he may be within reach of owning one or more crude but potentially devastating nuclear weapons. And that he may already have rockets, based on Russian-designed Scud missiles, that could deliver a payload not only to South Korea but also as far away as, for example, Osaka, Japan's No. 2 industrial and financial center.

After waiting in the wings for decades, on March 12 the younger Mr. Kim made what amounted to his debut on the world stage. North Korea announced that it would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty rather than permit the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect two nuclear waste sites at Yongbyon, some 60 miles north of Pyongyang, the capital.

Neither Kim had his name on that announcement. But in the ensuing two weeks, the ailing father has been nowhere in sight and the son has been steadily in the limelight.

It has been a debut fully equal to his reputation -- full of bombastic denunciations of "U.S. imperialist reactionaries" and claims of international conspiracies to insult North Korea and overthrow Communism.

It also has only made North Korea's Asian neighbors that much more worried that Pyongyang seems determined to build the bomb, even as it faces economic collapse and a potentially volatile political transition.

By midweek, the good news was that both North and South Korea were frantically signaling each other that the last thing either wanted was a new Korean War.

The younger Mr. Kim, speaking as commander in chief, called off on Wednesday the "semi-war footing" on which he had put the country earlier in the month. He declared "victory" in fighting off annual joint military exercises by 120,000 U.S. and South Korean troops. Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency declared that a week of gigantic rallies, 1.5 million had volunteered to serve in the country's 1.1-million-man army.

But relief among the neighbors was tempered by continued worry about North Korea's nuclear plans.

"Even though today's move could help ease tensions, this will not be the end of the problem," Yohei Kono, Japan's chief government spokesman, said. "Japan, in coordination with other nations, will continue to urge North Korea to cancel its earlier decision to pull out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty."

Legally, there may be time for persuasion. North Korea's withdrawal will not be legally effective until May.

But it could prove to be a hard sell, if only because North Korea's political regime is much more fragile than might appear from its hard-line Stalinist ways.

Some in Tokyo's small community of diplomatic North Korea watchers think the younger Mr. Kim has at best a shaky grip on the succession.

"Kim Jong Il doesn't have his father's guerrilla and Korean War military credentials, is hated by people he has trampled in the party, and is coming into his own when the economy is falling apart," one Western diplomat said.

"If there's anything he can't afford, it's to lose standing with the military. I wouldn't bet one yen on the chances that he'll sacrifice the one claim to modernity and power that North Korea's military has concentrated on for a decade," the diplomat said.

Travelers returning here from North Korea paint a picture of an economy already collapsing two years after the loss of Soviet and East European aid.

They report hundreds of factories out of production for lack of oil, parts and raw materials, hundreds of thousands eating corn mush rather than rice, and many families unable to get cabbage to make enough kim-chi, the spicy-hot national condiment and protein source.

China, tending to its own fast-growing economy, now reportedly demands hard currency for grain and oil. Hard currency is another thing Pyongyang doesn't have.

A few years ago, news of impending collapse in the North might have brought cheers to some in Seoul, the capital of South Korea.

That was before the Berlin Wall came down and the world watched Germany's struggle with the ex-communist basket case it inherited in its eastern states.

Today, many South Koreans say the same reunification that seemed a dream only a few years ago now feels more like a nightmare.

"Of course, we have to say we believe in it, but to be honest it's only good if it's in the future, if the North catches up economically some day first," said Lee Young Byong, a textile factory agent who travels here. "We aren't as rich as West Germany yet, and I'm sure we'd go broke if we had to rebuild the North."

That leaves North Korea literally no place to turn for large-scale economic help.

In a time of economic extremity and political volatility, that is a formula for instability that only makes Pyongyang's Asian neighbors much more nervous about any possibility of a North Korean nuclear bomb.

By week's end, no one here was suggesting any clear path out of the crisis.

The IAEA's credibility with nuclear wannabes such as Iraq and Iran could hardly stand much backing down. If neither side budges by Wednesday, the deadline it has set for North Korea to allow the inspections, the IAEA is expected to ask the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on North Korea.

That was yet another cloudy prospect.

China, a permanent and veto-bearing Security Council member, went on record flatly against sanctions.

"There are no provisions that those who withdraw or those who stay away [from the Non-Proliferation Treaty] should be punished," Qian Qichen, China's foreign minister, said Tuesday.

American and Japanese diplomats generally credit China with a positive role in promoting peace in the Korean Peninsula, and Beijing last year opened relations with South Korea.

A week ago, Beijing was the site of meetings between low-level North Korean and U.S. diplomats, though the sessions were fruitless.

But China apparently has no stomach for joining Washington in sanctions against the neighbor with whom it fought American forces in the 1950s.

Mr. Qian's statement suggested that Beijing may even welcome the chance of a low-cost gesture toward one of the world's few remaining fellow-Marxist regimes, a neighbor whose feathers Beijing's policies have ruffled more than once in recent years.

"Patient consultation," Mr. Qian said when asked what recourse he recommended.

John Woodruff, a Baltimore Sun correspondent, is based in Tokyo.

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