Kim Jong Il is dangerous even when he’s not drinking. (From the Dec. 2000/Jan. 2001 American Spectator.)
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But worse than any of these acts of terrorism is the complete disregard he has for his own people, from whom he demands utter fealty. Since 1995, U.S. officials estimate more than 2 million North Koreans have died of famine — roughly the same number as died under the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot. Certainly severe flooding and, later, drought are partially to blame, but Pyongyang did little to improve their lot, withholding food from international donor organizations, prohibiting peasants from cultivating anything more than their collective quotas, and failing to disseminate any agricultural technology or policies.
In February 1994, a senior Chinese military officer tipped off South Korean diplomats in Washington that a team of mainland neurologists was hurried to Pyongyang the year before. There they were shown X-rays of a “very senior official” with a very cracked marble. The account confirms many North Korea watchers in their belief that Kim isn’t dealing from a full deck.
But when it comes to international diplomacy — such as it is — he has proved a genius at playing the rest of the world, and particularly the U.S., for fools. In Communism’s heyday, North Korea limped along thanks to massive assistance from the Soviet Union. But once the sugar daddy fell, the North found itself alone and broke. Its predilection for belligerence has proved a reliable vehicle for extortion. Insincere promises to behave and abandon its weapons development and proliferation lead to more and more goodies. And with these perpetual negotiations comes a veneer of legitimacy as the world recognizes that Kim Jong Il is a man with whom to be reckoned. The Korean summit in June was no different.
While it was certainly a historic and perhaps even interesting spectacle, not much came of it. In a country where split families account for upwards of 10 percent of the population, Kim agreed to only a handful of family reunions. A promise for a future meeting was made. The South’s Kim Dae Jung, meanwhile, promised the North more development and aid of the sort that benefits the Workers’ Party elite alone.
But Korea watchers could barely contain their excitement. Stephen Haggard, director of the Korea-Pacific Program at U.C.-San Diego, exclaimed that “Kim Jong Il appeared relaxed, magnanimous and — above all — in complete control. Stereotypes of an insecure recluse, challenged from within and unable to manage a diplomatic stage, can no longer be justified.”
So is Kim Jong Il a changed man?
In May the dictator paid a secretive visit to Beijing, thought to be his first trip abroad since 1983 (also to China). The most interesting news to emerge was that Kim confided to cadres that he’d cut back on his drinking and smoking.
The next month, at a banquet during the Korean summit, Kim threw back ten glasses of wine. Just hours later at a signing ceremony for the joint communiqué that was supposed to herald the dawn of a new age in Korea, the two Kims celebrated with a glass of champagne.
Kim Jong Il chugged his bubbly in two seconds flat.