A new national leader has been anointed in North Korea, and we still don’t know what to do about the outlaw nation and its nuclear weapons.
First it was “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, the North’s founding president now known as “Eternal Leader.” Then came his son, Kim Jong-il, the “Dear Leader.” With his death has emerged his son, dubbed the “Great Successor,” and we still aren’t sure whether his correct name is Kim Jong-un or Kim Jong eun. Most Western sources are settling on “un.”
Although a political novice with little known military experience, he already is taking control as supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army and head of the ruling Workers’ Party, the two top posts held by his father. The army of more than 1 million polices the country and dictates foreign policy in line with the “military first” doctrine started by his father and to be continued by the son.
American policy in the past has mostly imposed increasingly severe sanctions after a halting effort to coax some helpful response by offering food aid and nuclear reactors to produce electric power. The assumption has been that economic distress will eventually cause the regime to collapse.
Neither offers of friendly help nor stiff sanctions to isolate the North have accomplished anything. The question for the United States is how to deal with this new and little-known leader of the secretive nation and its nuclear weapons program.
Perhaps the best advice has come from Nicholas D. Kristof, a New York Times columnist who first visited North Korea in 1989 and was struck by the sight of a government loudspeaker on the wall of every home — with no dial or “off” switch. It told people when to get up and when to go to work, blared a constant story of success and recounted every move of the dictator. No wonder that, when Mr. Kristof questioned two high school girls he selected randomly in a rural area, they repeated in unison the political lines they had heard on the government radio.
Their love and respect for Kim Jong-il may have been genuine, as perhaps was the weeping and mourning over the leader’s death. Videos, tapes, email and social media such as Facebook and Twitter are strictly barred. Smuggling of any such things can mean a long term in a labor camp. Constant propaganda has taught most North Koreans that their government is good and that any problems are the work of foreign oppressors.
So one of Mr. Kristof’s admonitions is, “Don’t assume that everybody detests the regime.” His second is, “Don’t assume that the end of the regime is imminent. Finally, he advises, “Don’t try to isolate North Korea.” He contends that the U.S. reaction to the country’s nuclear weapons program, sanctions and isolation, have helped keep the Kim family in power.
One sign of possible change is the plea by a visiting South Korean delegation for the resumption of massive investments in North Korea. They were planned by earlier South Korean leaders but scuttled by their current right-wing successor, Lee Myung-bak. Earlier South Korean leaders believed that boosting economic exchanges would ease military tensions on the divided peninsula and help bring eventual reunification of Korea.
The untried new leader is the person to watch.