- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 10, 2000

Another momentous event in North Korea's quickly expanding relations with the outside world is occurring here in Washington right now. The North's "second-in-command," First Vice-Chairman of the National Defense Commission Cho Myong-nok, is here to speak with our nation's leadership. He represents Chairman Kim Jong-il, a man no one in the United States has ever met. Who is he?
William Shakespeare told us in his great play, "As You Like It," that "All the world is a stage and all the men and women merely players." He could have gone on to say that all who aspire to high political position, domestic or international, in democracies or in totalitarian systems are "actors," some better than others. Observe the present debates in the American presidential election for example.
Chairman Kim Jong-il, North Korea's head of state for the past six years since the sudden death of his father, President Kim Il-sung, in the summer 1994, recently has appeared very much like a highly skilled actor making his debut. He had his final rehearsal session in Beijing last April, surprising most observers with his sociability, affability and knowledge. Then came his actual debut performance at the June North-South Korean Summit in Pyongyang.
How did he do? The most astute, direct observer then and since, South Korea's great President Kim Dae-jung told me in a long one-on-one meeting in the Blue House on July 7 that he found the North's leader to be "A reasonable person who could change his mind when presented with new facts and ideas, a person who I can do business with." Other impartial critics have been very pleasantly surprised and given Chairman Kim Jong-il rave reviews. Only the hard-over conservatives, especially in Seoul and Washington, are unwilling to deal seriously with a profile of Chairman Kim Jong-il that does not fit their Cold War stereotype. Too bad, because this hinders engagement with the top-level leadership in Pyongyang.
Kim Jong-il has begun to break the mold of the profile that intelligence agencies in Seoul, Washington and Tokyo formed of him during the Cold War. This is not a criticism of the South Korean National Security Planning Agency or the CIA. Disinformation was part of their jobs, and they did it well. The criticism comes when these agencies trap themselves and the governments they serve in their own propaganda. It is time for objective observers worldwide to re-examine their perceptions of North Korea's leadership.
What was the old profile of Kim Jong-il? A bon vivant reveling in his father's shadow, an infatuate actor, an irrational person, a total recluse, a binge drinker, a womanizer with an affinity for Scandinavian beauties, holder of an enormous collection of porno films, a reckless driver of fast cars a real loser.
On the other side of possible "disinformation" is what the senior leaders in Pyongyang told me personally about Kim Jong-il during my four weeklong trips there in 1991-94. At a long, sumptuous luncheon my wife, son and I had in his residence June 1992, President Kim Il-sung spoke about the countless thousands of hours he had spent teaching his son about the responsibilities of leading their people, his son's dedication to spending time "in the field, giving the people on-the-spot guidance" and his son's passion for acting.
President Kim saw to it the next day that we were escorted to the North's equivalent of Hollywood Film studios where we were given a briefing emphasizing the purposes of the media and the Dear Leader's role in carrying the right messages to the people. Large photographs of Kim Jong-Il adorned the walls. Later, at the conference center in the middle of our villa compound, we were shown patriotic films in which the Dear Leader appeared. Yes, he is an actor, especially in highly nationalistic settings with flags waving, emotional music playing, and throngs of people cheering in honor of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung the father and savior of The Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Symbolism and belief constitute a crucial underpinning of any political system. And politicians worldwide know it.
Others senior officials in Pyongyang had their own views to relate about the Dear Leader. Kim Yong-sun, secretary of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party, and perhaps the closest confidant of Kim Jong-il, seldom missed an opportunity to tell me that the Dear Leader was a very thoughtful man who could make important decisions fast. In fact, when I made the case for bringing CNN and NHK-TV Japan into North Korea for the first time in April 1994, I was told the decision was up to the Dear Leader. In fact, he did make the right decision fast. And 14 hours later, both networks were up and broadcasting from Pyongyang, then Kaesong near the Demilitarized Zone.
Before defecting to the South, Kim Jong-il's professor at the Kim Il-sung University, Hwang Jong-yop, responded to my questions about the Dear Leader's intellect and study habits. Was he a gifted student? Did he attend class like other students, or was he a recluse as reported? "A brilliant young man who locked himself away devouring serious books on the history of the Korean Peninsula, history of China and Russia, history of the brutal Japanese occupation of Korea, history of imperialism and the philosophies of Marxism-Leninism and Kim Il-sung's Juche Idea."
During my 1991 briefing to Korean People's Army Gen. Kim Young-chul and his staff on lessons learned from the Persian Gulf war (and why North Korea would be obliterated fast in a war fought for any reason with the South Korean-U.S. Combined Forces Command), Gen. Kim commented with a semi-snarl that, "The Dear Leader knows a great deal more about the military than you seem to think, Col. Taylor," with heavy emphasis on the "colonel."
What an amazing contrast between main stream profiles of Chairman Kim Jong-il. They can't both be right unless there was some validity to the profile of earlier years, and the Dear Leader just plain "grew up fast" with the trauma of his father's sudden death six years ago and the realization that the hereditary succession, which is the basis of the North Korean political system, was upon him.
Why try to know who this person is? Because, if he is irrational, he can kill hundreds of thousands of Americans and our allies in South Korea and Japan within a few hours with missiles and weapons of mass destruction before his own country is destroyed. Think about it. Should we not try to understand and engage the North Korean leadership?

William J. Taylor, a retired Army colonel and combat veteran with extensive experience in the two Koreas, is a senior adviser for international security affairs at The Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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