- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2001

In the space of less than a year, the international image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has gone from one of an erratic, bon vivant, and playboy to one of wiley statesman. But as a decrepit North Korea braces for yet another winter of starvation and North-South reconciliation grinds to a halt, it may be time for a reappraisal of the "Dear Leader."
Kim Jong-ils skillful use of the recent European Union (EU) mission to Pyongyang offers the latest in a growing body of evidence to suggest that Mr. Kim is at once a tactical genius and a strategic fool, qualities that may be a major obstacle to progress in both South Korean and U.S. relations with North Korea. In an effort aimed at regaining the spotlight, putting pressure on the Bush administration, and reassuring Kim Dae-jung on North-South, Mr. Kim met with a senior EU delegation.
All three elements of Mr. Kims tactics were revealed in the EU discussions as was Mr. Kims pleasure is placing himself on the world stage. Mr. Kim pledged to continue his moratorium on missile testing until 2003 (not coincidentally, the year when the two LWRs under the Agreed Framework are supposed to be completed). Yet at the same time, he told the EU envoys that Pyongyang would continue exporting missiles and missile technology, principally, because he "needs the money." Finally, he sent the EU delegation off to Seoul with a private letter for Kim Dae-jung reassuring the ROK that the North-South reconciliation process and perhaps his promise of a second Kim-Kim summit are not dead.
Kim Jong-ils use of the EU visit as (to use a billiard term) a political "bank shot" to the U.S. was particularly impressive. By reinforcing the North Korean missile test moratorium while at the same time emphasizing North Korea would continue its destabilizing missile exports Mr. Kim was sending a clear "carrot and stick" message to Washington as it nears the final stages of its Korea policy review. Kim Jong-ils commitment to the missile moratorium was a signal that Pyongyang remains eager to pursue missile talks with the U.S.; Mr. Kims proclamation that North Korea would continue exporting missiles was his "stick" designed to bring a sense of urgency to restarting U.S.-North Korean talks.
Mr. Kims performance is fascinating, and interestingly suggests that many critics of the Bush "go slow" approach to North Korea were dead wrong. Recall, it was argued that there was a narrow "window of opportunity" for a missile deal and that President Bush must immediately start where President Clinton left off. Not true. Pyongyang has nowhere else to go.
In fact, the "time out" for North Korea called by the Bush administration has already yielded some important benefits. Instead of the U.S. and South Korean constantly begging Pyongyang to come to the table, it is Kim Jong-il who is now the one eager to resume talks. This reverses the unhealthy diplomatic patterns created by the Clinton administration, always begging and bribing Pyongyang just to attend meetings. Now Mr. Bush is setting the terms of diplomacy rather than reacting to Pyongyangs games. This is an important prerequisite for a new policy.
Indeed, Kim Jong-ils behavior suggests that Mr. Bushs assessment of the situation and of U.S.-South Korean-Japanese leverage is correct. Faced with a perpetual food shortage nearly 2 million tons this year and a still moribund economy, North Koreas desperation is growing. At the same time, the very success of its "feed me or Ill kill you" extortion tactics over the past six years is constraining Pyongyangs behavior even as it keeps North Korea on life support. Instead of missile launches, or provocations in the Demilitarized Zone, Pyongyangs reaction to Mr. Bushs skepticism and rethinking of Korea policy has been merely therapeutic spewing abusive rhetoric at Washington and Seoul. The fact is that the massive amounts of food, fertilizer and other international aid that have poured into North Korea from the U.S., South Korea and the international community since 1995 have given Mr. Kim Jong-il something to lose. This suggests new boundaries for North Korean behavior and increased leverage for U.S.-South Korean-Japanese trilateral diplomacy.
Unfortunately for the future of Korea, Kim Jong-ils sense of strategy is as flawed as his tactics are clever. His tactics, of course, are designed to ensure regime survival at the lowest possible cost and lowest risk. This has so far succeeded in "muddling through," for his regime, but the price has been at great cost hundreds of thousands starving to death,widespread deprivation, and 22 million Koreans with little hope for a decent life.
What is Kim Jong-ils strategy beyond immediate survival by living off of global handouts? His choices range from bad to worse. The North Korean economic system has failed and tinkering with it offers little respite from falling further behind the rest of the world. Opening up to foreign investment and reforming what has been described as the worlds most distorted economy risks losing political control. But the experience of China and Vietnam suggest reform can be managed to bring economic vitality and retain political control.
Kim Jong-il and some of his technocratic elite are aware of this, but still fear it would destabilize the regime. The result has been a strategy of trying to manipulate outside actors to provide resources while Mr. Kim experiments at the margins with opening and reform. But without making a fundamental choice and using his totalitarian control to redirect his ruling Workers Party, the bureaucracy and its citizens to embark on a new course, it is a case of too little, too late.
Absent a desire to draw in foreign investment and unleash market-based economic activity, Kim Jong-il has little incentive to put on the negotiating table the one asset he has that can draw large-scale resources: his military threat. The result has been a tentativeness that has so far proven counterproductive. Mr. Kim had hoped to maintain his deployed missiles and "rent" them to Mr. Clinton. But by waiting more than 13 months to respond to the Perry visit, Pyongyang did not give Mr. Clinton enough time to negotiate a deal. Similarly, after the surprise agreement to hold a North-South Summit nearly one year ago, very little actual North-South progress has occurred, and now the entire process has been frozen. Mr. Kim appears to be making the same mistake with Kim Dae-jung that he made with Mr. Clinton. His mistake with the United States has meant Pyongyang now has to deal with a much tougher administration in Washington.
Kim Dae-jung has provided Pyongyang every reasonable opportunity to move forward on genuine North-South reconciliation. But unless there is rapid progress during the remainder of this year, Kim Dae-jung will become a lame duck as the South Korean presidential election campaign begins early next year. It is unlikely that Kim Jong-il find a more patient, generous and magnanimous partner to deal with in Seoul than Kim Dae-jung in the foreseeable future. Thus, yet another opportunity may be missed.
There was a classic episode in the old comic strip "Pogo," where Pogo says sagely, "We have met the enemy and he is us." In the end, for all his tactical genius, Kim Jong-il will remain a strategic fool in charge of a decomposing state and society unless he makes the difficult choices needed to move toward a soft landing and peaceful coexistence. Even the best-conceived and executed U.S. and South Korean policies can do little to fix such a "Pogo problem."

Robert A. Manning is senior fellow and director of Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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