- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

It now appears U.S. and North Korean delegations will meet soon in Beijing, with the possibility of taking the Bush administration off the collision course it has maintained with reclusive North Korea over the past six months.
We should be thankful for that. War with North Korea is not an acceptable option. We would win a classic "Pyrrhic victory" with casualties in the hundreds of thousands among Americans, South Koreans and Japanese.
Just who is the leader of the country we will be dealing with, Chairman Kim Jong-il? Enigmatic, erratic, unpredictable, despotic, secretive, crazy, weird, loathsome: quite a list of heavy adjectives used often in the American media (often quoting Bush administration officials) to describe Mr. Kim, "The Dear Leader." This presents an interesting question because those in America who write about the 60-year-old Mr. Kim have never even met the man. Thus, conclusions about him are drawn from secondhand accounts or based on sheer rumor.
Unfortunately, the profile of Mr. Kim used by our intelligence agencies to advise government policymakers is drawn from similar sources. There is nothing necessarily wrong with disinformation as a tool of diplomacy so long as you don't get trapped into believing it yourself.
The Bush administration should think carefully about this as the debate develops over whether we should or should not hold talks with/ negotiate with/isolate/ use economic sanctions against/ use military force against the Stalinist state ruled by Mr. Kim in the name of his deceased father, "The Great Leader," Kim Il-sung, founder of North Korea.
So, the son. Who is he really? Depends on whose disinformation you believe that which has been spun by our intelligence agencies in Seoul and Washington during the decades of the Cold War, or that which has been propagated by Pyongyang for an equal period. There are stereotypes on both sides.
First, our stereotype. "The kid" was born during World War II and was pampered by his father from the beginning. He was privately tutored and never had to mingle in school with "common" North Korean kids. The name of the "grow-up game" was to make him happy and show him off around Pyongyang on special occasions.
There was no discipline, just catering to his whims while his father got on with the business of governing. He never had a serious thought in his life and, by the time he hit his 20s, was nothing but a troublemaker.
He became a binge drinker and a chain smoker. He drove fast cars around Pyongyang, sometimes shooting out traffic lights. He was a womanizer who had Scandinavian girls imported for service in his "Pleasure Palace." He became a devotee of porn films. When he did any serious work, it was studying acting or planning acts of terrorism. Bottom line? He has been an aberrant wastrel all his life.
Now a second stereotype based on some disinformation provided carefully to me in private sessions by his father, by his personal counselor and confidant, Secretary Kim Yong-Sun and by his former professor at Kim Il-sung University, Hwang Jong-Yop (before he defected to South Korea and changed his tune about "The Dear Leader"), and by many other senior North Korean civilian and military officials during hundreds of hours of meetings during my visits to the North.
That profile? He was a serious young man who spent countless thousands of hours at his father's knee learning leadership responsibilities he would inherit under the North Korean system of hereditary succession.
He was a brilliant student who as a recluse read serious works about the history of the Korean people, history of China, history of Russia, history of the horrible 1910-45 Japanese occupation of all Korea and his father's role in defeating that occupation, the works of Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin and much more.
He is an analytical thinker capable of making tough decisions fast; a young "Dear Leader" devoted his life to travel around his country giving "on-the-spot guidance" to his people on agricultural and industrial development and to the military on strategy and tactics. He aspires to be as great a leader as his father.
What a contrast in profiles. Suppose there were some accuracy in both profiles. Suppose Kim Jong-il went through rapid personal maturation (i.e. "grew up fast") beginning with the unexpected death of his father on July 8, 1994, and the realization that he was suddenly responsible for leading his country at the time of the nuclear crisis in the spring and summer of 1994, in the context of disastrous, alternating floods and droughts compounding the problems of a failing economy leading to mass starvation.
Suppose he has realized over the past eight years why his country is an isle of poverty in a Northeast Asian sea of prosperity. Suppose he and his regime colleagues now are willing to risk the hopefully controllable infection of capitalism as the only realistic means of preserving the last vestiges of "Juche" (self-reliance), the philosophical cornerstone of their political system necessary to keeping the regime in power.
Suppose Chairman Kim decided to turn his acting talents into an international sales campaign, with rehearsals at the June 2000 North-South Summit in Pyongyang followed by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit there in October 2000, then made high-profile visits to Beijing, Shanghai and Moscow in tandem with efforts to normalize relations worldwide?
Why don't public and private officials who have actually spent time with the North's leader share the negative stereotype? South Korea's President Kim told me personally the week after the North-South summit that he found Kim Jong-il to be "a reasonable person who could change his mind when presented with new facts and ideas, a person I can do business with." Why did Mrs. Albright state publicly after her return from Pyongyang that the North's leader "is a man I can do business with"?
The Bush administration clings to the Cold War stereotype of the North's leader and his regime that has led it to adopt the hard-line policy largely responsible for the dangerous impasse we are in. It is time to start high-level, face-to face talks with Kim Jong-il and his most senior officials. Who knows, maybe we'll find that they are people we "can do business with" in pursuing our national security agenda.
There has been every indication that Kim Jong-il's government is ready to "talk." Let's get on with it to lower tensions. Historically, wars start by accident or miscalculation at times of high tension. We should not want a war with North Korea. Unlike Iraq, the North Korean military would fight and has the military capability to inflict enormous damage to American interests.

Bill Taylor has held senior positions at West Point, the National War College and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is president of Taylor Associates and an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

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