- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2005

With no signs of progress in solving the North Korea nuclear crisis, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice used her recent trip to Japan, South Korea and China to soften a bit the hard-line, Bush administration approach of four years standing.

She said the United States does not intend to attack North Korea, which she termed a sovereign state, urged the North to return to six-party talks, referred to rewards for doing so and said the United States is prepared to negotiate.

If Miss Rice’s softened rhetoric means we are prepared to move off the existing collision course, we should be thankful because any approach that might lead to war is unacceptable. We would win a classic “Pyrrhic victory” with casualties in the hundreds of thousands among Americans, South Koreans and Japanese. So, diplomacy is imperative, including negotiations with North Korea’s leader Chairman Kim Jong-il.

Just who is this man we would be dealing with? Enigmatic, erratic, unpredictable, despotic, secretive, crazy, weird, loathsome: quite a list of heavy adjectives often used by Bush officials to describe Mr. Kim, though they have never met him.

Thus, conclusions about Mr. Kim are drawn from secondhand accounts or sheer rumor. Unfortunately, the profile of Mr. Kim used by our intelligence agencies to advise 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/economically sanction/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 spun by our intelligence agencies in Seoul and Washington during the decades of the Cold War, or that 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 “grow-up game” was to make him happy and show him off 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 chain-smoker. He drove fast cars around Pyongyang, sometimes shooting out traffic lights. A womanizer, he had Scandinavian girls imported for service in his “Pleasure Palace.” He became a porn film devotee. Any serious work he did involved acting studies or planning terrorist acts. 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 Il-sung University professor, 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 in hundreds of hours 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, China, Russia, the horrible 1910-45 Japanese occupation of all Korea and his father’s role in defeating it, 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” who devoted his life to travel around his country giving “on-the-spot guidance” on agricultural and industrial development and on military 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 he was suddenly responsible for leading his country? This at the time of the spring and summer 1994 nuclear crisis amid disastrous, alternating floods and droughts that compounded economic failure, leading to mass starvation.

Suppose he has realized over the last 10 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 way to preserve the last vestiges of “Juche” (self-reliance), the philosophical cornerstone of their political system necessary to keep the regime in power.

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 in 2000 that he found Kim Jong-il “a reasonable person who could change his mind when presented with new facts and ideas, a person I can do business with in pursuing our national security agenda.”

There is every sign Kim Jong-il’s government is ready to talk directly with us. Let’s get on with it and end the nuclear crisis.

William Taylor is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

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