Conflict & Justice

North Korea: Is the end of Kim Jong Il the only hope?


A South Korean protester holds a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during a rally in central Seoul on March 25, 2011.


Park Ji-hwan

NAGANO, Japan — Last week, South Korea acknowledged that some of its troops had used Kim Jong Il's photo, and the photos of his father and son, for target practice. The North, as usual, threatened to retaliate for the insult, and the South quickly ordered the practice abandoned.

The inclination to have a go at firing at an image of Kim Jong Il may have simply been the result of high-spirited soldiers responding to the North’s shelling of an island last year.

But, in fact, the exercise hints at a deeper truth. It has become almost impossible to imagine a positive outcome to the long-festering problems that center on North Korea as long as the Kim dynasty reigns, enforcing the disastrously failed policies of the late “Great Leader,” President Kim Il Sung.

Tom Coyner, Seoul-based editor of the email service Korea Economic Reader, noted last week the emergence of a “widespread consensus shared by interested parties outside of North Korea: We have moved from a selection of only bad options to a resignation that there are no options to be realistically played.”

So why not just come out and say it?

Not only would perennially hungry North Korea benefit from the removal of the founder’s son and heir Kim Jong Il, the “Dear Leader.” But so would most of, if not all, the other countries with major interests in the region (perhaps even China). One could say the same about Kim Jong Il's own son and heir-designate, Kim Jong Un, who has shown no inclination to jettison the policies he’s likely to inherit.

Why not acknowledge, also, as Washington seems to have done in the case of Osama bin Laden, that there are reasons why removing them dead might be better than removing them alive?

One recently published work of action fiction features an assassination plot against the Dear Leader. Members of the rulilng family also meet their ends in another author’s thriller that’s awaiting publication.

Novelists’ imaginations are insufficient to justify a U.S. government policy of assassination, of course. Bin Laden was a non-state actor. Targeting for assassination someone like Kim Jong Il, who is the leader of a sovereign state, has long been considered bad form. If the practice were condoned in international law, the leader of every country with enemies would have to live with an additional risk of being assassinated.

But recent events have weakened that prohibition. “We seem to make up international law as we go along,” one former U.S. diplomat, who asked not to be named, said in an email exchange. “Witness the NATO bombing of Gaddafhi’s compound.”

There are additional arguments against a frank U.S. policy of regime change in North Korea. One is insufficient knowledge of the alternatives. Some high-ranking North Korean military officers make Dr. Strangelove look like Dr. Spock.

A former military man who defected to the South told me he had attended a briefing in which the father of the country’s chemical and biological weapons programs boasted that the regime had enough chemical weapons to wipe out all the people of South Korea — and said that would eventually be necessary because Southerners would never adjust themselves to the North’s ideology.

During the George W. Bush administration when some top U.S. officials talked up regime change, I was among the commentators who cautioned that whoever ended up replacing Kim Jong Il could turn out to be even worse.

Then there is the technical question of how to target a ruler who fears assassination so much that he moves around constantly among his many opulent residences, avoids flying in favor of traveling in his armored private railway train and surrounds himself with a well-trained and doggedly loyal bodyguard service. That service’s numbers increased twenty-fold to around 70,000 members after soldiers in Romania in 1989 killed their country’s ruling couple, Nicolae and Elena Ceaucescu.

While it appears unwise, at present, for the Unuted States to attempt to kill any North Korean leader, certainly Washington without saying so can collectively muse that the death of one or more ruling Kims would be a fine thing as long as someone else — ideally North Korean citizens — made it happen.

In past decades such thoughts would have been little more than wishful thinking, so strong was the Pyongyang regime’s hold on the minds and behavior of its subjects. But the regime’s control is not absolute and events in recent years have tended to diminish it.

Helping gradually to change the mentality of North Koreans, especially those of elite and near-elite class, are external radio broadcasts — of which the U.S. government is a major financial backer — and balloon drops of leaflets. Not all members of the elite will continue to reason, as many of them do, that even though the country is going to hell, they are personally better off sticking with the Kims than taking their chances with opening, reform and eventual reunification of the peninsula.

In the best-case scenario, one day if we are all lucky some Korean patriot close to him will realize — like those Romanian soldiers — that the leader must go before the country can move forward.

Bradley K. Martin is the author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.”