From today's edition of The Christian Science Monitor, there's this slightly bizzare account of "How Kim Jong-il controls a nation." According to reporter Robert Marquand, who interviewed diplomats and policy experts who follow the north, the younger Kim may be "shrewder than his father," who founded the DPRK.
One analyst--who works at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies (a think tank sponsored by the U.S. Pacific Command)--goes even further, describing Kim Jong-il as "extraordinary." Dr. Alexandre Mansurov, one of the institute's resident experts on Northeast Asia affairs, notes that Mr. Kim has successfully "poked his finger in the eye of the US hegemon. He's tested missiles and nukes. At home he's more popular than ever."
That statement sounds less incredible when you read Dr. Mansurov's resume. Along with a Ph.D from Columbia, Mansurov also holds an advanced diploma in Korean studies from the Kim Il Sung National University in Pyongyang. Of course, Mr. Marquand doesn't ask if Dr. Mansurov might have a bit of bias towards the DPRK, given his stint at one of the regime's premier institutions. It also begs the question of how someone with such "credentials" could wind up at a DoD-funded institute, and whether Dr. Mansurov has a security clearance. Readers will recall that Mansurov's former colleague, Ronald Montaperto, was recently convicted of passing classified information to PRC intelligence agents. I am certainly not accusing Mansurov of any wrong-doing. But his long stay in the DPRK--and his surprisingly benign views on the North Korean regime--make him an interesting choice for a think tank that provides advice and expertise to senior defense officials.
In fact, Mansurov describes Kim Jong-il as something of a North Korean "populist," who averages 150 visits a year to factories, schools and military bases in the DPRK.
When someone you worship comes to your factory, it's a personal connection. We tend to overlook this simple fact..Kim knows the local leaders, the opinion makers, the local cadres. He's not in a fishbowl. He may be a dictator, but he's also a populist."
Rubbish. Kim Jong-il is a populist in the same sense that Willie Sutton was a bank executive. When Mr. Kim makes a pilgrimage to the people's tractor factory or the local university, it's designed (in part) to reinforce the cult of personality that surrounds the North Korean leader. As another expert noted, even foreign diplomats are not allowed to address the "Dear Leader," so it's a safe bet that the local cadres don't interact with the Great Dictator when he arrives for a visit. His presence proves that the diety is real--and watching.
Thankfully, some of the other analysts interviewed by Marquand provide a more balanced view of how Kim Jong-il retains power. They note that at least 200,000 North Koreans are in labor camps; the police state relentlessly spies on its citizens, and Mr. Kim gives loyalty tests to even his highest-ranking generals. All are part and parcel of life in the national gulag known as the DPRK. It's the police state that Joe Stalin could only dream of--an utterly authoritarian regime, supported by the world's fifth-largest army. That's how Kim Jong-il retains power.
But you wouldn't know that from Dr. Mansurov's observations. In fact, he may be the early leader for the 2007 Walter Duranty Award, for ignoring the most obvious signs of repression and depravation in a communist state. Mansurov (whose salary is paid by your tax dollars) assures us that the North Korean leader has solid approval ratings among his citizens. If that's true, then why have so many tried to flee the country? Why have thousands perished in the labor camps and secret prisons? Why do many North Koreans (outside the elites) exist on a subsistence diet? Before assuring us of Kim Jong-il's personal popularity and populist status, perhaps Dr. Mansurov should conduct a satisfaction survey among the DPRK emigres now hiding north of the Yalu River. They risk torture and death if caught and returned to the DPRK, yet they desperately seek a new life outside the socialist utopia. They have different words to describe Kim Jong-il, and "populist" isn't one of them.