Kim Jong-il's legacy is rather grim, befitting a modern despot.
Mass murderer? Check. Under his watch, at least one million North Korean peasants starved to death in the mid-1990s, allowing "The Dear Leader" to divert food aid to his military and continue development of nuclear weapons.
Jailer of a Nation? Ditto. Kim keep the gulags humming during his 16 years in power. By one estimate, at least 250,000 North Korean citizens are imprisoned in state jails and labor camps. That may seem rather puny by Soviet standards, but it's worth remembering that North Korea has a population of only 22 million, so roughly one out of every 100 residents of the worker's paradise is behind bars. And, Kim Jong-il made it a shared experience; family members of prisoners are routinely sent to the gulag, too.
Enjoyed a Decadent Lifestyle? Absolutely. While ordinary North Koreans eat tree bark for nourishment, Kim Jong-il enjoyed gourmet fare (the standard joke in intel circles is that Kim and his family were the only people in the DPRK with weight problems). The great dictator also boasted the world's largest private film collection (remember, this is the same guy who ordered the kidnapping of a South Korean director and his actress wife to improve the quality of North Korean movies); maintained a three story "pleasure palace in downtown Pyongyang, and vacationed a country estate with its own surface-to-air missile battery.
International Terrorist? Yep. Kim Jong-il was responsible for the deaths of dozens of South Korean military personnel, government officials and ordinary civilians. The 1968 Blue House attack (directed at the ROK Presidential mansion); the 1983 Rangoon bombing (aimed at decapitating the South Korean government), the 1987 downing of KAL Flight 858 (which killed 115 passengers and crew), and just last year, the sinking of a ROK destroyer and the shelling of a South Korean island along the maritime DMZ. All bore the personal stamp of Kim Jong-il.
Given this resume, it would be difficult to say anything good about the deceased North Korea dictator. Yet, the State Department's #3 official, Wendy Sherman, had no trouble praising Kim Jong-il, during an interview with NPR. Here's how Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy summarized her remarks:
[Ms.] Sherman, a special adviser to President Clinton on North Korea, accompanied then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in 2001, and met Kim along with Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson.
"We shared similar impressions of meeting him. He was smart and a quick problem-solver," Sherman says. "He is also witty and humorous. Our overall impression was very different from the way he was known to the outside world."
Sherman sat next to Kim at a stadium to watch a huge festival of synchronized dancing. She says she turned to Kim and told him she had the sense that in some other life, he was a "great director."
"He clearly took such delight in putting these performances together," she says. "And he says, yes, that he cared about this a great deal and that he owned every Academy Award movie, he had watched them all, and he also had every film of Michael Jordan's NBA basketball games and had watched them as well."
Why, that practically makes him a Jeffersonian Democrat, doesn't it? Any serious observer of North Korea would dismiss such comments as pure pap, but when you consider the source, it's down-right scary. In her current post, Ms. Sherman has considerable influence over U.S. foreign policy, particularly as it relates to North Korea. Her willingness to overlook Mr. Kim's flaws speaks volumes about our diplomatic establishment, and its recent overtures towards Pyongyang. The last three administrations (Democrat and Republican) have bent over backwards to accomodate the DPRK, in hopes of brokering some sort of agreement on North Korea's nuclear program. In return, Pyongyang has played the U.S. like a proverbial fiddle, using provocations to extract more aid, offering only vague promises in return.
The diplomatic calculus goes something like this: through engagement, the U.S. and its partners can avoid a geopolitical calamity on the Korean Peninsula, and prepare for the eventual, "soft" collapse of the Kims' dictatorial dynasty. Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with this theory: first, China, the most important ally of the DPRK, has never brought enough pressure to affect Pyongyang's behavior, or supported genuinely tough sanctions that would achieve similar goals.
Secondly, every so-called "expert" on the subject has consistently underestimated North Korea's ability to muddle through. As a military intelligence officer two decades ago, I remember reviewing a summary of a ROK Ministry of Defense White Paper that predicted South Korea's main adversaries in 2010 would be Japan and China. By that point, analysts predicted, North Korea would have long since imploded. Obviously, the smart guys with Seoul got it wrong--as did their American counterparts. North Korea is clearly headed for the ash heap of history, but it may outlast many of those predicting its collapse. And there's always the question of whether Pyongyang goes out with a whimper--or a bang.
Further complicating the picture is Kim Jong-an's near-total lack of leadership experience. He was anointed as the "Great Successor" barely a year ago, and must rely on family members (and the military) to help him gain his footing. Recent reporting from the DPRK indicates that foreign delegations will not be allowed to attend Kim Jong-il's massive state funeral, suggesting there are already internal concerns about the succession process.
Another element of concern is our own naivete towards North Korea. Wendy Sherman's comments are indicative of our willingness to ignore reality in the DPRK, hoping vainly that a reformer will emerge or Pyongyang will simply pursue more rational policies. Our insistence on turning the other cheek only invites more North Korean mischief, as the peninsula faces one of its most dangerous periods in more than 50 years.
ADDENDUM: The New York Times is using the term "intelligence failure" to describe U.S. and South Korean reporting in the hours between Kim Jong-il's actual demise and the announcement of his death. Apparently, the U.S. intel community (and its ROK conterparts) failed to detect any signs of unusual activity after Kim died on his train Saturday morning:
"...South Korean and American intelligence services to have failed to pick up any clues to this momentous development — panicked phone calls between government officials, say, or soldiers massing around Mr. Kim’s train — attests to the secretive nature of North Korea, a country not only at odds with most of the world but also sealed off from it in a way that defies spies or satellites.
“We have clear plans about what to do if North Korea attacks, but not if the North Korean regime unravels,” said Michael J. Green, a former Asia adviser in the Bush administration. “Every time you do these scenarios, one of the first objectives is trying to find out what’s going on inside North Korea.”
In many countries, that would involve intercepting phone calls between government officials or peering down from spy satellites. And indeed, American spy planes and satellites scan the country. Highly sensitive antennas along the border between South and North Korea pick up electronic signals. South Korean intelligence officials interview thousands of North Koreans who defect to the South each year.
And yet remarkably little is known about the inner workings of the North Korean government. Pyongyang, officials said, keeps sensitive information limited to a small circle of officials, who do not talk."
And there's the rub. North Korea is built on compartmentalization, where only the inner circle knows what's going on, and they don't leak to the Times. Moreover, the DPRK also benefits from technology that is outdated by western standards. Cell phones have only been recently introduced in North Korea; most calls are still made over old-fashioned land lines, which are not conducive to intercept--unless you find a way to tap into the circuit.
Additionally, the North Koreans are well-versed in denial and deception techniques. If there was any congregating around Kim's train after his demise, that crowd was dispersed when spy satellites passed overhead, or the long-range cameras from American U-2s (or other surveillance platforms) were within range.
In a hermit kingdom like North Korea, it's almost impossible to develop reliable human intelligence assets, a problem that has vexed our spymasters for more than five decades. During my time in "the game," one of our few sources of HUMINT from North Korea came from Asian businessmen who traveled to Pyongyang. Naturally, their movements were closely controlled and most had a "minder" in tow. So, their impressions of the DPRK were clearly shaped by the Pyongyang government, which only added to our knowledge gaps.
And that won't change under the "new" regime of Kim Jong-un.