DIPLOMACY HITS KIM
Kim Jong Il never lets us down. When President Bush, reacting to the nuclear test, announced that he would seek further sanctions against North Korea, Kim replied that he would interpret any such move as an act of belligerency warranting a declaration of war against the United States. This would be opera bouffe, the equivalent of Monaco announcing that it would bring down the Federal Reserve -- except for the item that calls Kim Jong Il to the world's attention, namely the possibility that he has a nuclear warhead gestating or even actualized.
Understandably, curiosity about this man, though frequently appeased in years gone by analysts and newsmen, has been renewed. An Australian paper speculates that it is inconceivable that Dear Leader would actually drop the bomb, for two reasons: One, that such an act would bring on a terminal devastation of Pyongyang; the other, that he would then be without any repertory left to arrest the attention of the world.
We have been told for many years that Kim is obsessively vain. But I had not remembered the document of September 1997 from the official government news agency. Reproduced here are the last few sentences of the paean, which serve our purposes. The official document concluded:
"The General is the mental pillar and the eternal sun to the Korean people. As they are in harmonious whole with him, they are enjoying a true life based on pure conscience and obligation. They are upholding him as their great father and teacher, united around him in ideology, morality and obligation. So their life is a true, fruitful and precious life without an equal in history."
In North Korea such tributes as these substitute for food, which does not exist, at least not enough to feed the country's 21 million people, 10 percent of whom died of starvation in Kim's first half decade in power.
It is widely noted that for all that he thinks of himself as a leader with a divine afflatus to bring to his people and the world the fruits of Juche (the North Korean variant of Leninism, with a little Ayn Rand mixed in), he is himself a man of total self-indulgence, devoted to porn, Scotch and Daffy Duck cartoons.
The recounting of details of this kind serves no purpose except as it is helpful in illuminating his special madness. It is that, but observers note that he is expert in the single discipline that matters, which is his ability to stay in absolute command of his country.
President Bush has reiterated his commitment to diplomacy as the instrument to use in the days ahead. And the United States made strides in the critical two days after the policy of sanctions was announced. The Soviet Union and China were slow to come around, and China is still problematic, but some sort of blockade on naval traffic is on its way, and diplomacy is geared up for the challenge.
There is no way, however, in which Mr. Bush can undo the sentiment he expressed to Bob Woodward four years ago: "I loathe Kim Jong Il. I've got a visceral reaction to this guy, because he is starving his people. And I have seen intelligence of these prison camps -- they are huge -- that he uses to break up families and to torture people. It appalls me."
Such sentiments don't do much to enhance diplomacy. Inevitably they remind us, by contrast, of the oleaginous references to Stalin and Hitler and Mao Tse-tung by yesterday's diplomats on the make. But even if Mr. Bush reproduced his words to Woodward on a calling card to distribute among diplomats bound for Pyongyang, this would surely not affect the man who sees himself as the mental pillar and the eternal sun to the Korean people.
The proposed sanctions could hypothetically immobilize Kim. You can reduce the need for food by depriving incremental millions of it, but a million-man army needs fuel. Unfortunately, there isn't any way to seal the border to the north, sufficiently to block extra fuel from passing through the long frontier North Korea shares with China. China has a special consideration here. The pressure of masses of North Koreans who want food and stability creates a huge problem, so much so that the Chinese worry more about instability in the Korean peninsula than about nuclear bombs dispatched from Pyongyang.
The diplomatic ideal, where China is concerned, is to mount sufficient pressure to influence Kim's behavior, but not so much as to threaten his hegemony. The final formulation of Beijing's collaboration will be critical, and the challenge in Washington is to egg it on to ensure that Dear Leader will recognize that he has gone one step too far.