By Michael Breen
The most common assumption overseas about the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, is that he is either crazy or evil.
But is he?
It is certainly tempting to imagine him pacing his bunker like a lunatic. What impression better fits the leader of a country, which roars at the world?
It is also tempting to imagine him as demonic. His brother drowned when they were playing together. No one knows exactly what happened. When he was seven, his mother died. These events must have unhinged him. Could there be a connection between this emotional history, the weirdness of the personality cult, and the appalling treatment of the citizenry?
Kim himself is not unfamiliar with this question.
When told by an overseas visitor he’d become a media star in South Korea after the June 2000 summit with Kim Dae-jung, he replied, “After I appeared on TV screens, I’m sure, they came to know that I am not like a man with horns on the head.”
Later in the same year, in another historic meeting, with then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, he referred to himself as the last of the “communist devils.”
Does this self-deprecating humor belie the nutcase theory?
In his first dinner with the South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee, who had been kidnapped on his orders from Hong Kong, he came out with a good one.
“Madame Choi, how do I look?” he asked, eyeing himself mockingly from one side and then the other. “Don’t you think that I look like a midget’s turd?”
Even she laughed.
But are we?
According to American scholar Jerrold M. Post, who has conducted political psychology profiles for the CIA, there’s nothing funny about the Dear Leader. He has written that Kim has the “core characteristics of the most dangerous personality disorder, malignant narcissism.”
Post cites Kim’s insensitivity to the people’s suffering, lavish lifestyle, humiliation of subordinates, security paranoia, and willingness to use aggression to eliminate enemies. The pampered upbringing, Post says, created a warped figure with an extreme degree of self-absorption, a grandiose view of himself, and an inability to empathize with others and understand the United States, South Korea and Japan.
I’m not convinced that such analysis from across a gulf of culture makes much sense. But when misunderstanding the United States counts against you on the mental health test, you may assume the testers are themselves likely to be fruitcakes.
The danger with the crazy and evil lines of reasoning is that they lead to an assumption of danger – if Kim is a wacko, he could press the button. They also contribute to the dehumanizing of a leader and his people, which makes it more difficult to negotiate with them but much easier to bomb them to smithereens.
Is that where we are headed with North Korea?
If not just to avoid this, can we not recognize that Kim Jong-il has played a very weak hand with a measure of brilliance and even courage, and ask, Why?
The answer to that question lies in the North Korean perception of its precarious situation vis-a-vis the world and the significance of nuclear weapons in its defense against perceived threat.
What fear, we should be asking, is so great that Kim Jong-il would take on the world to address it?
The answer has been apparent for a long time. It is that, with the global acceptance of South Korea as the real Korea, North Korea is finished. Its reinvention will be dangerous. Freedom may bring internal revolt. The collapse of communism leaves it exposed to attack from South Korea and the United States. This external fear is either genuine or being manipulated to keep the status quo.
By good fortune, no country actually wants to destroy North Korea. So, the problem is containable if the allies adopt a unified policy of realistic engagement.
Treating the North Korean leader as a nutjob simply provides justification for not bothering.