A few minutes after the news of the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il flashed across computer screens on Sunday night—Monday morning on the Korean Peninsula—I received an email from a North Korean defector. The man, who is now living in Seoul and is a Christian, was exultant: “God blesses all of us,” he wrote. The defector’s sentiments will be shared by many, especially his long-suffering countrymen.
The best-known aspect of Kim Jong Il’s legacy is a nuclear North Korea. During his rule, which began in 1994 after the death of his father Kim Il Sung, the younger Kim accelerated the nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs initiated by the elder Kim. He went on to proliferate both technologies to Iran, which today would not be on the brink of being a nuclear power if it were not for his assistance.
Kim Jong Il will also be remembered as a master manipulator of the Western powers, especially the U.S. The history of the failed denuclearization agreements says it all. On Pyongyang’s part, it is a history marked by lies, broken promises, and clandestine programs. On the part of the U.S., the history is marked by gullibility and wishful thinking. North Korea’s path to developing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them would have been far more arduous had Bill Clinton and George W. Bush not accepted Kim Jong Il’s promises of future good behavior in return for economic benefits.
The late dictator leaves another legacy too: presiding over the world’s most repressive modern state. Kim Jong Il’s name belongs on the list of the most evil tyrants of our time.
President George W. Bush famously told journalist Bob Woodward, “I loathe Kim Jong Il,” a statement for which he was widely mocked in diplomatic and academic circles. Mr. Bush made this remark in 2002, when the world was just beginning to learn about the horrors of life in North Korea thanks to the testimonies of the few people who had escaped and reached safety in the free South.
In the decade since 2002, there has been a flood of escapees. From these men, women and children we have a glimpse of Kim’s human legacy: a brutalized and starving people, whose access to food is controlled by the state and dependent upon their perceived political reliability; the world’s most corrupt society, where the rule of law is nonexistent; and a gulag-like system of prison camps, where some 200,000 people are incarcerated, often with three generations of their families, for such “crimes” as listening to a foreign radio broadcast, reading a Bible, or disrespecting a portrait of Kim Jong Il or Kim Il Sung. Refugees frequently use the word “hell” to describe their country, and it is impossible to disagree.
Here are just two examples of Kim Jong Il’s reign of terrorone monumental in its impact on human suffering. First is the famine of the mid-to-late 1990s, which killed two million to three million North Koreans. This blood belongs on the hands of the dictator himself, who diverted resources to military programs rather than buy food for his hungry people, and who refused to introduce agricultural reforms that would make possible better and sustainable food production. He was only too willing to let millions of his countrymen die in order to pursue his nuclear ambitions.
The other example has to do with the defection, in 1997, of a high-ranking official, Hwang Jong-yop. Kim Jong Il’s initial response was to round up 3,000 of Hwang’s relatives—including people who had no idea they were related to the defectorand ship them off to the gulag. But his obsession with retribution did not stop at North Korea’s borders. He spent the next 13 years—until Hwang’s death from natural causes in 2010—dispatching a series of assassins to Seoul to attempt to murder him.
Kim’s personal eccentricities were legionthe ever-present boiler suit, the bouffant hair style, the elevator shoes. His personal appetites were legion too, akin to those of Nero or other famous hedonists of yore. In recent years, after his doctor reportedly ordered him to avoid his preferred cognac, he drank only Chateau Margaux, an expensive French Bordeaux. He was a great movie buff whose personal library was said to include thousands of films. In 1978, he arranged to have his favorite South Korean actress kidnapped from a beach in Hong Kong and brought to Pyongyang to star in North Korean movies.
There is one more notable aspect to Kim’s human legacy, and while it would be overly optimistic to make too much of it, it is nevertheless a hopeful one. In recent years, according to testimonies by refugees, more and more North Koreans have started to question Kim’s rule. The discontent doesn’t yet reach the level of organized dissent, but refugees report that there is a growing hatred of the Kim family dynasty. The hatred is more widespread than one would suppose in a state where most sources of information are controlled and where the regime propagates a cult of Kim family worship.
The hatred extends to Kim Jong Il’s son and announced successor, Kim Jong Eun. In recent months Kim Jong Eun is believed to have ordered a vicious crackdown on North Koreans who try to leave the country and on family members they leave behind. Recent roundups of people caught in possession of foreign DVDs, listening to foreign radio broadcasts, or using cell phones that can call outside the country are also laid at his feet.
None of this bodes well for the North Korean people in the near term. It looks like Kim Jong Eun can be counted on to do everything he can to perpetuate his father’s tyrannical regime. In this, he will have the support and assistance of the elite ruling class, which benefits from the status quo.
In dealing with the new dictator of North Korea, however, the Western democracies would do well to reconsider the policies that failed to move the now-dead dictator. In this, they should heed the advice of the late Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and democrat.
In the last decade of his life, Havel took up the cause of the North Korean people and urged the world’s democracies to make respect for human rights an integral part of any discussions with Pyongyang. He wrote in 2004: “Decisiveness, perseverance and negotiations from a position of strength are the only things that Kim Jong Il and those like him understand.”
These qualities, absent from the West’s dealings with Kim Jong Il, deserve to be paramount in its dealings with his heir.