Kim Jong Il’s Rise to Power
Kim Il Sung’s son Kim Jong Il was born in 1943, probably on the Russian coast near the border with Korea, but his official biography claims he was born on the slopes of Mount Paektu, the tallest moun-tain in Korea and the spiritual headwater of Korean culture. Under the principles of geomancy, or feng shui, Mount Paektu is the home of all the spiritual forces—the forces that flow within the Earth and up and down mountain ranges and affect humankind for good or for ill.
Factual as opposed to mythological information on the early life of Kim Jong Il is sparse. The son of Kim Il Sung and his first wife, who died in 1949, he graduated from Kimilsung University in 1946. As early as 1974, Korea-watchers began to suspect that he was being groomed as a successor to his father.
Although before 1980 he was little mentioned in the state-controlled North Korean media and made no official public appearances or official pronouncements, analysts such as Adrian Buzo believe that Kim Jong Il began to have a significant influence on North Korean policy in the 1970s. To observers of North Korea and prob-ably to many Koreans, newspaper, radio and television allusions to the activities of the Party Center were understood to be allusions to Kim Jong Il (Buzo 1999, 87–88).
After 1980 Kim was given prominence as the best interpreter of his father’s juche ideology. In 1982 two books on the subject were published under his name: On the Juche Idea and The Workers Party of Korea Is a Juche-type Revolutionary Party Which Inherited the Glorious Tradition of the Down-with-Imperialism Union.
Needless to say, these works received a highly favorable critical reception. One reviewer described On the Juche Idea as “an everlasting ideological exploit which clarified like a beacon light important philosophical tasks that had not been raised or solved in the history of human thought and the pressing theoretical and practical problems of our age” (Buzo 1999, 117).
By taking the step, unique in a communist country, of grooming his own son as a successor, Kim Il Sung evidently hoped to avoid the posthumous fate of Joseph Stalin, who had been denounced as a mass murderer by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956. He hoped to ensure that even after his death he would be regarded as infallible and that the direction of the country would not change. If this was his intention, then he seems to have been successful.
When the “Great Leader,” Kim Il Sung, died in 1994, outsiders wondered if his son Kim Jong Il, the “Dear Leader,” would at last open up the country to reforms. These expectations were disappointed, because Kim Jong Il had already been in power for years.
North Korea was by this time in a severe economic crisis, but the policies that had failed to avert the crisis were Kim Jong Il’s policies. Even if he had possessed the exceptional talents that would have been required to accomplish the reformation of a deeply troubled, impoverished, and traumatized state, he showed little inclination to make basic changes.
It may be that Kim Jong Il was in a bind. A less tightly controlled state might have collapsed under the economic pressures that North Korea faced, and a less autocratic government would have been driven from power.
But in order to make fundamental changes in North Korea, Kim Jong Il would have had to relax his grip on the Korean people and admit to essential flaws in the ideology that justified his rule.
Deng Xiaopeng (1904–97) in the People’s Republic of China managed a feat like this with remarkable finesse, to the world’s astonishment. Mikhail Gorbachev had attempted a similar deed in the Soviet Union and failed (the Soviet Union collapsed). It is not surprising that Kim Jong Il, rul-ing a country with fewer resources and in far more desperate circum-stances, found the task beyond his powers.
Floods and Famine
One of the major challenges to face Kim Jong Il was a series of bad harvests leading to a collapse of North Korean agriculture. Though Kim Jong Il later blamed these reverses on climatic disasters, the problem seems to have been rooted in government policy. North Korea, in a desperate effort to replace the food aid it had once received from com-munist allies with domestically grown crops, had begun to reclaim hill-sides for the cultivation of new crops. Rice must be grown in flooded paddies, so it can exist only in flat lowland fields, but corn and potatoes can be grown on hillsides.
The result was disastrous. Korea’s climate is dominated by summer monsoon rains, and when the rains came they washed away the newly developed crops and the hillsides with them. The root systems of corn and potatoes could not hold on to the hillsides the way native shrubs and trees had done. When the upland crops were ruined, the rice crops in many areas were also ruined by the landslides and mudslides that washed into the fertile paddy land.
Famine appeared first in the mountainous northeastern regions and then spread to the fertile western plains, eventually causing shortages in Pyongyang, whose residents usually enjoy a higher standard of liv-ing than other North Koreans. North Korea’s first reaction was to hide the development from the outside world, which learned of it first by rumor.
Spring and summer flooding damaged crops several years in a row in the mid-1990s, making the problem worse. North Koreans turned to “substitute foods,” such as grass, rice roots, acorns, sea-weed, berries, tree bark, and soups made with wild plants and weeds, and began to barter their possessions for food. Domesticated animals disappeared as people in rural communities began to eat their farm animals.
In 1996 the DPRK grudgingly accepted international aid, a move that gave the world a glimpse of a crisis that had already been permitted to continue for years (French 2005, 129–131). Reporters not normally allowed into North Korea were permitted to photograph obviously starving children and other scenes that helped foreign agen-cies to see and understand the breadth of the disaster. Photographs of the landscape showed few trees, probably because they had been denuded of their bark.
Human rights organizations reported that by the late 1990s gangs of malnourished and orphaned or abandoned children were roaming the country, stealing what food they could. The government put many of these children—some of them eight or nine years old—to work on construction projects, including a 10-lane Youth Hero Highway extending 42 kilometers from Nampo to Pyongyang. Between 100,000 and 300,000 North Koreans fled to China.
Food aid to North Korea, in the form of tons of shipments of rice, wheat, corn, and other commodities, reached unprecedented levels, but not in time to prevent a humanitarian disaster. North Korea’s secrecy, which certainly worsened the effects of the famine, also makes it very difficult to estimate the numbers of deaths famine caused. Estimates of the number who died in the late 1990s range from 220,000 (the official DPRK estimate) to as high as 3.5 million (French 2005, 130).
The DPRK’s commitment to secrecy and rigid control of the move-ments of all visitors creates an immense problem for the humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) attempting to help the North Korean people. They are unable to monitor the distribution of food to see that it is fairly distributed. Further, they can be almost certain that it is not fairly distributed, since North Korea uses food as a method of social control and is committed, for example, to feeding its bureaucrats and soldiers first, even while others starve.
Sadly, humanitarian aid to North Korea has also fluctuated in response to political relations between the DPRK and the donor countries. Japan provided 500,000 tons of food aid in 2001 but sent no food aid in 2002 after Kim Jong Il admitted that North Korea had kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens between 1977 and 1983. As the DPRK and the United States traded accusations regarding North Korea’s nuclear program, U.S. food aid to North Korea declined from 340,000 tons in 2001 to 40,000 tons in the first half of 2003 (French 2005, 131).