People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 02

January 08, 2012


North Korea on Kim Jong Il’s Death


Yohannan Chemarapally


THE death of Kim Jong Il, the leader of the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK), in the third week of December and the smooth transition of power the country has witnessed, has sent a strong signal to the world community, that the government continues to have the support of the people. There were scenes of mass grieving in the country. It was reported that more than a million Koreans attended Kim Jong Il’s funeral on December 28. The Korean Workers Party, which was led by the resistance hero Kim Il Sung, has been in power in North Korea since 1948. After President Kim’s death in 1994, he was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il. Despite widespread scepticism about his political longevity, Kim Jong Il remained the unquestioned leader of the country, piloting it through tense times.


Technically, North Korea and the US are still at war. The US had intervened militarily in the Korean peninsula to stop Korean reunification under the leadership of Kim Il Sung. The Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, also saw the Chinese army intervening on behalf of the North. Three million Koreans died in the war. The scars left behind from that war are yet to heal.




Till the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea’s main trading partner at the time, the country’s economy was doing quite well. The “Juche” (self-reliance) policy had helped the country to take big strides in many fields, including agriculture and science. Given its history and the unremitting hostility from the West, the North had become a highly militarised society. The US has its biggest military bases in South Korea and holds massive annual war games on North Korea’s borders along with the now muscular South Korean army. For that matter, till the mid-nineties, South Korea too was a highly authoritarian society, with American backed military dictators ruling the roost.


When Kim Jong Il took over from his father, things were looking slightly better for the beleaguered country. The former US president, Jimmy Carter, had made a visit to Pyongyang, the first by an American leader to the country after military tensions had risen alarmingly in the Korean peninsula. The Clinton administration had alleged at the time that North Korea was using its experimental reactor in Yongbyon to provide plutonium for the production of a nuclear bomb. There were reports that Washington was readying Cruise missiles to attack nuclear reactors and missile bases in North Korea. The Korean peninsula seemed to be on the verge of a nuclear holocaust. During the Carter visit, an agreement was signed whereby the North pledged to give up its quest for a nuclear deterrent in exchange for the construction of two American supplied nuclear reactors that would provide energy for the power deficient country. Both Washington and Seoul had also pledged to supply fuel oil and end the diplomatic and trade embargo imposed on the country.


Soon after the Carter visit, Kim Il Sung passed away. Kim Jong Il too would have liked the thaw with the West to continue. The North, suffering from a series of natural disasters including floods and draught, was desperately in need of a helping hand. But the US and South Korea, which were involved in the construction of the reactors, started demanding more concessions from North Korea. At the same time, the work on the reactors was proceeding at a snail’s pace. No substantial economic aid from the Washington and Seoul had materialised. In 1991, Pyongyang had agreed to sign the NPT again in the fond hope that the West would end its sanctions on the country.


North Korea has historically has followed an independent foreign policy, keeping a distance from both the Soviet Union and China when the socialist bloc was a powerful force. North Korea never joined the Comecon (the common market of the East Bloc). In 1956, the USSR and China had jointly tried to displace Kim Il Sung with a more accommodating collective leadership. After the cold war ended and seeing the new realities, Pyongyang had wanted to open independent lines of communications with the West but was continuously rebuffed by Washington. The last straw, from Pyongyang’s point of view, was when President George W Bush clubbed North Korea along with Iraq and Iran in the so called “axis of evil.” The American president made the battle personal by calling Kim a “pygmy.”




The hardening of the US position came immediately after Bush assumed office. At the fag end of the Clinton term, his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, made an official visit to Pyongyang, where she was given a high profile welcome. The North Korean leadership has made no secret of its desire to engage in direct negotiations with Washington, bypassing Beijing and Seoul. Kim Jong Il’s efforts were aimed at establishing diplomatic relations with Washington and normalise relations with the West.


Though caricatured in the West, Kim Jong Il, from available evidence was an astute statesman, well aware of what was happening in the rest of the world. Kim Dae Jung, who was elected president of South Korea in 1998, on a platform which included establishing normal relations with their compatriots in the North, had taken the first step to normalise relations between Seoul and Pyongyang. The South Korean president made a path breaking visit to the North Korean capital in 2000, ushering in the “Sunshine Policy” of rapprochement between the two Koreas. His successor Roh Moo Hyun, who continued with the “sunshine policy” despite the hostility from Washington, had described Kim Jong Il as “very outspoken” and the “most flexible man in North Korea.” Roh too had made a state visit to Pyongyang. The North Korean leader never visited the South. The only countries he visited were China and Russia, and that too in his customised train. Kim, like his father, preferred trains to planes.


South Korean conglomerates have since long viewed the socialist North as a source of cheap labour. Big South Korean companies like Hyundai set up base in the less prosperous North. From Pyongyang’s point of view, South Korean investments provided a lifeline for their faltering economy and prospects for gradual normalisation of relations. Both the North and South Korean leaderships habitually swear by reunification. In reality, however, the southern leadership is alarmed by such a prospect. They feel that the high levels of prosperity achieved in the South will be adversely impacted if there is a sudden influx of people from the North. The high cost of German reunification is also not lost on the South Korean ruling elite.


The Bush administration was not enamoured with the “sunshine policy” of the South Korean government, especially after North Korea was bracketed in the “axis of evil.” Washington raised the stakes in 2002 by accusing Pyongyang of secretly enriching uranium. The North Korean government responded by walking out of the NPT and then expelled the UN nuclear inspectors. It also promptly restarted work on building a nuclear deterrent. The Bush administration had clearly marked out North Korea for regime change along with Iraq and Iran. But with the US caught in the Iraqi quagmire and Pyongyang increasing its nuclear and missile capabilities, the Bush administration agreed to participate in “six-party” talks initiated under the leadership of China to defuse the military tensions in the Korean peninsula. The first North Korean nuclear test took place in 2006 and the last one was in 2009. This led to tough UN sanctions being imposed on the country. To prove that it could deliver nuclear warheads, North Korea has successfully test-fired accurate long and short- range missiles. The ultimate goal of the six-party talks is to achieve the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.




That goal seems to be getting more elusive by the day. As events in Iraq and Libya have shown, in the post-Cold War era, nuclear weapons are an ultimate insurance against unilateral military intervention by foreign powers. In 2008, the North Korean government provided another jolt to Washington by providing proof to a visiting Stanford professor that it was enriching uranium to produce more weapons. Kim Jong Il thus forced Washington back to the negotiating table and this time around he had more cards to play. A North Korean official said at the time that by agreeing to participate in the six-party talks, George W Bush had “waved the white flag.”


The cash-strapped North Korea has been accused of providing nuclear and missile technology to countries like Pakistan, Iran and Syria. The UN had authorised the interdiction of North Korean flagged ships for “banned” cargo after its second nuclear test. When the Indian Navy boarded a North Korean ship, nothing incriminating was found. Russia and China have not acted on the Security Council’s recommendations regarding interdiction of North Korean ships on the high seas. North Korea had threatened the US and South Korean government with serious consequences if their navies boarded its ships. So far, they have desisted and have depended on friendly governments like India, Australia and Singapore to do the needful.


Under President Barack Obama, Washington has tried to further ratchet up the pressure on Pyongyang. The right wing president of South Korea, Lee Myung Bak, ended the “sunshine policy” of the last eight years and cut off most diplomatic and trade contacts with the North. Food aid too has been drastically curtailed. The US and South Korean armies have held provocative large scale military exercises adjacent to the North Korean border in 2011.  


China, which had ended its “one Korea” policy in 1994 by recognising the South, today provides invaluable help to shore up the North Korean economy. It is the biggest aid giver and food provider. Pyongyang also appreciates China’s policy of not interfering in the internal affairs of the country. The strong relations between the two countries were forged during the Korean war of the fifties when they together withstood the military might of the US. Beijing wants stability on its border. If the North implodes, US troops could be soon stationed along the Chinese border. Many of China’s neighbours, led by Japan, are trying to form an anti-China alliance under the tutelage of Washington. In the last 18 months, Kim had made four trips to China. Pyongyang seems to be making the first moves to replicate the Chinese model of development. Economic reforms were under way when he died.


China this year has increased aid and assistance to North Korea after the South Korean government cut off most of its aid following the two serious military incidents in 2010. A South Korean military ship was sunk after it was hit by a missile and a small island was shelled when the South Korean army was conducting military exercises. The North has officially denied responsibility for the sinking of the ship but has regularly issued statements threatening a “sea of fire” when military exercises are held. Yang Jiechi, China’s foreign minister, spoke to his counterparts in Japan and South Korea soon after the death of Kim Jong Il. He said that peace and stability in the Korean peninsula was in the interest of all the parties. In a rare move, President Hu Jintao and key Chinese officials visited the North Korean embassy to pay their respects to the late leader.


The 69 years old Kim seemed to have made a recovery of sorts from the after-effect of a serious stroke he had reportedly suffered more than three years ago. He was evidently following a busy work schedule. Kim never took the title of president. His father has been designated as the “Eternal President” of North Korea. The son dutifully implemented his father’s “military first” policy. North Korea has a highly disciplined and well armed, million strong army. A few days before he died of a heart attack while travelling in his train, he was photographed with soldiers while visiting a military base.  The “Dear Leader,” the term used for Kim Jong Il in the North Korean media, however had intimations of mortality. Starting from 2010, he brought his youngest son Kim Jong Un into political limelight. The young Kim had been recently promoted to the rank of a four star general. Reports emanating from Pyongyang hint at a collective leadership emerging to guide the young Kim Jong Un.