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North Korea: Dear Leader in Trouble

For how much longer will Kim Jong-il be able to rule his nation?

February 24, 2003

For how much longer will Kim Jong-il be able to rule his nation?

Despite the current saber rattling and continuous professions of military power, North Korea is slowly disintegrating. The country is not ripe for revolution yet — but the picture looks grim. The outdated Stalinist leadership has even come up with something resembling economic reforms. Still, it is highly questionable whether Kim Jong-Il will be able to play 'Dear Leader' for much longer. Our Read My Lips examines the defunct state.

How strong is Kim Jong-Il's grip on power?

“There is growing instability because the Dear Leader has fewer goodies to pass around to keep the élite happy.”

(Choi Jin Wook, North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for National Reunification, November 2002)

How is this hold on power weakened even further?

"North Korea today is a totalitarian state without a totalitarian leader and there is nothing worse. It means that you have all the secrecy of a totalitarian government — without any of the decisiveness."

(Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist, January 1995)

Why is it so difficult to deal with North Korea?

“The North Korean regime is as inscrutable as it is unpredictable.”

(Anthony Lake, former Clinton National Security advisor & Robert Gallucci, former U.S. ambassador at large, November 2002)

What is life like in the North Korean countryside?

“They eat and sleep. They live like pigs.”

(Affluent resident of North Korea’s capital Pyongyang, November 2002)

Are North Koreans completely alienated from the rest of humanity?

“All human beings feel the same way. When we see people enjoying a high standard of living, of course we want to live like them, too.”

(North Korean defector, November 2002)

Does the ruling élite feel comfortable about the country's economic reforms?

“The bus has left the station. And the North’s leaders don’t know if they can keep it on the road — or if they’ll drive it into the ditch.”

(Marcus Noland, expert on the North Korean economy at the Institute for International Economics, November 2002)

What are the chances of a smooth economic transition for North Korea?

“You can't bootstrap a closed economy from the Stone Age to prosperity — North Korea would have been the miracle economy if that were possible.”

(Rudi Dornbusch, late MIT economist, March 2002)

How did the United States view Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro's North Korea visit?

“President Bush did tell me to be careful in going to that ‘axis of evil’ country.”

(Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, September 2002)

What is President Bush's personal view of Kim Jong-Il?

“I loathe Kim Jong-Il. I’ve got a visceral reaction to this guy — because he is starving his people.”

(U.S. President George W. Bush, November 2002)

What did a former U.S. Secretary of State think about her North Korean counterpart?

“Just had my first handshake with Foreign Minister Paek. Used to think he was a rogue, but here at ARF [ASEAN Regional Forum], he’s so in vogue.”

(Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, on a farewell dinner at the ASEAN Regional Forum, August 2000)

Does Pyongyang's admission to a nuclear weapons program make South Korea wary?

“A sunshine policy should be based on trust — but there’s been a clear violation of trust.”

(Yoo Ho Yeol of Korea University, October 2002)

What was the official U.S. reaction to North Korea's violation?

“When you have an agreement between two parties and one says it’s nullified — then it looks like it’s nullified.”

(U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, October 2002)

What does Iraq think about the U.S. reaction?

“North Korea has admitted to having a secret nuclear program. The United States is not asking that North Korea be inspected in the way they are asking for Iraq to be inspected. Why? Because there are two things absent in North Korea: oil and Israel.”

(Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister, October 2002)

Is that because there is no real threat?

“The number of people who have stopped me in the street and said, ‘The North Koreans are coming!’ is quite small.”

(Barney Frank, U.S. Representative (R-MT), May 2001)

Could the United States afford a direct confrontation?

"Can we tackle two such tasks unilaterally with all the aftermath involved in an invasion of Iraq?”

(Zbigniew Brzezinski, U.S. National Security Advisor under U.S. President Jimmy Carter, December 2002)

And finally, is North Korea bracing itself?

“If they, ignorant of their rival, dare to provoke a nuclear war, the army and people of [North Korea] led by Kim Jong Il, the invincible commander, will rise up to mete out determined and merciless punishment to the U.S. imperialist aggressors with the might of single-hearted unity more powerful than an A-bomb.”

(Kim Il Chol, North Korean Defense Minister, December 2002)