Too many Kim Yong-ils

6 03 2010

by Aidan Foster-Carter (Policy Forum Online 10-015A: March 4th, 2009)

Korean names can set traps for the unwary. Amid a multitude of Kims, almost all unrelated, North Korea adds an extra twist. German speakers, and some others, tend to mispronounce the J in Kim Jong-il as a Y. Not only is this incorrect, but currently it can confuse; for North Korea’s Premier – head of the civilian Cabinet, as distinct from the Dear Leader who chairs the more powerful National Defence Commission (NDC) – is named Kim Yong-il.

To add to the confusion, another Kim Yong-il was until recently vice foreign minister (one of several), but in January became director of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK)’s international department: a post apparently vacant since 2007. As such, this Kim Yong-il met his Chinese counterpart Wang Jiarui, head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s international liaison department, when Wang visited Pyongyang in early February. Since his promotion, Kim Yong-il 2 (as it may be best to call him) has been reported as frequently at Kim Jong-il’s side. This suggests he may see far more of the Dear Leader than does anyone else involved in DPRK foreign policy, including the man hitherto thought to be the eminence grise on that front: first vice foreign minister Kang Sok-ju, who negotiated the 1994 Agreed Framework with the US. It was Kang whom the current US special envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, demanded to meet when he visited Pyongyang in December, rather than the North’s main nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan: a more junior deputy foreign minister.

Or is Washington behind the curve? That Kim Yong-il 2 is the DPRK’s new foreign affairs head honcho seemed confirmed on February 23, when he turned up in Beijing and went right to the top: going straight into talks with President Hu Jintao and separately with Wang Jiarui. This flurry of activity suggests two possibilities. Either Kim Jong-il will soon visit China, as he is overdue to do; or North Korea may return to the nuclear Six Party Talks (6PT), which have not met in over a year. Or perhaps both, if we are especially fortunate.

If both Kim Yong-ils are now leading players, perhaps one of them could change his name? That is not a frivolous suggestion. Some DPRK officials do this, for no clear reason. Often the change is small, so this is not a case of deception. Thus Paek Nam-sun, DPRK foreign minister – meaning chief meeter and greeter rather than top negotiator – from 1998 until his death in 2007, was originally Paek Nam-jun. Ri Jong-hyok, who as vice-chairman of the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (APPC) now handles relations with the South, was Ri Dong-hyok in the 1980s when this writer knew him as head of North Korea’s mission in Paris.

(For completeness, yet another Kim Yong-il was Kim Jong-il’s late half-brother. He died of liver cirrhosis in 2000 aged only 45 in Berlin, where he had a diplomatic posting tantamount to exile – as his elder brother Kim Pyong-il, the DPRK ambassador to Poland, still does.)

Jong and Yong both say sorry

The past month saw both Chairman and Premier Kim doing something almost unheard of in Pyongyang. Apparently they both said sorry, although some reports got the two muddled up.

On February 1 Rodong Sinmun, daily paper of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), reported Kim Jong-il as lamenting his failure to fulfil his late father Kim Il-sung’s pledge, to which he had also alluded shortly before on January 9, that all North Koreans would eat rice and meat soup (everyday fare for even the poorest South Korean, be it noted). This time Kim said: “What I should do now is feed the world’s greatest people with rice and let them eat their fill of bread and noodles. Let us all honour the oath we made before the Leader and help our people feed themselves without having to know broken rice [an inferior version]”.

Given Kim Jong-il’s own notoriety as gourmet and gourmand, his professed “compassion” for his less fortunate subjects’ deprivation may induce queasiness. Yet even this not-quite-apology glosses over the truth. Broken rice? They should be so lucky. As readers of Barbara Demick’s excellent and heartbreaking new book Nothing to Envy will know, rice of any kind – whole or broken – is a rare luxury for most North Koreans. In the late 1990s a million or so starved to death; even today most remain malnourished. One refugee who fled to China saw her first rice in years in the first house she came to – in a dog’s bowl. That is the true reality.

Worse, all this was and is avoidable: the result of stupid and vicious policies, not the natural disasters that the regime blames. The real cause was the government’s failure to adapt in the 1990s after Moscow abruptly pulled the plug on aid. This hurt other ex-Soviet client states too. Cuba went for tourism; Vietnam tried cautious reform; Mongolia sold minerals. North Korea, bizarrely, did nothing – except watch its old system break down and growth plunge.

In a speech at Kim Il-sung University in December 1996, when famine was seriously biting, Kim Jong-il lashed out at the WPK and uttered this petulant but very revealing whinge: “In this complex situation, I cannot solve all the problems while I have the duty of being in charge of practical economic projects as well as the overall economy, since I have to control important sectors such as the military and the party as well. If I concentrated only on the economy there would be irrecoverable damage to the revolution. The great leader told me when he was alive never to be involved in economic projects, just concentrate on the military and the party and leave economics to party functionaries. If I do delve into economics then I cannot run the party and the military effectively.”

Evidently Bill Clinton’s famously apt watchword, which helped him win the presidency in 1992, had not breached North Korea’s thick walls and heads. It’s the economy, stupid! The paternal advice was dead wrong. (The full speech can be read on the much-missed Kimsoft website. Unsurprisingly it is not part of the DPRK’s official canon of the dear leader’s works, but the scholarly consensus is that it is genuine. A slightly different version appears here.)