Brinkmanship: A Family Trait

By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 6, 2003

SEOUL -- The last time North Korea faced off in a nuclear confrontation with the United States, in 1994, Kim Jong Il was largely running the country from the shadows, but had not assumed total control. As tensions reached the brink of armed conflict, his father, the self-styled "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, stepped in and struck a key compromise, according to diplomats and others.

But the father died shortly after the 1994 deal to abandon a nuclear program. This time, his son is solely in charge.

"If Kim Jong Il had been in complete control then, he might have been a little more daring," said Han Sung Joo, who was South Korea's foreign minister at the time. "Now, we don't have a Kim Il Sung to moderate."

As the world focuses anew on North Korea, seeking to calculate how far Kim Jong Il will go, this is the portrait that emerges: Like his father, he is inclined toward confrontation. He prefers to press for a deal through escalation of threats. But Kim Jong Il may be willing to go even further than his father in challenging the United States and threatening to build more nuclear weapons.

"He looks very irrational, very dangerous and very unpredictable," said Choi Jin Wook, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for National Reunification, a research body affiliated with the South Korean government in Seoul. "This is Kim Jong Il's style."

While the elder Kim never publicly admitted pursuing nuclear weapons, cloaking his efforts as energy projects, Kim Jong Il has acknowledged his ambitions to build a bomb. Diplomats take that as a sign that he is more desperate than during the last crisis, at once coping with a dreadful economy, strained relations with his most critical ally -- China -- and a sense of insecurity deepened by President Bush's decision to label his country part of an "axis of evil."

He may also be unable to back down, lest he appear weak in the eyes of North Korean generals. He lacks the military credentials of Kim Il Sung, according to Han. "He has a greater need than his father to show his macho," he said.

Still, diplomats and North Korea experts see potentially crucial differences between the last crisis and the forces at work around Kim Jong Il today. He has invested time and effort to engage the outside world and improve relations with his former adversaries. Despite the evident paranoia and bluster in recent months, they say, Kim Jong Il may eventually be ready to compromise.

A Western diplomat noted that in recent days North Korea has softened its conditions for talks with the United States. Where once it called for a resumption of canceled fuel oil shipments from the United States along with a nonaggression pact, its most recent formulations have demanded only a security guarantee.

But other analysts caution that Kim's sense of desperation and eagerness for a deal could work in the opposite direction, inspiring him to escalate further, employing the only means he and his father have ever known to conduct business with the outside world -- brinkmanship.

"This is consistent with their pattern," said Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, in an interview shortly after his inspectors were expelled from North Korea last month. "By escalating a situation into a crisis situation, they believe they will get a more advantageous negotiating position and get their security and economic needs catered to."

Kim Jong Il, now 60, was mostly an enigma when he assumed power following his father's death in 1994. The elder Kim had been an imposing figure who appeared to enjoy the pomp and regalia of Stalinist ritual. The younger Kim seemed nervous and uncomfortable in public. South Koreans were struck by this "short, dumpy-looking character with a strange hairdo," as one diplomat put it.

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