SINCE HIS death Saturday, a great deal has been written about Kim Jong Il’s diplomatic mastery. The North Korean dictator, after inheriting power from his father in 1994, played a weak hand brilliantly, it is said. He wielded his illicit nuclear weapons program to keep larger powers at bay. He was, U.S. Undersecretaryof State Wendy Sherman told the New York Times, “smart, engaged, knowledgeable, self-confident, sort of the master-director of all he surveyed.”
In fact, Mr. Kim’s sole accomplishment — his survival in power — owes more to the self-interested calculations of surrounding powers than to his supposed wisdom. South Korea, a prosperous, capitalist democracy, feared the financial burden of a sudden merger with its impoverished northern half. China, with the most influence over the North Korean regime, feared a powerful, pro-Western, possibly nuclear-armed Korea extending to the Yalu River. The United States, in dealing with China, always had higher priorities on its negotiating card than the welfare of North Koreans.
So no one wanted a “collapse” of the regime, though nothing would have been more in the interest of North Koreans themselves. For in the percentage of his population that starved or went to the gulag, or both, under his command, Mr. Kim ranks with Hitler, Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot.
Given how closed North Korea keeps its borders, it is impossible to know how many people died in its famine of the 1990s. Some estimate as many as 2 million, in a population of about 20 million. Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, in a thorough study, put the number at 600,000 to 1 million, or 3 to 5 percent of the population. And famine, they say, gave way to “a chronic food emergency” in which “North Korean families continue to experience the ravages of malnutrition.”
Although Mr. Kim did not set out to cause a famine, his culpability is not in question. “The real culprit is callousness,” Amartya Sen wrote in his foreword to the Haggard-Noland study, “combined with a determination . . . not to allow any political change.” That same determination explains why North Korea’s rulers maintain a network of concentration camps holding 200,000 or more people where torture, terror and public execution are routine. And though the United Nations has officially acknowledged a “responsibility to protect” civilians maltreated by their regimes, this 21st century gulag, well known and documented, is barely mentioned when U.S. and other officials negotiate with the regime.
Will this pattern continue as an unknown, untested, unqualified 27-year-old — the dictator’s son — grotesquely attempts to inherit a nation? Of course there will be concern among other nations about North Korea’s stability. The military has shown a willingness to lash out, and civilians in South Korea and Japan are well within the reach of its weapons. Other countries will seek both to reassure the new leaders that they do not face attack and to warn them not to engage in provocative behavior.
That is as it should be. We would ask only that as those signals are crafted, and future policy is considered, one new factor be added to the mix: the fate of the enslaved North Korean people themselves.