North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il turns 70 today. He officially becomes 69 but chronologists know that he celebrated his 40th birthday twice in 1981 and 1982 as Pyongyang’s legend writers for the Kim family were asked to cut a year from his real age to create a precise 30-year age difference from his father (born 1912) upon his designation as the heir to the power.
Kim enters his 70s at a sensitive time when the global community is watching pro-democracy movements spreading like wildfire in North Africa and the Middle East. Pyongyang’s mechanism of repression tries everything to insulate the 22 million people of the North from what is going on in the outside world, such efforts cannot be completely successful.
Thousands of North Koreans travel to and from China everyday on official or private businesses and they get wind of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and other parts of the region from the limited volume of international news in the controlled but diversified media in the neighboring country. Cell phone communications in the Chinese border areas between the younger generations help disseminate the news.
Hosni Mubarak was one of the foreign leaders better known to North Koreans. Pyongyang and Cairo normalized diplomatic relations in 1963 and Mubarak visited North Korea four times between 1980 and 1990. Egypt’s Orascom is the sole mobile phone service provider in North Korea. Mubarak’s unsuccessful plan to leave his power to his son Gamal is seen to be an emulation of his friend in Pyongyang.
Internet media and radio broadcasters specializing in affairs inside North Korea report that Pyongyang’s security personnel are dispersing groups of people chatting on the street these days. They are even tearing down compartment panels in public restaurants to prevent small talk among customers. Yet, we can imagine how the people of the North would be reacting to such inhuman acts deep in their hearts.
There are endless reports on the unstable health of Kim Jong-il who has been recovering from a stroke since August 2008 but is suffering diabetes and kidney problems. His poor health has driven him to install his 27-year-old third son as his designated successor hurriedly in a party convention in September last year. Analysts agree that Kim’s zigzagging policy track toward South Korea since last year reflects his physical and mental instability.
Almost all government branches in Pyongyang, from the military to the intelligence apparatus, have made peace gestures toward the South calling for unconditional dialogue from the beginning of the year. In the face of Seoul’s inflexible response demanding “a show of sincerity,” Kim Jong-il, who is behind these soft approaches, must by now understand how he has to change his strategies and behavior to open rice warehouses in the South.
He may still be preparing for yet another nuclear test this year in the mistaken belief that it could scare regional players into negotiations for a dtente with economic and humanitarian aid. But a more reasonable Kim should realize that the two previous nuclear tests hardly raised the stature of his country and only made it poorer under U.N. sanctions.
While touring around military units and industrial facilities, taking his inexperienced son along in the extreme winter weather, Kim has to pay extra attention to the “smuggling” of news about the fate of dictatorial regimes around the world. His engineers may be able to black out some items of online information for some time, but they cannot do so for every selected item forever. Kim Jong-il’s life in his seventies is going to be far from serenity.