The more someone purports to know what’s in Kim Jong-il’s mind, the more skeptical you should be. What about the North Korean dictator’s heart?
This question is much on the minds of Japanese after Kim donated $500,000 to help their nation deal with a record earthquake and tsunami. The gesture is as fascinating as its timing. It came on the same day a United Nations agency said Kim urgently needs about $1 million of equipment and vaccines to fight foot-and-mouth disease in livestock.
Japan should reject the money, and not just because it’s probably coming in counterfeit $100 bills. If Kim has half a million to spare, he should spend it on his own people rather than this cynical grab for publicity and feigned goodwill. It’s the latest of an ever-growing trove of evidence of how little Kim’s 24 million people mean to him. Japan’s disaster came at the hands of Mother Nature; Kim’s is man-made.
This may be Kim’s way of saying that Japan is still vitally important, no matter how fast China is growing. Or, could it mark a turning point driven behind the scenes by his son and heir apparent Kim Jong-un after observing uprisings from Egypt to Libya?
To many Japanese, it won’t matter. Antipathy toward Kim has been at a fever pitch since 2002 when he admitted to abducting 13 Japanese over the years. Kim’s penchant for firing test missiles over Japan doesn’t help. Neither did North Korea’s statement last week that Libya, by dismantling its nuclear weapons program, left it open to military intervention. It buttressed the view that Kim will never give up his nuclear arsenal.
Also, Kim’s “donation” probably is just coming out of the aid Japan, South Korea and China sent his way over the years. “It’s a small down payment on the reparations the North Koreans still covet from Tokyo and will press for again someday after the Japanese economy recovers,” says Bradley Martin, author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader.” “The Japanese won’t be tempted to drop their guard.”
Kim, and his son, may be signaling that cash from Japan is vital to their family’s ability to stay in power. One of the more explosive WikiLeaks.org disclosures last year was that young Chinese Communist party leaders don’t think North Korea is a reliable ally, and that some of them believe Korea should be unified under the South.
China is still North Korea’s sugar daddy, yet income from Japan has long been vital, too. North Korean residents in Japan have sent billions of yen in money and goods back home to relatives since the 1953 end of the Korean War, much of it derived from their operation of pachinko gambling parlors. Sanctions are reducing the amount.
Last year, Japan further tightened controls on sending money to the North and its Coast Guard now searches the communist regime’s ships after deadly attacks on the South. It’s telling, though, that Kim’s donation is targeted specifically at Koreans living in Japan.
Kim may hope it will win him some goodwill and motivate Koreans to work harder to sneak money to Pyongyang. So most likely, this is a contemptuous bit of self-marketing by a regime running out of cash.
Again, Japan’s plight was about tectonic plates moving; Kim’s is about mismanagement. Millions of his people have starved. Those who haven’t face constant malnourishment, repression and the threat of war in a stunted nation run by Stalinists. Japan is a vibrant, wealthy nation that respects its citizens. It is already dusting itself off and moving on, while North Korea’s self-inflicted wounds grow worse by the day.
Now let’s consider the other alternative: that the coming rule of Kim Jong-un will be vastly different from that of his father or the nation’s founder, Kim Il-sung.
Yes, I know. It’s almost naive to ponder the possibility. Yet if the last three years taught us anything it’s that the unthinkable has an uncanny knack of happening. Few could have foreseen a year ago that Hosni Mubarak would be ousted by people-power protests in Egypt. Or that Muammar Gadhafi would be on the ropes in Libya.
Officials in Seoul are buzzing that the Kims seem increasingly concerned about internal threats to their regime. Could this Kim overture to Japan be a harbinger of a good-global-citizen phase? Only time will tell.
More likely, this is just the calm before another outlandish act that unnerves markets from Seoul to New York. The biggest consistency among the folks in Pyongyang is dashing hopes for peace. It’s great that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter plans to prod the Kims toward change in a private visit to North Korea. Just don’t get your hopes up too high.
If Kim wants to do the world some good, he should stop blowing his nation’s money on bombs, Hennessy cognac and luxury cars. If he really wants to help Japan, become a better, less belligerent neighbor. Come on, Dear Leader Kim ― Japan doesn’t need your money. Your own people do.
By William Pesek
William Pesek is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.