The death of Kim Jong-il

The big news story today was the death of Kim Jong-il, leader of North Korea. Of all the commentary I heard, one idea struck me as rather funny in a “you’re more right than you realize” kind of way. I don’t recall who it was that NPR interviewed, but his comments were to the effect that the North Korean people either wouldn’t believe that the West was supplying food aid, or they would say that the aid was “tribute” demanded by the Dear Leader in lieu of him crushing us with his army.

Regardless of whether the commenter’s characterization of the North Korean people’s intelligence is correct (I somehow doubt they’re that stupid), the “tribute” comment is more correct than perhaps he meant it to be.

North Korea has a huge military–about 1.1 million armed personnel, and a reserve force of about 7.5 million. They have modern weapons, and from all reports have enough food, fuel, and ammunition to wage war for perhaps 100 days. I suspect that 100 days is an over-estimate, but even if it were just 50 days, they could do a lot of damage. It’s doubtful, though, that they could seize, occupy, and hold much territory for very long.

North Korea does, however, have nuclear weapons. Not that I think they’d use them. At least, Kim Jong-il was smart enough not to. He didn’t give a rip about his own people, but from all reports he was rather fond of his own skin. He sure didn’t want to end up like Adolf Hitler, Nicolae Ceau?escu, Saddam Hussein, Kadafi, or any other national leader whose life ended with him being hunted down and executed by major powers or by his own people.

Kim Jong-il wouldn’t actually use his nuclear weapons (he was a lot of things, but never stupid), but he had no problems selling his nuclear technology, or using his nuclear capabilities as a bargaining chip. All he had to do was rattle his nuclear saber a bit and make vague noises about “talks.” The U.S., China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and the U.N. would all bend over backwards to meet his demands for food aid or other concessions, just to get him to the bargaining table. And, like Lucy pulling the ball away after convincing Charlie Brown that “this time is different,” Dear Leader would invariably use some excuse–any excuse–to delay or halt talks after he got what he wanted. And, just like Charlie Brown, the world powers would fall for it every time.

Tribute? Perhaps not in the way that the term is typically used, but it amounted to the same thing. Kim Jong-il threw a tantrum and the world gave him whatever he wanted. You’ve seen the same kind of thing happen in the toy aisle of Wal-Mart a hundred times. The man was a tyrant and a master manipulator who seemed to get a real thrill out of making the rest of the world dance to his ridiculous tune.

We are well shut of Kim Jong-il. For reasons that escape me, the world kissed his ass to keep him quiet. I’ll never understand why we didn’t just ignore him. Why China kept propping him up is another mystery. I can understand South Korea treating him with kid gloves, because they didn’t want a war and because there are many South Koreans with family in the North. They don’t want another war where they might be shooting at their own kin.

Even though Kim Jong-il acted like a spoiled child, was a known quantity. He was predictable within a farily narrow range. We knew how to deal with him. We don’t know what form the new leadership will take in North Korea. Will Kim Jong-un take over? Will he become a figurehead who’s controlled by the old guard? That’s perhaps the scariest possibility: a young and inexperienced figurehead being controlled by the hard line old guard who have dreams of conquest. It would be enough to plunge the entire region into a war. Perhaps the entire world if China got involved on the side of the tyrants.

Let’s hope that cooler heads prevail.

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