Kim Jong-il: Promises, Promises

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il seems to have been born with a natural charisma. To the constant amazement of the outside world, he has been winning the hearts of foreign visitors who meet him face to face, from former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright to South Korean President Kim Dae-jung to conservative South Korean lawmaker Park Geun-hye.

His meeting with Ms. Park, in particular, brought much attention. The daughter of former South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, long a thorn in the side of North Korean President Kim Il-sung, she developed her own negative opinion of the junior Kim. She also vehemently opposed the government’s move to revise the National Security Law in November 1999. Ms. Park argued that the naval clash with the North in the Yellow Sea earlier the same year was proof that confrontation was not a thing of the past. When the National Assembly wanted to send 600,000 metric tons of rice to North Korea in October 1999 it was she who protested; saying Seoul should not waste the taxpayers’ money; she demanded that a procedure for verifying how the rice was distributed be established first.

But after meeting Mr. Kim in person she changed her perspective. Upon returning to Seoul, she described the North’s strongman as a very open-hearted and outspoken person capable of honest conversation.

Park is not entirely to blame. After all, the dear general gave in to every demand or suggestion she made. He agreed to install a liaison office for separated families, agreed to confirm the whereabouts of South Korean MIAs from the Korean War, and agreed to a joint inspection of the North’s Geumgangsan dam and an inter-Korean soccer match to be played in Seoul. No wonder she melted.

“I went to North Korea to contribute what I can to reunification of the two Koreas, regardless of the size,” Ms. Park said after returning to the South. “I have always grieved over the divided status of our country and I wholeheartedly wish for a day when the two Koreas come to prosper as one.” Who needs special presidential envoy Lim Dong-won when Ms. Park brings home equally promising pledges from the North.

Which begs the question: What are those promises, any promises, made by the North Korean leader really worth? Most of the South Korean media would have you believe that North Korea is a highly controlled, highly centralized autocracy ruled from the top down by the Dear Leader. They would say that Mr. Kim’s word carries greater weight than law, and he is never disobeyed.

But the reality is, the Dear Leader and his promises are a lot like the North Korean currency. The North’s won has an official exchange rate of 2.15 won to $1. But in North Korea’s black markets it reportedly trades at a rate closer to 200 won to $1. And so it goes with Mr. Kim’s promises. There have been 23 inter-Korean state-level meetings since the June 2000 summit, six of them being ministerial talks. In those talks Mr. Kim or his representatives agreed to more than 20 provisions aimed at forging new relations between the two Koreas. He has kept his word on one of them, sort of. Separated families from North and South have met, but not as frequently or freely as expected in the South. The only other agreements of the 20 that were kept were done so by Seoul, which released long-term unconverted prisoners, former North Korean spies, and allowed them to return to the North. Seoul also allowed members of Chongryon, the pro-Pyongyang group of Korean residents in Japan, to visit South Korea. The remaining pledges, from Chairman Kim’s return visit to Seoul for a second summit to connecting the Gyeongui railroad to opening East Sea (Sea of Japan) fisheries, were stopped short or never got underway.

The North’s failure to follow through can be interpreted in two broad ways: either they are really unable to keep up their end of the bargain for some internal or external purpose, or they simply lied, dangling carrots in front of the Southerners in order to gain some leverage in future negotiations with Seoul. And there are a myriad of other possibilities that make determining why Pyongyang has not performed nearly impossible. It is most likely a combination of a number of factors.

What it boils down to is that we can no longer place much stock in the high-and-mighty words of the North Korean leader. Two years ago Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo were ready to take a chance on the seemingly awakening hermit regime. These days, no matter how impressive Mr. Kim’s promises may be, diplomats just shake their heads get on with their routine.