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The Legacy of General Kim Jong Il: An Interview with Professor Han S. Park

With the passing of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, KPI Executive Director Christine Ahn sat down for a phone interview with Han S. Park. Professor Park is Professor of International Affairs and Director of the Center for the Study of Global Issues (GLOBIS) at the University of Georgia. Born in China (Manchuria) to immigrant Korean parents, Dr. Park received his education in China, Korea, and the United States, with advanced degrees in Political Science from Seoul National University (B.A.), the American University (M.A.) and the University of Minnesota (Ph.D.).

[Ahn]: Professor Park, can you start by briefly sharing your background and experience traveling back and forth from North Korea?

[Park]: I was born in China during the Chinese civil war struggle for independence. My family moved down to what is now currently South Korea via Pyongyang when I was eight years old. We lived in Pyongyang for a year or so before the partition of the country. My family was fed up with the gruesome scene of the Chinese civil war and sought to avoid it, though when we returned home, we found ourselves in the middle of the Korean War, which was even nastier because of the massive air assaults, which wasn’t evident during the Chinese civil war. I finished my undergraduate education from Seoul National University in Political Science and came to the United States in 1965 to further my education.

Because I was trained as a political philosopher, I was intrigued by the Juche ideology of North Korea. In 1980, I wrote several letters inquiring of my interest in studying Juche to many people who made my first trip possible to North Korea in 1981. Ever since then, I have been looking into the evolution into that system of ideas. After all this time, I have a pretty complete grasp of the ideology and the social political context in which it was born and operates.

I visited North Korea for the second time in 1990, nearly 10 years later. Ever since then, I have not missed a single year, traveling sometimes four times per year. I have seen the country over time, examining the culture, language and reading between the lines. I think I know North Korea quite intimately, and as a scholar, I have been able to make inferences from simple matters and facts.

My lifelong passion is how to help people live together without killing each other. Since Korea is my country of my origin and fatherland, I have great care for Korea. Over the years, I have witnessed US policies towards Korea, including times when we were very close to military confrontation. In 1994, I was directly involved in having Jimmy Carter visit that year to de-escalate growing tensions [with the US], and again last year helped urge him to visit North Korea. I believe that peacemaking is possible by enhancing mutual understanding. Disagreement is a very healthy thing in human society. Being able to accommodate diversity is what peace is all about. If you have uniformity, you don’t need peace. My goal has been for North and South Korea and the US to develop a relationship of peace rather than an alliance, which is predicated on a paradigm of security, which in turn is founded on a culture of mutual fear. In contrast, a peace paradigm is an accommodation of differences. The greater the difference, the greater the potential for peace. There are major differences between North and South Korea, but it’s how we use the differences in the process of integration. The grave mistake is not being able to communicate. It’s so important for the United States and South Korea to understand North Korea and vice versa, which is why I have devoted so much towards organizing high-level delegations to exchange views.

[Ahn]: You’ve been to North Korea for the past 30 years. Can you remark on the different legacies between Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il?

[Park]: When you look at the three generations, you have to look at both the domestic and the regional/global context. North Korea is such a small country, which has meant that it has had to basically react to external forces because of its lack of resources. Actually, the fate of the Korean people as a whole and its regimes, in the north and south, have been reactive versus proactive. North Korea has to be sensitive to external surroundings, which have largely been hostile to its sovereign state.

Kim Il Sung was a very legitimate national hero. I developed an early interest in him, in part because my father was born the same year in 1912. Both lived in northeast China. Kim Il Sung had a great deal of footing in northeast China where he waged guerilla warfare against Japan. Although they were not friends, they had many mutual friends in common, many that I met and interviewed. After hearing their stories, I concluded that Kim Il Sung was indeed a remarkable young man. In South Korea, many say that Kim Il Sung is fake, when in fact, as soon as the North Korean government was formally erected in 1948, he became a hero. Naturally, there were power struggles, but most of Kim Il Sung’s opponents were eliminated by the end of the Korean War.

Kim Il Sung developed enormous respect from the people of North Korea. He maneuvered between the Soviets and the Chinese, long before maneuvering between the United States and the global communist bloc. He was quite skillful at maintaining North Korean sovereignty; he never paid tribute to Stalin or Mao Tse Tung, who even lost his son in the Korean War. Kim Il Sung was not an ordinary head of state for North Korea. Naturally, within a political system, his lieutenants wanted to dramatize that and sometimes wrote comical descriptions suggesting that it was Kim Il Sung who brought Korean independence from Japan. They did this to further dramatize the superman quality of Kim Il Sung, which is also what happens in other political systems, such as in South Korea with Rhee Syngman or in the US case with George Washington.

Kim Il Sung’s reign coincided largely with the Cold War international world order. He had to navigate the tensions between superpowers within the communist bloc, maneuvering quite skillfully and maintaining North Korean sovereignty and self-reliance, which in fact prompted him to develop the Juche ideology. Kim Il Sung was a very autocratic, centrist, and authoritarian ruler. People followed him because he was very well-versed in many things, ranging from techniques in agriculture to industry to foreign policy to ideology. The world was much more simplistic in the sense that it was either communism or democracy, and domestic challenges weren’t very complicated. There was no disagreement within power circles as to what to do. He had enough intellect and ideas to manage the polity the way he wanted to.

Kim Il Sung’s passing in 1994 coincided with the post cold war era with the virtual overnight disappearance of the Soviet Union and communist support system. We didn’t have a polarized system anymore; instead it was a world dominated by the US as the sole superpower. As a result, Kim Jong Il had to face American domination, and unfortunately for him, the United States had a tripartite security alliance with South Korea and Japan. All three countries were economically and militarily superior to North Korea, so Kim Jong Il had to make sure that his country wouldn’t be forcefully undermined. That was a formidable challenge for him. In order to demonstrate his country’s ability to self-defend, he had to show off his capability in the form of testing two nuclear weapons. He had to promote not just military weapons, but militarism, which prompted the Songun (‘military first’) politics. To clarify, Songun isn’t a mandate to follow the military blindly; it was that the military is charged to do a lot more than national defense, such as domestic construction. Unlike his father, Kim Jong Il had to navigate difficult domestic politics, which was challenged by the degraded economic situation [created by US sanctions] and successive inclement weather in the 1990s, which led to major food shortages. These were the challenging circumstances under which Kim Jong Il had to reign.

Kim Il Sung was referred to as the “Great Leader,” the highest level of possible leadership. When people ask me who the real leader of North Korea is, I say Kim Il Sung is the real leader because his policy directives are still very alive. Kim Jong Il was called the “Dear Leader,” which was an important title to ensure that his leadership will be accepted broadly by the people, and in the process he would have total control over the military. When Kim Jong Il assumed power, he tried to establish his own legacy. He was able to extend the Juche ideology to include Songun, and was beloved by the people, as we see with the outpouring of grief upon his death. Today the young Kim Jong Un has been very skillfully called the “Great Successor.” That is a fascinating label because a successor doesn’t have to create new things; rather he is expected to carry out the legacy of his father and grandfather. Between Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, there are already directives, principles and ruling philosophies established. The third generation is to carry out the policies.

Meanwhile, in the international context, not only are we out of the cold war, we are quickly leaving the era of US global domination. It’s an entirely different global era. During the second Kim Jong Il era, decision making was largely collective. Although the decision makers may not have been collectively recognized, the center of the party was the worker’s party. Kim Jong Il became synonymous with the center of the party, which made decisions. In North Korea, there are 12-13 people who make decisions, and all these individuals are intact. Kim Jong Un’s job is to succeed these policies, so things will remain the same, not just in Pyongyang, but also in foreign policy as well.

[Ahn]: Professor Park, with regards to Kim Jong Il’s legacy, many so-called Korea experts say that under his leadership, the military gained more power than worker’s party. What do you think about this analysis?

[Park]: In any system, you will have military-civil tension. However, in North Korea, the civil isn’t separate from the military. I would agree that the Military Commission by design gained a lot of authority and power, and Kim Jong Il was chairman of the Military Commission. But this was not necessarily against the political party, the Worker’s Party, but rather in concert. There is no distinction between military leaders and party members; there is a lot of mixing and overlapping. A lot of people speculate that there might be a military junta since Kim Jong Il’s passing. A military coup is unthinkable for many reasons, as is the prospect of an Arab Spring-type of uprising against the North Korean leadership.

[Ahn]: Professor Park, my worry is that the Obama administration will fall into the same trap that Clinton did in the period following the death of Kim Il Sung where everyone anticipated the end of North Korea, which led to the United States reneging on the Agreed Framework and a shift in U.S. policy towards regime change.

[Park]: Frankly, what is driving U.S. policy towards North Korea are the interests of the military industrial complex. They want North Korea to be militarily strong, stronger than it is. North Korea is not a threat to the United States, but they perpetuate the myth that it is. Secondly, these interests like to perpetuate the myth that North Korea is evil and has the intention to strike the United States, which is just what they need to justify the costly missile defense system. The only thing that can override this is political opinion, which is a real challenge since decision makers have their own agenda, which is to protect their military and economic interests at all costs.

[Ahn]: Professor Park, as an expert on Juche ideology, how do you explain North Korea’s reliance on foreign aid while maintaining an image of self-sufficiency?

[Park]: It is a misreading of self reliance. Juche is not isolationism, and certainly not about excluding foreign elements. Self-reliance, politically speaking, is a principle. It means that a sovereign North Korea assumes all initiative, the course of its policy. They are sitting in the driver’s seat. Self reliance doesn’t mean that they don’t import food because they don’t have enough land to cultivate food to feed everyone. It’s more a principle of not wanting to be controlled by others. North Korea and South Korea have been waging a legitimacy war, so much so that North Korea wanted to establish its own course uniquely different from the south. As we know, South Korea is anything but sovereign, especially militarily and in making foreign policy decisions.

[Ahn]: How do you respond to allegations that Kim Jong Il was a dictator who starved his own people?

[Park]: As a political scientist and analyst, I always say that you have to understand that Kim Jong Il is a political leader whose job is to maintain his political system first and foremost. If that country is under a security threat, that regime will do anything and everything, even at the expense of economic setbacks. To North Koreans, their national security is not for sale. Economic incentives and aid will never buy a shred of national security. And this is the case for every country, the United States included. There are multiple causes of crop failure during Kim Jong Il’s reign. In the name of self-sufficient agriculture and expanding productivity, during the 1970s and 1980s, North Korea significantly clear cut trees, which led to the removal of top soil and then the recurrences of flooding.

[Ahn]: So how do we use this opportunity to shift the paradigm within the Obama administration?

[Park]: Both South Korean President Lee Myung Bak and President Obama developed a personal hatred of Kim Jong Il, but because this young man is a new face, it is an opportune time because it is the opening of a new chapter. What is unfortunate is that the State Department has said that they would wait until after the funeral to send a new year’s message, which is foolish. You have to make decisions, especially since it is clear that the continuity will be there despite the change in the symbolic head of leadership.

[Ahn]: If you had the ear of president Obama, what would you advise him to do?

[Park]: In the area of foreign policy, the second term president is more interested in long term solutions, so I expect more from a second term Obama, including direct negotiations with North Korea. I hope that Washington will no longer be a hostage of Seoul, which with the recent election of Seoul, will likely lead to something else. I am very hopeful about that because the conservative base is being disintegrated.


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