I wondered here what was up with Dear Leader. At first glance, North Korean National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong Il was still on top of his game. During the three day summit with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, he:
a) kept his intents unknown until he did show up after all, to greet a relieved Mr. Roh, at the reception ceremonies on the latter's arrival in Pyongyang;
b) absented himself - somewhat against speculation - from the Arirang Mass Games, and instead let Kim Young Nam, figurehead Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, host Mr. Roh as they joined the masses in the glorification of Dear Leader and his father in gaudy cutout displays;
c) joked during the second day meetings about the concerns (hopes?) that his behavior had caused in the West; and
d) declined Mr. Roh's invitation to visit him in Seoul – the time is not ripe – offering to send Kim Young Nam his stead
while Mr. Roh went out of his way to praise Mr. Kim and, more generally, the North Korean regime throughout his visit. All in all, Mr. Kim made lame-duck President Roh look decidedly the overeager-to-please junior partner – Mr. Kim is the older of the two, a not unimportant distinction in these Confucian societies – over the course of the proceedings.
And what did Mr. Roh get in return? Well, he got Mr. Kim to agree to include South Korea in the ultimate conversion of the long-standing truce in the Korean War to an agreement for everlasting peace between the "three states or four states". This is not insubstantial, since what Mr. Roh gave up (beyond what he and his predecessor have already done) amounted to face. (This assessment of course accepts the common view the "three states" excludes China, not South Korea, which had been the traditional posture of North Korea.) Still, given that the main stage for this is the U.S.-North Korean bilateral WP in the Six-Party Talks and it is inconceivable that the U.S. can agree to a deal on the Peninsula without South Korea signing on, the entire deal has little more impact in the real world than to reinforce the impression that South Korea, at least under President Roh, is in the North Korean camp when it comes to its views on North Korea as an enduring threat.
(note) The mercurial Syngman Rhee, South Korean President at the time of the Korean War, boycotted the signing of the 1953 Armistice Agreement, and the North Koreans have used that to shut South Korea out of its formal dealings with the U.S.
So, it can be reasonably argued that Kim Jong Il knew exactly what he was doing throughout, and had merely been throwing in his well-practiced bag of political illusion tricks.
And yet, I cannot shake the image of the disinterested, distracted Mr. Kim on the first day, nor, on the second day, of the way he leaned somewhat forward and looked sidewise and up at the one man sitting beside him, almost as if to seek his approval, as they sat at an inordinately wide table, facing Mr. Roh, sitting alone on the other side. Then there is the final, second day photo op after the signing of their joint declaration, where after Mr. Roh goes hand-in-hand with Mr. Kim and proudly raises them like two boxers after a hard-fought draw. When the hands are lowered, even as a still joyful Mr. Roh turns toward his counterpart, an expressionless, Mr. Kim casually turns the other way. Were these calculated put-downs of a junior counterpart, a presumed tributary, and/or displays of feigned weakness - alternating with an alert, at times even mildly jocose, persona – employed to put Mr. Roh and his handlers off-guard? Or the inevitable and frequent mood swings of a deteriorating mind? In this light, even his surprise, second-day invitation during the morning session to an extra day for informal discussions, only to be rescinded near the end of that session, leaves me to wonder, was it a gambit tossed out only to be casually declined, or the wandering thoughts of an old man.
And there is more than prurient, tabloid fascination – to which I admit freely – that draws me to this question. Totalitarian-authoritarian regimes are notoriously poor at handling succession. The problem is eased greatly when the sovereign enjoys a good measure of legitimacy and there is a determinate line of succession. In North Korea, the former is arguable, the latter dubious. If the Dear Leader's mind slips away before he is able to firmly install one of his sons to replace him when he departs for that Great Big Mt. Baekdu in the Sky, there is a good likelihood that succession will be messy and, until a successor is firmly entrenched, the North Korean leadership will become even more insular and unpredictable. And Japan, if anybody, is firmly in the sights of North Korean missiles and is the least illogical among potential targets under what must be North Korea's increasingly irrelevant WMD strategy.
Frankly, I am of three minds.
Commercial for Eurasia Group head Ian Bremmer: If you are interested in knowing more about authoritarian-totalitarian regimes and their inclinations, you can do worse than to read J-Curve. I'll be happy to lend you a copy if you know me personally.)