What happens next in North Korea worries neighbors Kim: A despot's dangerous legacy

July 10, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- North Korea's jittery neighbors expressed shock and concern yesterday at the death of Kim Il Sung, reclusive architect of the hermit state who managed to terrorize and intrigue the world during almost a half-century of authoritarian rule.

Chief among their concerns is the turn the simmering conflict between North and South Korea is likely to take now that the man who single-handedly directed the Stalinist state is gone, and what impact his death will have on the tortured attempts to stop North Korea's development of nuclear weapons.

The 82-year-old North Korean leader was officially reported yesterday to have died from a heart attack early Friday morning. His physical condition had long been thought to be poor.

But Mr. Kim persistently defied predictions of imminent death, outlasting other world leaders from the time of his first appearance on the world stage -- Harry Truman, Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-tung -- and many of their successors. Recent visitors to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and evangelist Billy Graham, described Mr. Kim as alert and vigorous.

His death comes at a time when North Korea finally seemed to want to link up with the rest of the world and was using its nuclear development program as the strongest card to induce Western acceptance. The death of Mr. Kim also leaves a highly disciplined, million-member army controlled by a successor, his son, Kim Jong Il, who is viewed as unstable and unpopular, even though he is officially revered almost as much as his father.

In South Korea where political leaders typically play down tensions with the North, President Kim Young Sam went on national television to put forces on his side of the border on alert for "any contingency."

(Kim is as common a name among Koreans as Smith is among Americans; the two rivals are not related.)

In Japan, the so-called national self-defense forces announced that they were ready for any emergency. Political leaders canceled trips abroad that had been scheduled to follow the current meeting of senior world officials in Naples, Italy. Flags were lowered to half-staff at hundreds of buildings and schools used by the country's large population of pro-North Korean residents.

China, a crucial Kim ally after his launch of the Korean War 44 years ago, and still North Korea's closest ally, said it felt "deep sadness." Cambodian King Sihanouk bemoaned the loss of his "best friend," and Singapore and the Philippines stated they hoped the death of the aged leader would not lead to instability on the Korean Peninsula.

Thousands weep

In Pyongyang, tens of thousands of weeping people -- exhorted by government broadcasts -- were reported to be gathering in front of a huge statue of Mr. Kim.

Following the initial announcement of Mr. Kim's death, the official government radio news agency returned to the programming that has dominated his egomaniacal rule with glorified tales of the man publicly referred to as "Great Leader."

He was born as Kim Sung Ju, and his background was filled with gaps. His legend began in 1945, shortly after the Japanese occupation of Korea ended, when he came to prominence with the assistance of the Soviet Army and took the name of a mythical freedom fighter. Within three years, he was ruler of North Korea and through continuous purges and obsessive propaganda developed a remarkable personality cult.

By the time of his death, he was largely credited with every scientific, agricultural, and artistic achievement his country produced. Every classroom has his portrait; every lapel sports a pin with his picture.

As the tales of his Herculean achievements dominated the airwaves yesterday, he continued to envelop North Korea from the grave, as omnipresent, mythical and unapproachable as ever.

Analysts who watch Korea worried that the nuclear discussions in Geneva and the planned North-South summit might stall without Mr. Kim. The official state ideology infused by Mr. Kim during the 1960s -- juche -- stressed independence and self-reliance. It isn't clear that anyone but Mr. Kim can reach an agreement with the outside world without suffering a debilitating loss of face.

And worse could be to come.

Signals are complex

Analyzing the inner workings of North Korea has always been a process of observing tiny signs and making large assumptions, often with dire miscalculations. Intelligence sources are minimal, news coverage tightly controlled. As is often the case, this time the signals emanating from the Stalinist state are complex and inconsistent.

The announcement of Mr. Kim's death came almost a day and a half after his death. The long lag in reporting, say some North Korea watchers, and the odd timing of the death itself, just before the historic summit, suggested foul play in the struggle between hard-liners and North Koreans who want to move toward a rapprochement with the outside world.

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