In wake of Kim's death, U.S. should move slowly

July 13, 1994|By Stephen W. Linton

NORTH KOREANS revered Kim Il Sung as an old guerrilla fighter, a master of strategy.

Always a step ahead of his enemies, he would suddenly appear to confound and crush his opponents. His death last week was his last surprise attack.

Kim Il Sung is dead and no one knows what to make of it.

Few Americans ever learned about North Korea or made friends with its people. Most who tried were denied entrance to Kim's "paradise on earth."

Western analysts dismissed him as a "Stalinist dictator."

Because the death of a tyrant is an opportunity for progress, by this line of reasoning, his death should be considered a positive development for Korea and for American interests in East Asia.

But the exact opposite is true.

Whatever one may think of the late president of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, his untimely departure could create a whole new set of problems for Korea and the world.

Only a wise and measured response may avoid another major setback in the Clinton administration's hope to defuse the threat of a potentially nuclear North Korea.

The key is a better understanding of who Kim Il Sung was to the people of North Korea and who his son, Kim Jong Il, hopes to be in their eyes.

In Pyongyang, citizens weep openly before the towering statue of the man they reverentially called their great leader.

To dismiss these spontaneous expressions of grief as the workings of a bizarre personality cult is to miss a chance to learn about the bonds that made Kim one of the most loved and most hated men of this century.

His hold on the North Koreans was rooted in rural village culture.

Traditional society in Korea has always been cemented by a matrix of personal relationships, kinship loyalties and the Confucian cult of the family.

North Korea, with a relatively homogeneous population of 22 million, acts like a rural village. What happens when the village headman dies? He leaves behind a society without a center. Because the headman provides both spiritual and political leadership and because his authority is both personal and moral, his death leaves a gaping hole that needs much time and effort to mend.

Only after a new leader emerges does the community completely regain its sense of identity and purpose.

If confronted by a serious challenge from the outside during this critical period of transition, the community may begin to pull apart.

Because social conventions are not generally written down in this kind of society. The absence of a strong personality at the center is far more disruptive than in societies where tradition is codified into laws.

Succession from village headman to successor is a delicate procedure that can take far more time and social energy than in societies with clear legal traditions.

The outcome can never be taken for granted because the successor must be accepted by his people as having unquestionable moral authority to rule them -- what Confucius called the mandate of heaven.

The more ambiguity, the more resistance to the transition, the more time required -- the more the community is put at risk. If the transition takes too long, the social fabric will begin to fray and petty disputes can spin out of control.

What Westerners might define as a simple struggle over legitimacy may become a full-blown spiritual crisis in a society that does not separate politics and religion.

Successions are also the periods of greatest social upheaval.

Because traditional Korean village life is defined by rigidly structured personal relationships, every individual's relative position in the community is affected by a change at the center.

It is no accident that Kim Il Sung was called the "sun of the nation."

For 20 years Kim worked to ensure that his son would succeed him. And while the elite seem to have embraced Kim Jong Il, his standing with the people he hopes to rule is by no means secure.

At the heart of the North Korean nuclear crisis was a final attempt by Kim Il Sung to convince his people that he and by extension his son, could stand up to the nation's enemies, especially the United States.

He died just before he got the recognition he believed he deserved -- leaving his son with an incomplete base for legitimacy.

What Kim Jong Il needs most is recognition from the outside world -- ironic for a nation obsessed with self-reliance, but understandable when you consider Korea's long and elusive quest to be regarded as a nation of consequence.

This leaves the United States with a real opportunity to defuse the nuclear issue.

By acknowledging Kim Jong Il, by accepting his legitimacy, by insuring that we do not intend to destabilize his government, we can use Korean culture to our advantage. We can put him in our debt.

As we try to come to terms with a succession that began two decades ago and may take another 10 years to resolve itself, we cannot afford to miscalculate.

Pressure from the outside could destabilize North Korea. Worse still, if the younger Mr. Kim is made to feel insecure, he may be tempted to try to build a nuclear fortress for a Masada-like resistance to all incursions.

Nor should we presume we can influence the succession process to our advantage. North Korea will demand that it be left alone, just as it did under Kim Il Sung.

When a new village headman emerges, he feels obligated to dispense favors to those who ensure his succession. Kim Il Sung never forgot his debts to Stalin or Mao.

For Kim Jong Il and his people, that is the way the world works.

Stephen W. Linton, a research associate at Columbia University's Center for Korean Research, met with Kim Il Sung in North Korea as a consultant to the Rev. Billy Graham.

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