Ben Hills

It is a weird-looking contraption, shaped a bit like a five-metre cigar tube with a turret on top, thick coats of grey paint failing to conceal the clumsy welds that hold it together. It sits on a pedestal in the middle of a park on the outskirts of Seoul, with a plaque explaining that it is a midget submarine in which four North Koreans tried to sneak across the Imjin River to launch a terrorist attack on the South.

All around is other massive military materiel – captured Russian howitzers, a MiG-15 fighter jet, a big blue biplane in which two Chinese pilots defected, and the armoured landing craft which General Douglas MacArthur sent ashore at Inchon in the bloody masterstroke that turned the tide of the Korean War in 1950.

This is Peace Park, a grim memorial to nearly 50 years of hot and cold war which has divided the Korean peninsula – a permanent reminder of how close the 43 million people of the South came to being condemned to the poverty, brainwashing and concentration camps inflicted on their 22 million cousins in the north.

Just 100 kilometres or so north of here lies the DMZ, the wasteland of barbed wire, tank traps and landmines that has partitioned the country along the 38th parallel since the end of World War II – the first time it had been divided since the Silla dynasty in AD 668.

For all of that time, the North has been ruled by Kim Il Sung, a guerilla fighter turned communist tyrant, whose pickled, prettified corpse (using techniques including argon gas, if Seoul’s tabloid media are to be believed, acquired by a team of embalmers sent to study Chairman Mao’s mummy in Beijing)lay in state in a crystal coffin this week, pending tomorrow’s funeral.

Then, if those reading the runes in Seoul are right, his son Kim Jong Il -the stumpy figure in glasses and a grey Mao suit who has been coldly and silently greeting mourners – will take over as Great Leader, commander of the military, the party and the State.

So, who is this man, the first communist crown prince the world has known, and what are the implications of his succession for his country, for the reunification of the two Koreas, and – most crucially of all – for the atom bomb the international community fears his father has been building in a secret basement?

In Peace Park stands the AntiCommunist Exhibition Hall building, and in an office on the third floor works Dr Ok Tae Hwan, the director of the Research Institute for National Unification – the Government’s most important think-tank on North Korea.

He ticks off on his fingers what little conventional wisdom there is about North Korea’s new leader: “Impulsive, yes; arrogant, yes – he is, after all, the prince; unstable playboy, maybe; mad – there is no evidence of this.”

Hardly a ringing endorsement, but quite an astonishing backflip on what official South Korea has been saying about Kim junior. After demonising him for 20 years, President Kim Young Sam’s advisers have been forced to swallow their bile and will have to learn to deal with him.

The stories about his debauched lifestyle – the sex orgies, the diplomats scouring the world for delicacies such as blue shark’s liver from Angola -have suddenly been toned down.

Indeed, rumour has it that an Information Ministry official who mistakenly released some defamatory material on Kim this week was summarily removed.

A recent opinion poll suggests that South Koreans, sweltering this week in the 39 degree heat of Chobok, as the dog days of midsummer are known, are remarkably relaxed about the power change.

The poll (admittedly, run by the Government) showed that two-thirds of people believed North Korea would now become more open and a clear majority believes that Kim Jong Il’s succession makes reunification more likely – and war less likely.

Already there have been some unlikely bonuses for the South.

Bookshops have opened special sections on the North, featuring such oddities as the geomancer Sohn Sok Woo, who predicted Kim Il Sung’s death by studying the layout of his family tomb.

And 20,000 workers at a Hyundai shipyard called off a strike, apparently as a mark of respect.

So far has the revisionism gone that Dr Ok even casts doubt on Kim’s welldocumented masterminding of international terrorism. He says he simply does not believe the account of Kim Hyun Hee, the “virgin bomber” who blew a Korean Airlines 747 out of the sky over Burma in 1987, killing 115 people. She says Kim Jong Il personally ordered her to do it.

“Frankly speaking,” says Dr Ok, “we know almost nothing about him.”

The only recording the outside world has of his voice is a single sentence he uttered at a parade after he was appointed supreme commander of the armed forces in 1992: “Glory to the officers and men of the heroic Korean People’s Army.”

There are some who detect an artistic soul beneath the stony exterior. As well as a personal collection of more than 20,000 films, which he screens in a private cinema, Kim was the tsar of North Korea’s film industry, the producer of hundreds of propaganda movies, with titles such as The Sea of Blood, glorifying the regime. His book The Theory of Cinema Arts is selling like hot cakes on the Seoul black market.

There are others who believe there is evidence that Kim may turn out to be a reformer. In the transcript of a long conversation with him – smuggled out by a South Korean actress, Choi Eun Hee, whom Kim kidnapped and held for eight years in a bizarre love/hate relationship – he talks about economic problems and complains that “communism has made people lazy”.

Dr Lee Man Woo is the director of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Seoul’s Kyungnam University, and (because he is an American national) one of the few experts to have visited the North – albeit in 1981. He made himself highly unpopular by quoting the South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar to his hosts: “Now the people must be liberated from the liberators.”

Dr Lee believes that if Kim is to hold onto power – and he gives him anywhere from three months to three years – he must do something about the awful state of North Korea’s economy, which is rapidly turning into a basket case.

Up until the late 1970s, the North – which traditionally had the mines, the hydroelectricity and the industry – was richer than the rice-growing South. Four decades of Marxist mismanagement masquerading as “juche” (self-reliance)has changed all that.

Although it is difficult to be accurate – because the North no longer publishes figures – the Bank of Korea estimates that per capita GNP has shrunk to $US904 ($1,240) – less than one eighth the $US7,466 workers in the South produce.

Trade has dropped to a piddling $US2 billion a year after Russia cut off subsidies three years ago. China is about the only friend the regime has left

The personal impact of this impoverishment has been appalling. Although Kim Il Sung has been promising for 40 years “to let the people eat rice with meat soup, wear silk clothes, and live in tile-roofed houses”, starvation and food riots are widely reported, and Asia Watch estimates the concentration camps are bursting with up to 200,000 dissenters.

According to Yo Un Ryong, a 16-year-old student who defected earlier this year, there is chronic malnutrition – 40 per cent of primary students suffer from rickets (a bone deficiency almost unknown today in the South) and are stunted. The average 17-year-old is 158 centimetres tall and weighs 48 kilograms, compared with 170 centimetres and 62 kilograms for a southern student.

Dr Lee believes it would be “almost certain suicide” for Kim to continue with this rule and says he may try to introduce Chinese-style reforms, opening up the market and the borders a chink, while trying to retain absolute political control. But first, he has to convince the world he has given up his father’s nuclear ambitions.

The Foreign Ministry’s North-east Asia director, Dr Shin Kak Soo, believes that talks between the United States and North Korea will resume as soon as next month. He says the North’s new leadership may finally be prepared to trade nuclear guarantees for a bag of economic and diplomatic booty, topped up by some billions of dollars of war reparations from Japan which it would use as “seed money” to rebuild its industry and infrastructure.

Poring over the footage out of Pyongyang of the funeral preparations, Dr Shin detects evidence that Kim is surrounding himself with reform-minded people who know at least a little of the outside world.

The North-South summit, postponed by Kim Il Sung’s death, will be back on, and reunification will be a reality by the end of the century. At least, that is the new official line. It still jars with the reality of 1.6 million soldiers glaring at each other across the Cold War’s last frontier, and nearly 50 years of false hopes and broken promises.

South Korea’s President Kim Young Sam refused to send condolences to Pyongyang, fearing uproar in parliament and the media. Two million Koreans were killed in the war, and 10 million families are divided by the DMZ.

The streets of Seoul this week were thick with gangs of grey-uniformed paramilitary police – some armed with automatic weapons and carrying tear-gas and huge riot shields – an unpleasant reminder that the North is not the only regime on the peninsula to take a hard line on dissent. Their orders were to crush any pro-Pyongyang expressions of sympathy, such as burning incense at makeshift altars.

In a raid on Chungang University campus, where wall posters have gone up praising Kim Il Sung, 55 student leaders were arrested for “lauding and encouraging anti-State organisations” – a crime for which they may be jailed.

But still, officially at any rate, talk of instability in the North, of economic collapse, palace coups or popular uprisings is avoided. Kim Jong Il is suddenly not such a bad guy after all – someone with whom South Korea hopes it can deal.

If the talks go ahead, Kim Young Sam will have to meet, face-to-face, the man who may well have ordered the assassination of his mother.

“That,” says Dr Shin, “is the Korean tragedy.”

ANALYSING what’s going on in Korea is made considerably more difficult by the fact that almost all the key players have the same family name – Kim, the Korean equivalent of Smith or Jones.

In North Korea – run like a family business for decades – there are at least a dozen of them in key positions. South Korea has one as president. Another is a star defector.

A Quick Guide to the Leading Kims

Kim Il Sung

Head of state and the Communist Party for 46 years until his death on Friday last week at the age of 82. Was military leader until 1991. Had three wives and five known children. Called Great Leader and the subject of a national cult of deification.

Kim Jong Il

The Dear Leader, at 52 the oldest son and heir in Korea’s Confucian tradition. Appointed military commander- in-chief three years ago; believed to have been secretly confirmed head of state and the party by People’s Assembly this week.

Kim Yong Ju

Kim Il Sung’s younger brother, aged 72, and once seen as his successor. Purged in the 1970s in a family feud of obscure origins; made a comeback last year when he was appointed Vice-President. Says he supports Kim Jong Il’s succession.

Kim Pyong Il

Kim Jong Il’s hated stepbrother, and (backed by his mother, the scheming and powerful Kim Song Ae) a possible rival if he fails to quickly consolidate his power base. Aged 43, a former army officer with strong military contacts, he is seen as a reformer – educated in Moscow, currently ambassador to Finland.

Kim Dal Hyun

A nephew of Kim Il Sung, he is currently Deputy Prime Minister. Another key reformer, who visited South Korea in 1992, touring industries and seeking investment.

Kim Young Sam

Aged 66, South Korea’s first genuine democratically elected president, in December 1992 – succeeding a series of US-backed generals. Radical reforms to clean up corruption, deregulate the economy and reform elections.

Kim Hyon Hee

North Korean terrorist who planted bomb that blew up South Korean airliner in 1987. Captured by the South, she was sentenced to death, but underwent Christian conversion and was pardoned. Aged 31, subject of a film, The Virgin Bomber.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 16 July 1994
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section: News Review
Page: 28
Word count: 2173