Video: Web extra: Insight into North Korea

By Former Clinton advisor on North Korea
updated 7/5/2006 8:07:39 PM ET 2006-07-06T00:07:39

Editor's note: Wendy Sherman is a former Clinton advisor on North Korea, and met with Kim Jong Il during negotiations in North Korea. Here, she offers her view of the man and the leader that the world must deal with.

Kim Jong Il is known as Chairman Kim Jong Il because he is the chairman of the National Defense Commission. The military really is all things in North Korea. In addition he is known as the "dear leader." His father, Kim II Sung was the "great leader" and most people in North Korea believe that all good things come from the "dear leader."

In many ways he is more like the leader of a cult than the leader of a country.

It is how his father founded "modern North Korea." After the Korean war — and the irony in all of this at the time of the Korean war — over 50 years ago, North Korea was the booming economy and South Korea was the poor cousin.

After the war, of course, South Korea took off amazingly and has become quite a developed country and North Korea's economy completely failed. North Korea remained the communist outpost. Kim II Sung and his son Kim Jong Il have really kept closed borders. There's very little movement in and out of the country, there's very little media allowed.

In fact, Kim Jong Il did allow some of his folks to have cell phones for a while and then found out there was way too much communicating with the outside world, and he remanded all of those cell phones back again.

One can see international programming, largely South Korean and, pardon me, CNN, but that is only for a very few and for the international visitor hotel. So people have all of their media, all of their access extraordinarily controlled.

In addition to its failed economy, there are no rights for people in North Korea. It is no place that any of us would want to live. When people do not behave as King Jong Il believes, they do indeed go off to labor camps.

It is the most Stalinist of regimes that exists on the face of the Earth right now. In the 1990s probably at least 2 million people starved to death because there is not enough arable land to have enough food for the people. But what food there is goes to the military. North Korea really relies on outside donations to feed its people, so people forage on the ground, out on the countryside for nuts — even for hay — for anything that they can eat. So, it is a very tough place to live, and its certainly not any place any of us would want to live.

Kim Jong Il is not the crazy lunatic that I think many portray him as. He is certainly someone that has a skewed view of the world because he spends most of his time in North Korea. He travels very little, he does not fly in airplanes — only will go on trains, and he's very concerned about his security.

So, although he says he goes on the Internet, he watches international television, he really is cut off from the world's view.

He sees himself, really, as a director on the world stage. I sat next to him during a performance and said "Mr. Chairman, I have a sense that in some other life you were a great director," and he said "Oh yes, indeed. I own every Academy Award film." And I think he does see the world as a stage and he is the master puppeteer.

He is very smart, he is very self confident. In one of the discussions that Secretary [Madeleine] Albright and I had with him, we were going over very detailed missile negotiations. There were 14 questions on the table and he attempted to answer all 14 of them. He didn't get all the details straight, but I dare say, not many presidents or prime ministers would've tried to tackle the technical details of those questions.

So, he is supremely confident, and I do believe he is in control of his country. He keeps his military very close to him, but although we all wish he would disappear, we wish we could deal with another country and another government, I do believe we need to deal with North Korea as it is and not as we wish it to be.

I would say that Kim Jong Il, if he is crazy, is crazy like a cunning cat. He is not crazy in the kind of lunatic sense that we think of people. He knows what he's doing, he has very little leverage, all he has are his nuclear weapons, his missiles and his military. He's going to use them for all they are worth.

Sometimes he overplays his hand, sometimes he gets himself into a box he can't get out of by himself even though he would like to. But he has first, second, third and last only one objective and that is the survival of his regime. And he will do whatever it takes to make sure that regime continues.

The missile tests
I think the firing of these seven missiles, his own fourth of July fireworks so to speak, was not only to get the world's attention but the attention of the United States — to say "I'm not going away - you can spend your time on Iraq, you may spend your time on Iran you may spend your time in the Middle East, but you really should turn your view to Asia — to North Korea and the Korean Peninsula because I'm the guy who not only is developing nuclear weapons, but I have them. I'm not only the guy who's developing long-range missile capability, but I'm improving on that capability and you better start dealing with me in a serious way."

He watched the United States after saying it would not negotiate with Iran, saying that Iran would have to give up its nuclear program, its highly enriched uranium program before it got any incentives. He saw the United States join with allies and partners to put a package on the table that was — appeared to be — a lot of incentives for Iran after a lot of bad behavior, and those incentives even included a light-water reactor, the very kind of reactor the Bush administration took away as a possibility for North Korea.

Kim Jong Il wants always regime security. He wants to make sure that we understand that if we attack him, he will attack back, that there is no free ride here, that he wants the regime to prevail. He wants the kind of economic security and military security — security guarantees — that can come from the last remaining superpower in the world: The United States of America.

And so [Tuesday] was a tactical move to say, "Yes, I may come back to negotiations, but understand that I'm coming back to negotiations with a strong hand, and you can't just ignore me."

The package, for North Korea, from their prospective, definitely includes a wide range of economic assistance, including energy assistance, that can come in a lot of forms, including food aid, economic development. And he also wants security guarantees, as does Iran for that matter.

He wants some way, where the United states is directly involved, to ensure that there is a security umbrella, that the United States does not have hostile intent, that other countries do not have hostile intent. And he has to navigate all this in a way that doesn't open the door to his country so quickly that he will be toppled over by the fresh wind and the air that will come through that open door.

The best approach for handling Kim Jong Il
I think that the Bush Administration does need to engage in what I would call real diplomacy here. The kind of diplomacy they have begun with Iran, but have not begun with North Korea.

I well understand that the U.S. government, along with allies and partners in the world, wants to stay a little cool after these missile firings. We can't overreact to Kim Jong Il and think that he's holding all the cards, but even after we get through this particular crisis, North Korea will still have its nuclear weapons, will still have its missile capability.

We should not wait to see whether they can perfect their nuclear weapons, perfect their missile capabilities. We have to deal with Kim Jong Il now. We should, of course, press China to press North Korea to come back to the negotiating table, but when North Korea comes back to the negotiating table — and I believe they will — the U.S. negotiator has to come with something in his pocket.

The divisions that exist in the Bush Administration between those who want to squeeze Kim Jong Il and North Korea to death — which is something I don't think could happen in the short term — and those who want to engage, have to come to that table with something real in the negotiators pocket.

I also believe that, although President Bush wants to deal right now at a fairly mid- to low-level by having Ambassador Chris Hill go to Asia, by not having the president make too many statements, by having him going about his Independence Day activities yesterday, I understand that in the aftermath of all these missile fires, but North Korea always wants to know that they have a sense of dignity, that people will give them some credit and some due.

Although we don't want to give them full diplomatic relations, we don't want to give them international credibility until they behave quite a bit better than they are right now. We found in the years that we negotiated with them that we had to have a high-level coordinator, they had to know that people who were serious were going to deal with them.

They have seen Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice engage directly in the Iranian situation, they have seen the President very engaged in Iraq and in the Middle East, and they want to make sure that they get high level attention as well.

How real is the threat?
I think that today, the threat to the U.S. is not imminent, in terms of North Korea being able to hit American land with long-range ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads on the end of them. But the American and international intelligence community has been caught short time and again in understanding North Korea's capabilities. In 1998 when they launched a missile, the intelligence community was astonished at how far advanced that missile was.

And I think that time and again, as we've seen in Iraq, our intelligence capabilities do sometimes leave something to be desired. So I don't think we can wait for them to perfect their capabilities. We need to deal with this situation before it gets any worse.

I think we tend to think of North Korea as really air-tight in terms of not having a press, a free press, not having a real parliament, not having the checks and balances that we know in the American Constitutional systems or in parliamentary systems, but he does have some internal pressures. His military is always at his heels, and I think, in part, the testing was to show his military that he cares about them, he's going to spend money on them, he's going to pay attention to them.

He does have pressure from consumers up to a point. He does go out, and although people know he will use all manner of weapons and tools to keep people in line. Nonetheless, there are some real pressures, and he also faces pressures as people do make their way into their country.

South Korea has economic relations with North Korea, they are building the Gaeseong industrial plant together for North Koreans to supply the cheap labor for South Korean companies. To export, create a new export market. And so North Korea knows that slowly but surely people are coming into their country, so they have to be very careful because that's going to build up pressure for change as well.

Life in North Korea
I think life would be very difficult in North Korea. Their growth has improved slightly. There have been some economic reforms that have allowed some markets to be up and some private enterprise, very small, but we still find that people, particularly outside of Pyongyang, the capital, tend to have a very hard life. There's very little electricity. There's really a pinpoint of electricity at night if you look overhead from a satellite as opposed to South Korea, which is dotted with light all over the place.

People don't, even in Pyongyang, have electricity all day long. There's not a lot of hot water, there's not a lot of food. I'm sure that at the upper levels of the North Korean government there's quite a bit of corruption, so people have a very, very tough life.

I think the cult of personality is all things in North Korea. I think the other thing that Americans in particular need to understand is that we tend to think in cycles of 2 years, 4 years or 6 years, the election cycles of our Congress, our senators and our president. In North Korea, in a lot of Asia, people think in generational terms. So Kim Jong Il doesn't necessarily worry about what's going to happen next year. He worries about what's going to happen in his lifetime because he feels pretty secure he's going to stay in power. His time frames of thinking about these issues is quite different then ours and we need to be able to think in the way he does, not just in the way we do.

Pressure from the international community

Besides, the internal pressures which Kim Jong Il must face, Kim Jong Il also faces pressure from the neighbors. China many not put as much pressure on North Korea as the U.S. government would like, but they do put pressure on North Korea.

At the same time, Kim Jong Il does not completely trust China and, in fact, has said to Secretary Albright — which she discussed in her book about her memoirs — that he very much wanted U.S. troops to stay on the Korean peninsula even if there was reconciliation between the north and the south and a peace agreement, and part of that was to be a buffer against China.

So, just as China likes North Korea to remain as a buffer and sort of as a tool in the geopolitics of Northeast Asia, North Korea also is playing a game as well. So there's a very complicated set of pressures and counter-pressures that are going on in this whole game.

North Korea also faces pressure from Japan. Not because Japan is creating all kinds of economic ties with North Korea, but because North Korea knows that Japan will militarize more quickly as North Korea weaponizes more.

But we've seen Japan now get patriot missiles from the United States, create a missile defense system. They are talking more about what they need to do to be prepared for North Korea and none of this is good for anybody on the Korean peninsula. I don't think at this point this was a desperate move on the part of Kim Jong Il. This was tactical calculation to get the U.S. to pay attention, to get the world community to pay attention to if he intends to come back to the six-party talks, and I do believe he expects to come back to some kind of negotiation — that he believed he would come back with far more leverage than he has today.

I think what surprised me about him, Kim Jong Il, meeting him in person, is that he is very smart and can have a very linear conversation and that he can also change his mind or at least appear to change his mind when one presents arguments. One can have a negotiation with him, its not all a brick wall.

I think I was surprised as well that he was very conversational. There is quite a bit of toasting and drinking in Korean culture, yet he was very protective of both Secretary Albright and myself as women — not to force us to engage in all the toasts — and quite frankly, he didn't engage in all the toasts either. He kept his wits about him in the social occasions.

Overconfidence and megalomania
It was also quite clear that he was a cult figure, that he had an overconfidence and almost a megalomania that was quite overwhelming at times. Walking into that stadium performance, which was quite a surprise to all of us, to have his name called out for ten minutes as this great hero. To see maybe 150,000 people with flashcards in the stadium seats being able to create an animated Taepodong missile going up in the air and Kim Jong Il first turning to Secretary Albright and then turn to me to repeat just to make sure we understood, "This was the missile launch of 1998. This was the first and it will be the last." He's saying to us that he was serious about these missile negotiations which the Bush administration as we now know did not take up in complete.

In fact, he is really a man of great theater. At the same time, what was very clear is this is a man who will do whatever he needs to stay in power so none of us should deal with him with any kind of rose-colored glasses. He is an autocratic leader, he does lead a country where none of us would want to live and we should never forget what he might be willing to do in the process of negotiations.

So, we have to be tough, verify, get more than we give, but one makes peace with one's enemies, not with one's friends.

When Kim Jong Il talked to me about every Academy Award movie and having watched them all, he also told me he had all of the NBA tapes of Michael Jordan and I had known from Kansuk Joo, who was my interlocutor and the chief negotiator for North Korea that he was here in the U.S. with Chom Yung Rook who was the envoy sent by Kim Jong Il earlier in October of 2000.

I had asked Kansuk Joo that I had heard that he [Kim Jong Il] was a Michael Jordan fan and he said he was and that he had all the films.

And so we wanted, as a diplomatic gesture, which one must do even with people you don't like, to bring something to Kim Jong Il when Secretary Albright traveled, there but we didn't want to bring anything of too great import. We brought a basketball signed by Michael Jordan which he was completely thrilled to have, so he is eccentric in that way.

He is also brutal. When we watched one performance of a group of dancers who clearly have multiple dresses on and as they go through the performance of the different seasons, without your even knowing that they're doing it, they drop one of the dresses and they become a different color for the season. One of the dancer's dresses in this transformation they go through did not drop and we all sat there being very worried for her that something would happen to her because she did not perform to the expectations and embarrassed Kim Jong Il.

So, although he is fascinating, he is eccentric, he is compelling, none of us should doubt for a moment that he can also be quite brutal.

There are many stories, some of which have been validated, where he has kidnapped South Korean actresses who he wants in his retinue. He does not like to talk about his family, that was one subject one could not draw him out on. He, however, in our presence was very careful about his behavior. He did try to act like a head of state.

As I said he was very protective in terms of the drinking because Secretary Albright and I are women, and he didn't think that was appropriate.

I have no doubt that, certainly in his younger years, he lived a fairly wild life, whether that has gotten any different as he has gotten older is not clear.

I think he other thing that is fascinating about him and he does talk about is he gets all kinds of, he says, memos and detailed information all day but he really starts to look at it late at night and looks at everything personally.

He also makes what he calls on-the-spot visits, where he shows up in the field at various sites to really see what going on himself and then direct changes that need to be made.

Its almost the feel that you have of a big-city mayor who goes to see whether the garbage is being collected. He wants to give a sense that he is all things, all of the time, to everyone.

I do not believe he is just a playboy, I do believe he is quite the hands-on leader, and he wants to be seen, at least by outsiders, as the master of his universe.

Kim Jong Il's successor

There's been much discussion about who will succeed Kim Jong Il, and his father in fact, Kim Sung Il began to train him fairly early in the process so that he would be able to come on board, after what turned out to be the unexpected death of Kim Sung Il.

So, there's been much discussion about whether one of his sons will succeed him, and there are some early indications he has chosen one of his sons, possibly from his second marriage, to in fact succeed him, but there has not been the kind of training many have suspected in bringing him on board, so that remains somewhat of a mystery.

Most people who are the sovereign leaders of their countries, whether elected or unelected, which is certainly the case with Kim Jong Il, want to be acknowledged as the sovereign leader of their country.

It is very difficult, when these are leaders of so-called rogue states, because we don't want to give them credibility, we don't want to acknowledge them, but at the same time if we don't give them some measure of attention or recognition for being the sovereign leader, we sometimes cannot make the progress that we wish.

In 1994, when the Clinton administration was negotiating the agreed framework to stop the nuclear weapons program at Jong Pyong, the production of plutonium by North Korea, it really was because Jimmy Carter, the former president of the United States, was in Pyongyang meeting with Kim Il Sung that we made a breakthrough.

Because Kim Il Sung thought he was getting the respect that he deserved from a former president of the United States.

In the same manner, Bill Kerry, who was the former secretary of defense and the first North Korea policy coordinator in the Clinton Administration because he was a former secretary of defense, and one who had been quite a hawk on North Korea, it was seen as a measure of some respect that the U.S. was sending a senior envoy.

And although it took a year for North Korea to return the gesture — the vice chairmen of their national defense commission — so these symbolic things matter a great deal to North Korea, and so it is why I believe that Ambassador Chris Hill is an incredibly able professional, that it may be the point where the Bush Administration needs to appoint a more senior person once negotiations are back on the table.

That won't happen until after North Korea pays some price, whether its international condemnation, which I think is most likely from the security council, or multilateral sanctions which I think are less likely but still possible. That has to play itself out before we get back to negotiations, but when we do, this is going take some high level attention from the bush administration.

The axis of evil

I have no doubt that Kim Jong Il did not take being called names very well. And in fact, I think the Bush Administration understood soon after that they would not make progress if they continued that kind of name calling. And Bush even called him Mr. Kim in subsequent comments and has been much more careful about how he address Kim Jong Il. Again, this is not a guy any of us like, this is not a leader any of us wish particularly to deal with, but deal with him we must.

He is not going away anytime soon, so one must be very conscious about the tactics we use because what we want to do is not score points that we know how bad a leader he is, but we want to bring peace and security to the Korean peninsula and the world. And we have to keep that objective foremost, even if it means from time to time doing some things that we would rather not.

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