Monday, Apr. 18, 2005

Kim Jong Il

Aside from Osama bin Laden, there's probably no one George W. Bush would rather be rid of than Kim Jong Il, North Korea's dictator. "I loathe Kim Jong Il," Bush said in 2002, and his reasons were clear enough. Kim runs a Stalinist police state, with political prisons housing tens of thousands, many of whom, survivors have testified, are either beaten or starved to death. North Korea is also a serial proliferator, selling ballistic missiles and, U.S. intelligence believes, peddling critical ingredients for making nuclear weapons.

But Kim doesn't appear to be going anywhere. Having celebrated his 63rd birthday in style—with a feast of pheasant and venison on Feb. 16—Kim decided to announce for the first time that North Korea did in fact have nuclear weapons and no longer wanted any part of discussions aimed at getting rid of them. Since then, Kim has avoided confrontation with the two countries the U.S. hoped would talk him off the nuclear ledge: China says it doesn't necessarily believe Kim has the Bomb, and South Korea seems more interested in making sure the North's economy doesn't collapse (since the South could get stuck with the bill).

Kim has lately allowed a few experiments with capitalism; refugees talk of informal private markets. And Kim once told former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright—the last senior U.S. official to meet with him—that he was serious about economic reform. Nukes or no nukes and whether Washington likes it or not, Kim Jong Il may stick around long enough to prove whether he meant what he said.

From the Archive
How Dangerous is North Korea?: Dictator Kim Jong Il is pushing the world toward a showdown over his nuclear-weapons program