Has Kim Jong Il Come to His Senses?

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Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service / AP

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, viewing farms and fields during his visit to the Sinam Cooperative Farm in Ryongchon County, North Korea.

Studying Kim Jong Il requires, as one of the few who made a living at it once declared, "a certain defective personality type." Said retired U.S. diplomat Daniel Jackson, "Not only do you have to enjoy banging your head against a wall, you have to feel vaguely guilty about it on those rare occasions when you don't, in fact, have a headache." With the dramatic, surprise trip by U.S. envoy Christopher Hill to Pyongyang after the regime's promise about nuclear inspection — all part of a recent slew of backing-and-forthing between the Hermit Kingdom and the rest of the world — there is a lot of head-banging nowadays among that small band of masochists.

Earlier this week, North Korea announced to great fanfare that it would, in fact, do what it agreed to do back in February at the so called Six Party Talks in Beijing: allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor the shutdown of the controversial Yongbyon reactor. That has helped put the optimists in the Kim club in the ascendant. Indeed, Hill's trip to Pyongyang on Thursday, the first high-level mission by a U.S. official there in more than four years, seemed designed to take advantage of the positive opening. A statement from Hill read, "It is critical for the six parties to make up for lost time to restore momentum to achieving our agreed common goal, the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."

Speed may be of the essence since such opportunities are often tentative, what with the way the U.S. and Kim have careened from one extreme of the diplomatic spectrum to the other. During the Clinton Administration, Washington contemplated air strikes on Yongbyon; then, a few years later, sent its Secretary of State to toast Kim with champagne. Early in the Bush Administration, it was back to war preparations and talk of a "strangulation strategy"; now, again, the full diplomatic embrace is on. U.S. envoy Christopher Hill made a surprise trip to Pyongyang on Thursday — the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the North in five years — in order to "move the process forward" and "make up for lost time" in the race to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, according to a State Department statement.

The optimists say that Kim has effectively made the decision, as one east Asia diplomat put it, "to do a deal that serves his interests." Stripped of the anodyne diplomatic language, he means Kim has decided to be bought. This camp believes that over the past year, Kim has decided, under steady pressure from an increasingly impatient Beijing, that he has little to lose from allowing North Korea to come out of its largely self-imposed isolation, accepting the blandishments of the Americans, the South Koreans and the Japanese — that is, fuel oil, economic aid, the renewal of full diplomatic relations with the U.S. — in return for giving up his nuclear program.

According to this view, the Chinese have helped persuade Kim that he need not feel threatened by opening, however cautiously, to the outside world. Beijing has an enduring interest in making sure North Korea is a viable buffer state against the U.S. and its ally, Seoul. Beijing has further stressed to the North that the U.S. views its bilateral relationship with China as far and away its most important account in east Asia, and that it has no interest in toppling Kim or starting a war. That's a tough sell, many in the region say — us-against-the-world paranoia has been at the center of the North Korean regime since its founding in 1948. But the Chinese have pressed the notion on Kim, in part because China's President Hu Jintao believes what George W. Bush has told him on this score: that Washington seeks a deal with Kim, not open hostility.

At the same time, the optimists believe, Kim has sent signals that he is receptive to change in North Korea. They believe an early 2006 visit to the booming Chinese cities of Guangzhou and Shanghai was, as one former U.S. diplomat puts it, "for dough, not for show: he wants to see if there are ways to get a piece of the economic action for the North without losing control." This is the path Kim is now on, the optimists believe, and though he will be maddeningly quarrelsome in the process, they believe he will live up to his side of the February agreement — "albeit in slow motion," as one diplomat says — as long as the U.S. and its allies do the same. In this view, Kim can say to his cronies in the party leadership in Pyongyang that he has ensured their place atop North Korea, and "got a bunch of economic aid in the process, so we can afford to give up the plutonium program," says one diplomat in the region who watches and deals with North Korea full time.

The skeptics roll their eyes at these notions. They believe, simply, that the outside world — or at least, the diplomats in the outside world — has never been able to get it through its head that Kim Jong Il, as head of the North Korean regime, is simply interested in his obstreperous hold on power. Period. He doesn't give a whit about economic reform because it might come back and bite him — he watched democracy come to an increasingly prosperous South Korea, after all — and now will backtrack, delay and obfuscate until he finds an excuse to get out of the current nuclear deal. All the while, the skeptics believe, he will probably continue a separate secret program to enrich uranium to make the bomb. At minimum, the skeptics say, Kim will buy enough time to see who succeeds Bush, whom he doesn't trust (no matter what the Chinese President says.)

This group is absolutely appalled that the U.S., having infuriated the North with a targeted, highly effective sanction — the freezing of $25 million in funds in Macau, most of which came from illegal businesses like counterfeiting — simply said "never mind" when it became clear the dust-up would ruin the nuclear deal. Kim, in this view, is a hard guy to get any leverage over, simply because he doesn't think like a normal head of state: everything is a zero sum game to him — you win or I win. The U.S. Treasury's action freezing the funds squeezed the regime in a place that clearly hurt — its wallet — but then Washington backed off, and got absolutely nothing in return.

But a moment of truth of sorts will arrive soon enough: if Kim verifiably shuts down the Yongbyon nuclear reactor — a process that is supposed to begin later this summer — he will, in fact have given up something that the pessimists have always believed has been critical to him: his nuclear card, which in his view has guaranteed his regime's survival in the post-Sept. 11, preemptive world. Give that up, and the optimists will have a reason to smile, even if they are members of the Masochists Club.