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Western Press Review: N. Korean 'Dear Leader' Remains A Mystery'

  • Don Hill

Prague, 9 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentators, bemused by their vast reservoir of ignorance about North Korea's Kim Jong-Il, speculate today on his anointment as general secretary of his country's Communist Party. The broadest consensus is that North Korea's "Dear Leader" lacks the charisma and self-assurance of his predecessor, his father. But he may soon wield powers as wide as his father's, and possibly make his country more tractable to deal with.

It's one mark of North Korea's isolation that most of the Western news reports and commentary about Kim's accession yesterday originated in Tokyo.

SUDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The first communist dynasty has taken shape

Gebhard Hielscher notes that Kim's ascendancy is the first-ever communist dynastic coronation. Hielscher writes: "With the appointment of Kim Jong-Il, the eldest son of North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung, who died in 1994, as the party's general secretary the first communist dynasty in world history has taken shape. It is doubtful, however, whether that will lengthen the life of the Pyongyang regime. Economically, North Korea is down, and maybe out for the count.

"Yet Kim's formal takeover in office at least makes external relations easier to handle technically. Who you have to approach if you want to have dealings with the man at the helm of North Korea is now official. It remains to be seen whether Kim the Younger will make himself less scarce than he has been doing. No great hopes need be harbored. North Korea's quasi-theocratic regime has made secrecy about the leader its guiding principle."

CHICAGO TRIBUNE: Kim Jong Il has only a short time to act before the country collapses

Michael A. Lev comments that conditions of famine and economic collapse are so extreme in North Korea that Kim will need to act decisively to pull his country back from disaster. Lev says: "If North Korea were like other countries, the announcement (yesterday) that de facto ruler Kim Jong Il had officially succeeded his late father as leader might have been accompanied by a speech, or at least a clue on where the nation is heading.

"But North Korea stands alone, a hostile and enigmatic Marxist regime that clings to ideological isolation even as its people slowly starve. So the elevation of Kim to the post of general secretary of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea followed North Korea's own peculiar script, providing rhetoric without addressing the fundamental question of how the beleaguered nation intends to survive. The consensus among analysts is that Kim Jong Il has only a short time to act before the country collapses under the weight of a nearly defunct economy and severe food shortages that may already be killing thousands of people."

FINANCIAL TIMES: The assumption of power could lead to changes

A news analysis from Seoul, South Korea, by John Burton appears says Kim's accession may presage changes in North Korea. Burton writes: "Formal assumption of power yesterday by North Korea's 'Dear Leader,' Kim Jong-Il could lead to changes in the isolated state beset by a collapsing economy and widespread starvation.

TIMES: Mr Kim has none of his father's authority

Robert Whymant profiles Kim as a lightweight with little to legitimate him as a national ruler. Whymant says: "Critics of the reclusive Stalinist regime point out that Mr Kim has none of his father's authority and charisma. They say the pudgy playboy, and avowed admirer of Hitler, is not leadership material and that he will be hard put to repair the North's shattered economy and cope with widespread hunger that has forced the fiercely independent state to appeal for international aid."

The writer also says: "Kim Il Sung's legitimacy was based on his legendary exploits as an anti-Japanese freedom fighter, while his son could play only the filial piety card to justify his inheritance."