Kim Jong Il: North Korea's Dear Leader Book Review

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Kim Jong Il: North Korea's Dear Leader By Michael Breen

Kim Jong-II, North Korea's Dear Leader

Breen, Michael. Kim Jong-II, North Korea's Dear Leader. New York: John Wiley, 2003. Updated 2004.

The purpose and thesis of Michael Breen's biography of North Korea's leader Kim Jong II is neatly encapsulated in its deliberately ironic title: Kim Jong-II, North Korea's Dear Leader. North Korea is considered a rogue state by most of the world. It is a dictatorship with a nuclear program that seeks to threaten the West. President Bush has identified Jong's nation as one of the members of an "Axis of Evil" that threatens freedom and democracy all over the world. It is the only non-Islamic nation that is a part of this so-called Axis. Breen attempts to strike a balance between the inflated rhetoric by the current administration and the truth of North Korea's brutality, without endorsing blind hatred of North Korea or defending the dictator Jong's actions towards the North Korean people.

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On one hand, Breen states that North Korea's inclusion in the Axis by President Bush was largely politically motivated -- other nations could have been included that are equally abusive of their citizen's rights. Ultimately, because this poor nation has so little to lose and thus poses a nuclear threat, Breen advocates better relations with North Korea. By excluding it from the world community, no matter how much America might dislike its policies, this only makes North Korea's search for legitimacy through nuclear power all the more desperate and destabilizing.

TOPIC: Book Review on Kim Jong Il: North Korea's Dear Leader Assignment

It might be assumed that President Bush did not wish to defame only Islamic nations, which would have seemed politically incorrect in the eyes of Muslims at home and in the eyes of Arab nations from whom the United States requires assistance in curtailing terrorism and also in gaining crucial stocks of affordable crude oil, when he included North Korea in his infamous short list (Runkel, 2007). However, the difficulty of access in gaining any knowledge to North Korea may have been another factor. Admittedly, the placement of Korea in this unholy triumvirate as a rogue nuclear power is largely due to its hostility to the United States, not because of its nuclear program in general, or its authoritarian quality -- as Breen points out in his preface, it has no connection to Islamic terrorism per se, and if every nation with a nuclear program were evil, then many of the United States' allies would also be included in this characterization (Runkel, 2007).

The analogy with the way that the administration treated Saddam Hussein in its rhetoric and Kim Jong II seems inevitable, not in terms of the policy or culture of the two nations but in terms of the polarizing rhetoric that is used -- like Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong II mistreats his citizens and uses his position for personal gain, rather than to benefit his state and he permits no dissent amongst his people. But simply calling a nation evil is not a portrait of the nation and does nothing, Breen argues, to facilitate understanding the nation or making the nation listen to the United States' demands or desires.

But here, the value of this analogy with Korea and its fellow Axis of Evil nations ends, for unlike other nations, North Korea is unique in its insularity as a society, which makes some of Breen's research difficult and means that many of its citizens have never been exposed to the West. Breen makes some intriguing statements about the nature of North Korean society, such as the fact that despite America's understandable obsession with the nation's nuclear development, average Koreans are not very interested in the expansion of nuclear power, because they are struggling to survive (Breen 39). However, the nature of North Korea means that Breen cannot conduct an extensive study of the attitudes of citizens of the nation.

Rather than begin with a chronological history of Kim Jong II's life, Breen begins his book with a discussion of how the modern West views North Korea and how this nation, one of the last communist holdouts of the post-Cold War world, was created, and the United States' relations with North Korea. Because the country so closed to the West, Breen is forced to take an outside-in approach to the nation. This approach indicates that Breen is mainly interested in what North Korea means to Americans, rather than what North Korea means in and of itself, and how North Korea sees itself in the world, not simply in relation to the United States.

Beginning with the nation rather than the leader suggests that the main reason that Breen has selected his subject is not his inherent fascination with Kim Jong II's personality, but because of the dictator's centrality in the government structure of the nation. A history of the life of the man becomes a history of the nation, because of the way that his image has been force-fed to the Korean people, and when conducting diplomatic relations with North Korea, the West must understand Jong to understand how to navigate the rocky terrain of negotiating with this power.

Breen paints the picture of a man reared in an atmosphere of secrecy and paranoia from his earliest years, an ordinary but not insane man who has created a regime based on paranoia where the will of the ruling power became the fate of an entire nation. Breen calls Jong's thinking bizarre at times, but notes he has an interest in the arts and a love of cinema, and is not isolated from Western culture himself, even though he inflicts such isolation upon his citizens. Despite the allegations of South Korean intelligence, this leader is not a lunatic, although he is cruel (Breen 15).

Breen calls North Korea a bluffer in the game of nuclear proliferation, in that its leader does not wish to destroy the world, for it is the nation's only chip in bargaining for financial assistance and survival. Thus, the West must tread cautiously when dealing with Jong. Breen has traveled to North Korea and interviewed the so-called Great Leader, but he admits that these meetings were not particularly insightful. He states that he found little opposition in the poor and depressed country to the regime, and that most of the citizens do not seem to resent Jong. However, his lack of easy access to ordinary citizens makes the worth of this statement of dubious value. When evaluating Breen's advice to improve relations, his inevitably scanty personal, anecdotal, and bibliographic references, ultimately inspires little confidence in the reader.

There are also many troubling questions about the hunger and state-sponsored starvation in a land where the one overweight citizen is Kim Jong II himself, the kidnapping of South Korean and even Japanese citizens found outside of the borders of North Korea, and also allegations of drug trafficking by the government (Breen 88; 138). These human rights and border issues raise troubling questions about admitting North Korea into the international community on any level, even to create a non-aggression treaty as Breen advises. North Korea has shown no signs that it would respect the conditions of any treaty with any nation. While North Koreans might benefit economically from better relations with the West, the lack of good faith shown by North Korea to honoring its obligations to other nations, on any level, at any time in its history is staggering.

Breen argues that better relations would contribute to more assistance in curtailing drug trafficking, and ultimately give the populace greater needed exposure to ideas beyond that of its supposed dear leader. Another analogy springs to mind, that of the U.S.-USSR treaties and the treaties that expanded the U.S.'s openness towards China during the height of the Cold War. Breen also reminds the reader that the South desires to unite with the North, despite the cultural and economic rift that has been created between the two nations, which is greater in depth and years than the break between West and East Germany during the 20th century.

However, Breen's book is ultimately unconvincing. On one hand, it is difficult to fault the author for this, because of the paucity of material with which he is forced to work with, but this very lack of adequate material seems to be an argument that any treaty with such a little-understood renegade state should not be engaged by any nation. The author's style, with his frequent colloquialisms like calling North Korea a "dump" or his comments about the absurdity of Jong's hairdo, which he asserts is the short leader's way of looking tall, and the fondness of Jong for pretty girls and partying further deflates the reader's confidence in his statements (Breen 39).

The recent nature of this text makes the subject interesting for all Asia-watchers, and the continued revelations about North Korea's nuclear program make its topic relevant for all Americans -- although they may find the same facts in news sources. Its simplicity and paired structure of national… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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